How did I end up in Israel? It was never on my bucket list and I’m not Jewish. And next week I will be in Jordan. Again, not on the bucket list and I’m not Muslim. So what’s a casual Catholic woman doing here when volunteering in Tanzania was next on my nomadic adventure calendar? The answer is not complicated….the weather in Tanzania is cooler in July than January, so Tanzania will wait a few months. And, Israel is next-door to Egypt, a place I have dreamed about since seeing the movie, Cleopatra, way back in fifth grade. One of my travel philosophies is to lump in neighboring countries whenever possible. If I’ve taken the time and expense to go so far, why not see two or three countries while I’m in a particular corner of the world. Last year I added Portugal after a month in Morocco, and Northern Ireland after a month in Scotland. For this long awaited excursion to Egypt, a gander at a map revealed Israel and Jordan to be the safest options nearby.
So here I am in the ancient city of Jerusalem, feeling a little embarrassed by my previously uneducated attitude that Israel would only appeal to Jewish visitors. Thankfully, in the weeks before I left home I took the time to learn something about this country that is unique and diverse in many ways – landscape, people, history, and faith.
While people of all religions have a reason to visit Israel, the majority of those who live and work in Israel are Jews. Why do Jews live in Israel? That was the question Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz asked in a column last year. Katz refers to recent dialog about Israel as the Start-up Nation, and Israel as a Light unto the Nations engaged in tikkun olam – doing good around the world. They are popular responses and two of the reasons that Jews go to Israel, but they are not necessarily the reason that Jewish families, the young in particular, stay in Israel.
Katz believes that Israelis should continue to innovate and do even more tikkun olam, but the real answer to the question – “why do Jews live in Israel? – is to actively engage in the greatest Jewish experiment of the modern era: figuring out together what type of civil and religious society we want to build – and then going out and doing it.”
Now, after my first few days in this tiny, half desert nation, I ask myself – why should a traveller want to come to Israel? In no particular order I would say: cuisine, history, landscape, and people. I was most surprised by the cuisine. There is no strictly Israeli cuisine. Most people in Israel are immigrants from five continents and over 100 countries, a variation on our own United States. Those immigrants brought the recipes, traditions, and foods from their homes around the world.
In ancient Israel, the daily diet of the ordinary Israelite was mainly one of bread, cooked grains and legumes. The Israelites drank goat and sheep’s milk when it was available in the spring and summer, and ate butter and cheese. Figs and grapes were the fruits most commonly eaten, and wine was the most popular beverage. Meat, usually goat and mutton, was eaten rarely and was reserved for special occasions.
All of these foods and drinks are still part of modern Israel cuisine, but they are crafted with the style of many cultures. There is more meat served (lamb and chicken being the most popular) than in ancient times, and I was able to try some good Israeli beer. The food that stood out for me in Israel and Egypt both was the hummus. It was creamy with layers of intense flavor that made each taste a culinary dream. I’m afraid it ruined American hummus for me.
In most restaurants we were able to feast on tasting menus that were served family style. The enthusiasm shown by my travel companions and me for the waves of food placed in front of us was reminiscent of movie scenes of medieval feasts. There might have even been some singing and clapping.
Luckily, all of this eating fueled us for hours of walking everyday. One of our first excursions was to Jerusalem’s old city. From our first vantage point on top of the Tower of David, we could take in sweeping views of all of Jerusalem, including the Dome of the Rock, the Mount of Olives, the Western Wall, and Jaffa Gate. All of this was interspersed with scenes of daily life for residents of Jerusalem – shopping for vegetables and bread, going to mosque, synagogue, and church, walking to work and school. The Old City is not just an historic site, but home for over thirty thousand people in an area of less than a half square mile. Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian, with the Muslim quarter being the largest in both area and population. If I had to choose a short list of my favorite sites in and around Jerusalem, they would be (again in no particular order): Holy Sepulcher Church, the Western Wall, the Tower of David, and several of the stone gates in the walls surrounding the old city. In Holy Sepulcher Church you can touch the slab of stone purported to be the place where Jesus’ body was washed after he was taken down from the cross. It is difficult to describe the vibe near this incredibly holy spot. The Western Wall is just such an iconic site, that it makes my list. And yes, I did pray and slip a small prayer request into a crack in the wall, just like over a million people every year. Twice a year, the notes are collected and buried in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. I like knowing that a piece of me is there.
The Tower of David is a citadel built in various stages beginning in the first century BC. There is a museum that presents Jerusalem’s story. It details the major events in its history beginning with the first evidence of a city in Jerusalem in the second millennium BC, until the city became the capital of the State of Israel, as well as its significance to three religions. I am not a big fan of the night time light shows prevalent at historic sites in the Middle East, but the one at the Tower of David is worth a look. It presents the history of Israel in light, sound, and music that is short (45 minutes), but compelling. Admission is about $15.50.
Bethlehem, located 6 miles south of Jerusalem, is part of the Palestinian Authority. Israelis are not permitted inside and the crossing is monitored by armed Israeli military. The Church of the Nativity – undoubtedly the top attraction in Bethlehem – is a veritable citadel built fortress-like on top of the cave where Jesus was born to Mary. It is one of the oldest churches in the world. The first incarnation of the building was erected on the orders of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (the Great) in 330 AD. Access to the cave under the church is down a dark and narrow staircase, but it is well worth it if the place of Jesus’ birth is important to you.
From Jerusalem, we began our drive south to Masada and watched as the scenery changed from urban, to greenery, to desert in quick succession. The ancient fortress of Masada was built in the Judean desert by King Herod, ruler of Judea around 35 BC. It was here that I had a small world moment. As I traipsed around the ruins of the fortress, I came upon a friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. We had a brief mini reunion and marveled at the odds of this chance meeting in a desert a world away from home.
At the Dead Sea (not really a sea, but a lake), we changed into swim suits for a dip in the lake. You really do float easily because of the extreme salt levels. The beach around the lake is brimming with marble sized chunks of salt. The banks of the Dead Sea are also the lowest point on earth at over 1300 feet below sea level.
From the salty sea, we headed north to the fresh water Sea of Galilee. Our lodging for the next few days is a kibbutz on the shores of this largest of Israel’s lakes. Our first excursion here takes us to the holy city of Safed. Safed is the center of Kabbalah in Israel and there is a mystical vibe to this village perched on a mountain in Upper Galilee. Many of the doors and windows of homes and shops are painted blue in mystical symbolism to confuse evil spirits. Safed is also an artist colony and its narrow cobbled streets are lined with galleries and craft shops. From its cafes one can enjoy a morning coffee while taking in views that extend as far as the Golan Heights, Lebanon, and the Amud Valley.
The age and history of this ancient corner of the world are awe inspiring. To be in the land where Jesus was born, lived, and was crucified – emotional, incredible. There were so many other unique and stunning sites in Israel, but this blog is running long, so I will just list a few that I found well worth visiting:
Bet She’an – the archeological site dates back to the 16th century BC. King Saul and his sons met their deaths here. Kings David and Solomon spent time here.
Jordan River – Small in size, big in history. Stop at Yardenit if you have an urge to stand in this holy river and be baptized.
Capernaum – an old fishing village dating to the second century BC. A modern church marks the site where the ruins of St Peter’s home are visible. Capernaum is mentioned in all four gospels. Jesus taught here and healed the sick, as detailed in gospels by Mark and Luke.
In addition to online articles my research on Israel included the following:
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide – Jerusalem, Israel, Petra, and Sinai
Israel, by Nelson Yomtov
The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel, by Martin Van Creveld
5 Broken Cameras
In Search of Israeli Cuisine (with Philly’s own Michael Solomonov, owner of Zahav)