I got engaged last week to a nice Israeli boy, and part of the surprise was a whirlwind trip to Las Vegas, replete with a luxurious hotel room on the Strip. Having never been to Las Vegas, I was curious and excited to see what the infamous Sin City would be like. While I did find Las Vegas to be exciting, fun, and essentially an adult version of Disney World, I found myself often thinking of my Judaism and of Israel.
As with every trip, and even more so with Vegas, we tried to spot Israelis traveling through the city. Many Israelis have an uncanny ability to spot Israelis from far distances away. My parents are the king and queen of this game; from San Francisco to England to Guatemala, my parents point out Israeli couples from far further than language-hearing distance. We then approach the couple stealthily, keeping an ear out for Hebrew. Inevitably, we hear the husband shout out to his wife, “Nechama!” I’ve gotten pretty good with my own “Is-radar,” only occasionally making mistakes by accidentally spotting Argentinian or Spanish tourists.
I never understood why Israelis seem to continuously look for each other while traveling. Americans certainly don’t do it — in fact, they often avoid going to American hot spots overseas, while Israelis happily follow the “hummus trail” in India or head to hostels owned by Israelis in South America. Sometimes I feel like it has to do with the tribal nature of our religion and culture: we wandered for 2,000 years, so we can spot each other haggling at a market and can tell when the couple at the next table, who is scouring a menu, is indeed searching for the “manat falafel.” But in Vegas, I felt like it was something more: it was the need to feel that there were other Jews enjoying life in the city of temptation. Every Israeli couple we spotted was a confirmation that, yes, there are others here with our religion and cultural background that are partaking in Vegas’ many temptations.
And it's when those temptations start becoming a dark shadow on your sense of enjoyment that your desire to cling to Judaism becomes clearest. It's not because you find yourself praying to God to help you win your hand at poker, but when you walk down the Strip and notice all the homeless people; the men and women sitting at blackjack tables or roulette tables for hours, gambling away their homes and children’s education funds; when you see the men and women inviting you into their strip clubs; and the advertisements for prostitutes entitled “Little Darlings."
It struck me most when my fiancée and I got into the Vegas mood and decided to try our hand at roulette. Being individuals that aren't normally keen on gambling, we decided to play the $5 table. It was only moments before we felt uncomfortable, when a man who clearly had a drinking and gambling problem joined us. As he threw down $20 bill after $20 bill, drank his beer, and reeked of whisky, the fun little game became a burden. My fiancée and I caught each other's glances and understood we must leave the casino as quickly as possible.
It was the sight of seeing something so clearly against our morals, our conscience and our values that made us both appreciate that our parents had raised us with a Jewish sense of self. Even though we are both secular, our Judaism had taught us to always question and wonder — and both of us could sense that there was something wrong here. Our religion had given us the tools to perceive Vegas with caution.
I’ve never been the moral police, and have usually advocated for more liberal drug and alcohol policies, because I've always felt that regulation would make it easier for these libations to be consumed safely and eliminate the illegal activities surrounding them. After Vegas, I’m not so sure. I still believe in and advocate these causes, but I’m just not sure how to ensure that every city doesn’t become a Las Vegas.
“It really is Sodom and Gomorra,” I said to my fiancée on the way to the airport, catching a glimpse of the advertisements for “hot babes” that littered the sidewalk. Maybe there was a reason, after all, that I learned that story growing up.
Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.