I wait for the number 60 bus, the Egged line heading south. Through the Beersheva station young women with bleached blonde hair and miniskirts strut the walkway in plastic stilettos, past the shwarma stands and the vendors selling neon-colored toy guns and fake tattoos.
The “line” for the bus is now a collection of mulling teenagers in army uniforms carrying overstuffed backpacks and M-16s slung across their shoulders. As the bus pulls up, the crowd surges toward the open door. The seats quickly fill and it doesn’t seem to matter that there are no more spaces: a group of young Ethiopian girls settles in, cross-legged, in the aisle. I sit next to an older woman wearing a leopard-print blouse who proceeds to talk nervously in Russian. I somehow understand that, like me, she doesn’t know where and when to get off the bus. I tell her in broken Hebrew that I don’t speak Russian. She doesn’t speak Hebrew.
We ride through the open desert as the driver, who navigates this surreal route everyday, speeds around every bend on the empty road. Little schoolboys with shaved heads and long twisting side-curls get on the bus and two Filipina women with a crying baby and plastic bags full of Coke bottles and bananas get off. Although there is nothing but vast desert all around, everyone seems to know their destination through this landscape of invisible pathways. A soldier stands in front of me, the barrel of his gun pointing an inch above my open-toed shoe. I slowly pull myself upright, slipping my foot under the seat.
The bus suddenly braces to a halt and the driver announces over the intercom: “Hangar Adama.” As quickly as it stops, the bus skids off again — a caravan of immigrants and refugees tumbling through the open desert — and there I stand in a cloud of dust. I have seen this scene before in movies: the foreigner with the little suitcase left on the side of the road. The desert cannot help but amplify the absurd.
I’ve come to this failed industrial town in the Negev on the recommendation of a Fulbright fellow who’s researching contemporary dance in Tel Aviv. She gave me the phone number of her friend who’s directing a dance company in an abandoned hangar. When I spoke to Lior on the phone, he ended the conversation by saying: “Most Israelis create problems. We create dance.” If he was smiling on the other end of the line, I couldn’t detect it.
From where I stand, there are no signs of life — the warehouses are vacant, and even the few bare trees seem to wish for their own death. Spotting a curtain flowing out of a doorway, I walk toward it, pulled closer by the steady drumbeat of what sounds like a funeral dirge.
Exactly one week ago I approached another doorway much like this one in a residential quarter of Jerusalem, but it led up a flight of stairs to an Orthodox synagogue. There was dancing there, too, though I didn’t actually see it. I could hear the flamenco-like stomping and clapping of the men on the other side of the white partitions. The women, wearing headscarves, sat in folding chairs with their strollers and children, as though they were waiting in the silence of a hospital lobby.
As I part the curtain to enter, a young woman with a wild mane of wavy auburn hair and a white linen tunic runs past me and up onto a stage at the end of the long hall. She embraces another young woman in an urgent gesture of grief, and both begin to mourn what appears to be a corpse played by a fidgeting little boy. A troupe of bohemian musicians and actors lie strewn on couches, resting on each other’s bodies, stretching and rehearsing songs. No one takes note of my presence.
When Lior finally appears, he gives me a tour of the hangar. His professionalism starkly contrasts with the dingy dance studios and mangy yard where there are more couches, rugs, a petting zoo with chickens and rabbits, and a native herb garden. He proudly explains that everything has not only been envisioned by his dancers but also constructed by them. My “teepee,” where I am to sleep, is like a life-sized cardboard diorama, the kind I made in middle school, complete with pink stucco, exposed two-by-fours, and lopsided mobiles of yarn, twigs and pinecones.
Like all Jews who wander the desert, we eat tofu and curried mung beans and drink chai from glass jars under a canopy of palm fronds and stars. I fall asleep that night to the fading rehearsal of the elegy and awaken the next morning to the same chorus and beating of the drum. In the first class, a young woman named Orit leads us in sensory-awareness exercises. As we roll around the carpet, we are told to imagine floating on a cloud, peacefully balancing in mid-air. Suddenly, there is a loud sound of an airplane’s engine overhead, followed by echoing booms. No one seems to notice as, eyes closed, they continue to roll on their clouds to Orit’s melodic voice.
A few days ago, I was lying on a beach chair in North Tel Aviv watching old ladies inch carefully deeper into the Mediterranean. I wondered how many of them were survivors and how many miles from this glorious sprawl of sunbathing teens gunfire and suffering — the stuff of common news — occurred in real time. Across the pure blue sky, fighter jets swerved to landing pads nearby. Boys continued to play paddle ball in the sand while their girlfriends shut their eyes against the sun.
In the hangar, I open my eyes to see Orit standing above me. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t understand what to do.”
“You should really learn Hebrew,” she responds in English. “It is, after all, our language.”
I am still getting used to the idea that I am part of the “our” to which she refers. Since arriving in Israel, I have found myself staring at strangers in shopping malls and cafés, wondering what an Iraqi-Polish waiter has in common with a Moroccan grocery clerk or a Bulgarian taxi driver. Judaism has suddenly become a perplexing term as its representatives pass before me in every possible color and from every culture the world over. How, after thousands of years, did they all end up reunited together in this strange desert? I’m not even ready to begin considering how I fit into this enthralling mosaic.
That night the dancers congregate following Lior’s lead in several cooperative exercises. At a certain point there is a linguistic cue, which I miss, that the directives are over as people begin to move freely to the sinuous sounds of an oud. Everyone dances alone, yet there is a synergy across the floor as each person enters into a private flow of expression: A pale redheaded girl spins in circles while an olive-skinned man with a raven ponytail swivels his hips and sways from side to side. I suddenly feel, amid the whirl of movement, like I am an animal who has come upon its herd without knowing I had ever been lost. All night I pretend to dance, but really I am watching them dance, watching their faces, believing they have been living secret magical lives all these years without me.
The last note of the oud disappears and with it, the dancers retreat into the night. Before tucking into my teepee, I drink tea with a soldier on short-term leave from his base. In his thick Russian accent he tells me: “If you learn one thing about Israel remember this: We are an army with a country. Not a country with an army.”
Next year many of Lior’s dancers will be practicing different routines, but their costumes will be near identical: green or tan fatigues and felt berets with plastic pendants pinned on. They will learn to stand upright in straight lines, to memorize patterns of running and ducking through desert terrain, and they will be trained to aim and shoot a combat rifle. All culture is ultimately a matter of choreography. For now, though, they continue to twirl on trapezes, sew their own tunics and lounge tranquilly late into the night playing Bedouin drums and smoking cigarettes under the stars.
Eva Tuschman, a mixed media artist and freelance writer, is a graduate of Stanford University’s Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology.
This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming anthology “What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright,” edited by Wayne Hoffman and produced by Nextbook Inc. and Birthright Israel NEXT, to be published this fall by Toby Press.