Questions, Part 1 – They Shine for You

“Look at the stars; Look how they shine for you…”

Yellow by Coldplay

When the Rabbi stood up in front of us at dinner, I knew there was something amiss. Dinner, a wonderful spread of hummus, israeli salad and chicken kabobs, had long since left the table, yet our departure to the airport had been delayed. After a brief introduction, he got the meat of the matter: “Your flight [back to the US] is canceled”. Instead of flying out tonight (and getting in in the wee hours Thursday morning), we’re flying tomorrow in the wee hours and getting in in the afternoon, and to a different airport. Yay.

Put briefly, my 10 11 days of travel in the Holy Land have been beset by a long string of weather issues, from heavy rain to hail to snow. Yes: Snow, in Jerusalem. I think a guide for a particular location put it best when she said, “This view is spectacular 348 days of the year; you guys picked the one weeks where you can’t see anything”. That said, the trip was still extremely fun, especially in retrospect. Our relatively motley group of college students and a few recent grads, together with three spunky guides and a particularly grumpy bus driver (!בוקר טוב, מאיר), really came together over the course of the trip and bonded despite the awful weather. And as usual for Israel, the food was scrumptious.

I could give a catalog of my experiences on Taglit, but not only would that be boring to read, it would be boring to write. Also I didn’t do any kind of writing on a daily basis. So I won’t be doing that. Instead, I’m going to pick out some of the key moments and experiences that I believe defined my trip. Onwards!

Before this trip, I last went to Israel three and a half years ago. Before that previous trip, I never thought too hard about the troubles citizens of Israel and others face on a daily basis. To borrow the phrase we’ve thrown around a lot over the last 11 days, I learned during that previous trip that Israel is complicated. Coming into this trip, then, I wanted to try to understand how people live their lives in the face of so much complexity and difficulty. With politics, religious, environmental, and many other issues rearing their heads on a daily basis, what is Israeli life really like?

The first experience that set me off on this pursuit actually came on the plane ride to Tel Aviv. I stumbled upon Boyhood when scrolling through the movies available for free screening, and decided to kill approximately 2.8 hours of the flight. Boyhood is a movie filmed over the course of twelve years about the life and times of a boy named Mason as he progresses through the most raw and realistic depiction of life I’ve seen on a movie screen. His situation is neither desperate nor stable: his mother gets a divorce early on in the movie and bounces between other men over the course of the movie. She goes back to school to finish her degree to better their situation, but this often leaves Mason alone with his older sister Samantha and friends, which get cycled out as the family move from town to town.

The most interesting thing to me about Boyhood is how different parts of the movie affect different viewers. Throughout the movie Mason is exposed to dangerous situations, some worse than others. In one clear example, Mason and some friends are throwing circular buzz-saw blades at planks of wood. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which someone is hit with a thrown blade. Other scenes, however, may only register as dangerous for some viewers. For example, in one scene Mason and Samantha are at a house party and are taking Jell-o shots (a [usually] small amount of alcohol mixed into jell-o). While things could certainly go wrong (with drinking too much), this scene barely registered as dangerous for me. In my opinion, both Mason and Samantha had proven that they were responsible with alcohol and seemed to be pacing themselves.

In contrast, there is another scene where Mason receives a shotgun for his birthday from his grandparents. This immediately evoked a base, gut reaction in me: guns are bad, he should not have a gun. Of course, Mason and Samantha were totally fine. Under the instruction of their grandfather, they shot some cans and a few clay plates, in a completely responsible and safe fashion. Logically, it doesn’t make any sense that when I see Mason drinking in a party setting I think, “Oh he’ll be fine, he knows what he’s doing”, but when I see him shooting a gun I think, “He’s going to get hurt or hurt someone else”. I suppose the distinction just a part of who I am. This incongruence between different dangers something I’ve always known, but I have to give credit to Boyhood for forcing me to actually acknowledge it.

There’s no real moral or conclusion to the movie: it ends relatively quickly after Mason enters college, without a big statement or finishing scene. This was clearly intentional, given that the movie is a depiction of life. So long as life continues, there’s no conclusion, and whether or not life has meaning is a hotly debated and certainly open question. The movie brings up the topic when Mason is leaving for college. He expresses his joy at leaving for college, and his mother begins crying, not from sadness but from anger. Here’s the full dialogue, taken from IMDB:

Mom: [Mason is leaving for college] This is the worst day of my life.

Mason: What are you talking about?

Mom: [Starts crying] I knew this day was coming. I just… I didn’t know you were going to be so ****ing happy to be leaving.

Mason: I mean it’s not that I’m that happy… what do you expect?

Mom: You know what I’m realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced… again. Getting my masters degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my ****ing funeral! Just go, and leave my picture!

Mason: Aren’t you jumping ahead by, like, 40 years or something?

Mom: I just thought there would be more.

While we, the viewers, were busy trying to get inside Mason’s head, his mother was tirelessly working to support the family. She ultimately succeeds in this endeavor, but at the cost of her life – she doesn’t die, but spends her entire life working. It’s left open what to take from this dialogue. Mason’s mother succeeded against all odds to complete her education, get a well paying job, and send both of her children to college. She did so though a smidgen of luck in just the right places and a huge amount of hard work. But is that the whole meaning of her life? Was there something else she was supposed to accomplish along the way? Was there meaning to be discovered just down the road untaken that once missed can never be rediscovered, or is the idea of conclusive meaning merely a mirage? If there isn’t and was never going to be more, is what she has accomplished satisfying? Or is she suspended in a continual state of frustration that there isn’t “more”? The scene ends after the above dialogue — The movie offers no answers to any of these questions. It simply raises them, in a manner that is both rational and heart-wrenching.

In Questions Part 2 I’ll actually talk about stuff that happened in Israel! See you then!