The Path to Masada

Elyse Kallen

Belgium

I open my eyes into pitch black, surrounded by sand, camels, and the brightest stars I’ve ever seen.

“I’m not really Jewish.”

Despite a night crammed into a tent in the Judean Desert with three dozen other young adults, I’m wide awake as I gingerly set one foot in front of the other in the predawn light. Nobody speaks as we trudge forward, each lost in our thoughts or not yet awake from our dreams.

“My dad’s the Jewish parent. That doesn’t count.”

Like a lens coming into focus, the rocks ahead resolve into stone ruins, tinted blue in the dim light. I put one hand against an ancient wall, half expecting it to crumble at my touch. 

The people who lived here have long since turned to dust, but their dwellings will stand well after I’m gone. I waiver between feeling like a speck of dust already and a runner in a relay race, the hopes and fears of generations resting on my shoulders. But can I claim the ones who came before as my team?

“I went to Catholic school; I had a first communion.”

I let out a ragged breath as the ground evens out beneath my feet. Not a moment too soon. Below, the Dead Sea shimmers, reflecting the brightening sky. 

I push away the thought of the blood that might have been shed on this very spot. Instead, I remember the joy of lifting my voice in song — tentatively, at first — and spinning round in a circle, held by friends who had just days ago been strangers. Perhaps our ancestors danced too, maybe even where I stand now. 

“I don’t know a word of Hebrew.”

I’m transfixed by the band of pink creeping over the horizon, followed closely by orange and yellow. The sun’s first rays warm my face, just like the flame of the Shabbat candle, and fill me with the same peace.  

“Jews don’t take Intro to Judaism classes.”

I turn to see my fellow travellers’ eyes radiating the same welcome as the elderly ladies at Saturday morning Torah study. They don’t see an asterisk over my head; why should I? 

Next time, I answer:

“I’m Jewish.”

Elyse Kallen is a Guest Contributor for Panorama.