Julie Baretz received her license from the Israel Government Tour Guides training program in 1987. Since then she has guided thousands of Jewish and Christian visitors to sites all around the country. Her book, The Bible on Location: Off the Beaten Path in Ancient and Modern Israel, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
Israeli tour guides are legendary. With their encyclopedic knowledge, hyper-enthusiasm and salt-of-the-earth dedication to the Zionist enterprise they magically draw you into a parallel universe where everyone’s Jewish, accomplished, and proud of it. Watching them in action thirty years ago, I knew this job was a perfect fit for me.
In truth, I didn’t have too many options. I was on my way to Israel a year out of college, my English literature BA wound tightly under my arm. I had no professional experience and no practical skills. Just stars in my eyes – the kind with six points.
My poor parents never understood me. They raised a fine Jewish family but making aliyah was not part of their game plan for us. Until his dying day my father insisted I moved to Israel to run away from my problems. My mother still maintains I was brainwashed by Young Judaea, my “fanatical bund.” How else to explain this peculiar child who abandoned her family, boarded an El Al plane, and never looked back?
It certainly wasn’t nurture; I was the first person in my family to visit Israel. It wasn’t a religious awakening; I was done with synagogue services the day after my bat mitzvah. It wasn’t for love, either; I found that later. Ultimately it was nature, pure genetics; a mutation of the Jewish double helix as it spiraled down through the Diaspora over the ages. My Zionism is organic, the manifestation of a gene whose volume is dialed up really, really loud. “Julie,” it booms, “you’re Jewish. Get your butt over to Israel where you belong!” Some folks have a driving need to save the environment, or the animals. I feel compelled to save the Jewish people.
I share this gene with such notables as Moses, Ezra the Scribe, Golda Meir and Shimon Peres, although we are a select bunch. Of the 1.5 million Jews who left Eastern Europe from the turn of the twentieth century to the First World War, only 33,000 of them turned eastward to dusty Palestine, a meager two percent. A member of my family who was destined to join them was somehow bamboozled, or drugged, or dragged by the hair and ended up on the shtetl wagon heading west. That’s how I mistakenly wound up in America.
Don’t get me wrong – America is a wonderful place. I feel privileged to have been born and bred there, and I will never be Israeli in the way that I am American. But the two parts of my identity struggled with one another for years, and ultimately the Jewish side overpowered the American one. By a knock-out.
It’s undeniable. My neshama longs to be in Israel, surrounded by other Jews and immersed in Hebrew culture. It revels in the reverberations of antiquity humming down the pavements of the streets, through the books in the libraries and the in pots simmering in the kitchens. It pulses with the imperative to mold the work-in-progress that is the Jewish state. It aches to know all there is to know about Israel.
So, tour guiding was a calling waiting for me to answer. What do you seek in Israel — a spiritual experience at the Western Wall, or a mystical revelation in the mountains of Tsfat? The discovery of a historical thread beneath the stones of an ancient mountain fortress, or maybe a desert link to an ancestor who stood at Sinai? Tales of heroism, moral dilemmas or the juxtaposition of the words ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’? Would you like to meet a ‘new Jew,’ or perhaps an old one? Come. Take my hand. I promise to tell you everything.
Read more about Julie Baretz and her work here.
- Aliya: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel by Liel Leibovitz
- Essays: Israel
- How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden
Julie Baretz received her license from the Israel Government Tour Guides training program in 1987. Since then she has guided thousands of Jewish and Christian visitors to sites all around the country. Her book, The Bible on Location: Off the Beaten Path in Ancient and Modern Israel, is now available. Read more here.