Forty years ago I spent the summer in Israel on one of those 1970s teen tours. Even though I grew up on Long Island in a community that was seemingly 99.5 percent Jewish, when I was 16, my parents decided that I wasn’t Jewish enough (ahem, I wasn’t raised with a Jewish education) and sent me to Israel for the summer. I had no interest in going because I wanted to go back to the progressive Jewish summer camp that I had attended the previous two summers — and where I had made friends I would still be close with 40 years later.
I never had a bat mitzvah, and was happy not to have to go to Hebrew school, because all of my elementary school friends who went complained about it. It sounded like prison with some education thrown in. We were secular Jews and did not belong to a synagogue. My two older brothers had gone to a Yiddish shul instead of Hebrew school. For some reason my dad got disillusioned with it, and just as he did when he had some gripe with our family Chinese restaurant du jour, he declared, “We’re never going back there.” I was off the hook.
When I was in high school, my mom often suggested that I should join a Jewish youth group, but I resisted. I never thought any of those kids would be “cool enough,” and partying was my mainstay at the time. I was Jewish and never questioned or denied it, but I didn’t want to join any groups. My Judaism consisted of watching Marx Brothers flicks; beings friends with Hochmans, Grossmans, Bernsteins, Siegels and Goldsteins; attending seders; and lighting the Hanukkah candles. (I’ve always loved the rituals.)
In the summer of 1978, I embarked on a six-week tour of Israel with about 30 other teens from the U.S. and Canada. In my journal entries I talked about feeling like I had gone back in time seeing ancient buildings like the Dome of the Rock and being overwhelmed by our visit to Yad Vashem. But the entries also were peppered with complaints about being bored with all the touring (what a spoiled kid) and largely focused on the group of Israeli teens we met the first night of the trip in Tel Aviv, and who managed to meet up with us throughout the country over the next six weeks. Years later, I would reconnect with two of them on this futuristic communication platform called Facebook.
It may be disappointing to some that I didn’t have any earth-shattering experiences or become more involved in Judaism — short of being a Jewish-identified comedian and comedy producer some 17 years later. What I did learn was friendship. And how to skinny dip. And I did come home wearing a chai. So, mission accomplished.