How can young people’s first experiences of Israel be at once profound and revelatory, yet predictable and banal? This conundrum was well in place before 2000, when Taglit-Birthright Israel began offering free 10-day trips to Israel to qualifying diasporists aged 18 to 26. But the Birthright machine mass-produces the phenomenon — and now showcases it in the new book, “What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright” (Toby Press).
Over 30 selections, Birthright’s alumni (numbering some 200,000, they spawned the organization Birthright Israel NEXT, which co-sponsored the book’s production) reveal the high and low points of their sojourns abroad, and examine their religio-Zionist identities before and after. Men and women, straight and gay: Most came home reinvigorated as Jews. The book isn’t just propaganda for Birthright, however.
For the half-Jews and truly disaffected, there are moving transformations. “The 10 days I spent in Israel were 10 of the best days of my life,” writes Meredith Patrick, who grew up in a mostly Catholic household with a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, but became a student of Judaism as a child. After her Israel trip, Patrick decided to undertake conversion. Ruby Marez, with a Puerto Rican Catholic mother and a Jewish father, grew up tortured in the Midwest, but her Birthright trip helped her become comfortable as a Jew, and even to have a belated bat mitzvah. The unique shapes that Jewish and Jew-ish identities take in the 21st century provide the unpredictable in this volume. (The mixed media do too — photos, poems and a cartoon — though some of those pieces come off as mere padding.)
Do other journeys generate their own stereotypes? If so, who wants to read about them? Who wants to read about this set? I wonder. For the youth trip to Israel, several enduring cliches include feelings about: encountering the Western Wall for the first time, climbing Masada at sunrise, the seductive charms of the hot guide or hot soldier, and the tour bus, oh God the unavoidable tour bus. Women accept spontaneous invitations. Men blunder around women or play sports. Joy Prendergast’s “Letters From Israel” — a series of e-mails written from Israel to family and friends — provides the ur-text, I’m afraid. Not that there aren’t fresh moments, but re-printing anyone’s e-mails only serves to remind us why published writing is supposed to be polished. Indeed, an excerpt from Lila Feinberg’s play, “Perched,” provides a far more sprightly and less embarrassing treatment of similar territory. Ruvym Gilman’s essay “The Way We’ve Become” starts off in cringe territory, but moves on to rebirth in Tzfat at a mikveh. And Eric Leven’s essay, “Home,” which details how “[t]he more comfortable I became with the idea of being gay, the more pride I felt in being Jewish,” culminates in the most affecting encounter at the Wall.
It seems that Birthright has done its job. Though it bears some responsibility for embedding certain tourist traps ever more solidly in Eretz Israel — oy, those jetlagged donkey rides in the Galil — it has also created meaningful connections to Judaism and Israel for tens of thousands of people. Beyond that, the book does not glorify the organization; it’s too bad that putting the name of “Birthright Israel NEXT” on the cover as an apparent co-publisher gives the reader pause. The other partner in the joint project is Nextbook, whose deputy editor Wayne Hoffman (formerly of the Forward) is also the editor of the book.
Hoffman has also edited two internal Birthright publications, and said that for this volume, Birthright helped solicit submissions from writers and with publicity upon publication, but did not meddle with content. The content could have been trimmer. With five or 10 fewer chapters, the stronger pieces would be more potent, and Nextbook’s claim to promote Jewish literature — which Hoffman said is why they’re involved — would emerge more intact. The invitation on the back of the book — “Welcome to the liner notes for the latest album of Jewish life in America” — proves perfectly apt. Like an album, the cover has Nextbook’s typically appealing graphics. Like liner notes, the text careers between indulgent and incisive, immature and transcendent.