Out of the bluest of skies, through the puffy white clouds we touched down in Tel Aviv to applause. Almost immediately we see the first menorah; it is gold and gigantic. I feel the mixture of excitement and trepidation that I recognize because I feel this when I am out of my comfort zone – especially where the culture is so very unfamiliar. Chris and I decided on a trip to Israel (cheap airfares and no jet lag!) but kept our eye on the news until we boarded the El Al flight. We talked about not riding public transportation (we rode buses all over after the first day), knowing where bomb shelters were located (wasn’t necessary), decided this was an opportunity we could not ignore, and generally agreed “if not now, when?
I questioned whether I should write because I knew no words could have enough dimension. My advice to you would be: please find a way to visit Israel; go with an open mind, good sneakers, plenty of water, and some medium to large sized cohones (you will need these in the market if you want souvenirs!).
I will try (get a cup of coffee and get comfy; it’s a long one!):
Our first full day in Jerusalem started with a fascinating walking tour around the Old City. Because of the present lack of tourism we were able to have breathing room and virtually no waiting time at the popular historic sites. We gave special attention to the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall). There is a visceral draw to this holy place where people (particularly Jewish people but I was told that it’s really what is in your heart that matters most) go to pray. Men and women are separated by a short wall. It is obligatory to have legs and shoulders covered. As I entered the women’s side, I tentatively began to approach the wall, noticing a young pregnant woman, her hair tucked under a purple scarf, holding her Torah, softly chanting prayers, rocking back and forth, completely in the present moment. Most of the activity was happening close to the wall and toward the left (the idea is that you pray as close to the Golden Dome as possible, where the spirituality is strongest). Many people wedge a folded up note in the cracks of the wall, requesting that their wishes to be answered. I felt a pull as I got closer; I could feel the power of the intentions and convictions physically. It was intense.
Another excellent tour we took later in the day was the tunnels below the Western Wall. We saw a cistern and bathing area, arched bridges built by the Turks, the place of prayer closest to the Holy of Holies, and walked on and alongside the original 2000 year old stones; the layers of destruction and reconstruction over the centuries were laid out before our eyes.
On our second day we hired a driver (Eyad is an easy-going, Muslim Palestinian, father of five. He has an Israeli passport making it possible to feed his family but does not consider himself to be Israeli) who took us out of Jerusalem, into the desert and West Bank. After an hour and a half, a photo-op stop at sea level with a brightly decorated camel and a white-robed, heavily tan and wrinkled old Arab dude (it only cost 5 shekels), we arrived at Masada. We had the surreal experience of visiting this monumental World Heritage site virtually alone thanks to the aftermath of politics. After a short film presentation describing the history of Masada, the cable car whisked us up to the plateau and deposited us onto the hot and dry archeological remains from Before Christ overlooking the Judean desert and the Dead Sea. Please Google for the mind-boggling story. We ambled among the ruins of Herod’s palace and fortress, looked over the walls at the foundations of the Roman siege encampments and assault ramp, marveled at the aqueduct /water collection/storage systems and thermal baths, and witnessed the 5th century Byzantine church where monks came to meditate in the remoteness of Masada.
Next stop: the Dead Sea for a float. Literally. We made our way past the bent back chain link fence and the big sign warning us and the rest of the human bobbers that had come before us that swimming was prohibited. It was so hot that I couldn’t even hold onto the metal hand rail. We climbed over the salt encrusted rocks and waded in, leaned back, and let the dense, very warm, briny water do the rest. Ten minutes of bobbing and laughing and we were done.
Qumran was just up the road – we visited the area, watched a short explanatory film and saw the cave where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. We made our way to the Jordan River along a narrow dirt road bordered by barbwire fences with signs warning us of the surrounding minefields. Although we were not baptized, we plunged our feet into the cloudy green water with the permission of the two young, friendly, albeit heavily armed, soldiers protecting the Israeli-Jordanian border.
Last stop, Jericho; said to be the oldest city in the world with origins around 9000 BCE (the hunter gatherer period), with much biblical history, and home of Zacchaeus’ sycomore tree. By this time, Chris and I were so hot and thirsty (despite the many bottles of water we had consumed throughout the day) that we were just silly and I had to stop walking every few steps because I was laughing so hard :). We had run out of steam to fully absorb what was here but we enjoyed it anyway – the City of Palm Trees. I believe there are still dates stuck to the bottom of my sneakers from Jericho!
Our final full day in Jerusalem was a day of wandering, shopping/bartering in the Muslim Quarter, a spontaneous trip to the Mahane Yehuda (the fabulous open-air market) . We arrived at around six. The place was bustling full of vendors, a few gawkers (us), and many local Jews shopping with their babushka cart/babyless baby strollers stuffed with market purchases in preparation for Shabbat. It was loud, vibrant with colors, and with the pungent aromas of parsley, mint, produce, fish. We sat in a tucked away corner to drink a little Israeli red wine (“l’chaim!”) and soak it in. Afterwards we found a tiny Lebanese restaurant within the market with the feisty woman owner waiting on us and sternly shooing away her neighbor (he climbed behind our table to rearrange his pomegranate display). Chris settled the bill while I went out to satisfy my sweet tooth with baklava and halva (very dense sweet dessert made of ground sesame seeds and then mixed with whatever flavor you can think of – peanuts, chocolate, coffee, etc. It apparently keeps for a whole year – I ended up getting $30 worth, while Chris gave me the stink-eye over all those prospective calories to be consumed). One more trip to the Western Wall to see it illuminated at night (the place was still rocking at 10:30 pm) and observed that people did not turn around to leave but rather backed up to exit. We wound our way back through the Jewish Quarter to find our bus back to the hotel. A full day of beautiful, ancient and historic Jerusalem.
Last day – in Tel Aviv to visit Morgan’s good Cornell friend Dima who is studying there. This guy speaks Hebrew, Russian and English and was able to get us a good price on our taxi to the airport :). We talked nonstop through our falafels, our walk to the Mediterranean beach where people were playing paddle ball, swimming, doing chin-ups at the workout station, digging their feet in the sand – oblivious to the military helicopter patrol that occasionally buzzed overhead. On the shady bench, Dima rolled a cigarette – talking about his heritage, living in Tel Aviv, how he knows where the bomb shelters are located, and being a student in Israel (we stayed beyond when we said we should go). So happy to connect with our intelligent and insightful friend Dima!
We found Israel to be dry, dusty, and at the moment devoid of tourism – yet rich and lush with antiquities, a long and winding past, full of unyielding convictions, and for the most part, coexistence of its passionate people. All the paths that cross here struck me (as usual when traveling) – the Hasidic Jews dressed in their black coats, black hats, curly-que sideburns and long beards, the ubiquitous yarmulke or kippah (with or without the Hasidic “outfit”), the Muslim women with their heads covered and the men with their one long pinky fingernail (?), the young boy trying to get more shekels from this sappy American woman (me) for “guiding” her to the Western Wall, the young mothers, babies, fathers holding their children’s hands, the very old and wrinkled, the multi-national tourists and the many students. It is complicated.
Shalom. As-salam alaykom. Peace.