What Mark Twain failed to discover in Israel

In 1869, a young American writer was sent to the Middle East as a journalist representing a small Californian newspaper.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was sent in order to document an unknown, exotic place, to tell wealthy American society about the experiences he would go through and the sights he would see on the other side of the globe. His diary was published in many newspapers, giving a strong head start to the 31 year old writer’s career.

This man is better known today as Mark Twain.

Twain had visited many different places and among them was the land of Israel, yet, to put it gently, the young writer didn’t like most of the things he saw around him. He claimed that the beautiful heavenly views which the crusaders described during their epic journeys of the past looked more like the views of a boiling hell, with dry, torn and helpless ground. Life can’t exist, he claimed, in this poor, monotonous, potential lacking place. Even Jerusalem, its eternal capital, is no more than dark, lonely, lifeless ruins of a place that perhaps used to be impressive long time ago.
To sum up his impression, Twain had argued that it is better to swallow demons and ghosts or even drown than to live in this damned place. “This place is cursed!” he determined in his book ‘Pleasure Excursion to the Holy Land’ adding that no one will be able to successfully live there since it would make any reasonable person run away. His evidence? There wasn’t a single tree older than 100 years in the land of Israel, because people had never stayed in it for long periods of time.
A person who will dare to tie himself and his destiny to this land, he opined, is either stupid or crazy.

Today, almost 150 years later, I can definitely say that Mark Twain was wrong, big time.

Every time, as I walk around in this ‘damned place’ I see that it’s full of wonders, full of complexity, different shades, flavors and above all- it’s full of those ‘crazy’ people Twain had mentioned!

Being one of them, it must make almost perfect sense for others to think that I and other Israelis had always understood the place we’re living in. However, does being Israeli always mean completely understanding Israel’s reality? Understanding all of its people or even all of its challenges?

For me, it took a special opportunity in order to further learn about Israel’s colorful community which contains people who differ from each other on in so many levels yet share true love and strong rooted connection to this place we all call “home”.

My opportunity to learn came by surprise one day when I was a young soldier in the military. My commander had mentioned that there is an off-base trip I could join.

“Does this mean I will be having some days off base?” I asked.

“Yes” she said. “You will travel the country with students from North America.”

‘I get to go off base? To travel? To meet people? Where do I sign up?!’ I thought to myself that day, most motivated to join by the fact I wouldn’t have to wear uniforms for a few days. Little did I know back then that this decision would probably be one of the most important decisions I’d ever made in my life, as this was the first time I had heard about “Taglit Birthright” program.

It took 5 days, a bus full of 6 Israelis and 34 North-American students, and a lot of unforgettable experiences for me to completely fall in love with it.

I was exposed to this ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to create meaningful relationships with various people, learn about Jewish heritage and further expand the understanding of my identity and of Jewish people around the world.

After the trip was over, I spent the next 3 years trying to learn more about the program and deepen my knowledge of different Jewish communities all over the globe, hoping that I would be lucky enough to have another chance to go on a trip like this again. And what do you know, I got it! Twice! Those next times, being a college student myself.

Each time, the experiences were powerful and unique, teaching me different lessons, opening me up to new spectrums of knowledge, care and deepening the connection to my home land and its people.

By the end of the third trip, one of the participants asked me something I had never thought of before: “How do Israelis call the program in Hebrew?”

 

“We call it Taglit,” said one of the other Israelis on the bus. In that moment I realized why and how the program had received its Hebrew name: Taglit means ‘discovery’, the ability to discover and experience something new for the first time. Some people often mistakenly assume that, the main discoveries during the trip aren’t made by young Israelis who join it because after all, they had been living in the country their whole lives. But each trip had taught me that, those amazing discoveries were ours as well:

As a participant, I realized that Judaism is more fascinating than I had ever thought and wears many different faces. I took the time to explore the breathtaking views that Israel has to offer. I discovered that the power of pure deep human connection is unbelievably strong, and that care and a warm heart can bridge almost any disagreement. I discovered that Jewish people don’t have history; they have ancient collective memories that shape them all.

But, more than anything, the most amazing discovery of all was that people from the other side of the world can deeply connect and open up, influence, challenge and truly change each other’s lives forever in a ridiculously short amount of time.

I was exposed to incredible and amazing people, learned how connected we all are to one another, how similar we are but yet so different. I felt that we would always share a special connection and a collective heritage, which brought us all to tears in places like Yad Vashem, to climb the rough steps of Masada, to walk around the sunny beach in Tel Aviv or wonder the mysterious ancient streets of Jerusalem… I don’t think I’ll ever forget what one of the participants had told me: “you won’t believe it, but during the past 5 days I’ve felt more alive, loved, safe and belonged than in the past 25 years when I wasn’t here… maybe I can go away, but I can’t ever really leave this place”.

 

Meaningful moment like this and many other discoveries kindly provided during Birthright trips not only inspired me to choose my future path, but also shaped my identity. Moments like this gave me a unique opportunity to acquire a better understanding of Israel, of its beautiful and sometimes not so beautiful face, of its different shades, sounds and flavors, of its marvels and challenges, its complexity and simplicity.

Yet, the one thing Birthright had reminded me more than anything was the fact Israel is home to all sorts of outstanding people, from all over the word. People who share the same collective memory and happily tie their destiny to this place and its community forever. Perhaps those were the people Mark Twain had written about in his diary?

However, in my eyes, thanks to all those incredible ‘crazy’ people, this “cursed” land is blessed and prospering, changing, growing and evolving.

We have a wonderful land, abundant of all the greatest things in the world… I can only wish we keep on proving to Mark Twain how wrong he was!:)

 

 

About the Author
Lior is a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Johns Hopkins Hillel. She grew up in Gan Yavne Israel and served the IDF as an operational manager in a combat squadron in the Air Force. Lior completed her B.A. in the honors track of Government, Strategy and Decision Making at IDC Herzliya and served as a strategic consultant for the Israeli Cyber Headquarters, IDF Strategic Planning Department, and Israeli NGOs.
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