Two weeks ago, I waxed poetic about our recent trip to New Zealand, but as Israel is our favorite place on Earth, I thought I would share with you some of our favorite people, places and experiences right here at home.
THE KHAKI EXPRESS: On any given Sunday, take the train from Tel Aviv to Beersheba. If you haven’t yet experienced our rail system, it is a real treat: comfortable, efficient, stress-free and reliable. However, this particular day and route offer something very special; you will see hundreds of our young men and woman in uniform returning to base. Some will be teary-eyed, having said goodbye to family and boy/girl friends; others will be jubilantly high-fiving friends and fellow members of their unit.
Almost all of them will be “wired-in,” their cell phones charging in outlets above their seats as they listen to music, watch videos or talk – if they can stay awake. Weapons at their side, leaning upon their very heavy backpacks – this is the weekly ritual of our children- warriors performing the most valuable of services, as they trade their sandals and shorts for body armor and boots. It is a guaranteed, start of the week picker-upper, what I call the Ride of Pride.
NATURE, ON THE ROCKS: When you want to really get away from it all, there is no place better than the Dor Habonim Nature Reserve, just off Highway 4 near Zichron Ya’acov – considered by many the finest beach in all of Israel. As paragliders float overhead, you can sit on the massive rocks that dot the beach and watch the waves as they crash to shore. There is something about rushing water that is at once soothing and spectacular.
THE WALL: The Kotel is the spiritual core of the Holy Land. The last surviving wall that once surrounded the Beit Hamikdash, it is among the 10 most visited sites in the world, attracting visitors from every country and culture (I love seeing notes stuffed in the crevices of the wall written in Chinese!). It has become somewhat commercialized – especially on Monday and Thursday mornings, when the often all-too-raucous bar mitzva ceremonies can get out of hand (I actually witnessed, I kid you not, a young man being brought to the entrance of the Old City atop an ornately-dressed camel!).
And the overheated controversy over who can pray where and with what accoutrements has certainly detracted from the dignity of the site.
Yet it remains eternally awesome and authentic. I find nothing more spiritually satisfying than coming to the Kotel in the late afternoon and sitting at the very back, facing the massive stone wall. There, as the shadows lengthen, I can think about God and Jewish history, imagining all that the Kotel has seen throughout the generations, all the stories it could tell. I think about all the millions of Jews throughout the centuries – my own parents included – who were fervent Zionists who dreamed of Jerusalem, yet never made it here.
START HORSING AROUND: I am an unabashed lover of the North. The Galilee and the Golan are resplendent with their rolling green hills, blue waters of the Kinneret and majestic Mount Hermon in the background. Any visit there is – literally – a breath of fresh air.
There are any number of ways to enjoy this national treasure: You can hike the many wadis and trails that abound; you can swim in or take a boat out on the Kinneret. However, our favorite pastime is riding horses upon the ridges and plateaus of the Golan. Confess, people: Who among you out there did not dream of being a cowboy? Well, for at least a day your dream can come true right here in the untamed Golan.
There are many stables to choose from; our favorite is the Ranch at Moshav Ramot, where British expat Justine and husband Uri (Curly) Peleg will take you on a breathtaking ride along the heights.
BE A BIG WHEEL: There is an old joke about a man who comes into a bank, brandishing a gun. “Give me all your money!” he demands from the surprised teller.
However, as he begins to put the cash in a bag, the alert teller looks up and says, “Hey! That’s a water pistol you’re holding!” “Yes, that’s true” says the robber, “but the water is from the Yarkon!” Polluted as the Yarkon may be, it’s still a charming river, right in the midst of Tel Aviv. One of the best ways to spend a sunny afternoon is to bike in Park Yarkon, our local, miniaturized version of New York’s Central Park. You can rent a bike there or bring your own. It’s also ideal for picnics, paddle boating or just plain people watching.
The extensive bike paths wind along the meandering river and will take you to the revitalized port of Tel Aviv – with its many avant-garde cafes – and all the way to Jaffa and Bat Yam. If you can wisely avoid using an electric bike – Israel’s latest obsession – you’ll get some healthy exercise to boot! MAGICAL MYSTICAL TOUR: There are some places where you don’t have to do anything special to have a great time – just being there is enough. The holy city of Safed is one of those places. Just walking its ancient streets or visiting any of its historic synagogues will put you in a mystical mood. Perhaps because it is a bit off the beaten track, it has avoided becoming a tourist trap – with the thankful exception of the annual, amazing Klezmer Festival. It is authentic and unpretentious, as invigorating and refreshing as its crisp mountain air.
It also boasts one of Israel’s finest art colonies.
Whenever I visit, I make a point of stopping at the Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art, where American-born artist Avraham Loewenthal gently tutors visitors in the basics of Kabbala. Spirituality shines forth marvelously from his evocative paintings.
HUSTLE, BUSTLE AND BARGAINS: When the Iron Curtain came down and planeloads of Russian Jews started coming to Israel, two of the first places they were taken to were the markets of Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda and Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market.
Coming from a country where the shelves were largely bare and the store offerings were skimpy, the new immigrants were so astounded by the bounty and variety of Israeli produce and products that they thought this was a clever trick to convince them to move here rather than elsewhere in the West.
The shuk is Israeli energy at its rawest – the pushing, the yelling, the haggling over goods of every type is quintessentially Middle Eastern, and is the perfect counterpoint to our high-tech side. The vendors are legendary, the bargains are real, and you’ll be wondrously transported back to an era and style of commerce that you just don’t get from reading a history book.
Now how about sharing some of your favorite Israeli experiences? The writer is director of Ra’anana’s Jewish Outreach Center and a member of the Ra’anana City Council. ([email protected])