I was born in England and have spent most of my adulthood in the United States. However, if you grow up Jewish, as I have, Israel is also a part of your life, even though you may have never been there. The religious, cultural, social and political importance of the country has been a topic often discussed and referenced whether in my religious school education, through observance of Jewish holidays and customs, or just generally through cultural osmosis. As a small example, Passover Seder and Yom Kippur services traditionally end with the participants saying “Next Year in Jerusalem,” as a hopeful wish of fulfilling the dream of visiting the capital city and as a reminder of the importance of the city and the country to the Jewish people.
Despite this, for some reason, I had never made any real effort to visit Israel, opting instead for more traditional vacations such as Europe or the Caribbean. A recent opportunity to travel to Israel arose through a gracious invitation from close friends to celebrate the occasion of their daughter becoming a bat mitzvah in Jerusalem. A bat mitzvah (or bar mitzvah for a male) is the most important milestone in the life of a young Jew. The celebrant leads a service, culminating in the reading of the Torah (a parchment scroll written in Hebrew by hand that contains the Old Testament). Upon fulfilling these tasks, the bar or bat mitzvah is considered part of the adult Jewish community and becomes responsible and accountable for their own actions. Going to Israel for this reason, and having this service in Jerusalem, adds additional importance and sanctity to this important event.
In addition to the service, our friends had put together an amazing itinerary for touring the country. My family and I thought this was the perfect opportunity to visit Israel for the first time, and we all decided to go. It took me 47 years to finally get there – and it was by far the best vacation experience of my life.
Israel provided two very different types of experiences that, for me and my family, blended into a seamless appreciation of a complex country. The somewhat serious religious and historical aspects of Israel revealed themselves in numerous ways and places throughout our visit. It’s impossible to visit Israel without a conscious understanding and appreciation of Israel’s history, regardless from which perspective it is viewed. In addition, Israel has another side to it that makes it an exciting and fun place to be.
Tel Aviv falls squarely into the latter – an exciting and fun place to be.
We arrived in Tel Aviv and our first introduction to the country was through a taxi driver. Unsolicited, he began to talk with pride about how a barren and dry desert has been transformed into productive farming and agricultural industries. As we passed by large commercial office parks full of software and other technology companies, he commented on how advanced these industries had become and how Israel leads the world in many technological innovations. This sense of pride in country would be a common theme I would recognize in the various people we met throughout our travels. It struck me quickly and powerfully that the Israeli people have a connection to and love of their land unlike any other I have experienced in my travels.
As we drove toward Tel Aviv, the cosmopolitan nature of the city immediately became apparent. The beautiful gold sand beaches and warm Mediterranean ocean serve as a picturesque backdrop to modern hotels, beachside cafes, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Tel Aviv offered everything one would expect from a modern Mediterranean resort. Not far from the beach are main boulevards full of shops and more cafes and restaurants, outdoor markets and the familiar buzz of a major city. A highlight for our chocoholic family was a visit to the Max Brenner at the revitalized Old Port, a restaurant which specializes in all things decadent and chocolate.
After our short stay in Tel Aviv, it was time for the group to head to Jerusalem and the most important, if not more serious, part of our trip. The group was 26 in number, comprised of our friends and the family of the celebrant. This part of the vacation was met with great anticipation, as it slowly dawned on us that this was going to be a very special time and experience for all. We boarded a tour bus and were introduced to Nadine, our tour guide, who would accompany us throughout our visit to explain what we were seeing along the way.
As we made our way to Jerusalem, I had not thought much about the personal significance this trip would have for me. I don’t consider myself to be a particularly religious person, and primarily, it was a time to be with my family, celebrate a bat mitzvah with close friends and see what the country had to offer. Nadine began pointing out places of interest as we passed them, while also explaining the historical background and significance of the area and its sites. Particularly poignant was the history of Jerusalem and the meaning this city has to the many faiths and people who live, visit and worship there. As we started our ascent to Jerusalem, she remarked on the many battles that had taken place in the foothills below the great city and the struggles over the rights to the city that many generations have endured. Despite these battles occurring over thousands of years, seeing abandoned military vehicles strewn next to the main highway brought the historical references into the present.
At some point in the ascent, Nadine’s narration stopped. The silence was broken unexpectedly as a song was played over the speakers of the tour bus. The song, Y’rushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold), is a famous folk song about the city of Jerusalem. The words and melody were familiar to me as I had heard the song many times before. Somehow the familiarity with the song combined all the random references to Jerusalem and Israel that had previously pervaded my life into a strong feeling of being connected to the land, even though I had never been there before. All of a sudden, as I looked out the window onto the hillsides of Jerusalem, and listened to the sweet but sad song fill the air, it hit me that this was no ordinary vacation and Israel was not just another place to visit. The realization that I had finally made it to Israel, with my family, was powerful. We were ascending to Jerusalem, a place that means so much to so many. I was about to complete a journey that I had not even known was so important to me. It was definitely a “wow” moment.
The bat mitzvah service was held outside, along the southern wall of the Temple Mount, a place of holiness for Jews and Muslims alike. The area sits in an archaeological site, with large chunks of stone strewn across the base of the wall serving as glimpses into the ancient past, where Holy Temples were built, destroyed, reconstructed and destroyed again over 2000 years ago. The importance of this site and the authentic nature of its condition left us in awe. There could be no more appropriate place for a bat mitzvah service. The service was conducted flawlessly and the celebration (camel rides included) followed.
On the following day we explored Jerusalem in earnest. The first stop was the Mount of Olives, a famous vantage point for overlooking the City. The view of Jerusalem was dominated by the Temple Mount and the golden Dome of the Rock. This is Jerusalem’s holiest Islamic Site, the place from where it is believed Muhammad began his journey to heaven. Nadine revealed more of Jerusalem and the intricacies of the many different faiths and cultures that co-exist there. We then made our way along the winding streets of the city, through the Christian, Muslim, Armenian and Jewish Quarters. The sense of history was palpable as we walked, as was an undercurrent of tension given the thousands of years of unrest that is an integral part of the place. We toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the awe-inspiring church and site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. People from all over the world had come to visit this church, pay their respects and pray. Even this one church reflects the contrasting nature of the city, being divided amongst Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic denominations.
We emerged from our tour of the City at the famous Western Wall, the most sacred site in the Jewish faith and a site of Jewish pilgrimage for over 2000 years. It is the last remaining remnant of the Second Temple built in 20 BCE and the site where Jews come from all over the world to mourn the loss of their ancient temple. The sorrowful prayers have given the wall its second name, the “wailing wall”. The wall is divided into two sections in order to accommodate the more orthodox custom of separating men and women during prayer (in order to keep each from distraction and able to concentrate on the more holy matters at hand). From there we entered underground passages that take you even closer to the site of the original temple as we learned more about the history of the city and the excavations of the site. Standing at a small alcove with my family, and writing the obligatory prayers on small pieces of paper and placing them into cracks of the sacred wall, again provided a sense of connection and made me wonder what had taken me so long to get there.
My wife Lisa and I left a prayer in the part of the Western Wall known as "the holy of holy's" in an underground tunnel closest to the foundation stone of the Second Temple. The actual foundation stone lies beneath the Dome of the Rock.
Jerusalem is a city of contrasts. It is a mixture of religions, beliefs and nationalities, co-existing awkwardly in a confined but holy space. One must experience the city first hand to truly appreciate and understand its relevance and why it is so jealously guarded with so many aspiring to call it home. Only the most hardened and jaded can visit the city without being changed in some way.
The inspiring yet serious side of our visit to Jerusalem gave way to a tour of the Israeli countryside that shows a more relaxed, fun and adventurous Israel. From Jerusalem we made our way to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. We passed by the caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered and marveled at the scenic mountain, cliffs and the Dead Sea itself. When we arrived at the hotel on the shore of the Dead Sea, we could not wait to dive in and experience the acclaimed healing powers of the water and mud. The water was hot, rather oily and full of minerals with a heavy salt content. So diving gave way to wading in slowly. It’s true what they say about the Dead Sea, just about anything floats, and we all had an amusing time playing around with the buoyant effect it had on our bodies.
Close by was another historical landmark, Mount Masada. The story of this fortress city on top of a high hill is well documented and has come to represent Israeli patriotism of the highest order. The people of Masada were able to fend off the powerful Roman army for many years. When the inevitable finally happened and the Roman army breached the final barricade, the remaining inhabitants, rather than surrendering, took their own lives. Now soldiers of the Israeli armed forces come to Masada to swear their allegiance to country and that Masada shall not fall again.
When you visit Masada you have the choice of hiking up the mountain by foot, or taking a tram. We had agreed in advance that we would climb no matter what, and the temperature reaching into the 90s did not deter us. The climb was harder than I thought it was going to be, but making that trek as a family and finally reaching the top was an exhilarating experience that we won’t forget. And with that memory firmly established, we unanimously agreed we would take the tram down.
After Masada, we made our way to the Sea of Galilee region for a few days. We fired Uzi machine guns at a shooting range, rafted down the Jordan River and explored some of the best preserved Roman ruins in the world. We visited the cobbled streets of Tzfat, which is not only a holy city and a center of Jewish Mysticism (the Kabbalah), but also an artist colony. We toured the embattled eastern border of Israel, including the Golan Heights. This region has much to offer historians and fun-seekers alike.
Once we returned from the countryside we visited Yad V’shem, the incredibly moving holocaust memorial museum, and countered the theme of destruction by planting trees in the national forest. We visited a number of other sites and museums too numerous to mention, including a clandestine bullet factory that was located underground and operated during the independence war under the guise of being a farming kibbutz. We ended our stay decompressing in Tel Aviv, shamelessly returning to Max Brenner for another dose of chocolate decadence.
Israel is an amazing country, its people are amazing people. The juxtaposition of the ancient and modern, frivolous and profound, joyful and sad, serious and playful creates a blend of experiences available nowhere else in the world. Israel has something to offer all visitors, regardless of their race, religion, political beliefs or interests. I regret it took me 47 years to get there, but it won’t take me another 47 years to return.
Next Year in Jerusalem?