I watch avidly as Avi holds out a handful of food for a large speckled gray and black one. It eats it straight from his palm.
"Watch out," I warn. "He could bite your hand off with those massive buck teeth of his."
"They're harmless," he says. "They won't bite you. Try it."
I look at the brown bag of food I've just paid ten sheckels for. Ten sheckels for the risk of getting a huge buck alpaca tooth in your palm. No thank you very much. I walk up to a small baby alpaca and just pet it. Its fur is soft, but a bit wiry. And I laugh when she looks at me with her big gunmetal eyes and large underbite. My orthodontist, Dr. Robbins (otherwise known as Miracle Worker to his patients), could have a field day with this animal.
I feel like I can try and feed this one because it's small. And she looks at my brown bag the way I look when I see a good sushi restaurant. I reach in the bag and pull out some 'feed'. The little bugger can't even wait for me to situate the stuff in my hand before she noses it with her face and scoops it all up with her choppers.
"Hey, don't you have any manners?"
The alpaca starts chewing the food in a very unladylike manner; little pieces of food are falling out of her mouth with each chew.
"Watch out," Ofra says as she walks up behind me.
"For what?" I step back several steps, away from the animal. "Avi ...Avi told me they're harmless."
"They are," Moron chimes in. "But they spit."
"Whad'ya mean, 'they spit'?" I say, moving farther back away from the buck-toothed spitter.
"Well," Snotty says. "It's more like a loud growling-like burp, then spit. At least they give you warning."
As if having the small alpaca after my brown bag wasn't enough, once they hear me close my bag the noise alerts about ten of the large ones and they come after me, too.
"I'm not an animal person," I say as I run toward Avi. "I'm not an animal person," I chant repeatedly until I reach him.
"They love you," Avi says. "Look, they're all following you."
I place the brown paper bag with the 'feed' (what exactly is inside this stuff to make it 'feed'?) into his hand and hide behind him.
The fearless Avi takes the whole bag and dumps it into one of his palms. As he feeds the things, I hear what Snotty was talking about...this loud growl-like burping sound. I crouch farther behind Avi in fear.
"Shit," I hear him say.
"What?" I can't see anything because I'm still behind him.
"It got me."
"Who got you?"
He turns around and I see, stuck in Avi's hair, a slobber-phlegm spot with little pieces of chewed-up 'feed' inside it.
"Ew, gross!" I say, stepping away from him.
"I got spit on trying to protect you from it."
"You're my hero, now get away from me. It's totally grossing me out," I say, then laugh at him.
"It wasn't that long ago I washed the snake off your foot. That was pretty nasty. Now give me a kiss," he says, moving toward me.
I hide behind a laughing Ofra. "I did not ask you to kiss me after the snake incident."
He stops. And looks so cute all 'feed' encrusted and vulnerable. I walk up to him, keep my distance, and pucker so it's just my lips touching his. Then I pull back. "Now you have to wash your hair." Then I add, "Twice."
History is something that should be remembered but never repeated.
Our next stop (after Avi washed his hair in the sink back at the alpaca farm) is a place called Mount Masada. I've never heard of it and I wonder why a "mount" could be a place people would want to go.
But as we drive (And I realize the vast majority of Israel is a barren desert. I truly wonder why it is so sought after.) and we come up to Mount Masada, I ask Avi, "Why are we going to this place?"
"To show you a piece of the history of your people. I think you'll like it."
My people? Who exactly are my people? I'm not sure myself, even though the rest of the gang thinks I'm Jewish. The fact is I've been brought up as nothing. Mom doesn't believe in religion, just like she doesn't believe in low-carb diets.
We used to light a Christmas tree for the holidays until I realized at the age of seven Santa wasn't a real guy. They should honestly tell the older kids on the school bus not to tell the first graders the truth about the tooth fairy or Santa. You'd be surprised what kids learn on that yellow bus.
Well, after I found out Santa wasn't real, I told Mom I didn't need a tree anymore. The tree didn't symbolize Christianity or anything. It symbolized Santa. Since the reality of Santa was gone there was no reason for a tree anymore. That was the extent of my religious experience, which wasn't really religious in the first place.
I gaze at the reddish-colored massive thing called Mount Masada as I get out of the car. Everybody is taking their water bottles out of the car and I wonder why they aren't staring at the mountain.
"How old is it?" I ask no one in particular.
Moron, with his ever-present gun strapped to his shoulder, says, "The war here was in seventy-three."
I turn to him. "Nineteen seventy-three?" I guess.
"No," Doo-Doo says. "Just plain seventy-three."
Just plain seventy-three? "You mean, like, almost two thousand years ago?" Yep.
I gaze again, this time more carefully, at this important mountain in the middle of the Israeli desert. I try to imagine a war here two thousand years ago between the Jews and their enemies.
"I wonder what it's like up there," I say.
"Well, you're about to find out," Avi says as he hands me a water bottle. "You'll need to drink regularly or you'll get dehydrated during the climb."
"You think I can climb this thing?" I ask.
"I know you can, Amy. Like your ancestors before you. See that winding snake path?"
"Do they call it a snake path because it's infested with snakes?" 'Cause I'm tough, but I've had all the snake experiences for one trip, thank you very much.
"It's called that because of its shape," he says, only temporarily reassuring me.
We walk closer to the bottom of the 'mount' and I can make out the narrow, winding path leading to the top. I watch as Doo-Doo, Snotty, Ofra, O'dead, and Moron start their ascent up the mountain. Off to my left I see a big cable coming from the top. I follow where it leads and the end is a cable car situated at the foot of the mountain.
"Why don't we take the cable car?"
Avi starts toward the supposedly non-infested 'snake' path. "Because then you'll miss the great sense of accomplishment of actually reaching the top on your own. I've done it many times and it's like nothing else."
I follow Avi to the start of the snake path. At first it's easy ...if I just put one foot in front of the other I'll be at the top in no time at all.
But twenty minutes later, I'm panting and my thigh muscles are starting to quiver. I mean, Illinois doesn't have mountains, let alone hills, and I'm not used to it. I slow down, and Avi stays right with me. I know he could go way faster up the mountain.
"Go ahead," I say as we reach about midpoint of the thing. "If I don't die of heat exhaustion, I'm going to die of drowning in my own sweat."
He shakes his head.
"I mean it."
"I'm sure you do. Now get those feet moving so we can reach the top before sundown."
I do it, only because he grabs my hand and guides my limp body.
"Who were the Jews fighting here?" I ask. "The Palestinians?"
"No. The Romans."
Why would the Romans want to come here?
"Then why do the Jews hate all Palestinians?"
He stops and turns to me. "We do not hate all Palestinians."
I snort in disbelief. "I'll believe that when I see it on CNN," I tell him.
Finally, the top of Mount Masada is in sight and it's only taken me an hour to walk up the thing. I can't believe I've actually climbed it.
When I reach the top, the ancient ruins amaze me.
"So, the Jews won the battle with the Romans here?" I ask.
O'dead says, "Not really. Jews committed suicide here."
"Huh?" I say, shocked and a little creeped out.
Ofra steps in front of him. "Our ancestors climbed Masada and lived up here during the war. The Romans were at a loss, they couldn't safely climb the mountain without being attacked from the top of Masada."
Avi leads me to one of the ruins. "It is said nine hundred and sixty Jews lived here. They fought as long as they could, but knew it wouldn't be long before the Romans' weapons would be able to reach the top of it. If they were captured by the Romans, they would be killed or sold into slavery."
I look over at Moron, who's gazing down onto a colorful tile mosaic inside one of the homes built inside the mountain. It's absolutely beautiful and it touches my heart people lived on this mountain to save themselves and their families.
"So they committed suicide?" I ask.
Avi continues, "They agreed as Jews they should be servants to God and God alone. To be sold into slavery wasn't an option. They would rather die bravely as free people than become slaves at the hands of the Romans."
"They destroyed all of their possessions except their food supply so the Romans would know it was not starvation that led to their demise, but to show they preferred death over slavery."
My knees go weak from the story and I get chills all over my body. I can't believe how strong-willed the Jews were ...and still are. I aimlessly walk on the flat-topped mountain and take in all of the half-walls made of stone my ancestors built.
Touching a brick with my fingers, I imagine the women and men two thousand years ago knowing their chances of survival were slim, but having enough courage to build beautiful homes for themselves that would last thousands of years.
As I scan the top of the mountain, I see a group of soldiers reach the top of Masada and congregate together. I notice little pockets on the sides of their army boots.
"What are those little pockets in their boots?" I ask Moron.
"Americans call the identification tags around a soldier's neck 'dog tags'?"
"Well, Israeli combat soldiers wear tags around their necks and one in each shoe. In case their body parts are separated during combat, they can be identified. It is Jewish custom that every person be buried with all body parts, so every effort is taken to make sure that happens for our soldiers."
Wow. What a somber thing to think about.
"What are they doing?" I ask him as I watch the soldiers gather together and recite some Hebrew words.
"They're taking an oath here 'Masada shall not fall again," Moron explains. "This is a very spiritual place for all Jewish people."
As if the rock I was touching is hot, I pull my hand back. "Ohmygod," I say, and stumble backward.
"What?" Avi says, concerned.
"Nothing." I don't want to admit Masada is a spiritual place for me, too. And for the first time since coming to Israel I know why I'm here and it scares me.
I remember what Softa said. Being Jewish is more in your heart than in your mind. Religion is very personal. It will always be there for you if you want or need it. You can choose to embrace it...