Imagine Israel

By | Category: Travel destinations

Many tourists view Israel with trepidation, but Irene is enchanted by this intriguing country

I never really wanted to travel to Israel. I am Jewish, but was raised in a non religious home and am not religious now. Even though I have always strongly identified with my Jewish heritage and culture, I felt like Israel would not welcome someone like me, and I was worried about the violence I had read about for years. Tonight, I realised just how wrong I was, after my visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, standing among the astonishingly diverse, feverishly excited crowd, rushing together for Friday night Shabbat prayer.

Dead Sea

The sea of people was an unlikely, fascinating, esoteric stew of a thousand or so, separated into sections for men and women. In the men’s section, ultra-Orthodox Jews in exotic costumes of tall, enormous, round fur hats, elegant satin robes and long sidecurls, modern devout Jews in conservative garb and yarmulkes, and in the other side sat primly dressed and wigged women and long-skirted young girls. Both sides were mixed together with a motley crew of the rest of us – sporting just about anything, from jeans to sundresses to shorts and Nike T-shirts. Sidecurled young boys tousled with each other while harried men determinedly pushed through them to get to their desired spots close to the wall before sundown. Everyone seemed to have a single focus– some with a religious joy, others weeping with emotion, some, like me, mesmerised and moved by the incredible sights and sounds all around me. Like a gigantic party, albeit a sacred one, I too felt swept up in the sea of passion, despite being a secular Jew and not in the least religious. The sheer emotion of the scene moved me and somehow, I felt a part of it.

What’s your Israel? The one that religious Jews revere, with the Western Wall, King David’s mountaintop capital, and Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, along with countless other holy sites? Or the Christian pilgrimage centre, where thousands come from all over the world to baptise themselves in the River Jordan, to worship at the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and to see such Biblical sites as Mary’s Spring? Perhaps the Israel you seek is the one that is home to the mosques on the Temple Mount and to Islamic Museum. Maybe you revel in archaeology, and such fantastic excavations as Mount Masada and the Roman ruins at Cesarea thrill you. Or maybe you love to stroll and soak in the street life of this outdoorsy, lively new nation – where Tel Aviv’s nightlife is renowned and the crystal clear waters of the beaches are unsurpassed in their beauty, and the Mediterranean food is healthy and delicious. This is a tiny nation with an enormous history, variety of attractions and incredible diversity of people. Whatever YOUR Israel dream is, don’t deprive yourself of the rest of this country – Israel has much more than you knew.

Created in 1948 to give a safe haven to the 200,000 or so Jews who remained after Hitler’s slaughter of six million of their brethren, Israel measures just under 8,000 square miles, surrounded by much larger countries, most of which have an enduring animosity towards it. While each young Israeli, men and women alike, are required to complete military service, visitors do undergo rigorous security checks when entering and departing (although you probably will NOT have to remove shoes and they somehow let water bottles through!) the only time you will really be aware of the volatile political situation is when subjected to routine road check stations at various points around the country, especially around the areas under Palestinian responsibility, or at high risk areas such as the Western Wall. Otherwise, you’ll see people strolling, milling about and frolicking on the beaches and in the parks as you would in any other country – you’ll likely forget all about the conflicts you hear about daily in the news.

Masada

Jews, whether religious or secular, feel a special kinship here. They might want to retrace the steps of Abraham, made some 4,000 years ago, those of King David (3,000 years ago,) or of the site of Masada, where heroic Jews resisted at the last bastion against the Roman legions at King Herod’s mountaintop fortress palace. They visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, to seek news on family members who perished, and pray at the Western Wall. They stroll the ancient streets and alleys of Jerusalem and wonder at the growing sense of pride in their people, who have somehow survived the thousands of years of massacres, pogroms, sieges and Hitler. They marvel at the tenacity and faith of a peaceful people who never evangelise, never take on conquests, yet have thrived despite all odds. Their sense of Judaism blossoms. Not religious? It won’t matter. You’ll return home with a whole new sense of your identity and history.

Yardenit

Christians come individually or in large pilgrimage groups from all over the world, visiting such holy sites as Yardenit, a baptismal site on the not-so-wide River Jordan. This idyllic, pretty setting is very organised, with a US$15 fee covering a rented baptismal white robe, towel and baptismal certificate. Yardenit sports signs in a dizzying multitude of languages (some I’d never heard of – Fang from Equatorial Guinea?!) to welcome the devout Christians who come there to dip themselves in sacred waters. They pray at Nazareth, Bethlehem, and the countless other Biblical sites they’ve learned about for years. I saw them weeping with devotion at Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, kissing the ground at Mary’s Spring and singing out at various other places.

Caesarus

 

History buffs won’t find a dull moment here – besides the Jews, Christians and Muslims, there are fantastically preserved Roman ruins in Cesarea, Masada, Jerusalem, Jaffa, and more. Ottoman ramparts, Napoleonic remnants, the mysterious Essene settlement’s caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were waiting, undiscovered, for 2,000 years, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Assyrians, Persians – they all had a part in this little country’s ancient history.

Jaffa, Tel Aviv

Some come for the nature and wildlife as a side or as the main focus. The Mediterranean beaches at Haifa and Tel Aviv are wide, with silky-soft golden sand and clear, turquoise, warm water with gentle waves – absolutely some of the world’s finest. Israelis love the beach and you’ll find them there daily, many playing the seemingly national sport of beach ping pong with wide wooden paddles and floatable rubber balls. Join in – they’re happy to give you a turn! Israel has it all – whitewater river rafting, snorkeling and diving at the Coral Beach Nature Preserve in the spectacular southern resort of Eilat, hiking, caving, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, bird-watching (Israel is a major spot on the bird migration route from Africa,) mountain biking, fishing and even a bit of snow skiing in the winter!

Nightlife and dining enthusiast? Israel won’t disappoint. While mostly slim and active, Israelis love to eat and embrace their lively restaurant scene where a Mediterranean diet, heavy on vegetables and fish, predominates. If you want it, however, you can find pork and even such things at McDonalds (I was a bit disheartened to find outlets of the Golden Arches at the remote Dead Sea and even at the Visitors’ Center at Masada.) The club scene is especially hot in Tel Aviv, with a wide variety of nightclubs and bars open to the wee morning hours, even during the week. You’ll find gay bars, straight bars, funk bars, blues bars – even an Orthodox kosher club with yarmulke-clad men bopping to the beat like anywhere else. They’ll welcome you into their group dance with open arms – don’t resist it!

On my last day in Israel, having toured the delightfully Mediterranean old city of Jaffa, with its narrow stone alleyways curving to display tiny bistros and shops, we drove back to our hotel to pack. It was a sunny, breezy day, and the bouganvilleas tumbled down the walls in purple and pink glory. Passersby seemed unhurried and peaceful. Suddenly, John Lennon’s Imagine came on the radio, and I was touched. Perhaps Lennon meant something like Israel when he wrote this song – a place where seemingly diametrically opposed groups could coexist. I’d met two young boys, a Muslim and a Jew, who told me proudly that they were best friends. I saw multihued groups of people playing beach ping pong. I saw Muslims and Jews shopping for pita bread at the same bakery, and eating falafels at the same counter. I think Lennon would have been happy in Israel. I imagine so.

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