An extraordinary nation where wonders never cease
(The next installment in the series, “The ABCs of Future Travel”, designed to inspire you to start planning your next trip.)
Israel is a country of just over nine million inhabitants that, theoretically, should have a serious identity problem. Some refuse to acknowledge Israel exist, while others would prefer it didn’t. Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, is the focal point of three major religions that have cycled through periods of war and peace for the last 2,000 years. And throughout her short history, Israel has been maligned, attacked, and threatened with annihilation. Still she has managed not only to survive, but to thrive.
I was born in Jerusalem in 1951, the only child of Holocaust survivors who had barely escaped with their lives. My parents decided to move to Montreal in 1953, and I had no memories of Israel until I began making my own as an adult.
Although Israel occupies a mere 8,000 square miles, there are many parts of the country I have yet to visit. So, I will only tell of my personal experiences and suggest you consider exploring more of Israel than I have thus far.
This may sound crazy, but I’ve probably spent more time in the airport than in Tel Aviv itself. The first time I arrived in Israel, along with my mother, it was 1972, The airport was called Lod, there was no jetway, and a month prior, a terrorist attack had murdered dozens. Not exactly a great welcome, so we headed straight for Jerusalem.
Of course, over 40 years later, Simon, Otto, and I arrived upon a completely different scene. The airport’s name had been changed to Ben-Gurion. Not only were there jetways, but the airport itself had grown and changed drastically. Warning: be prepared to walk, walk, and walk some more.
Then expect to go through an interrogation about who you are, where you live, what your purpose is in visiting Israel, with some random questions thrown in. These folks are highly trained professionals when it comes to profiling, and this is no time to get cute. Answer the questions truthfully, and you’ll be on your way. Above all, don’t take it personally. It’s all about security.
Due to my lack of Tel Aviv time, I can’t do the city’s history and culture justice, so I’ll settle for telling you about one memorable experience from our 2013 trip.
Play Time in Tel Aviv
One afternoon, My cousin offered to show us around Jaffa and – if there was time – Tel Aviv. By the time we reached the latter, it was getting late, so we settled for a bit of shopping. Now, I was convinced from the get-go that my cousin knew everything there was to know about Israel, so where ever he led, we followed.
This time, we found ourselves in what had, at one time, been a railroad station. The once potential eyesore had been transformed into an impressive pedestrian area with enough restaurants and shops to satisfy the diverse tastes of the most discriminating locals and tourists.
There we discovered Gaya – The Art of Thinking, a store that specializes in challenging and fun games and puzzles for all ages. From the moment we entered the store, we were in play mode. With encouragement from the friendly staff, we tried to open several styles of trick boxes and attempted to free a wine bottle from a complex prison of wood. An hour had gone by before we knew it.
During our time at Gaya, I fell in love with the words on a poster hanging on the wall of the shop. It read, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”
Gaya – The Art of Thinking has been in operation since 1996, and has earned an international reputation for the quality and design of its hand made products, each of which is made of all-natural wood. Along with its location at the old railway station, there are several similar retail playpens located throughout Israel. Although there’s nothing like getting up close and personal with the Gaya products, you can order online to your heart’s content.
Despite my lack of exposure to Tel Aviv, I will leave you with a few ideas to consider should you manage to tear yourself away from Gaya.
Although Tel Aviv was once Israel’s capital, the city is probably best known for her long stretches of beach. Hot and humid is how I remember the city, and some beach time would have been heavenly. Despite their popularity, there is so much beachfront available, you should have no problem finding your perfect spot to chill.
If sea and sand isn’t your thing, you can take a walk or ride a bike along The Tayelet, (a paved boardwalk) that runs parallel to the beach between central Tel Aviv and the port city of Jaffa. Lined with a variety of cafés and restaurants, a refreshing break is less than a stone’s throw away.
Tel Aviv is Israel’s most modern city, but there is much in the way of interesting architecture to discover in her older neighborhoods. The Yemenite Quarter is one of them. The neighborhood is comprised of meandering alleyways full of fascinating old structures that have stood the test of time and change. Since the neighborhood backs on to Carmel Market, where fresh produce and other delights await you, this outing will keep you busy for at least a couple of hours.
It does rain in Tel Aviv but fear not the city has no shortage of world-class museums. Examples include:
- The Tel Aviv Museum of Art is a treasure trove of works by Degas, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Jackson Pollock, as well as the world’s largest collection of work by Israeli artists.
- Eretz Israel Museum is a complex encompassing a planetarium, and archeological site, and anything else a science and/or history buff could want.
- The Diaspora Museum chronicles the history and culture of the Jewish People through fascinating exhibits that bring their story to life.
A big city standing on the shores of the Mediterranean should have a port, and Tel Aviv is no exception. Be sure to take yourself down to Namal, the old port. This area has been gussied up to the gills, and is definitely an “in” place to see and be seen. It is also a great place for a family outing, as there is more than enough to keep everyone interested and occupied. You can stroll the boardwalk, Enjoy live music, avail yourself of quaint shops and cafés, or peek into one of the small private art galleries. The area also has an indoor market, Just in case you still have some shopping to do.
The port of Jaffa has a history that precedes the Egyptians, Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The city lays claim to being the oldest continually functioning port in the world. Today, Jaffa still serves as a location where fishermen can make a living, and where small pleasure craft can find a safe haven. In 1950, Tel Aviv and Jaffa were united to form the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality.
We stood atop a hill overlooking the port on a picture-perfect afternoon, breathing in the salty sea air and looking out at the brilliant turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. As we walked through the city we observed how the combination of old, new and restored combine to give Jaffa its unique charm. We found modern upscale boutiques, busy cafes, as well as tired but sturdy structures that obviously had managed to withstand the ravages of time.
When in Tel Aviv, Jaffa is well worth a visit. It’s an excellent place to relax and recharge.
One of the most delightful surprises of many we encountered in Israel was the town of Nazareth, located in the Galilean hills. The town is believed to date back over 3,000 years and has a population of approximately 6,000. Christian and Muslim Arabs comprise the bulk of the population, with a small Jewish presence. This might seem like an awkward situation, but we found the people extraordinarily friendly. The sense we had when interacting with local residents was that people get along while practicing their individual religions and traditions.
Nazareth is steeped in history. It was where Jesus grew up and began to preach. St. Joseph’s Church was built on the site where Joseph’s workshop was alleged to have stood. This is only one of many fascinating houses of worship to be found in Nazareth.
The Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation, an imposing structure – the largest Roman Catholic church in the Middle East – is believed to stand on the site of Mary’s childhood home. It is also where the Archangel, Gabriel, brought her the news that she would give birth to Jesus.
There are many more religious sites to explore in Nazareth, but our time was short. So, we hit the market. Among the fresh produce, vendors displayed household goods, toys, and just about anything else you can imagine. But the venue that completely enthralled us was the nearby spice market.
We had to duck through the cloth curtains at the doorway of the market. The low frame had been deliberately installed in order to insure men would bow their respect as they entered. Before we had finished our descent of the stairs, our nostrils were nearly blown away by the intoxicating aroma of nuts, spices and coffee.
Browsing the mind-boggling selection of whole spices, spice blends, candy, sacks of dried lentils and split peas was dizzying. It became clear that, given the chance, we could have spent several hours and a small fortune in this cook’s paradise.
There is much more to see in Nazareth, and we hope to spend more time exploring the town when we next visit Israel. But I have to confess, we couldn’t resist filling our nostrils and emptying our pockets at the spice market just one more time before we departed.
It seems that Israel presents one stunner after another when it comes to cities, but when you see Haifa, you’ll forget everything else, at least for as long as you’re there.
Built into the slopes of Mount Carmel in northern Israel, it is the third-largest city and home to a population of Jews and Muslims that do a good job of getting along. Perhaps this is due to the influence of the Bahai, whose gold-domed temple is one of Haifa’s main attractions.
The religion of Bahai has to be one of the most peaceful and tolerant in the world. They have their own rules and traditions, but believe God can be found in any house of worship, whether it be a mosque, church, or synagog.
Both my visits to Haifa were brief, and on neither occasion was I able to enter the temple. For non-Bahai, such opportunities are rare, but you can take a guided tour of the stunning terraced gardens, which gently make their way down the slope to the Mediterranean. On my second visit to Haifa, this was what Simon, Otto, my cousins, and I decided to do.
Our guide was not of the Bahai faith, but was knowledgable enough to give us a clear understanding of the people who practice it and their beliefs. She also explained the various aspects of the gardens and their maintenance. By the time we left, we not only possessed a better understanding of the Bahai faith, but a deep respect for the people who practice it. The Bahai Gardens are part of the Bahai World Center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At the top of the mountain is Louis Promenade, where you can gaze across the entire Port of Haifa and beyond. I didn’t know this at the time, but Haifa can boast of having Israel’s only subway system, which transports residents and tourists up and down the mountain.
Haifa lacks the bustle of Israel’s two larger cities, but there is still much to see and do. The beaches are a definite draw, as are several fine museums and even a zoo. You can certainly do Haifa justice on a day trip, but the spectacular scenery and congenial atmosphere might make you want to stay a while longer.
One of my cousins and his family lived in the small town of Gedera during our last two trips to Israel. Enjoying their company and gracious hospitality gave us the opportunity to become acquainted with Gedera, a town that wasn’t even on our radar. Because of its central location, day trips from Gedera to Tel Aviv and Jaffa, Jerusalem, Haifa, the Negev Desert, and other iconic destinations can easily be accomplished.
Although Gedera is a small town, located 35 miles south of Tel Aviv, there are a number of historical events commemorated among the shops, restaurants and homes. The main street in Gedera was the town’s first street, and the establishments that line it are required to retain the historical external appearance of the original 19th century settlement from which the town grew.
The Gedera Museum, which tells the story of the Bilu movement, is housed in Beit Mintz, a house built by Dr. Moshe Mintz. The building, bequeathed in 1930 to the people of Gedera, has been used as a military hospital, a movie theater, and a school. It became the home of the Gedera Museum in 1985.
The Bilu movement began in Ukraine in the early 1880s. Growing weary of the pogroms – violent raids against Jewish towns and villages, and revocation of rights to own and farm land — a group of young agricultural students made the decision to travel to the land of Israel to begin a new life. These students were known as the Biluim.
In December, 1884, nine of the students arrived in what was then an Arab village. And Gedera was born. They were later joined by others, and Gedera, then a mostly agricultural area, became known for its fresh air and healthy environment. Between 1949 and 1953, the population of Gedera swelled to 3,000 with the arrival of refugees from Europe and North Africa.
The museum and the preservation of the buildings were just one more example of how much history was made in the tiny country of Israel. Sadly, our attempt at photographing the museum’s interior, with its displays of furniture, medical instruments and tools of the day, were far less successful than the courageous efforts of the Biluim.
It seems as though every town, village and parcel of land in Israel has a story of tragedy or triumph. For the Biluim, their triumph over violence and oppression, and their dogged determination to succeed in a new and starkly unfamiliar country, foreshadowed what was to descend upon the Jewish people in less than a century.
But Gedera isn’t all about history. This is a peaceful, walkable town with plenty of cafes and shops to give both your feet and your brain a rest. If it’s quiet you want, with ample opportunity to see sights and engage in activities, Gedera should definitely be on your radar.
I had always regretted not visiting Masada on earlier trips to Israel. So, on our 2017 visit, I finally stood at the top of the plateau where Herod played and heroes committed mass suicide.
Masada stands 1,300 feet above the Dead Sea., on the edge of the Judean desert. The terrain is uninviting and the weather hot as hell. Still Herod chose to build an elaborate castle complex on Masada as a winter getaway. Well-stocked storerooms and functioning cisterns must have made a comfy retreat for Herod. Masada was also a natural fortress, so it must have felt safe as well.
After the Romans brutally put down the Jewish Revolt and destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, survivors of the devastation fled to Masada to take a final stand with the Romans hot on their heels. It was a well-trained, well-supplied Roman legion of 8,000 against 960 rebels, including women and children.
The siege lasted for months, but the rebels had the high ground and stubbornly held on. Finally, the Romans managed to build a tower to take out the rebel defenses.
On April 15, 73 AD, the rebels were forced to admit their cause was lost. Rather than surrendering and allowing themselves to be taken away as Roman slaves, almost all committed suicide. Only two women and five children, who had hidden away in a cistern, lived to recount the last hours of Masada.
The mass suicide at Masada was chronicled by Josephus Flavius, the commander of Galilee during the Jewish Revolt. Excavations of Masada have corroborated much of his account.
Today, Masada is a designated National Park. You can still huff and puff your way up to the plateau, but for folks like me, a cable car was constructed in 1977. Surprisingly enough, Masada is also wheelchair accessible.
Disembarking the cable car, we headed for the 18-acre area where the majority of the archaeological ruins are located. We spent the afternoon admiring the remarkably well preserved structures that had sustained the rebels. Storerooms for food and weapons, stunning palaces with spectacular views of desert and sea, elaborately decorated Roman bathhouses, ancient cisterns, a synagog, and a Byzantine church and more kept us in constant awe.
By the time we boarded the cable car down the mountain, we were hot, thirsty, tired and saturated, but to have the chance to once more walk the haunting terrain of Masada, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Masada is one of those experiences you can’t have anywhere else.
So, what is Israeli food? Well, if you take every cuisine in the world and invite it to a party, that party would be in Israel.
Because Israel is in the Middle East, you would naturally expect foods from this part of the world to be common. And, of course, you would be right. But because Israel is also home to Jews from around the world – Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean region, North and South Africa, Asia, and more – the people who settled in Israel brought their foods and culinary traditions with them. What resulted was a nation where if a cuisine exists, there is a restaurant that serves it.
While traveling, we have always sought out eateries that are frequented by locals and that serve local specialities. Israel was no exception. However, we have also dined in Jordanian, Romanian, and other international restaurants. It’s almost impossible to eat the same meal twice in Israel.
As heavenly and varied as Israel’s eclectic cuisines may be, it was always the fresh produce in the markets and the homes of my cousins for which I truly yearn. I miss gorging on red, yellow and green grape tomatoes that felt like feasting on guilt-free candy. Crisp cucumbers, brightly colored sweet peppers, and every other kind of vegetable you could imagine were available at every meal. If you ever get your hands on fresh Israeli produce you’ll see what I mean, and you will become immediately addicted.
Now, you’ll need something with which to wash all that good food down. Fear not. Israel produces some of the best-tasting craft beers and wines I’ve had the privilege to enjoy anywhere.
While staying with my cousins, we visited both a microbrewery and winery that were among their favorites. We met the owners and brains behind their businesses, sampled the goods, and deemed them superb.
When we arrived at Pepo Brewery Moti Bohadana’s greeted us with a smile. We learned from my cousin that Moti had named each of his eight beers after an important woman in his life. Each beer told of the personality of its namesake. It was a tough choice, but my favorite among Moti’s beers was Alma, a light and gentle wheat beer, named after his charming fair-haired young daughter.
Since we last saw Moti, he has expanded his brewery and added a restaurant that is ever-growing in popularity. If his food is anywhere near as good as his beer, it’s a given that Moti has created another winner.
Rehov Hateena 49 Tzelafon
Neve Shalom 99750
As if we hadn’t drunk enough, my cousin then shepherded us to Kadma Winery. Not only did we have the opportunity to taste some first-rate wine, we learned about the ancient process of making it used by the owner, Lina Slutzkin.
Kadma uses amphorae, imported from Lina’s native Republic of Georgia, to ferment its wines. These are handmade pots, fired in an open fireplace, then immediately lined with a layer of beeswax while the pots are still hot. The result is some truly excellent wine.
Lina has been highly successful as a winemaker. Her wines have won several international awards. But the proof is in the product. While at Kadma, we sampled one of her Merlots and a Cabernet Sauvignon. Both were juicy, smooth and mellow with a satiny finish. We left the winery and Lina knowing the wines we sampled at Kadma wouldn’t be our last.
Kadma Winery is located in Kefar Uriah, half way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. You can email Lina at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Israel was born of the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Abraham, Christ, and Mohammed all left behind their footprints and philosophies to be followed, interpreted and, all too often, perverted.
The Romans contributed their brilliance and brutality. The Crusaders drenched the land in blood. Then, from the ashes of the Holocaust, the modern nation of Israel arose. At first, she wobbled on her young legs. Gradually, Israel grew into a strong and vibrant entity that embraces its histories, its architectural buffet of materials and styles, and its outstanding cuisines that represent the diversity of her population.
Our visits to Israel included the knowledge and enthusiasm of family members, professional guides, and explorations on our own. From these experiences we became acquainted with Israel from more than one perspective. We met everyday people of all three major religions, learned to appreciate what different architectural styles represented, and indulged in lovingly prepared local and international cuisines. Still, we have only scratched the surface of what Israel is, because she is so many different things to so many different people.
If you visit Israel, read, read, read. Then arrive with an open mind, because much of what you have read is based on interpretation, rewritten history, and blind faith. If you can put aside what you’ve heard, what you may fear, and what you think you know, Israel will be a time traveler’s, explorer’s, and foodie’s dream come true. You will take home with you much in the way of understanding, memorable experiences, and a desire to return and dig deeper into the multitude of layers that comprise the nation of Israel.
“But wait,” you exclaim. “Where Is Jerusalem?” Obviously, the answer is, “Not here.” Since Jerusalem is worthy of a post of its own, I decided to give it one. Besides, “J” is up next, so you only have a short time to wait. See you in Jerusalem!
Also, I am saving my stories of the Negev Desert for my “N” post. Make sure you get your imaginary camel or jeep ready, and we’ll set off into the desert later in the alphabet.
I really enjoyed reading this article. It brings to life the country of my birth.
Thank you for this vivid and detailed armchair visit to Israel highlighting its various places to see, foods to eat and people to meet.
Thank you. Israel is definitely unique in many ways. I hope we can get back there some day.