Off to Israel

I’ve had an upsurge of freelance work since August, to the point where there’s been no time in the past two months to touch my novel. Normally I don’t blog about work. (In the ten commandments of blogging, I think Thou Shalt Not Embarrass Employers/Clients comes even before Thou Shalt Not Embarrass Teenage Offspring.)

But in this case, I’m making an exception. On Thursday, I’m heading off to Israel for ten days for a writing project related to the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Technion.

Based in Haifa, the Technion is Israel’s top engineering and science university – the MIT of Israel. Recently one of its professors, Dan Shechtman, was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of five-sided quasicrystals, a kind of matter that scientists had thought impossible. (You can read here about how no one believed him at first.)

The Technion campus in Haifa / Photo by Technion

This will be my first visit to Israel in (yikes!) 26 years. I was on a kibbutz for five months in 1975, and I lived in Jerusalem in 1984-5, but haven’t been back since.

Why haven’t I visited? It’s a complicated stew of reasons. The simplest is logistics: expense, distance, parenting etc. And when Sam and I  had opportunities for foreign vacations, I wanted to go places that were completely new to me – Barcelona! Costa Rica! Czech Republic! – rather than somewhere familiar.

But I also haven’t known how to go back.

After living there for a year and a half, I chafed at the idea of returning as “just” a tourist. The prospect of staying in hotels and flitting between museums and restaurants felt painfully superficial — like running into someone at a cocktail party who was once the passionate love of your life, and being relegated to small talk about the awful commute or remodeled baths.

The politics of the region didn’t help. When I lived in Jerusalem in 1985, I was working on a novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and spent a lot of time going back and forth between those two worlds. Just as I couldn’t imagine being a tourist, I couldn’t imagine returning in a way that didn’t address or acknowledge that conflict, that pretended it didn’t exist.

Basically, I needed a reason to be there. A foothold of some sort – a project, or mission.

Here I’d like to take a 10-second commercial break and put in a plug for the New Israel Fund, which raises money for progressive non-profits in Israel that are involved in women’s rights, religious pluralism, Arab-Jewish coexistence, environmental protection, etc. They periodically run study tours to Israel – there’s one in February 2012, in fact, that includes meetings with all sorts of grassroots activist groups. I could easily imagine going on an NIF tour, and Sam and I may end up doing so once Daughter is off in college. That would fit my need for a “mission.”

But meanwhile, this Technion project came up. It’s great – I’ll learn a lot, be involved with an historic Israeli institution, meet a ton of people, contribute something, work. I’m much happier doing this than spending ten days on a beach in Tel Aviv.

It should be eye-opening. Twenty-six years is a very long time. The last time I was there, the Labor Party still existed and Soviet Jews were still in the Soviet Union. You had to buy these little metal tokens called asimonim and put them into pay phones. Today the country has an average of 2.1 cell phones for every family – a higher figure, I believe, than the U.S.

When I went for 18 months in 1984, I took a portable typewriter and a single-lens reflex camera.

Now I‘m going for ten days and am taking a laptop, iPod, digital tape recorder, digital camera and my American cell phone, as well as a rented Israeli cell phone.

(What, no Kindle?)

Off I go!

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6 Responses to “Off to Israel”

  1. bratschegirl Says:

    How exciting! Have a great trip. And for the future, to travel but feel less like a tourist, try a website such as VRBO or Home Away, where you can rent a flat or a house. You really do get to feel like part of the neighborhood. We have loved the places we’ve visited this way. Hoping you’ll have time to blog while you’re there!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Thanks! We’ve used VRBO for renting ski houses etc. There’s also that whole new frontier of AirBnB where you can stay in someone’s guest room… haven’t tried that yet.

  2. debra solomon Says:

    Have a great trip. We just came back and thoroughly enjoyed being completely touristy. We smeared mud on ourselves and floated in the Dead Sea, we ate falafels, took tours, celebrated shabbat and prayed at the Wall. And a hot bath and lovely dinner every night. I recommend being a tourist.

  3. Ellis Shuman Says:

    It’s about time you came back! A lot has changed, and it’s not all connected to asimonim. I hope you enjoy Israel anew!

  4. Kaveh Says:

    Have a great and productive trip Ilana! And who knows, you might end up having new revelations about your novel(s).

  5. Kaveh Says:

    p.s. I hope to read some of your observations about the changes in the land of so many accomplishments (and conflicts).

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