Monday, December 29, 2008

First Leg: Egypt

Since I wildly overestimated the energy I would have to blog during the trip at the end of a day that included, say, climbing the Snake Path up Masada in the dark, I'll intersperse trip reporting with other news from home.

The trip began with a red-eye to Tel Aviv, and a connection to Cairo. I was up with the sunrise, and as the plane flew over the Aegean Sea, I watched the coastline of Israel appear. I felt a strange kinship with tens of thousands of Jews who had squinted as they neared those same beaches, in joy and apprehension, and sorrow for the many who did not live to join them.

In Ben Gurion Airport, I thought, everyone here is a Jew, I'm a Jew. Well, not everyone, but I was struck by the reality, kosher McDonald's sign and all.

"Shalom," I said casually to the baggage inspector, as if it weren't one of only three Hebrew words I knew. He cross-examined me anyway, comparing my version of where my bags had spent the day with that of my traveling companions.

We flew off to Cairo, and then to Luxor. We toured the tombs, pyramids and temples, drove around the ancient cities, families cutting sugar cane and loading it onto donkeys, camels in the middle of traffic, women covered from head to foot.

My friends and I became fascinated with the story of Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh who ruled some 3500 years ago. She took the role as King, not Queen, and wore the traditional male garb - kilt, headgear and false beard. After her death, her treacherous step-son tried to erase her existence by defacing her images and covering her statues.

The tone for the trip settled on me: an astonishing sense of enduring history, dynasty, tradition, family, ritual and deep connection with the past. Hard to believe, I had never even read a biographical novel in my life, and had little interest in period films. I had never concerned myself with my own connection to the past, having grown up to believe it didn't exist, or at best was shadowy and unknowable, and in any event of no consequence.

My parents, motivated not by treachery but by a totally understandable permanent fear reflex, and a genuine desire to protect me, and themselves, from another Holocaust, had de-faced and covered up the past. Their past, my past, our families' past. Relatives, photographs, documents, oral history, traditions -- all vanished, or banished. A difficult decision, I'm sure, it had wider reverberations than they probably imagined.

Since my discovery in August, I had spent hundreds of hours online, mining databases and links only recently available to researchers. I'm still not sure I can say why the process is so compelling. Part OCD, part familiar management style, and part belief that some measure of psychic wholeness might emerge from the process. Now, thanks to wonderful old friends and new, and to family known and newly discovered, I was going back to Israel to gather up a few parts of the puzzle, research in tow.


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