For most people, taking a vacation means heading as far away as possible from work. But when one’s work encompasses a region, and that region includes Israel, a place that holds emotional and spiritual meaning as well, getting away from work isn’t quite so simple.
Writer Jeffrey Goldberg is the vacationer in question, and as The Atlantic Monthly staff writer primarily covering foreign affairs in the Middle East and Africa, Israel tends to be his bailiwick. It’s not by chance. Raised on Long Island’s South Shore, he discovered his Zionist soul while attending the University of Pennsylvania, then left to move to Israel and join the Israel Defense Forces. He served as a prison guard during the first Intifada, a bleak and edifying experience. When he later returned to the U.S. in the 1990s, he first worked at The Forward before moving on to New York Magazine, the New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, landing several years ago at The Atlantic Monthly.
Now he’s considered a key commentator on Israel; but he still has his personal relationship with the land, and with many people living here. In fact, he doesn’t avoid coming here with his family, he encourages it. When a Da’at-organized celebration of a friend’s child’s bat mitzvah brought Goldberg and his family here in December, he welcomed the opportunity.
“My relationship to Israel is different than my relationship to politics or the government of Israel,” says Jeff. “Israel is the Jewish homeland and I belong to a religion that is based partially on territory, on a specific place. The politics of the moment have to be immaterial to me when I take my children to Israel and explain what it means.”
Jeff and his wife try to bring their children to Israel every two years or so, with this recent trip their third since the kids were old enough to travel. The goal, says Jeff, is for them to have a meaningful relationship with Israel when they grow up. That said, they focus mostly on having fun, because “you can kill kids with too many ancient Nabatean ruins.”
“These kids haven’t been to Yad Vashem,” says Jeff. “They’ve been to various ruins, but their idea of Israel is the beach and [chocolate café] Max Brenner and clothes shopping. For my son, it’s the IDF museum and crawling around on tanks. It’s not hard to do because Israel is a fun place. It’s floating in the Dead Sea and eating ice cream. I don’t want the heaviness to weigh them down.”
While it is important to him that his children know he’s critical of certain aspects of Israeli society, he tries to make it clear to them that their relationship to Israel is “an organic one” as a Jewish person is with its people, places and religious sites. He wants them to know Sheinkin Street, for example, the hip shopping avenue in Tel Aviv, he jokes. For Jeff, these kinds of trips are not about who’s running Israel or its policies.
As for the other adults on this last trip, he doesn’t do “hyper political tours” with them either. Traveling as three families with eight children between them, all within a year or two of bar or bat mitzvah age, the trip tended to focus on the religious and spiritual experience at hand. Jeff likes to use the ‘tanach’, the Hebrew term for the Bible, as his walking guide, using the Torah as a way of relating to the place they’re visiting. On this recent trip, he took his youngest daughter to Sodom, near the Dead Sea — an ancient province that is discussed in her upcoming bat mitzvah portion of Va’era in the Book of Genesis — where they read from the pages of the Tanach, in the presence of Mount Sodom, which is now mainly salt from the Dead Sea.
Being a tourist in Israel and visiting its places and sites is grounding, comments Goldberg, reminding him that “this place is more than just the sum of its politics. If I’m in Israel reporting, I’m in the Knesset, the defense ministry, Ramallah. I don’t get to go to the recently renovated train station in Tel Aviv or Neve Tzedek. It’s good for people who write about this to step out of the prism of politics, politics, politics. I regret that I can’t do it as much as I want to.”