I arrived Thursday, May 15th to the smiling face and open arms of my daughter, Anna, who had just finished her ten-day Birthright tour of Israel. We were delighted to arrive at the Savoy Hotel– a charming, little boutique hotel in a Tel Aviv neighborhood just down the block from miles of beautiful beaches on the Mediterranean Sea. I was immediately struck by the site of mezzuzahs on not only the entrance to the hotel, but on every hotel room door !!
After settling in, we were excited to find a little outdoor rooftop terrace overlooking the sea and the city behind us. As the sun started to set we took a leisurely stroll along the promenade that goes along the coastline. We then enjoyed a relaxing dinner at one of the seaside eateries, London.
Both of us were exhausted after my 13-hour flight and Anna’s 10 day excursion, so we decided to get to bed early. We woke up on Friday to the sun beaming through our window and ready to join the hundreds of Israelis and tourists all converging on the outdoor Shuk-HaCarmel market. We pushed our way through the vibrant and colorful market that was lined by fruit, vegetable and bread vendors and everything else you could ever need or imagine. We of course had to stop at the Halavah vendor to purchase our first Israeli dessert . We bought a chunk of pistachio Halavah- it was delicious. I thought of Berry who would have most certainly bought the entire cart of Halavah. We then waited at a hot hole in the wall place to get my first Falafel of the trip. We pushed our way through the dozen Birthright participants all trying to order in their broken Hebrew- luckily I had Anna to help.
We stood on the street corner enjoying our felafel with “chips” – french fries – that they put in the pita with the felafels, veggies, etc.
We enjoyed some beach time in the afternoon before having a wonderful reunion with my friend Tzipi – who was a young social work student when I first met her in Israel in 1974. It was delightful to reconnect with Tzipi after all this time. Tzipi has accomplished much in her life both personally and professionally and is the proud mother of three daughters and two grandchildren, all living in Israel.
Anna, Tzipi and I enjoyed another wonderful dinner on the shore of the Mediterranean sea and kept the evening going with tea and a delicious dessert, listening to the waves and watching all the people spending a Shabbat evening strolling along the sea.
Shabbat morning found Anna and I riding bikes along the sea, where we came upon a dog beach filled with all shapes and sizes of dogs happily romping on the sand and swimming in the sea. We also passed a large group of people doing Israeli zumba dancing outdoors overlooking the beaches. We then joined the throngs of people quickly filling up every inch of space on the beaches.
Saturday evening we ventured out to make the 30 minute walk along the beach to old Jaffa, the first port city in Israel. Unfortunately it was dark out and we had no idea where we were going so after winding up and down through some deserted passaageways, we found a quaint little restaurant to have dinner in and then returned to the hotel to pack for our next day’s excursion to Eilat.
We had a quick flight to Eilat, flying mostly over mountainous, desert landscapes. Eilat is the southern most city in Israel, bordered on the East by Jordan, which we could easily see from our hotel, and yesterday, when it was quite clear out, we could see the mountains of Egypt, and I think Saudi Arabia in the far distance.
We are staying in the beautiful Dan Eilat Hotel, with it’s giant, gently blowing palm trees, beautiful pools and a beach on the Red Sea.
Our room has a large porch overlooking the sea, where I am now sitting to write this blog. I am apologizing up front if the blogs rarely appear. We are finding we are so tired in the evenings that it is difficult to write. Yesterday, we struck up a conversation with a man and his daughter at the pool because we noticed he was wearing a Detroit t-shirt. He is Israeli but went to college at Berkley and has spent a lot of time in the States. We had a great talk about Israeli and U.S. politics, people, etc.
Like Tel Aviv, there are a lot of outdoor restaurants overlooking the sea – my favorite way to dine. Today Anna and I did our one really touristy thing and went to the Eilat aquarium and rode the boat with windows under the sea so we could see the coral and tropical fish that Eilat is known for. This was probably the one disappointing outing of the trip so far. I have seen much nicer aquariums elsewhere and we probably would have gotten a better view of the coral reefs if I wasn’t such a chicken and had been willing to go snorkeling.
Not that I’m complaining, but the heat here is really wearing us out, so I think we may eat at an indoor restaurant tonight, then pack and get ready for the next leg of our journey tomorrow – Jerusalem !!!!!
So, I told myself I would sit down at the end of every night and blog. I set reminders on my phone for every evening at 10pm. Whenever those reminders would go off I would simply hit “dismiss”. At the end of each day I was simply overwhelmed by the amount of information I had just taken in and the beautiful sites I had visited that I had no idea where to start writing. My mind has been engulfed by hundreds of thoughts and reflections of the incredible things I did each day on Taglit Birthright. There were sometimes when I would be visiting a site and find some inspiration of something I wanted to write about, but by the time I would get back to the hotel and have access to wifi I was extremely exhausted and all I could think about was trying to get some sleep before we had to be up the next morning around 7 am for another full day of exploration.
Now that Taglit Birthright is over and I have been afforded the opportunity to travel from the North of Israel all the way to the South, my mind has forgotten what I did each day. I started keeping notes in a journal about key points from each place I visited, but it started to become more of a task than anything enjoyable. I wanted to really live in the moment at each place and not have to stop and worry about finding my pen (that was often buried at the bottom of my backpack) and finding a moment to collect my thoughts and write about different moments. I found the itinerary from my trip, and decided to give you all an overview of the different places I visited.
We arrived at Ben Gurion airport at the wee-hours of the morning and immediately boarded a bus to Tel Aviv. We arrived at Rabin Square where we met the five soldiers that accompanied us on our ten-day trip. This birthright trip was a special gift to these soldiers who are reaching the end of the military service.
It was really strange to arrive in Tel Aviv, a city much like Manhattan, that is normally surrounded by people, but on this day it was empty. All the stores had been closed and there was no one in site, well except other Birthright groups doing the same activity we were doing. Tel Aviv was shut down because it was Israel’s Independence day and everyone was pretty much recovering from the night before where they were out celebrating this amazing country.
We did an interesting activity, although at the time, it seemed horribly boring since I had only slept for about two hours on my flight. We were divided into groups each led by a soldier. We ran around Tel Aviv trying to find different clues that were part of an interactive game. To be honest, I don’t even remember what our mission was. I was pretty much in LA-LA land due to the lack of sleep and wanting to stop and stare at all the interesting store windows that I passed while running through the streets. Also, I spent most of the activity talking to the people in my group who I had just met and was going to share the next ten days with…. I don’t think I even really participated in the game… ooops.
That night we drove to the Northern part of Israel where we were staying. I told myself I would not sleep on the bus rides like I did last time in Israel because I wanted to see the land. However, the moment I got in a seat I passed out and woke up due to a crazy feeling of nausea as we drove through the winding mountains of the north.
The kibbutz we stayed on was called Kibbutz Ortal. It was a winery and absolutely beautiful… not a five-star hotel, but definitely worth the stay. And although we did not get to do a wine tasting while at the Kibbutz, we made sure to take advantage our ability to purchase alcohol at the age of 19!
Our third day in Israel was spent exploring Israel’s security situation in the Golan Heights, one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. (I might say that about everything I see in Israel, but its true, everything here is beautiful). We went to Tsfat, a place my mom has been telling me about forever. It is this old cobblestone town in the mountainside of the North, reminded me a lot of what Greece looks like. Tsfat is the center of Jewish mysticism and is connected by different narrow alleyways that are lined in Jerusalem stone and bright blue doors everywhere. We were given a tour and brief history of the area, that is the part I forgot. I do remember have my first Falafel sandwich of this trip, which was beyond scrumptious. It was from this little hole-in-the wall place. After eating, a few friends and I ventured into the various Kabbalistic art galleries and explored the little town.
After walking around Tsfat we went kayaking down the Jordan River… well more like floating since they were not really kayaks. We were given these little blow-up rafts and sent down the river on our own. Good thing there was no current so we had nothing to worry about. Our arms were tired by the end since we had to push ourselves down this two-mile trail. It was so relaxing to just float down this river, which was surrounded by beautiful trees and nature and I could not stop thinking about where I was.
After “kayaking” we went to Mt. Bental, which overlooks the abandoned Syrian town of Kuneitra. This overlook allows you to see right into Syria and the border with Israel. I was not really paying attention to our tour guide as she gave a history of the security situation. I was exhausted from the day and was just trying to grasp how close Israel really is with Syria. While on the top of Mt. Bental we heard a loud boom… everyone stopped and looked at each other. While on this overlook we heard a bomb and saw smoke coming from Syria, probably no further than 5 miles away. It really hit me then, while I stared off into the distance trying to take in the beautiful site, how crucial Israel’s security is and also how horrible it must be for the Syrian people to be living with bombings everyday. Everyone was freaking out and our tour guide ensured us that everything was going to be okay, this was a daily occurrence in Syria. It was really hard to focus on anything after that interruption, but I soon found my self lost in the beautiful sights of the mountains surrounding us and the lush green land below.
We left the North and headed to Jerusalem. The bus ride was about four hours, but I somehow remained awake. I put on my headphones and listened to my “Israel playlist” that consisted of various songs I heard while I was in Israel two years ago. I was so excited to be back in Jerusalem that I could not close my eyes. We drove along the Jordan Valley, which is part of the enormous Syrian-African rift. It was the most beautiful scenery ever.
We drove into Jerusalem with the shades drawn on the bus and blindfolds on all of our faces. At first I bitched about this because I just wanted to see Jerusalem. However, after we exited the bus and held onto the persons shoulders in front of us and were instructed to lift our blindfolds, I understood how amazing that experience was. I thought I remembered exactly what Jerusalem looked like, but when I lifted the blindfold I was delighfully surprised at what I was looking at. It was the Jerusalem I had remembered but even better.
Day’s 5-7 were spent in Jerusalem visiting the Old City and the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, the places that I feel most connected to. I honestly cannot remember these days in detail, but when I visit them again with my mom I will let you know my feelings! Nonetheless, Jerusalem was stunning as usual and left me with goosebumps and a strong desire to go back.
We woke up at 5:30 am, ate breakfast, and embarked on a journey “down south”. We drove through the barren desert land and rode along through the narrow, steep, curved desert roads. We arrived at the bottom of Masada, Herod’s mountain palace and site of the Jewish Zealots’ last stand against the Roman Legionnaries. We discussed Masada’s role as a symbol of Jewish defense and its current significance in modern times. The hike up was hot, but not too bad. The worst part, walking down the very steep, curved, rocky snake path that I fell down last time I did this hike. Thankfully, I made it down (after going very slowly) without falling and was able to turn around and reflect on the crazy path I took down to one of the lowest points on earth. After hiking we floated in the Dead Sea, the craziest feeling ever… it was amazing to be able to just sit in this water and my entire body floated. It was a great experience, until the intense amount of salt started to burn my body.
That night, we went to the Bedouin tents where we enjoyed a Hafla Dinner at the camp in the desert and learned about the Bedouin tribes. The sleeping arrangments were not my favorite, a sleeping bag, which was not mine, in a sandy, dirty tent with a lot of people who snored. Lets just say, I did not sleep that night. But, I did really enjoy this break from reality and took time to appreciate what I have and the beauty of the natural surroundings.
That night, our tour guide took us out into the open desert where we all laid in the sand and looked at the stars. This was the first time I really had time to myself in the past days and the first time since my summer program last summer that I felt truly at peace. Well, that was until fighter jets flew above and the silence of the night was disturbed. I was quickly reminded of how the fact that no matter how beautiful and peaceful Israel may seem at times, there are always potential threats to her security and you have to always appreciate the peaceful moments and quiet moments you get, even if they are not often.
We woke up at 5:30 am to watch the desert sunrise, absolutely stunning. We then rode Camels through the desert… definitely a once-in a lifetime experience, and by that I mean I will never do it again. The Camels scared the shit out of me. The one behind me kept putting its face right next to me and give me the scariest look… and the way it moved its jaw was not pleasing.
After we left the Bedouin tents we went to Ein Avdat Nature reserve (I have pictures on facebook). It was the hardest climb I have ever done in my life. We had to climb up laders in the side of the cliffs and trek up all these narrow pathways that were very slippery. However, when I made it to the top, which I did not think I would, I looked down at the amazing rock formations and just smiled. I accomplished a goal of mine, and was so delighted to see the amazing views below and the small waterfall in the middle of the desert.
Our last major stop on our trip was to the Salad Trail where we met Uri Alon, a local expert argonomist on a farm in the Northern Negeve. This man cultivated the barren land into massive greenhouses where he grew fruits, vegetables and medicinal herbs. We were able to walk around these green houses and pick fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots and I even ate some plants 🙂
If you know me, you know I am big on the whole farm to table movement and I loved being able to pick my own fruits and vegetables and just eat them. It was so incredible to step outside of these fields and remember that I was in the middle of the desert.
So, birthright has come to and end and I cannot say enough good things about the past ten days. The places I visited and the people I met made my second experience in Israel everything I had hoped for.
Now my second adventure has begun with my mom, and our journey has just begun.
Check out my facebook from pictures I am tagged in from Birthright.. I did not take my own pictures.
P.S I am blogging from the rooftop of our hotel and it is so incredible up here I don’t think I can move from this spot.
We have finally arrived to Jerusalem, one of my favorite places in the entire world. There is nothing more amazing than walking up to the Old City with hundreds of people from all walks of life, Jewish and non-Jewish.
If you know me, you know I love being in big cities full of people and life. I often get so caught up in daily life and I am really bad at staying in the present. I am always thinking about what comes next. In Israel, however, I find myself only focusing on the present. I know people in Israel have such difficult lives and have major daily struggles that no one could imagine, but it seems like many of the people here don’t care what happened yesterday or what may happen next. The present is the only thing on their mind.
I was nervous about being placed in Jerusalem for my internship. I was worried what I would do in a city that shuts down on Friday nights through Saturday night to observe the Sabbath. But, this first Shabbat here reminded me how important it is to take time to just relax and enjoy the day spent in beautiful Jerusalem. There is no need to worry about yesterday and no need to worry about tomorrow.
This city reminds me to just sit back and appreciate what is right in front of me and the people around me. It is almost like my senses are heightened to my surroundings. I love it here. I love the different people that make this city so great.
I struggle with understanding the very observant people in this place, but I have come to just accept them and their way and try to remind myself that we should all be able to coexist and spend Shabbat the way we want to.
I am currently sitting in a park in the middle of an orthodox neighborhood watching all the orthodox children run around in 80 degree weather with long sleeve shirts and pants. They are adorable and I want to take them all back to the states.
I love it here and cannot wait for the rest of the summer.
So… 13 hour flight and I somehow only managed to sleep for about 30 minutes. I put my headphones in, turned on my Israel music playlist to set the mood and hoped I would drift off into a sleep and wake up hearing the flight attendants playing Hatikvah. I woke up, little did I know, about a half hour after I fell asleep and thought I had slept for hours. Checked my watch and couldn’t believe only a minimal amount of time had passed. Perhaps my mind is so caught up in the adventures that lie ahead that there is no time to rest.
Oh well, that’s one of the things about travel I have become quite accustomed too. No sleep and always on the go. We have about two hours until landing and I have lost any hope of gaining sleep and have just convinced my self that sleep won’t be necessary… I will be so excited to get off this plane and start touring that I will quickly forget I have gone about 23 hours with no sleep. I will sleep when I’m dead, when in Israel there is too much to do and no time to sleep.
Had I slept on this flight I would have missed out on great conversations with the two women sitting on both sides of me. They asked me why Americans are so fat. At first I was kind of offended and then I started to wonder what was I offended for? American society prides itself on meat and carbs. Although I love a good bagel and French fries, Israelis are always so shocked at how poorly balanced our meals are. For breakfast, the lady next to me told me, she was given potatoes, bacon, eggs, sausage, a waffle, English muffin and a cheese Danish. She said that would never happen in Israel. I think that’s one of the things I will be adding to my list of reasons why I need to move to Israel: a good sense of portion control and an understanding of what a truly balanced meal is.
Sorry mom, I haven’t even ha a chance to kiss the ground in Israel yet and I already know I won’t be ready to leave after just three months. I have been on many many flights before and never have I been on a flight with complete strangers, from two different worlds, a language barrier and felt so comfortable and had so much to talk about. I LOVE ISRAELIS. I love Israel and I cannot wait to touch down.