10 Books To Read Before Going on Birthright

As a twenty-something woman of Jewish heritage, I've begun one of the most thrilling rites of passage: planning my Birthright trip to Israel. As you may already know, Birthright (also known as Taglit) is a free, guided trip to Israel for Jews between the ages of 18 and 26. I'm dreaming of exploring Jerusalem, soaking in the Dead Sea, riding a camel, and all the other wonderful adventures that a Taglit trip promises. And when I get excited about something, I read everything I can about it.

With any trip, especially to a foreign country, every traveler should learn as much as they can about the place and culture they're about to experience. Israel is an especially fascinating place to learn about. With its rich history, its political complexities, and its colorful cultural landscape, there are tons of different paths to follow while preparing to visit Israel. Plus, this opportunity to explore your Jewish roots and identity presents its own threads of literary insight. 

So, if you're also planning on setting off for Birthright, here's a list of books that will help you gear up for the big trip. From books that will educate you to novels that will invigorate you, these books will give you a lot to soak up before you even board your flight. 

1. How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden

This fantastic graphic novel is Sarah Glidden's travel memoir of her own Birthright Israel trip. But this is far better than a listing of all the sights. Glidden takes you into her emotional discoveries as she bridged her pre-conceived notions about what Israel would be and the complex realities she experienced. 

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2. My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit

Columnist Ari Shavit examines what Israel is and how it came to be. Telling stories from across the nation, Shavit paints a comprehensive portrait of the Israel that has emerged throughout the Zionist century. This is the book to read if you want to learn about the current Israeli political climate and the people that live within it. (Though, note that there is some controversy surrounding it.)

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3. Israel is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and Its History by Rich Cohen

In this book, Rich Cohen dives into an exploration of the Jewish nation and Jewish identity, from ancient to modern times. Cohen has a knack for drawing you into any "quest" he's embarking on, and you'll soak this one up. 

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4. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Even though it isn't set in Israel, this incredible novel is all about connecting with your heritage. Following an American Jewish college student, Jonathan, as he sets off to Europe to discover his roots. He ends up teaming up with his Ukrainian guide, Alexander, to find the woman who helped his grandfather escape the Nazis. What emerges is a powerful, emotional, unforgettable story that will inspire you as you set off on your own journey to explore your identity. 

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5. A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz

You can't have a discussion of Israeli literature without Amos Oz. In this award-winning memoir, Oz tells his story of growing up in war-torn Jerusalem and growing into a powerful political voice. This stunning book is filled with moments that will catch your heart in your chest. 

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6. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

No matter how religious your trip is going to be, this reimagining of Dinah, a character from the Old Testament, is one not to miss. While the Old Testament mostly overlooks Dinah, instead focusing on her father Jacob and his sons, this book gives us her story in her own voice, and delivers a powerful portrait of what it meant to be a woman in biblical times. 

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7. To the End of the Land by David Grossman

David Grossman is another iconic Israeli writer. In this novel, he spins the story of an Israeli mother, Ora, who sets off on a hike in the Galilee, leaving no forwarding information behind. She's joined by her former best friend and lover, Avram, and their trek across Israel will move you in astounding ways and give you a preview of what you may see on your upcoming trip.

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8. Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine edited by Ru Freeman

The Israeli-Palestine conflict, of course, looms large in any discussion of Israel. In this collection, American writers give their perspectives on the conflict. Featuring knock-out writers like George Saunders, Colum McCann, Nathalie Handal, Teju Cole, Claire Messud, and Tiphanie Yanique, this collection provides a large variety of opinions and streams of thought surrounding the conflict, giving you plenty of ideas to consider. For a taste, check out this interview with some of the featured writers.

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9. Suddenly, A Knock at the Door by Etgar Keret

This fun and imaginative collection of short stories (from one of Israel's leading modern literary voices) would make a great option for the plane ride over. Filled with strange stories of daily life, Keret will take you on ride after ride, filled with comedy and juicy magical realism. 

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10. Walking Israel by Martin Fletcher

I love books that get on the ground of a place. Chief of NBC's Tel Aviv news bureau Martin Fletcher walked the entire coast of Israel, from Lebanon to Gaza. In this vibrant book, he recounts the experience, from his interactions with fascinating people to his emotional discoveries. This one will get you all pumped up for your own Israeli adventure. 

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Images: Rob Bye/Unsplash

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