To be perfectly honest, I'm not 100% on how this whole trip came to fruition. As best I can recall, my mom was going to be in Jerusalem for a teachers' conference, and she figured it might be fun to go out with me a week early and see the country. Of course, a week isn't all that much time, but we were helped by the fact that Israel is geographically similar to New Jersey - the same fun size with only half the stink. As I had been visiting my brother in Washington, DC prior to the trip, it worked out so that I was able to meet up at New York's JFK Airport with my Mom and "Aunt" Lucy (my mom's mom's brother's sister-in-law, who was in her 80's at the time and still had more energy than a spider monkey hopped up on cocaine and Mountain Dew). A rather bizarre trio of backpackers, the three of us flew out together for Tel Aviv on Tower Air. My only memory from the 13-hour flight was watching the plane's progress on the bulkhead television monitor. I remember an eerie silence among the passengers as we flew over the waters just south of Long Island... where, on July 17th, TWA Flight 800 exploded over the ocean. It was less than two weeks time since the disaster that we found ourselves soaring over that very space on the map, which, after countless television news stories, had become so familiar to everyone. Once we were far enough away from Long Island, the tension seemed to ease, and we settled in for the non-stop flight to Israel. I was 17 years-old at the time, and this was my first experience in backpacking and international travel. In as such, I had not learned the virtue of keeping a good journal. Therefore, my memories are rather hazy. Now, almost a decade later, I offer the following photos and notes, pieced together as best I can. To quote Jimmy Buffett: "It's a semi-true story, believe it or not. I made up a few things and there's some I forgot." (map: www.lonelyplanet.com)
JULY 28 :: JERUSALEM (TEL AVIV)
Upon arriving at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, I was asked by a customs official if I spoke any Hebrew. The best I could muster was the first line of my 1992 Bar Mitzvah Torah portion (Nitzavim -- Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20). I replied to the woman, "Atem nitsavim hayom kulechem lifney Adonai Eloheychem rasheychem shivteychem zikneychem veshotreychem kol ish Yisra'el." This translates: "Today you are standing, all of you, before Adonai your God - your heads, your tribes, your leaders and your officers - all the men of Israel." The customs woman was rather startled to learn that Adonai, her God, stood before her with a backpack, having just flown in from New York. Eventually, the Almighty, along with his mom and "Aunt" Lucy were allowed into the country with minimal fan-fare. We then hired a sherut (limo-van) to drive us to Jerusalem. For whatever reason, this took us about an hour and a half (really, it shouldn't take more than an hour). It was an amazing feeling to arrive in this holy city at night, the Dome of the Rock shining in the dark sky from the Old City. (photo: www.terragalleria.com)
Though Jerusalem's Old Town is the major attraction, we would wait until the end of the trip to pay it a proper visit. Of course, we could still see some of its magic at night, baiting us to return with high anticipation. Quite simply, David's Tower wasn't going anywhere in the next week.
We checked into our hostel, a modest place a few blocks away from the always-lively Ben Yehuda Street. Inside, I found these words written upon one of the walls (misspellings, punctuation, and grammar mirror what can be seen in the photograph):
"TO AWAKEN QUITE ALONE IN A STRANGE TOWN IS ONE OF THE PLEASANT SENSATIONS IN THE WORLD. YOU ARE SURROUNDED BY ADVENTURE. YOU HAVE NO IDEAR WHAT YOU HAVE INSTALL FOR YOU, BUT YOU WILL, IF YOU ARE WISE & KNOW THE ART OF TRAVEL. LET YOURSELF GO ON THE STREAM OF THE UNKNOWN & ACCEPT WHATEVER COMES IN THE SPIRIT IN WHICH THE GODS MAY OFFER IT. FOR THIS REASON YOUR CUSTOMERY THOUGHTS, ALL EXCEPT THE RAREST OF YOUR FRIENDS, EVEN MOST OF YOUR LUGGAGE - EVERYTHING IN FACT WHICH BELONGS TO YOUR EVERYDAY LIFE, IS A MERE HINDERENCE. THE TOURIST TRAVELS IN HIS OWN ATMOSPHERE LIKE A SNAIL IN ITS SHELL & STANDS, AS IT WERE, ON HIS OWN PERAMBULATING DOORSTEP TO LOOK AT THE CONTINENTS OF THE WORLD. BUT IF YOU DISCARD ALL THIS, AND SALLY FORTH WITH A LEISURELY & BLANK MIND, THERE IS NO KNOWING WHAT MAY NOT HAPPEN TO YOU."
This was a profoundly deep message for a new traveler, and, time and time again, I would find truth in both its spirit and its warnings - the joy of waking up to a fresh new landscape, and the aggravation of dealing with my expensive portable CD player, an unnecessary luxury that should have been left behind in my normal everyday life. Only recently did I learn that these words, or at least the bulk of them (with some minor mistakes by the wall-artist), were written by the late British travel writer, Freya Stark. Born in Paris in 1893, Freya exemplified the healthy virtues of travel on the mind and soul - she died, in Italy, at age 100. So, sally forth...
Don't be fooled. This wasn't the friendliest dog I'd ever met.
JULY 29 :: JERUSALEM
We began our first morning in Israel by having bagels from a deli off Ben Yehuda Street... because that isn't the most Jewish thing one could possibly do. After we were done proving the truths behind stereotypes, we set off for the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. Established in 1953 by an act of the Israeli Knesset, Yad Vashem is located on Har Hazikaron, the Mount of Rememberance. (photo: www.yadvashem.org)
This garden pays tribute to the approx. 1.5 million Jewish children who perished during the Holocaust. Needless to say, this was one of the downer portions of the trip. However, just because it is painful, does not mean it should be overlooked. As with these museums and memorials, people should also visit the concentration camps in Europe, just to get a taste of how terrible the atrocities were, and a feel for the horror endured by the prisoners.
Next activity! To brighten our spirits, we ventured over to the Holyland Hotel to get a glimpse of an exact replication of Jerusalem as it looked in 66 A.D. before the Romans ransacked the city. The hotel's late proprietor, Hans Kroch, envisioned and oversaw construction of this model, which was built upon a magnificent hill to a 1:50 scale using authentic materials (stone, marmor, steel). I vaguely recall seeing a sign that instructed visitors not to take photographs of the model of the old city, but I've never really been good at following directions. However, come to think of it... I'm in the photo. That means mom is the true culprit. Authorities, arrest this woman!
JULY 30 :: EIN GEDI (DEAD SEA)
The next morning, we left Jerusalem for the resort town of Ein Gedi, adjacent to the Dead Sea. There was plenty to see and do before wading in those salty waters, and we began our explorations at the nature reserve. Here, at the start of our hike, we were assured that leopards were present in the area. I find this to be a rather useless bit of information as I'd have to guess that most any leopard would be scared away by the presence of three humans - and those that were not would likely devouer us before we had a chance to get away. So, I suppose the sign only serves as fear for the sake of fear. Good times.
Somewhere along the hike, Mom and I stopped for a photo in front of whatever this was. Sadly, in the summer of 2005, nearly two-thirds of this oasis burned to the ground after a tourist dropped a lit cigarette. Stupid humans.
Too sexy for my shirt. Fortunately, by virtue of some oddity in the atmosphere, there exists a limited ultraviolet componant of soloar radiation. This is one of the many health benefits of the region. However, my skin manages to turn red if I sit next to a 40-watt lightbulb for more than three minutes, so I'm certain that I walked away with a nice sunburn. The Dead Sea can be seen far the background.
The payoff at the end of the hike was the Nahal David Waterfalls. Here, in the Yehuda Desert, it's sunny and hot 330 days out of the year. Needless to say, water is important to the region, and the falls offer a refreshing supply of it. (photo: www.bibleplaces.com)
After the falls, we made our way down to the Dead Sea - the lowest exposed point on the Earth's surface at 1,369 feet below sea level. A swim in the Dead Sea is unlike any other swim in the world. Immediately, two things become very clear. The first is that it's virtually impossible to sink. The high salt content creates a level of buoyancy that can keep even the most float-resistant individuals bobbing up and down on the surface. The second thing that one will notice is that the Dead Sea is painful. Even the slightest hangnail becomes the worst thing that has ever happened to you in your entire life once the salt hits it. If you plan to visit the Dead Sea, don't shave or duel in a knife fight at least a day before you dive in. That aside, the Dead Sea is a wonderful place and a healthy experience. The dark mud, in fact, is nutrient-rich, and is even sold in stores. So, as long as you are there, go ahead and slather yourself.
Cleaning off the salt and mud was less than pleasurable, and it made me question the entire purpose of swimming in this body of water where, as the name suggests, nothing can sustain life. However, once we were clean, we checked into the Bet Sarah Hostel and spent the rest of the evening in quiet relaxation. The plan was to go to bed early so we could wake up and watch the sun rise over the Dead Sea.
JULY 31 :: BE'ERSHEVA (MASADA & THE NEGEV)
We rose at the butt-crack of dawn to climb Masada (Hebrew for "Fortress"). It's a commanding mountain, but only manages to summit at 190 feet above sea level - that's normal sea level. One has to remember that we were starting at the lowest spot on Earth. From the Dead Sea, Masada actually rises 1,500 feet. (photo: www.bibleplaces.com)
The fortresses rising along Masada are believed to have been built between 37 and 31 B.C. by Herod the Great... I have no idea who that is. However, it's quite amazing that we were able to pass by these ruins on our way to the top, a vast mesa offering stunning views of the surrounding area and the Dead Sea. Watching the sun rise over Jordan was a humbling experience.
Even after the sun had risen higher in the sky, we still found ourselves looking out over the water. Later, we explored the flat-top, peering in and out of ancient structures. Masada seemed like the pefect place to hold a pay-per-view Pink Floyd concert.
After climbing down the mountain, the three of us packed up and headed away from Masada, passing through this massive oasis on our way to Be'ersheva to visit my mom's cousins from Russia. (photo: www.terragalleria.com)
Further along the way to Be'ersheva, we drove through the Negev Desert. Here we were in a foreign country, thousands of miles away from America... yet, something felt very familiar. It felt like home. In fact, I found much of the Israeli landscape to look just like the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. This was especially true in the Negev. (photo: www.terragalleria.com)
We finally made it out to Be'ersheva and met the Russian cousins. After taking them all out to dinner, I ended up going back to their home, and, at their insistance, spending the night. I'm sure that the closet I slept in was forty degrees warmer than the hotel where Mom and Lucy stayed, but I was grateful for their hospitality and enjoyed spending time with such gracious hosts. It really was a closet, just large enough for a bed and a small, decorative collection of torn out pages from Hebrew "boy band" magazines.
AUGUST 1 :: HAIFA (TEL AVIV / YAFO)
The next morning, after almost sweating to death in the closet, we drove off for a Bedouin market on our way north. Expecting great things from something with such an exotic name, we were rather dissappointed to find ourselves in what ammounted to a bad flea market. After getting hissed at by a woman carrying a large bundle on her head, we decided to get back on the road and make our way to Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean Sea. Greater Tel Aviv is actually two combined cities - Tel Aviv and old Yafo. Both are unique in their own way, offering a combination of modern luxuries and ancient traditions. (photo: www.terragalleria.com)
After hanging out for a short while at the beach, swimming in the Med, we explored more of old Yafo. We were only spending the day in town, so the primary objective was seeing a few of the sights.
Nice hat, stupid. I'm talking about my hat. So, here we are, sitting down for a meal in Yafo... this area is known for having great cuisine, and particularly good sea food. After spending several hours exploring the Israeli coastal metropolis, we finally set off for Haifa in the north. I remember that Haifa reminded me of San Francisco - lots of hills by the ocean. Our lodging was found at the Hotel Beth Shalom Carmel.
AUGUST 2 :: HAIFA (TZFAT & TIBERIAS)
Using Haifa as our home base, we spent the next two days making various day trips. The city itself was quite agreeable, so as to say that it felt very western. Of course, one doesn't go to Israel just to feel like he or she is hanging out around fill-in-the-blank-American-town, but I could see Haifa being a popular place to live for Israelis who seek such comfort. Perhaps it also had something to do with the fact that I was a first time traveler, but I recall being pleased with being able to explore off the beaten track places during the day, but return to such a place like Haifa. (photo: www.unf.edu)
We settled, first, on the beautiful town of Tzfat. As one of the highest places in Israel, Tzfat, and the surrounding area, has always been a strategic site. It makes sense, then, that it has been the staging point for multiple battles, and has changed political hands numerous times. Today, Tzfat exists as an important center of Jewish learning, and is home to artists, sages, and scholars. This was one of the most pleasant places we visited on the trip... until somebody tried to kill mom. After we were done exploring, Lucy and I sat down for a bit while mom went back to a particular artist to purchase a painting. On her way back to meet us, painting in hand, somebody dropped a full 2 liter bottle from a roof, just missing her head. It crashed to the sidewalk. (photo: www.terragalleria.com)
Before heading back to Haifa for the night, we made a visit to Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Built by the son of Herod the Great (again, that name) in honor of the Roman emporer, Tiberias, this town has developed into a resort destination, offering wonderful hot springs. (photo: www.rainfall.com)
AUGUST 3 :: HAIFA (ROSH HANIKRAH & AKKO)
I suppose it would be in order, at this point, to admit that my memory of these last two to three days is terribly hazy. But, believe me... I'm doing my best. The lesson: always keep a journal. Anyway, our first stop on this day's trip was Israel's northwesternmost border at Rosh Hanikrah to explore the blue grotto caves. With stunning cobalt waters lapping up against the stone walls, we truly felt like we were getting a taste for the magic of the Mediterranean.
Every 18 year-old is drafted into the Israeli Army. Men are committed to three years of service, and the women are committed only to two years. Coming from the United States, where our military is all-volunteer, it was startling to see so many young individuals dressed for war. Everywhere we went, from the main strip in Jerusalem to, here, in Rosh Hanikrah, soldiers wander around the streets with surprisingly carefree attitudes. After all, this is something they start preparing for at the age of 16.
So, here's a question: If a young American tourist sticks his leg through the gate between Israel and Lebanon, has he, then, been to both countries? What are the personal accomplishment rules, I wonder, for international travel? Well, I'm certainly not going to give myself credit... but I did make a quality, half-hearted attempt.
Well, Rosh Hanikrah was certainly nice. But what to do next... decisions, decisions. Should I go to Jerusalem, or should I make a run for Beirut? I mean, Jerusalem is nice. But, then again, I've never been to Beirut. Hmm, I wonder - what would Jesus do?
After Rosh Hanikrah, we started heading back for Haifa, planning to stop in Akko for a couple of hours. However, before that, we were able to see some old ruins in the water along the way. This part of Israel truly defies any preconceived ideas one might have of this country. Though I have never been there, I have to imagine that this scenery is similar to that of Greece.
Welcome to Akko. Fortified against the sea, this city has changed hands numerous times throughout its history. The Israelis, of course, claimed it in 1948, the year of her statehood. Though Akko has become somewhat touristy, the fishing village remains a marvelous place to wander. (photo: www.terragalleria.com)
The fortification of Akko includes six walls on three sides of the Med. However, equally intriguing to the city's structure, are its popular religious sites. Having changed hands so many times, Akko boasts not only temples, but the al-Jazzar Mosque and several churches dating from the Crusades. (photo: www.terragalleria.com)
Maybe it's just the man in me, but I have to say that there's nothing better than a good old fashioned cat fight. This photograph was taken moments before these two guys went at it. Mom and I watched for what seemed like a rediculously long time - the fight ended in a draw. Satisfied with the outcome, we drove back to Haifa.
AUGUST 4 :: FLY HOME (JERUSALEM & TEL AVIV)
On my last day in Israel, having left Lucy with other family in Haifa, mom and I drove back down to Jerusalem, making some visits along the way - that's as far as I can elaborate on these stops. I have no idea what we saw. Once we arrived in Jerusalem, after getting painfully lost in Bethlehem (which is less than a good idea), we set out for the highlight of the trip, a visit to the Old City. Divided into four quadrants, the Old City is separated by the Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter, and Armenian Quarter. (map: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org)
The Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter is the last remaining outer wall from the second temple when it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.. This wall probably would have been destroyed as well had the Romans not viewed it as being rather insignificant. Of course, the Western Wall is anything but insignificant to those of the faith, as it has become one of the holiest places in Judaism.
Visitors from all over the world come to see the wall, and may take photographs on any day but Shabbat - the sabbath. Over the centuries, so many visitors have come to offer heartfelt prayer at this holy spot that non-Jews began calling it the Wailing Wall. Up close, one will notice tiny pieces of paper, prayers, stuffed into the cracks of the wall. In all the world, there are few experiences so unique as a visit to the Western Wall. (photo: www.terragalleria.com)
Mom and I were separated when we visited the wall, as men and women worship in separate areas. As I was making my way over, I was stopped by an Orthodox man who offered to cover me in tefillin - two small black boxes with black straps attached to them. Jewish men are required to place one box on their head and tie the other one on their arm each weekday morning. Purists hang out by the wall and "suggest" this to tourists such as myself, mostly for the purpose of preserving tradition. Not knowing exactly what he was doing, I just went along with it, and also allowed him to take a photograph for me (clearly, his balance was a little off). Anyway, he tied the tefillin so tightly that I thought I was going to pass out. However, I managed to make my way over to the wall and offered my prayer. The man then removed the straps from my arm and head, and I was ushered away. That's when mom and I became separated in the confusion. Eventually, after quite some time, we found each other near a tunnel. It was time to go. From the Old City, mom drove me back to Tel Aviv to catch my flight home, and returned to Jerusalem for her conference.