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Sounds like a culinary catastrophe, right? Well that’s how I described myself during my Bar Mitzvah speech and, despite the less than appetizing culinary concoction, the crowd – figuratively – ate it up. I am half-Japanese and half-Israeli and I grew up spending most of my time in Los Angeles, yet passing three to four months a year in Israel.
The cultural juxtaposition of high intensity, entrepreneurial, in-your-face Israelis with risk-averse, quiet and respectful Japanese (to the melting pot of America) has been an odd, but powerful force in my life. To give a little insight into how an oddity such as myself came to be, I’ll share two small anecdotes about my parents’ history and then jump into the meat of my adventure.
A few years before my mother (Japanese-American) and father (Israeli-born) met, she read a very famous book on Israel’s history, called The Exodus, and became so intrigued that she booked herself a one-way ticket to Israel. To completely immerse herself into the culture, she also joined one of the many Kibbutzim, which essentially were an attempt by some Israelis to create small communist utopias (I recommend reading more about them, they’re fascinating). There she learned Hebrew and converted to Judaism, and upon her return to the US decided to take Israeli folk dancing classes (Yes – that’s a thing) and met my father there.
And to this day, whenever I have visitors or whenever I see travelers, I try my best to encompass and mimic that ideology. If we treat each and every other person the same way we treat family, we would not only make the world a happier place, but we would also make the world a more beautiful place.JC
During that same time, my father had left Israel and had been sailing the seven seas on a fishing boat (pirate ship would have been cooler, but before his time I guess) with his best friend – earning a meager income while exploring the world. I vividly remember him telling me the story of one of the first ports they reached (somewhere in England). My father asked his friend what that barking was – they hadn’t quite reached port yet and there were no dogs on the ship. His friend joked that it was a “Sea Dog” …you must realize that this was during the 70s so information was not as readily available and, I kid you not, my father referred to sea lions as “Sea Dogs” for nearly a decade until my mother finally corrected him.
Now that you understand how odd my family is, maybe that will give you a little insight into how odd my upbringing was. Suffice it to say, I never quite fit in growing up. Which brings me to August of 2003.
I had just turned 18 and was spending a few months in Israel with my family. We lived 30 minutes north of Tel Aviv in a small town called Qadima. The town was mostly an agricultural community, although cities like Ra’anana, Netanya and Kfar Saba surrounded it. For an 18-year-old just about to head off to college and without a car, it was not the ideal situation since most of my friends were living and having the time of their lives in Tel Aviv.
I spent the first few weeks of the trip with family, wandering around the town trying to keep myself occupied. In true teenage fashion, I threw a tantrum and told my father off for bringing me on the most boring trip of my life. In true Israeli fashion, my father kicked me out of the house for the day and told me not to come back until I had proof that I had actually made an attempt at making friends.
No more than five minutes later, I found myself walking by a small park where a group of kids my age kicking a soccer ball around. They were short one player for a full match and asked me to join them…Well, “asked me to join” may be a bit of a stretch. It was fairly obvious from my designer jeans, high-top All-Stars and fedora that I was an American. In Hebrew, they argued amongst themselves that a slanty-eyed American (their words, not mine) would be a horrible candidate to join their match. I feigned ignorance to a language which I’d been speaking since I was a child and asked them in English if I could play too. They all beamed with delight in having the opportunity to play a full match and show off some of their Israeli soccer talent to a foreigner.
After 20 minutes of negotiating the teams (especially who would have to bite the bullet and play with the American), I met my squad. Something snapped then and I realized that what I perceived previously as hostility was entirely misplaced. The jokes – despite their crude nature – were actually the manifestation of warmth and acceptance as one of their own. Maybe because of their warm nature or maybe because my team massacred our opponents with me scoring all of our goals (I went on to play semi-pro soccer in Israel later in life) or maybe because at the end of the match I threw out some expletives only a native would understand, but I ended up making new friends. But this was just the beginning of my day.
At the end of the match, some of the players told me that they were going to a big “Nature” party that night and I was going to join them…no questions asked. In order to ensure my attendance, they decided that I was simply not going to be allowed to go home. So, I joined one of them for family dinner, which was one of the most delicious meals I can remember. Such is the warmth and hospitality of Israeli culture. But this was still not the end of my day.
After dinner, we ran and grabbed some beers and flavored hookah tobacco from the corner store. We returned to his home, headed to the roof and played some “interesting” music as we talked and looked at the stars. As we relaxed on the rooftop, a few stragglers rolled through until we were about 10 people. Around 1:00am, I thanked my gracious host for the amazing day and the amazing nature party, but told him that it would probably be best for me to be getting home. Although I can’t remember his exact response, there was some name-calling about my intellectual capacities and then he mentioned that his friend had just arrived to take us to the nature party.
Apparently drinking beers and smoking hookah while looking at the stars was not the nature party I thought it was. With no other choice and the taste of adventure (and maybe a little vengeance towards my parents), I hopped in a car of someone I’d never met before heading to a nature party. Perhaps youth is not always wasted on the young…
A short drive later found us in a lush countryside nearly pitch black from the total lack of civilization. As we neared our destination, the darkness did not dissipate, but I could just barely make out a very large line of trees off in the distance with a slight glowing haze coming – to my sincere surprise and concern – from the base of the trees. Almost as though the roots themselves were glowing with the anticipation of the evening. And then, nearly a mile or two away, I noticed that the lights were actually moving! At this point I was in full freak-out. Did they drug me? Was my kidnapping a double bluff? Was this the end of the line for me?
We finally broke through the line of trees and before us was a steep cliff dropping down into a beautiful valley filled with thousands of people partying in what I then realized was the nature party. We continued down the road, parked the car and met up with a group of 20 more who welcomed me as though I were one of them.
To be clear, this wasn’t the usual “curiosity reception” that most travelers receive when they’re in a foreign place. I was not asked the same droll questions we’re all asked about the three “W’s:” work, weather and where are you from. I felt like I had been friends with them from childhood. Constantly joking and always inclusive, the people I met that night were friendly to a degree I had never experienced in my life. But, alas, all good things must come to an end. So, around 5:00am, we all began the sad sojourn back to the car.
As I reflected on the amazing day that I had had, I noticed my newly found friends furiously typing away at their phones. In an odd turn of events, one of them asked if I knew my father’s Israeli phone number and asked me to punch it in so that I could tell them I was coming home. Since I couldn’t read/write Hebrew, he offered to write it out and send it on my behalf. Not thinking twice, I accepted his gracious offer without noting how that might be a little odd (remember this is 5:00am after a night of partying).
He sent the message and I immediately fell into the sweetest of slumbers. I dreamed lucidly of going on another adventure with my friends. Trekking through the desert, each of us taking turns leading the pack down windy roads through the arid sands of Israel. Roads leading us to a paradise lost. A veritable oasis at the end of a journey steeped in the deepest, darkest recesses of the desolate dunes.
Except that wasn’t a dream.
They had conspired to kidnap me for the third time. Having previously outsmarted them by hiding my intimate understanding of Hebrew, they had now been communicating silently via text. And I later found out that the text they sent to my father was just letting him know that, “we are going south for the winter.” As soon as I fell asleep, they drove the caravan straight down to the beach party destination city of Eilat at the very southern tip of Israel bordering Egypt, a five hour drive. I woke up just as we reached the beautifully colored waters of the Red Sea.
I spent the next few days snorkeling through the Red Sea reefs (considered to be some of the most beautiful in the world), scuba diving with dolphins, riding camels with Bedouins, partying with the locals and even got my very first piercing…and my second. I’m so glad I said no to the dolphin tattoo.
This was arguably the best summer of my life. I cannot stress enough that the entirety of the trip was made by the people who graced me with their hospitality. Since the moment I stepped onto the soccer field, I wasn’t treated as a traveler, or as an American, or even as a friend. I was treated as family. I wasn’t given the experience that I wanted. I was given the experience that they knew I needed to truly understand the core of their culture, their being, their spirit.
And to this day, whenever I have visitors or whenever I see travelers, I try my best to encompass and mimic that ideology. If we treat each and every other person the same way we treat family, we would not only make the world a happier place, but we would also make the world a more beautiful place. A place where discord gives way to harmony, mistrust to understanding and close-minded pessimism to a breadth of optimism that can make a difference.
Also check out, Living in Wadi Rum, Jordan.