Journal Entry # 58 - Road Entry#48 (Dahab, Egypt – Mike’s Flat - 5:55pm (Local) - February 2, 2011)

On the morning of January 16, 2011 in Israel, we managed to check out of the hotel after a complete breakfast and morning conversation. The morning conversation was regulated to recapping what had happened the night previous – innocent gossip at it’s finest.

We boarded the bus to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum on the west side of Jerusalem. Our group was the final group to arrive out of the 5 or 6 Taglit-Birthright groups there. We were regulated to the very back of a large conference room and I was sitting in the last row. The opening ceremony of the museum was provided by one of the directors of the museum. He welcomed us and encouraged us to attentively listen regardless of our Holocaust knowledge and experience. He then welcomed to the stage a Holocaust survivor.

She was an old woman by now – living in Israel. During the war, she was in her later teenage years 15-19. I wish I could remember her name, but I didn’t write any cliff notes down for this day. I also didn’t take the director’s suggestion seriously with my fellow Taglit members watching me doze in and out of her hour long speech as if I was taking Psychology 102 with a monotone professor.

Her account from the war ended in an uproar of applause with a variety of peers graciously standing in ovation. A man then dismissed the entire conference room to their respective tour guides, but informing us that the “Group of Ran” would be led by him and should remain seated in the back. Our Yad Veshem tour guide was named Mordecai.

He led us into a hallway where we could use the bathroom before getting situated with our tour guide listening devices. His wireless microphone was conveniently connected to our headphone devices – allowing him to comfortably address each section of the museum to the 48 of us.

Right off the bat, he addressed the fact that he had a unique English accent and that we probably wouldn’t be able to guess where he was from. He spoke 6 or 7 languages and had been working for Yad Vashem for over 10 years. In addition, he instantly noticed that we were Americans due to our courteous physical spacing. Due to the fact that the museum was almost at capacity this Sunday morning, he continually encouraged us to gather as close as we could to him to hear what he was explaining.

Architecturally, the space was designed as a large triangular corridor. The museum has natural light radiating through the top of its small windows and those are the only windows in the entire building. Mordecai methodically showed us the museum; the war’s detailed account of each region (ex. Poland, Italy/France, Denmark/Sweden/Norway, etc…), and deliberately encouraged us to respond to his rhetorical questions regarding its history.

The tour was long and detailed oriented. There was plenty of information to learn and we probably could have spent another 2 hours there. The thing that stood out to me most throughout the museum was frequently seen – the last name similar to mine - ‘Goldsmitz’ / ‘Goldschmitz’. I asked Mordecai what region the last name originated from, but to my inclination, he told me that it was profession last name and not a region. There were Goldsmiths from all over Europe during the war. He then finally then revealed that he was born and raised in the Transylvania area. His wife is Dutch; so many people think he is Dutch as well, with his ‘Dutch-English’ accent. One of the last exhibits in the museum was a large circular room with shelves and shelves of names. The museum had collected and archived as many victim names as possible in books the size of old Britannica encyclopedias. This final room was magnificent and very powerful, but not as powerful as the next exhibit.

The holocaust memorial dedicated to all the lost children was the final stop along our tour with Mordecai. It was a dark, foggy, circular room with faux-candles lit in commemoration to the children. A tape-recording was speaking the names of children throughout our time in the memorial. Mordecai asked us to remember at least the name or place-name of a child lost in the war. We shared our thoughts and feelings at the end of the memorial and the end of the tour; thanked Mordecai for his time as our charismatic tour-guide and boarded the bus to a strip-mall area for lunch on our own.

Lunch consisted of slow service at a café, which led me to get some quick falafel and hummus with Marat, Shay, Ron, Roie, and Adam. I then got a 3-shekel ice cream at the pizza place before meeting up with the group and listening to Loren, the Amazing-Israel tour director, again…

Loren “checked” in with us in Jerusalem and then mentioned how we should provide the name and contact information of 3 others for the Taglit-Birthright gift. I referenced my brother and his friends (all 22 years old) for the upcoming summer trip. They said that our references would allow for our friends to receive priority in registration. After the quick speech from Loren, we got back on the bus towards Mount Herzl Military/Memorial Cemetery.

The morning had already been somber. Now we were compounding the sentiments of struggle, honor, demise, and mortality – a tough pill to swallow. We started in the cemetery at Herzl’s grave site. In his will and last testament, Theodore Herzl wrote that he wanted to be buried in Zion and the land of Israel whenever it would be established. I kept quiet the entire time at the cemetery in respect to the 8 Israeli soldiers in our presence. Ron had told me it would be an emotional day for them, because everyone in Israel knows at least one person who has been killed in a war or a terrorism bombing in the past 63 years of statehood.

We went to the grave sites of Yitzhak Rabin and other prominent leaders of Israel before walking amongst the hundreds of graves on this mount. Each grave site of a soldier is commemorated with a stone head (as the pillow) of engravings along with a small garden (blanket) of plants. It is a rule in the cemetery that each soldier’s grave has to have the pillow and blanket, but families can now come and celebrate the life of their loved one with additional plants, flowers, stones, and commemorative family pieces.

Our tour was followed by a long bus ride to Kfar Hanokdim in the Judean Desert. It was the location of our Bedouin tent/hospitality experience. In the program, it says “overnight: under that stars, in a Bedouin tent” – therefore leading me to believe that I would be sleeping in the cold and in a tent under the glistening, and light-pollution-free, stars. Consequently, I had packed many layers and didn’t expect a giant tent accompanied with a heater to keep us “comfortable” for the night.

Once the group got to the tent, we were led to the dining area where we sat on the ground and enjoyed Bedouin comfort. The floor was lined with handmade carpets, pillows, and small tables. The food was comprised of pita, hummus, chicken, kebab, rice, and cucumber/tomato salad. I don’t know if it was the setting or not, but it felt like the best meal yet in Israel – authentic and not sterilized.

We set up our sleeping locations in the tent after dinner. Once everyone was satisfied with their sleeping location, we met in another tent with two Bedouin hosts. One was sitting next to the fire, brewing tea and coffee for the group, while the other one officially welcomed us to Bedouin lifestyle. The Bedouins are nomadic people and of the Islamic faith (usually). They have lived in the Negev, Sinai, Judean, and surrounding deserts for thousands and thousands of years. They specialize in shisha, tea, and camels. They are true hosts – making sure guests are comfortable and worry-free for their time as an individual and part of the “tribe”.

Traditionally, a Bedouin is supposed to welcome any guest with tea or coffee and without questions for a three day minimum. If the guest decides to stay longer than three days, his energy would most likely be at full capacity – making it possible for Bedouins to question his intention, reason for travel, and response to the hospitality the Bedouins would be providing. Guests would stay with Bedouins due to the extensive and dehydrating travel across these deserts. The Bedouins have been generous providers of food and shelter for other travelers. It was a great introduction! I loved it!

Our host, Mohammed, invited a few to share in traditional dance and song as he played the Ood and Carter played the stick-and-pot instrument. Carter was the first one to volunteer for interacting in the musical experience. I got up with Matan and Shay to the right of the Mohammed and Carter – dancing to the rhythm and lyrics. I was picking up on the melody and started humming along. The two songs we did were great! I played the stick-and-pot instrument on the second song.

Fire, song, fun, games, dancing, and the tarbuka made up the rest of our night. Even though the majority of us partook in these activities, Ran led us on a moon-lit hike into the desert. He said that it was the largest group on a evening hike, and could see that we had all started to bond beyond measure. He instructed us to spread out amongst the rocks, wind, sand, and silence. The desert was at rest. The stars pierced our souls while the moon illuminated our heart in gratitude and serenity. I sat down on the ground and fumbled around with the rocks beneath. I remember closing my eyes and carefully examining the texture of the sandstone with my fingers and palms. It was meditating. I remember feeling it was conversely pleasurable as to touching the smooth skin of the opposite sex.

The effortless walk back to the tents was accompanied by the desert wind. We huddled around the fire and started to play the game, “Contact”. It is difficult to explain, but ultimately it challenges the participant to be keen, flexible, cunningly quick, and relatable. We must have played for an hour to two before I switched over to a game of “Ninja” with some of the guys. At first, it was only 5 or 6 of us. The ninja circle grew in size as we played into the midnight hour.

I then grew weary and dreary. I tucked off to bed in the artificially heated tent after brushing my teeth and taking out my contact lenses. I slept next Jonathan, Oria, Shay, Matan, Bobby, and Audrey. Oria and I talked together before deeply sleeping on the Bedouin futon pads they offered as a hospitality option. The blankets were warm and I assume were made of lamb wool.

Two separate components, one glorious day of emotion, reflection, and cultural firsts.