The drive was long and tiring; the early morning sun cast shadows on the mountain peaks as we navigated the sandy path. The bus windows were closed, and the air conditioner was on full blast as Alan, our tour guide, regaled us with the history of the Negev.
“The Negev is a desert region in southern Israel best known for its excruciating heat, large craters and canyons, and beautiful mountains,” he began, sounding as if he had swallowed an Israeli History Textbook. “This region takes up about half of Israel and is mostly uninhabited. The land was, at one point, home to our forefather Abraham himself.”
We all nodded along as Alan spoke, his Australian accent poking through his speech at different intervals. Mom appeared fascinated, her mouth ajar in a slight “o,” eyes wide and sparkling. My brother, Joel, was the only one to appear disinterested, head cast down at his phone, thumbs moving quickly over the keys as his head bobbed along to the music spilling out of his headphones.
As Alan spoke, I covered my mouth in a yawn, and mom leaned over to me and whispered, “You do know why we had to leave so early, right?”
Eyes watering, I shook my head.
“It’s because it’s so freaking hot on top of Masada. If we were going to climb it, we’d have had to leave even earlier, like, 4am, because that’s when it’s still kind of cool out. But we’re taking a cable car up to the top, so it’s okay to leave later. It’s still gonna be hot as hell, though.”
“Even at six in the morning?” I mumbled through another yawn.
“Even at six in the morning,” mom parroted. She grinned at me then, and I felt a surge of excitement waft through me upon seeing her eager smile.
“…And up there, you can see the homes of the Bedouins, who are less nomadic than they were in ancient times. Most live up there permanently now.” Alan pointed to a mountaintop, and sure enough, nestled deep in the rock, were several tents. I glanced over at Alan. His hat was tilted slightly to the left, and he looked as thrilled as mom appeared, despite probably having shown hundreds of tourists this exact sight before.
Mom turned to me again. “Aren’t you excited?” she asked, nudging me slightly. I nodded. I was, but somehow I couldn’t imagine the top of a mountain in Israel being anything but disgustingly hot and filled with crumbling rocks.
Mom had begun her planning of our trip to Israel years ago, researching the best tour guides and the best hotels and the must-sees of the country. My brother and I had watched as she grew giddier as the weeks flew by and the day of our trip grew near. “You’re going to love it,” she’d tell us, “you’ll be immersed in Jewish culture all day long. It’ll be wonderful.”
Joel and I had groaned in unison upon hearing that.
“…And, oh, there is so much history that comes just from this mountain alone! I mean, all of Israel has a rich history, but this place tells some great stories too.”
“Uh-huh,” I mumbled, “isn’t it just a bunch of rocks?”
Mom started. “Of course not! Back in ancient times, there were bathhouses, living quarters, King Herod’s throne room-”
“Was there an ancient ice cream parlor too?”
Mom glared at me. She never was one for jokes, especially where Israel and Judaism were concerned. “You know what? You can just sit on this bus while everyone else goes to the top. They can appreciate the history and the scenery, and you can play on your phone.”
I rolled my eyes, looking down and fidgeting with the fringe on my shorts. “It was a joke.”
“Well, it wasn’t funny. You just can’t take your religion seriously, can you?”
Not really, I thought, thinking of all the times I had begged mom to let me stay home from Sunday school. What I said, however, was not as blunt. “I just don’t care about it as much as you; that’s all.”
I cringed, watching mom’s face turn red to match her manicured nails. Her eyes hardened, and I knew she was considering throwing me out the bus window.
“Sorry,” I muttered, quickly, to call off the rapidly approaching fury practically oozing from her stare. Mom grumbled in response, and I crossed my arms, determined not to speak to her for the remainder of the bus ride.
An hour later, Alan ushered us off the bus and onto the scorching pavement. My curls grew slick with sweat as I stood in the glaring sunlight.
As we walked towards the cable car, I glanced at mom: her gaze was softer, and the angry red lines etched in her forehead had begun to diminish. Sensing it was safe to speak to her now, I began, “So, you’ve climbed Masada before?”
Mom looked at me curiously-probably confused as to why I was suddenly speaking to her again-before answering. “Yes,” she responded carefully, “and it was absolutely beautiful.” She paused, and then, surprisingly, grinned. “Not as beautiful as the Golan Heights, of course, but still beautiful. The view was…hypnotic.”
I forced myself to hold back a snort. On the plane to Israel, mom had told me about this “revelation” she had when she went to Israel the first time. She’d always been passionate about her Jewish heritage, but had been skeptical about G-d and didn’t foster complete dedication to the Jewish homeland. Upon reaching the Golan Heights and seeing the vast, unprotected fields not immune to enemy fire even thousands of years after the Israelites had been led to the region, her mind had begun to stir, and suddenly she felt it: a strong tether to the area, a sense of devotion to the land of her ancestors.
“I felt as if G-d was with me at that moment,” she recalled, taking in the gently rolling plains, the olive trees in full bloom, and the Israeli farmers at the base of the hill. “I knew then that Israel would always be my home, a safe haven for me, and that it was my duty to protect the country at all costs.”
I had furrowed my brow as she said that, trying to conjure up the image of my mom, thirty years younger, standing on top of a large hill, curls blowing in the breeze as her revelation passed through her. It wasn’t an easy image to summon to mind, however-how could someone so young and so uncertain have such a profound awakening simply by standing on a hill? I ended up dismissing her words as mere over-dramatization. I wasn’t sure if I believed in G-d, let alone if I even wanted to be Jewish for the remainder of my life.
I wanted to tell mom that I didn’t believe revelations could occur, and that even if they could, they wouldn’t happen to me. I wasn’t very religious; I attended temple, but only to please mom. I enjoyed the Jewish holidays, Friday night services were sometimes bearable, and I loved Israel, but I was not completely and utterly devoted to my religion, like mom was. Revelations don’t happen to people who don’t really believe what their religion tells them, I thought.
We reached the top of the mountain a few minutes later, exiting the wonderfully cold cable car and setting our feet on the scorching mountaintop. The sun glared down on us, hot and bright, as we followed Alan across the rocky landscape. As he spoke, we found ourselves growing restless, downing our water bottles and frantically trying to keep ourselves cool. I slipped on my sunglasses and tied my hair up, groaning in fervent desperation as the last drop of water slipped out of my bottle and onto my tongue. “No more cold water up here,” Alan informed us, glancing at me out of the corner of his eye, “you’ll have to wait till we get back down to the bottom.”
Alan led us to several stone benches, baking steadily in the late-July sunshine, and we gratefully took our seats, thankful, at the very least, that we no longer had to stand. Alan launched into a story of the history of Masada then, and I tried, with great difficulty, to listen as he spoke.
“…And my gosh, it was absolutely incredible. King Herod’s fortress had become a refuge for the Jews against the Romans. They had lost their Holy Temple, and Jerusalem was on fire, but for now, they were safe up here on Masada.” Alan gestured around us, and I thought, here? The Jews had been standing where I was now sitting?
“They were not safe for long, however. The Romans laid siege to Masada, and tried to catapult rocks up and destroy the fortress. But the Jews up here were strong and smart, and fought back with every ounce of energy they had, until, finally, the Romans broke through the fortress.”
I bit my lip, feeling as if I were listening more to an ancient legend than to a factual story. Was it just mere folklore? The way Alan spoke-eyes sparkling, hands waving wildly in the air-made me think it had to be the truth.
“And you know what the Jews did then?” We shook our heads. “They refused to be beaten by the Romans. They refused to be made slaves as they once were in the land of Egypt. So you know what they did? They destroyed the fortress, and then they killed themselves. Every last one of them-men, women, and children-dead. And when the Romans rushed up the mountainside and through the ruined fortress, all they found were the bodies of the Jews. Now, they could not be taken. They died bravely, preserving the freedom of the Jewish people.”
Alan let out a deep breath and lowered his hands to his sides as he finished speaking, all the finesse of a master storyteller. Everyone was silent, casting glances downward at the benches. I, however, turned to the side, wiping sweat off the bridge of my nose and sweeping my gaze over the top of the mountain. I stood up and walked to the edge of a precipice. Digging my feet into the gravel, I looked out at the desert that stretched on for miles, the sheer cliffs carved into mountainsides, the arid, barren nothingness that once held an entire community of people. It was pretty, I thought, despite seeming so empty, so endless. Miles below me, the ancient Romans had once stood, plotting exactly how to seize the fortress. And, up where I was now, the Jews had worked and hoped and prayed for salvation, sacrificing themselves when no other sort of strategy revealed itself. What was it like for the last person who killed himself? He had been forced to watch the Romans storm up Masada, and being the last one alive, made that incredible sacrifice completely and utterly alone, in the middle of a seemingly infinite desert. I shuddered slightly, shifting my feet against the gravel. Those people no longer had the freedom to attend temple; there’s had been burned down. They could not celebrate the Sabbath, nor indulge in the delectable foods served on Passover. Instead, they were forced to condemn themselves to death, allowing future generations to experience the freedom they so desperately desired.
Not fair, I thought. Not fair. Those people deserve justice for their sacrifices.
It wasn’t a revelation that occurred next, but more of a spark, igniting my insides, filling me up and keeping my body turned towards the open desert. I didn’t feel as if G-d was with me, like mom had said, but I did feel a powerful and irrevocable pull towards the Negev, as if I belonged there: a safe haven, as mom had called it.
I twisted the fringe of my shorts, finding myself oddly excited at the prospect of returning home and going to temple. It didn’t matter that I didn’t necessarily believe every aspect of the Jewish faith; what mattered was that I protected the rights of others to believe and practice that faith. I thought of Joel, who had been bored out of his skull during the story of Masada. When I turned to look at him, he appeared unfazed, as if the beauty of the desert paled in comparison to the delights of his video games. It was remarkable how he could be so unaffected by something so magnificent.
Even as I heard Alan telling everyone else to get up, that it was time to head back down the mountain and towards the Dead Sea, I stood unmoving, transfixed on the massive desert before me. It was, as mom had said, hypnotic; I couldn’t seem to tear my gaze from the sight before me.
“Come on, Rebecca, we’re leaving,” I heard mom call, but there was a pleasant lilt to her voice as she said it, as if she was smiling. As if she knew.
Someone came up behind me and placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. Somehow I knew it was Alan.
“Mesmerizing, huh?” he murmured, and, noting his word choice, I gave a small smile, but I don’t think he could see it.
“Nearly one thousand Jews died up here. Had they not done that, we might not be here today, you know?”
I nodded. I knew.
Becca is a freshman at Boston University. She has been writing short stories since she was eight years old, and spends the better part of her time reading anything she can get her hands on. Besides reading and writing, she enjoys watching Netflix, walking her dogs, and traveling.