The most surprising aspect of “What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright,” a collection of essays, poems and images by more than 24 Birthright travelers to Israel, is just how varied and deep the authors delve. You’d be forgiven for assuming this anthology would trumpet the horn of the Taglit-Birthright program, much like the standard mission trip to Israel; this would be a false assumption. The thoughtful musings by the many young contributors to the book, edited by Wayne Hoffman, are at times provocative, surprising and heartwarming.
Too bad it won’t reach far beyond its intended Jewish audience.
If people other than Jews familiar with the Taglit-Birthright program, which sends qualified young people to Israel for a free 10-day trip to explore their ancestral home, were to read these ruminations, they might find their current vision of Israel grossly under-developed. These stories paint a more complex, nuanced and ultimately humane image of life and travel in this nook of the Middle East.
Take, for example, the essay by Ilana Schonfel-Hicks, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.” A title like that immediately summons a tune in your head. Schonfel-Hicks’ essay also gave a personal account of what it was like going from the rare Ilana of her native Minnesota to one of many in Israel, a place she calls the “mythical Ilana-land of her imagination.”
“Ilanas go about their lives and introductions without particular comment or notice from others. I suddenly felt that I was like all of my Sarah and Katie friends at home. I didn’t have to explain myself,” she writes. “In that moment my view of my name, and by extension my self, changed. The rarity of my name and the curiosity it inevitably inspired, which had become so intrinsic to my identity, were gone. This was a profound epiphany for me.”
And while she freely admits this part of her experience wasn’t “world-changing in the grander scheme of things,” the universality of her experience reflects the oft-occurring paradigm shift that occurs in Jewish young people who visit Israel for the first time.
Jessica Young’s poem, “Three Years Later,” speaks to our expectations of Israel — not so much about what the country can do for us, but what we do for it. At times funny, often tender, very candid and authentic, Young weaves a lot of emotion into her three-page description of what she got, and brought back, from her birthright trip.
Three years after returning to the states, she concludes her ode with this admission:
“Now there are moments at night. Not often,
But often enough. When it’s cold out,
When the moon is nowhere, when the stars
Scintillate as they did the night I saw them from the desert. I search for something
I do not expect to find. Perhaps, solace.
The shame — I can’t get it out of my head.
In Israel I’d felt something so strongly, and then
I walked away.”
There’s plenty of humor and intelligence in these contributions. Notables include Ilya Khodosh’s “Midday Specials,” a funny ditty about soup and Jews in Manhattan; Eric Leven’s “Home,” a first-hand account of the one and only season of the Israel professional baseball league; Ruvym Gilman’s “The Way We’ve Become,” a story of finding love in Israel with your best friend from home; and M.K. Hall’s, “All You Need,” a Jew-by-choice’s story of visiting Israel as a Jewish bride-to-be.
This isn’t to say every piece hits a home run. The photos just don’t showcase well. In this venue they are distracting — being small and in black and white — although the introductions of each photographer are worth noting.
All together, “What We Brought Back” is a fitting tribute to a program that at last count had over 40,000 applicants from the United States signing up to go in summer 2011. If this book is any indication, enough participants have been indelibly touched by a trip that is by all standards more than a free vacation to Israel. Taglit-Birthright has warmed the hearts of many young Jews with regards to Israel; now if only a few well-placed Book Lists would bring this collection to a larger audience, it might thaw some other hearts, too.