I was recently invited to participate in a tour of Israel, hosted by the Israel Tourist Board. Their goal was to show me and the other participants as many highlights of Israel as they could in less than one week. I have to say that Israel far exceeded my expectations, right down to the fresh baked pita on EL AL (the Israeli airline.
I will start from the beginning (or should I say Genesis?) of the trip:
As usual, I was rushing through JFK airport trying to make sure that I didn’t miss my flight. I arrived for what at first looked like a very short wait at the El Al ticket counter… (eye roll). I had been given at least 700 warnings about the protective nature of El Al ticket counter agents, but I still had no idea of the level of questioning I was about to go through. Honestly, it was like being in a room with interrogator Jethro Gibbs on an episode of the TV show NCIS. The El Al team asked me so many questions that I started to wonder if they ever intended to let me board my plane. Maybe they really just overbooked the flight and wanted to keep me earthbound in New York, while my money flew away. They were so determined to make me forfeit my right to board the plane that they had an undercover agent suggest that I sneak a mysterious package onto the plane for him. In fact, the old woman ahead of me in line got busted for meat and cheese in her bag. This was hilarious to watch. The agents asked her “are you trying to bring pork on our plane?” She replied “no, I swear it’s kosher!”
At security, I opted for the physical pat down. It wasn’t that I was trying to avoid walking into the full-body x-ray machine, but I was just feeling lonely that day. I don’t know what people are complaining about. I found the pat down quite refreshing… even a little… exhilarating.
Once I was on the plane, I knew I was off to see a culture that was wildly different from my own. For starters, I have never seen so many hat boxes in my life. From the vantage point of my seat, it appeared that none of the Hasidic Jews were willing to let anyone else’s hat touch their own hat. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where to put my roll-aboard, since each and every overhead bin contained two hat-shaped hat boxes, each the size of a cocker spaniel. Then at dinner, I asked the flight attendant for the non-kosher meal… the look she gave me was poison. Maybe she hears the joke on a regular basis?
Jerusalem was amazing. The climate is very similar to that of southern California. In fact, driving through the Jerusalem suburbs reminded me of my days spent in Malibu and Hollywood. Practically the entire city is made of beige Jerusalem Stone, giving the city an amazingly unified look.
After checking into our hotel, we walked down to the old city and haggled with the local merchants for some great stuff. I bought some amazing jewelry at prices that seemed to low to be true; of course, this was right and the jewelry broke after the second wear.
You get what you pay for. There were also shops with an amazing variety of bulk spices. We stopped at an Austrian hostel and got a fabulous strudel; possibly the best strudel of my life. We went up to the roof of the hostel for a memorable panoramic view of the city of Jerusalem, then attended a welcome party at the YMCA, where we enjoyed watching dancers, drummers and local musicians.
Before going back to our hotel for the night, a few of us went to a local felafel joint. We then walked to the “Plaza of Cats,” a meeting place where Jewish teenagers congregate in the evening to talk about nothing and smoke a hookah (apparently a perfectly legal activity for Israeli teenagers.)
The next day, we had a fabulous breakfast in the hotel. In all my travels this was the most delicious hotel breakfast I’ve had. France may have good food for lunch and dinner, but France has nothing on Israel when it comes to breakfast. My favorite thing? The dates. The fresh dates in Israel are fantastic. (I had no idea that what I had been eating my whole life was a dried/preserved product). In the afternoon, we went back to the old city and saw all the major sites, the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Dome of the Rock to name a few. We saw where followers of different religions fight over every speck of dust on the most sacred corner of the city. To think of all the holy wars that have been fought over this place is mind-blowing. This City must have been rebuilt half a hundred times.
My feet were killing me and I had started eating the inner lining of my jacket by the time we finally stopped for lunch. I had a bit of a panic attack when I saw the food spread. Nothing but hummus and pickles as far as I could see, so I just sat there stuffing myself with bread. Ten minutes later the waiters showed up with the most amazing dishes I’d ever seen… and I now had a belly full of bread. I decided to risk stuffing myself to the explosion point and it was worth it. (I kept flashing back to Monty Python’s “the Meaning of Life.”)
Next stop? The Dead Sea. The absolute lowest point on the planet…if you don’t count the bottom of the ocean, coal mines, or certain caves in Vietnam. It seemed quite a paradox as we passed peaceful date palm groves and at the same time heard about the bloody conflicts between Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians and other neighbors that have taken place over the last… well… forever. I learned that the Dead Sea has receded significantly in the last 100 years. Our guide showed us where the water level once was and it was scary. Is it global warming? Is it natural? Did the water recede due to actions of man? At this rate, the Dead Sea could be gone by the time I’m an old man. There is now talk of a joint project between Jordan and Israel to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. I am sure this would be carefully engineered, but I can’t help but get apocalyptic images of the waters of the Red Sea bursting through from the south and pouring into the below-sea-level Dead Sea valley. That would be a lot of water. Hmmm, this would make a great sci-fi movie!
When we arrived at our Dead Sea resort, we all went down to the spa and swam in Dead Sea water that had been heated and pumped into pools. It was already dark, so we couldn’t go over to the actual Dead Sea. The water was warm and I was amazingly buoyant, but the salt water made a cut on my hand feel as if it was on fire.
We got up bright and early the next morning so that we could be the first tourists to arrive at Masada. At Masada are the ruins of an ancient Roman fortified mansion built on a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. The tram ride up offered spectacular views. Until the tram was built, visitors would have had to make this grueling trip on a dangerous snaking trail that would take hours in the blazing sun.
When we got back to the Dead Sea we still had a couple of hours for daylight swimming. The water was beautiful, and smells much better than the Great Salt Lake near where I grew up in Utah. The water in the Dead Sea was really cold, which is not surprising since it was December, but we got in anyway. The saltiness gives the water an oily feeling… or at least that’s why they said it felt oily… *shudder*
Next stop Eilat, home of the Underwater Observatory. The observatory is surrounded by corals and tropical fish, the exact opposite of the lifeless Dead Sea. From the windows we could see some of the underwater scenes that you might see while scuba diving. I stood near some tourists and asked out loud, of no one in particular, why the floor was all wet. (They weren’t amused.)
Afterward, we visited a place called the Dolphin Reef. Here they have fenced off a section of the Red Sea and have 8 or 9 captive dolphins swimming among divers and snorkeling tourists. Floating above the dolphin habitat was a series of platforms that allowed us to see what all the underwater fuss was about. Being out over the water also afforded a view to the borders of four different independent countries (Israel, Jordan, Egypt and just down the coast, Saudi Arabia).
There was also a retreat center that conjured up images of lush tropical islands. The center was built with huge wooden beams and logs, then covered in vegetation. You could imagine Robinson Crusoe taking up residence in one of the tree houses. In the lower portion of the retreat center they have several relaxation pools. Some have Red Sea water, others are salty like the Dead Sea, and yet more pools have sweet water. Visitors can have a massage from therapists or do other relaxation therapies while in the water.
Later that day we took a domestic flight to Tel Aviv. In the local market, I purchased my very first fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. This was soooo much better tasting then the usual glass of pasteurized pomegranate juice from the supermarket. I searched the market high and low trying to find a dreidel (4-sided spinning top) for my son. One would think that there would be no easier place to find a dreidel than in Israel…not so. Especially since the dreidel is typically a Hanukkah toy, and Hanukkah was coming up in two weeks. In the evening we visited a museum and enjoyed listening to a local a cappella singing group.
The following morning we took a tour of Tel Aviv, and saw the house where the Israelis first declared their independence as a Jewish state. Next we went to historic Jaffa: one of the worlds oldest seaports. At the base of Jaffa is Andromeda Point. This is where the Greeks claim Andromeda was offered as sacrifice to the Kraken, a legendary sea monster epic proportions, before being saved by Perseus. Littered all around Andromeda Point are stones that are said to be bits and pieces of the monster after Medusa’s severed head (Perseus’ heroics again) turned it into stone. This was possibly the most culturally significant place I visited, since I had just watched Clash of the Titans. Before leaving Jaffa we saw a show by an amazing music and dance troop. The troop is called Mayumana, and is a must-see when in Israel.
Our flight home from Tel Aviv to JFK was leaving at 1:00 am, so all of the Americans had to skip dinner and get directly on our transfer to the airport. The immigration and customs procedures were so much easier for me on the return. Unlike my trip into Israel, they seemed like they couldn’t have been happier to send me home.
But I hated saying goodbye to all my new friends, and to this unique land that I was just getting to know…..