This post is the third entry in a series of my experience in Israel on an LGBTQ+ trip. Because of how much content we experienced, I’ll be breaking down this series into several parts to best convey the “what.” I hope you enjoy reading “Queering up Israel!” (P.S. HAPPY PRIDE MONTH)
We left Jerusalem late in the evening, driving to a small hotel north of the ancient city I’ve come to love. We rested briefly before waking up at 4:30AM to prepare ourselves for hiking Mt. Masada.
I had quite a few concerns about Mt. Masada: Would I be able to do it? Would I take too long for everyone? Will people notice my fatness and come for me because of it? It was paralyzing, even as someone who loves hiking. With this said, I want to take a moment to publicly share gratitude to my body for getting up, through and down Mt. Masada. It definitely wasn’t the hardest hike I’ve done, but I thank my body for what it’s done through any movement that I do. 1. Because it’s constantly reiterated that I can’t do what thin or smaller bodies can. 2. Because my socially unaccepted body still holds so much privilege to have gotten me through this hike, and into this experience. I was so close to asking to possibly opt out of the hike because of my nerves with the group, but I reminded myself that I was with people who actually love me and that I can survive anything.
From the top of Masada we were led through the stories of the Jewish people that lived on top of here, in a thriving community that was threatened when the Roman army came to invade it. It’s said that the people flung themselves from the mountain to escape being capture, a story that called me to the end of Black Panther, where Killmonger spoke of the slaves who jumped ship before being brought to British rule because “death was better than bondage.” A sentence I still carry with me to be honest.
From the peak, we could see the Dead Sea, which was noted that its sea level was significantly less than it has been in recent years, a small reminder of the impact our consumption has on nature around us.
Of course, we brought the Pride flag with us on our hike, waving it at the peak, where crowds of other groups gathered. The proclamation of our existence was electrifying and beautiful, making me feel so powerful.
We came up through the Roman Ramp, which was straightforward and simple. We came down via the snake path, which was easily several hundred foot-deep steps down the side of Masada. My friend Andrew and I tackled it with care, laughing and screeching along the way, then panting as we hit the bottom!
After a delicious breakfast - that I think was more delicious because of the hanger than anything - we bused to a small oasis park that held a picture-eqsue waterfall. If you ask me, I didn’t find the necessity in this program, we just walked up and down a whole-ass MOUNTAIN, we had to do MORE trekking? Ya boy wasn’t happy about it at first, but the community we built together led me through.
It was a pretty straightforward walk through the park and to the waterfall, which was actually closed from entering. But there was an opening that had a small streaming fall diverting from the main one. This was a moment of liberation for me. Many gathered around the fall, taking pictures and service face and body, taking off their shirts in the process. I had been in tank tops through this point, feeling less self-conscious about my body, but definitely not ready to be shirtless around anybody. Still, everyone encouraged me to experience the rush of the water, but I didn’t want to take my shirt off and get it wet for the rest of the day. I made a decision I never thought I’d have to do publicly. I took my shirt off.
I walked up, holding my chest close to my hands, trying to flatten my stomach with my hands. If I was going to be exposed, I was going to do it in a way that still gave me control of what people say. The waterfall, however, had other plans. Despite being a small stream, it was overpowering and freezing, causing me to let everything go in shock, and everyone screaming “yassss” “Werk” “slay” at me as I opened up to serve them what I could.
To be quite honest, as much as I’ve come to love my body and my fatness, it’s a struggle to display that comfort around people that I don’t know deeply or in public settings. But something inside me reminded me that this space was safe, it was sacred and it wouldn’t be disrespected by those in it, and that’s what mattered. For that, I thank everyone who shared that space with me and made me feel like I could let my breath go freely.
After the unnecessary-yet-powerful walk, we headed to the Dead Sea, where we could encourage to spend a couple hours relaxing and healing our bones. The Dead Sea is a salt lake between Israel and Jordan, known for being the a buoyant body of water and one of the saltiest seas (how fitting). It’s salt content makes it uninhabitable for plants and animals to live off of. It’s notable for the fact that people float in there immediately and don’t have a lot of leverage to actually swim.
Now let me tell y’all. I was the least excited for this excursion. Ya boy’s been floating since Day 1 so I really skeptical at everyone excitement to float around some water. But when I hopped in - shirtless again, I might add - I quickly realized why it was so cool. The moment my feet couldn’t reach the bottom, I flipped onto my back, the water immediately causing me to float and making it near impossible to swim. I laid in the water for a bit, enjoying the rest my body was given from being lifted, and then spent some time splashing around with the group who went. I also purchased some dead sea clay that I made my skin feel bottom as I emerged from the waters. We relaxed, laughed, ate and played for a bit - I served my best sea witch lewk - and then headed to our last destination for the day - the Bedouin Tents!
The Beduoin people are a group of nomadic Arabs who have historically lived in desert regions with North Africa and the Middle East. In an Israeli context, they live in among the desert Negev region. They’re granted Israeli citizenship, but (some) choose to live within their own tribes still and operate in their own micro-society. This said, the group we visited were clearly connected to Israel and Birthright as many groups were at their compound. I call it compound because it felt militaristic on the outside, though it was home-y on the inside.
Giant tents scattered around the area, fire pits and benches were filled with other groups chatting as we were led to one the main tents where they served endless platters of meat, rice, hummus and pita. That night I was carnivorous af. After dinner we enjoyed a special tea that they make and listened to the leader of the tribe speak to us. To be quite honest, I was exhausted so it was hard for me to really pay attention, but I did capture a moment where the chief was alluding to homosexuality in a rather homophobic way, making many of us realize that he was more uncomfortable than we were as he spoke to us.
Drowsy from the day, I immediately opted to go to the tent for bed at 7PM. We were invited to a fire pit to meet the other groups but I really didn’t have the energy for it. However, sleeping early meant that I woke up super early - around 4AM - and remained awake until daylight came.
We were up around 7am, the group dividing to either relax or ride a camel. This is another moment where I admit I was nervous to do. Would I be too fat to ride a camel? Would the Bedouins say something to me about it? Bitch, would the Camel be okay?? I had a lot of feelings that our guide Benzi tried to talk me down from. He was right though, I really needed to stop letting my fears of what could be stop me from living an experience that I would otherwise never do.
This said, we were all split into pairs of two for the camel rides. Everyone except me. One of the Bedouin pointed toward me, saying “Just you,” which made me laugh at the directness, but also appreciating the fact that I could ride the camel. Now, that said, I don’t think Camel riding is something I’ll do again. It wasn’t something that was necessarily on my list of things to do, and it was a pretty surreal experience to do it, but something about the politics of animals being for enjoyment in that capacity just didn’t sit well with me. At the end of the day, the Camel’s wore muzzles (for reasons I don’t know, so I can’t say whether it’s good or bad for them) and that made me uncomfortable. I felt sadness when I looked into their eyes. We were told not to touch them, but the one behind kept rubbing its head into my leg and it felt like it just needed some affection.
Maybe I was totally crazy. Maybe I offended the culture. Maybe I did the worst thing one could do on a Camel, but that Camel nuzzled TF out of me and I’m not apologizing for it. In fact, I thanked it for its kindness, as well as the Camel I rode on for allowing all this baaaawwdy for riding it, and it not throwing me off in rage, which was I hyperaware of it being a possibility.
One rendition of “My Humps” later, I was off the Camel and were (finally) off to Tel Aviv. Before we hit the metropolis, we stopped over at Ben Gurion’s tomb to visit his grave…AND FOR SOME OF US (ya bish included) TO GET MITZVAH’D! Yes, I’ve finally had my bar mitzvah - and yes I’m definitely counting it as well, that was as much Torah ima read y’all - and it was so beautiful to share that experience with others. We read a part of the Torah that spoke of the Exodus and the Pharaoh’s refusal to let Moses’ people go. It made me think of the bondage we experience as Queer people, the bondage of society, our families and our friends. It also made me think of the bondage we do to ourselves, playing both our captors and captives. As a QPOC, I often play my own captor, keeping myself enslaved to the shackles of society around me. Why? Because I want to be accepted. Not necessarily to “fit in” but to feel like I belong. I’ve realized that belonging can also feel restricting. It isn’t freedom. Freedom can be self-administered on some levels, and I realized that I was being both the Pharaoh and Moses - begging for freedom yet keeping myself caged.
There was something about experiencing this in such a sacred place, that felt powerful to me. Ben Gurion is a founder of the State of Israel and was the first Prime Minister of Israel. He helped birth Israel, and being in that space helped birth a new part of me. A different Jordan came out of that experience. This was a moment I’ll treasure for my lifetime.
FINALLY, we’re in Tel Aviv. We’re in (arguably) the most exciting and modern city in all of Israel. We arrive in the early evening in our gorgeous hotel, which made us laugh because oh this is where all the money went to, right? We done spent all week in creaking beds and basements just to get the 4-star treatment in our LAST TWO DAYS? I’m being a liiiitle extra, but it was funny.
I don’t know if you followed along through the dates, but at this point it is December 31st, 2018. While Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year (and Israel’s) they do celebrate the American new year with some pretty rad parties. Of course, being the beautiful Rainbow crew that we were, we went to an underground (aka secret!) Queer party downtown. It was beautiful. It was fun. It was electrifying. It was liberating. It was sacred. It was an experience I’ll never forget as we danced the night away and all left the club dripping sweat, out of breath and having to walk our sore bodies back to the bus. 10/10 would do it all over again.
It’s our first full day in TLV, but we’re only spending half of it in town. The other half is in Jerusalem for an event with the other Birthright groups. Our day begins meeting an Israeli filmmaker/producer Gal Uchovsky, who is famous for creating Queer (most Queer-Male) films with his partner Etyan Fox, who is also the director of the films. Together, they’re a filmmaking power-couple. I want to treat what we discussed as something sacred, so I won’t share our words. But it was a moment where some of us got to see ourselves represented, but also some of us didn’t. With a big focus on films with Queer men, we were left wondering about the state of media representation for Queer women and our Trans family?
From our meeting with Gal, we traveled to a museum. I think we went to the The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot. I say “think” because that name calls to me and nobody else remembers what it was so, so we gone call it that today haha. The museum took us on a tour through history of accomplishments by Jewish people, and the history of those people in Israel. Don’t ask me for highlights because I wouldn’t have even remembered the day we go back - I sort of breezed through the museum, my mind still sitting with what transpired with Gal and the lack of full representation for Queer people. Representation lacks for Queer people in many spaces and in many countries - the U.S. included - so this wasn’t surprising. What struck me more was this notion that we were all going to feel so at home in Israel, on this Queer trip, yet it wasn’t explained to us that there is much that Queer people still don’t have. It’s a pain point for me to hear from an organizer how amazing everything is, but learn that for many people it isn’t.
Israel, particularly Tel Aviv, would be a somewhat easy place to fit into for men, but can we comfortably say that Queer women feel the same? What about our Trans family? Like any trip, this one is what you make of it, and there was SO much good to make of it, but it wasn’t perfect. This point was reiterated as we left early back to Jerusalem for a “Mega Event” with all the other Birthright groups currently in Israel. I won’t speak bad on it (though we have a running joke in our group about it), but it wasn’t enjoyable for me.
It’s our LAST day together! We get up and gather for breakfast, chit-chatting about the previous night’s events and the pang of sadness we feel this morning knowing our time is coming to a close. But it’s also not TOO sad because we about to spend a whole ass day together living our best lives in TLV!
We begin the adventure walking around some of the Queer-dominant neighborhoods, walking through parks, dividers and apartment complex’s. We stop by this large fountain and take a group picture with the Pride flag, another moment marking that we were here. We continued our march toward a large park adjacent to the Tel Aviv Gay Center. We met with someone who works with the Center - finally, another Queer woman! - who speaks on the lack of representation for Queer women & Trans folk, while also acknowledging the work being done by the Center and the community that aims to increase that representation ten fold. She also informs us of some Queer slang they use in Israel, like “wedge” which translates to “Face.” In the same sense of someone “Serving face” they giving your “Wedge” darling! We also learned “Ani meta” which roughly translated into an “oh my gawwwwdd” in a really excited fashion. Like when you see someone cute at the bar, you’re like “ani meeeeeeta!”
Onward, we headed toward a plaza where we dispersed into groups on a scavenger hunt of sorts throughout the city. Following an app that gave us clues to certain landmarks and spots we needed to discover. This became an opportunity for us to chit chat and do some extra sight-seeing around the city. We stumbled upon a small park with a gorgeous placing of orange trumpetvines, which we needed to do a small photoshoot with. Honestly, they made for some BEAUTIFUL images. We served so much wedge here.
We trekked along cafes, stores and homes until we passed a coffee shop. Now I’ve said before that ya boi loves himself some coffee shops, but every place I went to never had iced coffee. They’re iced coffee was blended. So imagine my joy when I walk into this establishment and I was like “do you have cold coffee?” and they say “YES'.” Y’all, I done went to heaven and back again. It took 9 days, countless cups of frappes and one scavenger to find the most beautiful, delicious cup of coffee WITH ice and cream…ANI MEEEETA. I was happy.
Along the routes of the hunt, I saw buildings for WeWork and Fiverr, two organizations that I never realized originated from Israel, particularly Tel Aviv. I didn’t realize how big Tech was in Israel, but they’re truly so advanced that a lot of our tech comes from there (I’m looking at you Apple products, specifically iPhone parts.) We continued exploration of the city into a small mall area, where we ran into Yoni, one of our Israeli peers again, and go to spend some more wonderful time with him again. We ate some ice cream and then a small group of us opted to go to the Beach to see the water and take some more photos!
After the impromptu photoshoot, we ended our adventure in the nearby market, getting lost in the crowd, buying piles of Halva, gifts of Hamsas, and enjoying each other’s company. I had the BEST lamb pita (another thing I was deprived of throughout the trip…THE LAMB) that stuffed with hummus, cucumbers, pickled onions, inside the fluffiest pita. It was glorious.
We spent that evening breaking bread together and having a debrief of our entire experience. We laughed, we cried and we shared the moments that we’ll carry on for a long time. We made promises to continue these friendships in life beyond Birthright and to keep in touch in our group chat. (We still wish each other “Shabbat Shalom” every Friday since we left). The actual “goodbye” was the hardest part. It was 10PM, the buses were arriving to take those returning to America back to the airport while some of us stayed to extend our trip (I stayed for work). The hugs lasted lifetimes, the best wishes were endless, but our hearts were separating from each other. But it remains fact that no matter where we all go, we were here.
Alisa. Aliza. Andrew. Annie. Adir. Alon. Alex. Amanda. Anisa. Ari. Benzi. Bar. Benay. Chelsea. Daphne. Dylan. Emily. Hal. Hunter. Isaac. George. Jonathan. Josh. Maddie. Megan. Matt. Mylo. Noah. Patrick. Pasha. Rachel. Rebecca. Sivan. Yoni. Yossi #1. Yossi #2. Ziva. Bus #103+40 We were here.
Throughout this series, I imagine that you might wonder what was “Queer” about all of this. Maybe I can’t really answer that question. We didn’t experience Queer content every step of the way, and that’s a matter of programming. I didn’t get so deep into what was missing for us. But I’m also firm in the idea we don’t need to cannibalize ourselves and our pain to be seen as Queer work. What’s Queer about this is that we existed. We have the audacity to exist so publicly and beautifully, in many spaces that weren’t made for us - in America, Israel and beyond. In fact, I’ll share you with the Queerness of it through the words of my dear friend Alisa Brown. “I got share with everyone the part of myself that I love the most.”
Thank you for reading!