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Entries in Israel (7)

Return to the Homeland

656867-1050523-thumbnail.jpgIt had been 7 years since my last visit to Israel, a country that I had spent over 2 years living and traveling through during my college days. Thus, my anticipation and excitement to return here were sky high, especially eager to show off the country to Jason. However, my first impression of Tel Aviv was definitely a disappointment, discovering how dirty and rundown parts of the city seemed to have gotten. This was especially evident on our walk along the esplanade to Old Jaffa, where the number of deserted structures, heaps of garbage, and stray cats clashed against the beautiful view of the Mediterranean Sea. I returned from that afternoon a little disenfranchised about why this place was so special.

656867-1050534-thumbnail.jpgOne night out with our friend Yoav, coupled with great conversation about why this city maintains so many of its quirks, helped us to see through some of the superficial flaws. I started to experience all the wonderful aspects of the country that I had fallen in love with years ago. First and foremost, Israeli people are a breed all of their own. Although their no-nonsense, straightforward approach to life often comes off as rude, I find their blunt nature somewhat refreshing. I was especially impressed when our waiter informed the table next to us that had not left him a tip, that service is not included and that it's typically 10%. In the states you would have just been left with a disgruntled server who most likely wouldn’t have said anything.

656867-1050542-thumbnail.jpgThe food in this country is absolutely outstanding. I had forgotten about all the fresh breads, delicious array of dairy products, and incredible salads they have here. Our first day in Tel Aviv we made a b-line for Yotvata to indulge in the fresh smoothies that are amazing. There is a really cool area along the water that didn’t exist when I was last there called the New Port. We spent many meals in the great restaurants there, including an afternoon at Aroma Café catching up with my old friend Asgeir who I met in Jerusalem.

Our 4 days in Tel Aviv flew by, and before we knew it we were on our way down south to spend Yom Kippur with my cousins in Beer Sheva. No doubt being in Israel for the high holidays is a unique experience, since the entire country literally shuts down. It is generally accepted that people don’t drive their cars on the holiday, which leaves the streets completely open to pedestrians. It felt like a block party as we walked to shul for Kil Nidre, the streets flowing with people socializing and children riding their bikes. It’s a site that apparently only happens once a year. The best part of the weekend in Beer Sheva was of course spending time with my cousins Amy, Miryam and Yishai, all of who I had gotten to know when I spent time in Israel before.

656867-1050569-thumbnail.jpgYesterday was an adventure filled day with Miryam, Achiad (her boyfriend) and Yishai. After packing I think around a dozen sandwiches for just the 5 of us, they took us on a day trip to some beautiful sites in the Negev. First we stopped off at Ben Gurion’s gravesite, which is a spectacular look out onto a large canyon. We descended into Ein Avdat, and did a little hike in this area, eventually coming to a small flowing spring. Yishai, Jason and I opted to climb to the top of the canyon, which was an adventure in itself. Yishai and his 17-year-old nimble body, was practically giving us a heart attack with his attempts to scale the side of the mountain instead of using the path. Once Miryam and Achiad picked us up in the car, we continued to Makhtesh Ramon, the largest crater in Israel. Since I was last there, they have set up a sculpture garden along the rim of the canyon -- we had fun swinging on the large swings structure! Watching the sunset from Camel Point was the perfect way to end that long day in the desert.

Random Adventures Galore

656867-1064320-thumbnail.jpgOur 2 weeks in Israel and Jordan have been jam-packed with so many adventures, it’s hard to know where to even start with describing them all. We find ourselves being especially exhausted at the end of our days here, filling each moment with so much activity. I’m going to summarize some of the highlights.

656867-1064341-thumbnail.jpgEilat was a relaxing 3 days of fun in the sun. We went snorkeling in what was supposed to be an incredible marine life filled Red Sea, but must admit we were a little disappointed. I think the Maldives spoiled us with the range of sea-life we experienced there. It was still beautiful none-the-less, especially the colors of the mountains in Jordan that seemed to glow during sunset.

Jason shared the details of our quest in Petra in the previous post, which was amazing. The following day we continued our desert adventures in Wadi Rum. A jeep safari took us through the most gorgeous terrain, stopping off at some fun points along the way – these included mushroom rock, Lawrence of Arabia’s home (cave), a sand dune we could climb up and then run down, some Nabatean carvings in the mountain, and a couple of free-climbing areas. Let’s just say we were pooped after this activity filled day, and found much comfort in the luxurious Intercontinental Hotel in Aqaba we crashed in that night.

656867-1064348-thumbnail.jpgBeing that it’s Sukkot in Israel, this is a special time to enjoy the countries wonderful outdoors. We had a lovely meal in our cousin’s Sukkah on Shabbat, followed by Jason’s star performance of shaking the lulav and etrog. The following day we all went to Bet Guvrim to go cave exploring. Since Miryam had worked in this site, she took us through the “off limits” areas to explore, using only the light from our flashlights to illuminate our way. Wasn’t sure if we’d all make it through some of the tight squeezes in the rocks, but somehow we managed.

656867-1064361-thumbnail.jpgYesterday I had an incredible union with a long lost cousin, who I randomly was introduced to at Yom Kippur Services the previous week. When Aaron Leeper asked me if I was related to Elaine from Ohio, I told him that was my grandma – he then informed me we were somehow cousins. According the family tree we are 4th cousins once removed. I even got to meet my 5th cousins (his children Maayan and Shalev), which was great. I guess I have 2 sets of cousins in Beer Sheva – who would have thought!?!?

No trip to Israel is complete without the quintessential Masada visit. Although our initial plan was to take the cable car up to King Herod’s Fortress (Masada), upon seeing it from afar Jason decided he wanted to climb it. I guess looks can be deceiving, because had Jason known it was going to be as rigorous as it was, there’s no way we would have done it. The snake path winding up to the top is very steep, but more grueling was the high noon heat that was blazing on us. At the top Jason was so drenched he managed to wring drops of sweat out of his shirt – he sweats a lot!

656867-1064375-thumbnail.jpgFloating in the Dead Sea was a perfect way to soothe our sore muscles from the Masada climb earlier that day. We had so much fun playing around with the buoyancy in the salt filled water. Large crystallized salt rocks covered the bottom of the sea, which were actually quite sharp on our feet as we tried to walk over them. Now we can say we’ve been to the lowest place on earth!

Confirmation Trip Round 2

656867-1078406-thumbnail.jpgOur whirlwind time in Israel has felt much like the summer when I was 14-years-old on my confirmation trip. This 6 week trip to Israel, promised by parents if their child graduates from Hebrew School, was the main thing that kept me going to my bi-weekly Hebrew class.  Who could pass up the guarantee of an entire summer with hundreds of teenagers, in Israel, with no parents.

656867-1078420-thumbnail.jpgUnlike my confirmation trip, this time around I’m not guzzling bottles of Goldstar beer behind my counselors back, nor tiptoeing into the boy’s room to “hang out”. We are however filling almost every single day with more activities then I know how to keep track of, like the well choreographed confirmation trip many years ago. I must admit though my energy level isn’t quite like it was when I was a teenager!

656867-1078472-thumbnail.jpgWe just spent the past 5 nights in Tiberias, a town located on Lake Kinneret in the Galilee. This was a great home base for us to explore the northern terrain. The amount of greenery and beauty of this area is breathtaking, and we enjoyed much of it. Although we were hoping to catch the thousands of birds that migrate through the Hula Valley each year, we were informed upon arrival that they all flew away the day before. We still delighted in the swampy marshland of the reserve, and especially loved feeding the African Catfish, which looked like scary critters from a different planet.

656867-1078480-thumbnail.jpgThe mineral hot springs and the crocodile farm of Hamat Gader are a must when up north. We splurged on the “Spa Village” experience for the hot springs, escaping the masses of screaming children in the main area. However, in typical Israeli fashion the “no smoking” and “no cell phones” sign in what was supposed to be the serene adult area was completely ignored, making it not the most relaxing experience.

656867-1078491-thumbnail.jpgNazareth, the home to Jesus is another interesting place we managed to visit. The groups of Christian tourists were going nuts in the Basillica of Annunciation, posing for pictures at the spot where the Virgin Mary lived. The town is an interesting mix of Christian and Muslim Arabs, mosque and church located side by side. A typical Arabic lunch of schwarma in a doughy laffa, and assorted desserts definitely hit the spot.

656867-1078517-thumbnail.jpgOur final day up north we fit in a ton. We began that morning by going up to Kiryat Shmona to check out the Danziger Library, which my grandparents had donated to the community in 1990. The principal Amir, and Adrienne, an English teacher who my mom had met while there in February, where nice enough to show us around. Learning that the school had been struck by 4 ketusha rockets the year before, put into perspective the realities people of this area live with every day.

656867-1078824-thumbnail.jpgFrom here we drove through Metulla, eventually making our way to The Banias. The gorgeous hike to the waterfalls and springs was a wonderful way to end our time in the Galilee. From here our journey continued to Safed, the birth place of the well-known Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah. Wandering through the artist colony nestled on the side of the mountain truly put us in a reflective mode. In fact, Jason even questioned picking up a copy of the Torah to read – hmmm, maybe there is something very spiritual about Safed. Next thing you know, he’ll come home sporting the red wrist tie.

Who Woulda Thought?

656867-1090253-thumbnail.jpgThere are two things that have surprised me more than anything else about Israel. First, the overwhelming Per Croc-ita rate that this country has. At least 1 in 3 people wear them here. I hate Crocs. No I’ve never actually tried on a pair, and no I’m never going to. I don’t care how comfortable they are, I refuse to walk around in these ridiculous contraptions. We’ve seen a LOT of people wearing Crocs on this trip, to the point I’ve had fantasies about what it would have been like to be in on the ground floor of that company, but never have I seen the sheer numbers of them like I do here.

656867-1090256-thumbnail.jpgEntire families are decked out in them. Apparently the fact that you’re all wearing the exact same pair of shoes is offset by the individuality of each being in whatever color floats your boat. I’m curious if one person in the family got a pair and was like, “Wow, these are really great. You should try a pair sis” and it slowly spread through the rest of the relatives. Or if they all went out together (not during Shabbat of course) and picked them out and bought them. Perhaps receiving a family discount, which would be substantial here since it’s not uncommon to have 9 children by the time you’re 30. I guess the family that wears Crocs together stays together. There’s nothing funnier than seeing a black-hatted black-coated Orthodox Jew sporting a bright orange pair.

656867-1090258-thumbnail.jpgThe second thing that came as a complete surprise was how absolutely amazing the food here is. Of 30 countries now, there isn’t even a close second. Everything is so fresh, usually arriving that day from the local Kibbutz on which it was grown. No respectable restaurant would serve bread they didn’t bake themselves, almost always coming warm straight out of the oven. And the portions here would put even The Cheesecake Factory to shame. There have been many times when we have ordered and split a single salad, only to have the waitress come out assuming something was wrong because it looked like we barely touched it.

656867-1090264-thumbnail.jpgOverall my experience so far in Israel – and somehow we’ve been here over 3 weeks already – has been really amazing. It’s a spectacularly beautiful country which runs the entire gamut of landscapes, from ocean to desert to forest and everything in between. It’s been wonderful seeing all of the faces and places that Joy got to know so well while spending her years here, including a great lunch yesterday with Adi and her new fiancé (as of 2 days ago) Assaf. We still have a week to go, including our stint in Jerusalem which I’m looking very forward to. We have something very interesting planned for Monday which I’ll write more about later.

A Different Perspective

656867-1093873-thumbnail.jpgYesterday we had a very unique experience visiting Eliana and her children (family friends) in their community of Eli. Eli is what some people may refer to as a settlement, located inside the West Bank or occupied territories. We initially met her in the town of Ariel, so that she could pick us up in a bullet proof car to drive us into the area where she lives. Surrounded by many Arab villages, precautions must be taken to ensure safety while entering this area. In fact, we were shocked to find out how close tragedies had hit the community, learning that Eliana’s neighbors had been murdered in cold blood.

656867-1093896-thumbnail.jpgAlthough a little hesitant of what Eli may be like, we were surprised to find a well developed, self-sustaining town. Consisting of about 650 families, ranging from secular to religious, this community has their own schools, yeshiva, store, post office, single restaurant and of course synagogues. It sits on top of a mountain, with incredible 360 degree views of the surrounding area. It truly is located on a magnificently beautiful piece of land.

656867-1093932-thumbnail.jpgThe question that comes to mind is why people would choose to live in an area like this, surrounded by such potential of volatility and violence from Arab neighbors. There are of course many reasons, depending on who you talk to. Eliana shared with us was her belief that all of the land of Israel was sanctioned by G-d, and that we Jews had a right to live on the land. She also taught us about some of the biblical history that occurred directly on this land they were living. In fact, gazing out from her back yard we looked down onto the town of Shilo where they recently discovered what they think is the original sight of the Bet Mikdash, and incredibly important and holy site to Jews.

656867-1093916-thumbnail.jpgEliana’s passion and commitment to her community of Eli was very inspirational, and put a little seed in my mind about what it might be like to live here (don’t worry mom, not going to happen!) We even got to meet four out of five of her children, who were so vibrant and fun to play with. After spending much time in the predominantly secular city of Tel Aviv, getting the opportunity to connect with a religious family living on such a disputed piece of land with so much Jewish significance and history was truly fascinating. Thank you Eliana for taking your day to share with us about your life and community!

Today I Became a Man

656867-1097436-thumbnail.jpgNo, not the kind of man I became on that drunken night of my 16th birthday.  A JEWISH man!  As some of you may know, I have a bit of a rebellious streak, and so when it came time for all the good little Jewish boys to go to Hebrew school I flat out refused. Thus, I never had a Bar Mitzvah when I was thirteen. Frankly, I never really regretted it. Other than at a few awkward High Holiday moments when it came up in synagogue, or seeing the heartbreak on my in-laws faces when they found out, it hadn’t been much of a factor.

I wasn’t really expecting my time here in the Holy Land to change any of that, either. I knew it would be a great place to find out a bit more about my heritage, and possibly connect on some deeper level, but nothing as drastic as a “mid-life-crisis-bar-mitzvah”. Until I got here. And then it didn’t seem so out of the question anymore. I was discussing the idea of “wouldn’t it be neat if…” with some friends we met here, Katie and Naomi, when Naomi said, “Well, I happen to know the perfect Rabbi!”. Since we were leaving for Jerusalem the next day I figured what the heck, let’s give him a call and see what the situation is.

656867-1097439-thumbnail.jpgRabbi Ezra turned out to be just the man for the job. A hippie Jew about our age, he made me feel very comfortable with the entire process, and assured me that whatever my reasons might be they were mine and mine only, and it was completely my decision. We talked a few times on the phone and then it was time to meet the next day at the flagpole in front of the Kotel (i.e. The Western Wall – the holiest site in Judaism). It was also fitting for this to take place here since my brother was Bar Mitzvah’d in the exact same spot 27 years ago.

I won’t say that it was an intimate affair. The Western Wall is an absolutely crazy place, and there were several Bar 656867-1097448-thumbnail.jpgMitzvahs going on at the same time as mine. In fact, we combined mine mid-ceremony with the one next to us so we would have enough men to make a minyan (ten are required). And so I said my prayers, and carried the Torah, and did the blessings. It was such an amazing place for this to happen. Almost as amazing was the lunch we all celebrated with after. I’ll let the video speak for itself. This is just one of those things that is especially hard to put into words. For my gifts, please send checks payable to “Joy Zimmerman Walker”. It all ends up there anyway.

Gal Gal Gal Galatz!

656867-1104504-thumbnail.jpgHow can a radio station with a jingle like this not make you smile!?!? We have become accustomed to breaking out in regular sing song sessions of “gal gal gal galatz” at sporadic moments during the day. This is yet one more thing that I’m going to miss about the country.

Israel is one of those amazing countries where we’ve either loved (most apects) or hated things (rude Israeli's with no sense of spatial orientation). This I feel sums up the spirit of the land – a charged place where people are 656867-1104508-thumbnail.jpgso passionate about life. There seems to be no middle ground, people voicing strong opinions about everything ranging from deeply contested issues as politics, to how their salad at lunch tasted. It’s incredibly refreshing being in a place where people’s sense of self, identity, and connection to their country is so profound. Jason and I have certainly spent many hours discussing the differences we see between Israel and the states.

656867-1104510-thumbnail.jpgThe past 5 weeks here have absolutely flown by. Being able to connect and spend time with so many people has been wonderful, and has made the experience here even more meaningful. From our countless meals with Yoav in Tel Aviv, to reconnecting with Asgeir an old time friend from Jerusalem, to spending a full week including Yom Kippur in Beer Sheva with my cousins Jack, Amy, Miryam and Yishai, to randomly meeting Aaron Leper and his kids who are long lost cousins and made Aliyah 25 years ago, to seeing the library in Kiryat Shmona and meeting both Amir and Adrienne, to 656867-1104514-thumbnail.jpgseeing , to hanging out with Naomi and Katie who we met thru Yoav, to meeting up with Eliana and her children and getting a tour of Eli, to Jason’s Bar Mitzvah with Katie, Naomi, Baruch and Rabbi Ezra, to having coffee with Jen, a child friend I went to middle school with and haven’t seen in over 15 years, and then seeing Janet Rothman surprisingly show up. It feels like our social calendar has been more packed here than it is at home!

656867-1104518-thumbnail.jpgThe past 5 days in Jerusalem were so incredible, especially being able to experience the city with Jason. We spent countless hours wandering inside the old city walls, had a delicious lunch at Mahane Yehuda (the shuk), did the whole Ben Yehuda thing looking tirelessly for things to buy and ended up with nothing, ate a yummy dinner in the German Colony at a restaurant named “Joy”, I got over to the Israel Museum, we went to Yad Vashem, and had lunch in Ein Kerem, we walked thru Rehavia, my old neighborhood, and finished off the week with a stroll through Mea Shearim.

There is no doubt in our 5 weeks here we have filled every single day with adventures galore. Tomorrow we sadly will say good bye to Eretz Yisrael, and be on our way to Cologne, Germany. I will certainly miss it here, but no doubt will be returning sooner than later!