For a long time I thought ‘JAP’ was a peculiarly capitalized, derogatory term for someone of Japanese ancestry. I’m not sure when I realized that JAP was actually a derogatory acronym for someone like… me. Though my father was born Roman Catholic, I am a Jewish American Princess in every sense of the slur, and though my kind typically hail from the Eastern Seaboard, I’m sure that as a spoiled only child with a menorah in the china cabinet and a mezuzah on the door of my ivory tower, they can’t revoke my membership card.
I feel no shame in admitting that I fit the stereotype. Whatever I lack in Jew, I make up for in princess: I like the good life – particularly the rampant consumerism that pervades the U.S., and I will not apologize. I prefer to eat in restaurants that have at least one other location – for menu stability – am never more than five miles from a Coffee Bean™ mocha latte, and will be among the first to volunteer when scientists implant computers into human brains for faster internet access (providing the computers are user-friendly Macs and not virus-laden PCs. I have standards.) I like to sleep in my own full-sized bed on sheets of Modal – a bio-based textile made from reconstituted cellulose of beech trees which stay cool even in the summer – and am literally allergic to the outdoors. My one and only sleep-away camp experience ended with dehydration, food poisoning from handpicked blackberries, and profound disappointment when I came in fifth in the horseback-riding competition. (I was robbed.)
Despite all this, I intend to take a ten-day trip across Israel, land of milk, honey, and no bacon.
It’s actually my JAP-status that allows me to take the trip. As the proud owner of one Jewish parent, it doesn’t matter that I don’t go to temple. All Jews (regardless of religiosity) between the ages of 18 and 26 can travel to the Homeland for free if they apply with the Birthright Israel Foundation. More than 230,000 Jews have gone before me, which is enough of a track record that I feel reasonably secure.
Since I’m Jew-lite, I bring this up to a friend over Facebook, hoping for a little insight into the experience before I make my final decision.
“Have you been on the Israel Birthright trip?” I ask. She had a bat mitzvah, she reads Hebrew, she knows what matzoh is. These are the markers by which I judge Jewishness.
“No, but I really should,” she replies. She turned twenty-five in February, she’s running out of time. Right then and there we decide to go together. The relief I feel is immediate and immeasurable. I’ll have a familiar face to accompany me on this epic journey, someone who will report back to my parents if I disappear on the road to Galilee.
“I’ll forward you the last e-mail I got,” my friend says. Like most of the Trip Advisors, the website declares this group open to Jews with all levels of religious exposure, and also states that the participants will stay in 3 and 4 star hotels. Are Jewish stars any different from American stars, I wonder? What does a hotel have to do to earn (or lose) one of these stars? Are we talking Hiltons or Best Westerns? Or, dare I say, Motel 6?
Further scanning of the website reveals that in addition to the 3-and-4-star hotels, one night will be spent sleeping in a Bedouin tent in the middle of the Negev Desert.
I hate sand. I’ve always hated sand. What if I’m trampled by a herd of rampaging camels? What if I get bitten by a rattlesnake or stung by a scorpion, and my poor friend has to suck the venom out simply because she has the misfortune to share a tent in the desert with me? No doubt she’ll also be forced to pat me awkwardly on the back as I empty my stomach into whatever the Bedouin equivalent of a toilet is. How am I expected to survive the night without running water?
I’ll have to go ten days without a flat-iron – allowing my short hair to resume its natural state of frizzy, unmanageable curls – since everything we pack for this trip will be carted around on a daily basis; one extra pound could be the difference between survival and a hernia. This horror is compounded by the fact that my makeup case and hairdryer will take up space that could be better occupied by socks and underwear, to say nothing of the bug spray, sunscreen, asprin, English-Hebrew phrase book, English-Arabic phrase book, Kleenex, digital camera, hand-stitched moleskin travel journal, down pillow, Aquafina water bottles, first aid kit, Sees chocolate bar, contact lens solution, contact lens case, glasses, prescription for another pair of glasses should anything befall the first pair, and bottle of Bacon Bits (still technically kosher, since they don’t actually contain bacon). Something tells me I’m just not going to have time to apply eyeliner in the morning.
There’s a preliminary itinerary posted on the website too – from the roofs of Jerusalem’s Old City to an archaeological dig site, to floating on the Dead Sea, the tour is endowed with an almost militaristic schedule. A lot of marching, a lot of climbing, very few snack breaks.
I am a city girl, born and raised in Los Angeles, and I drive everywhere. I get lost without MapQuest, never bother to wash my blue Honda Civic as it will only get dirty again, and know my way around town based on a location’s proximity to a shopping mall. Walking is something only done by fitness freaks, the granola-munching, smoothie-sucking, hemp-wearing hippies of the hills.
Too many things can go wrong in the world, especially for an American citizen traveling abroad – film has taught me that. On the rare occasions when friends manage to drag me outside my comfort zone, I’m usually too busy imagining the worst case scenarios to enjoy myself. There’s always the threat of a cyborg who’s come from the future to kill me, or a volcano erupting in the middle of the La Brea Tar Pits, a zombie outbreak that forces me to chop the heads off of some of my dearest friends, or an alien invasion that leads to a hostage situation and questionable torture methods.
Because of all these threats to my life, the world in which I travel is a series of ivory towers; familiar, secure places, removed from the ills of the world. Above it all.
But the trouble with being above it all is that you’re always missing out on something. How many people have walked past my tower without looking up? How many times have spectacular opportunities crossed my path, only for me to be ignorant of their presence? No one’s coming to my rescue; even with a flat-iron, no one’s climbing my hair. This princess has to rescue herself, and this trip, ten days in a part of the world that is so unlike my own, is my chance to bust out, knot my Modal sheets together and toss them out the bay windows – leaving the hair dryer behind.