If It’s Tuesday, This Must be Haifa: An In-Depth Israel Tour
Arise; walk through the land in its length and breadth...
- Genesis 13:17 (from the cover of our Keshet Tour Book)
I've tagged along on my husband Steve's business trips to England and France, and visited my daughter the semester she studied art in Sienna, but how was it that until last month I had never set foot on Israeli soil? Taglit-Birthright Israel didn't exist when I was younger, and the right time just had not presented itself.
The stars seemed to line up for me to jump at Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman and Rabbi Stephen Wise Goodman's invitation to go on the Union Temple/Garden City Jewish Center's "Breadth of Israel Tour" in early May. No trip to the public library for Fodor's and Frommer's was necessary with their offer of a show-up-and-we'll-bring-you-everywhere experience.
As I got ready to go, I never worried about being safe in Israel. Instead, I fretted over what to pack and what gifts to buy for the IDF soldiers we were scheduled to meet in person. Not being the type to suffer in silence, I voiced my wardrobe concerns to my boss, an experienced Israel traveler, who asked for the itinerary and wrote in detailed instructions on what to wear each day, and what to pack for the bus, depending on whether we'd be enjoying the sea breeze in Tel Aviv, or down in the hot sun of the Negev. As it turned out, two of her most important tips were: "Hat and sunglasses!! Drink water!!"
Rabbis Linda and Steve, our trip leaders, are both so unpretentious, funny, and inspiring, and since they rent an apartment in Jerusalem every summer (while they study at the Shalom Hartman Institute), they were the perfect guides to complement our fearless tour leader, David Eisenstadt. Our 10-day itinerary was literally jam-packed each day, typically from 8 a.m. on the bus, through dinner.
What I Loved
- Hebrew Conversations from the Get-Go: On past international flights, listening to flight attendants speaking French, Italian, and German, I remember the distinct sensation of feeling like the outsider, another American tourist. To my surprise, the El Al flight attendant spoke to me in Hebrew, and I was delighted (although I had to switch to English). Hearing Hebrew conversations all around me, beginning on the flight, felt both familiar and inclusive.
- Meeting and Listening to "Regular" Israelis: The rigorous itinerary matched the intensity of the country and the Israelis we met. Distinct from any foreign travel I've made, a highlight of our trip was how Linda and Steve scheduled our group to meet with leading scholars, journalists, innovators, and émigrés, including Israelis, Arabs, Christians, and Ethiopians. They lined up extraordinary speakers, including Tal Becker, Dr. Rachel Korazim, Fr. Gabriel Naddaf, and Khaled Abu Toameh. In addition, on Friday night, we were treated to home hospitality by Israeli families from Congregation Har El. Steve and I lucked out with our hosts ― Carmit and Joe Federman and their three great kids.
- Seeing the Land: Our photos from the trip cover everything, from the outdoor Havdalah service Linda and Steve led at the Montefiore Windmill overlooking Jerusalem to the sunlit panorama of Jerusalem just outside Yad Vashem; standing on the Golan Heights, touring Tzfat, S'derot, Old Jaffa, and Neve Tzedek; hiking through Makhtesh Ramon and sitting in the Dead Sea; walking underground through the Western Wall tunnels, taking a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, and our face-to-face meeting with eight IDF soldiers. I asked one soldier (who is my son's age) if his mother worried about him and he smiled, and nodded yes, saying that all imas (mothers) worry. Another soldier told our group that he still carries a handwritten letter in his pocket from a first grader whose class sent letters to the soldiers during last summer's war.
- Israeli Breakfasts: I was told that Israel's cuisine has experienced a food renaissance, and I can attest to their fresh and delicious foods. My personal favorites were the buffet breakfasts, where my first course, fresh cheeses and yogurts with fruit compote or dried fruit, were followed by a fresh beet or carrot salad, pita with a bit of hummus and some olives, with a final beeline for the malabi (milk pudding) or snippets of pastries. We enjoyed Yemenite food in Tzfat, wonderful sushi and grilled fish in Jerusalem, and a final feast of marinated and grilled chicken, lamb, and steak at the Bistro DeCarmel Restaurant in Zichron Yaacov before heading back to the airport.
- My Biggest Takeaways: The modern state of Israel is so young, really in its infancy, with a history that has multiple story lines, probably more complicated than most Americans can imagine. Geographically miniscule, Israel is gargantuan in the stature and the spirit of its diverse population. I did not have to strain my eyes or even use binoculars at Israel's borders to see the close proximity of her neighbors.
Understanding Israel is not like peeling an onion, it's more like excavating an archeological site there ― and finding an entirely different civilization buried below, and even more civilizations buried even deeper.
To those who may be quick to criticize Israel, I'd suggest what I advise library users: do your research from original sources; or in simpler terms: go and visit. And be sure to sit down and talk with Israelis. Explore this fascinating country with its fast pulse and diverse community, the majority who are simply trying to live their lives like the rest of us ― raising families, running businesses, having fun, and staying safe.
When we returned to New York, I immediately began to soak dried chick peas overnight (once a week) to make fresh hummus, and have stocked up on lemons, garlic, pure tahini, za'atar spice mix, and silan (date honey). Sadly, we finished the five pounds of halvah (in four different flavors) that we brought home, but I do hope that my new Ahava beauty products will last until I can plan my next trip.