Warning: this is a long one folks. It’s the weekend and my trip to Israel rocked me, in countless ways. So enjoy a coffee, and sit back to experience a magical place, through my scope.
The landscape in Israel is much like the people and religions of the last post: diverse. My daughter made an enormous effort to show me as many amazing places as she could, peppered with countless stories of experiences she’s had in these places, and why they are special to her.
In December, when Smart Guy visited Israel, he and my girl rented a car with navigation, from an Israeli company. They found that their “Israeli navigation” was clearly programed to take them as far as possible out of the way, to avoid coming anywhere near the West Bank, or any other Palestinian area. One day, they were headed to a town that was about 30 minutes from Jerusalem, but the navigation took them a route that took nearly three hours! Each time they tried varying the route, or going another way, the navi scolded them and “insisted” that they stay on the (perceived) safer (read Jewish) route.
During my stay in Israel, a month later, we rented from a Palestinian company. Instead our “Arab navigation” was determined to take us directly into every single Arab or Bedouin village and area that it could, challenging us every chance it got! One day, en route to the Dead Sea, we drove directly through Wadi al-Joz, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem that is distinctly not on the tourist maps. In fact, when students arrive at Hebrew University, or any other program in Jerusalem, they are specifically warned to avoid this area. But there we were:
We were headed out of Jerusalem for the day, and our navigation had us making a left, across a very busy intersection near the Old Wall. I had barely begun to register where we were headed, but my girl knew— it was too late, however. As soon as we made the first couple of turns, it was very clear that we were in a place that we were not really welcome. We stood out like sore thumbs: our (red and blond) hair not covered, our faces exposed, as well as our arms, driving a newer car and looking lost. There was no place to turn around; the rode was winding and narrow, and I knew instantly that I needed to refocus and keep my cool. Every Zero Dark Thirty movie ran through my head as I drove like the Middle Eastern driver I’d become.
I made sure I was not too close to any other car; I did not stop at turns, and I kept my hands firmly on the wheel and drove with intent. Every single face we passed, made eye contact with us, and registered that we were out of our element. One young boy, riding his bike towards us (a photo I would have killed to get) literally lost control of his bike, when he looked up and saw the two of us in his path. I had to smile, despite the situation. All of these wary looks, I reminded myself silently, were warranted. Given what the people of this district have faced, given the conflicts, they had every reason to wonder why we were there. I tried to remind myself of many things, as I silently drove. I spoke calmly to my girl, but admit here that my heart was racing and I was very anxious. At the same time, the thrill was addictive; it’s why I travel to “exotic” places. Being entirely outside your comfort zone is something that’s hard to find at home. That said, it was a huge relief when we turned out of the area, drove through the barbed wire fence, and got onto the highway.
Tel Aviv and Jaffa, on the coast, are warmer and almost tropical. Date palms, and other palm varieties are everywhere. Architecture from ancient times, when the Turks and the Otomons ruled, are abundant. This is a stunning contrast to the ultra modern architecture of downtown Tel Aviv. The rocky coast is battered by a deep blue sea. It reminded me a lot of the Big Sur coastline, of my childhood. (Looking at Tel Aviv from Jaffa; Tel Aviv at night, outside the outstanding Kosher steak house where we ate (loved these three buildings!); Old Jaffa, old buildings; the cats of Old Jaffa- they are everywhere!)
The Dead Sea, however, is a perfect blue against an unforgiving desert background. The land is red and brown, dry and desolate, yet beautiful in its starkness. Palm plantations make for shocking patterns and beauty, set agains the dramatically dry land around it. Delicate flowers were in bloom all over the country, but stood out sharper against the desert. Strange outcroppings of palms, mark where life sustaining springs provide the only consumable water— These Oases are that much more beautiful and mysterious surrounded by so much desert. High cliffs, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered are stunning. Impossible to imagine that tribes of ancient people frequented them to commune with God. My mind kept wandering to the bible stories, set in these areas, so much more dramatic in person, than I had imagined. We hiked to King David’s pools— incredibly beautiful terraces of waterfalls and pools, where young kids and Birthright groups were playing in the water. I was tempted, but had not bathing suit. (King David’s Pools, high in the cliffs; The cliffs/caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were found; goofy mud babies (the Daughter Formerly Known as Prince(ipessa) camouflaged); singing and floating and feeling groovy; the Dead Sea and its rocky shore (Ein Gedi beach)
Floating in the Dead Sea, later, was far more amazing than I’d anticipated: like being totally weightless, in a blue sea. The salt burns and woe be to anyone who has just shaved, or is foolish enough to dive in. Rocks and salt formations make it feel like another planet. A young man played guitar on the shore (1 of only 3 other people besides us) and I found myself harmonizing to Simon and Garfunkle and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which tickled him, as much as it delighted me. Sublime. Of course, we bought some mud and did the classic mud bath as well. The folks at Victoria’s Secred would do well to study the saline properties of the Dead Sea. No need for push up bras there: everything floats. It’s not pretty.
After swimming, we stopped at the Ein Gedi spa and I treated my girl to massages and a soak in the sulphur pools. That was another world as well, as I watched the Eastern European tourists mingle with Bedouins and Arabs, in full head scarfs for the men (think Lawrence of Arabia!) and hijabs (women). I had to work very hard not to stare. Sadly, my girls camera disappeared here at the Dead Sea along with many of our photos. She is an exquisite photographer, and my heart is broken imagining her without her camera. I was grateful that I got my first iPhone days before the trip, as I forgot my camera at home… me, the photo junky (and good I’ll add!). All of the photos I’ve shared were taken with my iPhone (except where noted)!
That night, headed back to Jerusalem from the Dead Sea, our determined navigation took us straight through the middle of the West Bank again— through Bedouin camps and along one of the scariest, cliff hugging roads—with pot holes that would swallow a car, single then double then single again lanes, a drop to hell, and crazy ass drivers flying toward/around and at you. We played Matisyahu on my iPhone and sang Jerusalem. If you don’t know him, check out his music… especially beautiful in the land of the inspiration. We came out of that nightmare and had to pass through one of the tensest Checkpoints I can imagine. Again, the disparity between Israelis, Palestinians, Western faces and Arab was disquieting. One look at us and we were through, while a group of young people, probably coming from the same day trip as us, were emptying their van and being checked head to toe: dogs, guns and soldiers all around. There was a much easier route back to Jerusalem, had we not listened to the navi. However, we’ll dine on that story for years, so no regrets.
The cool, windy landscape of the Golan Heights is marked by farmland, ravines and forests, vineyards where wine is produced, and signs of a cowboy lifestyle. It struck me as so funny to see carved cowboys outside restaurants, and classic cowboy hats on some of the locals. Such classically American (US) symbols felt so out of place in this place, and yet fit in as well. The Sea of Galilee, greets you as you come down from the Golan. The wind swept shores were stunning, and the constant religious sites (Sermon on the mount, remains of St. Peter’s home, the place where Christ walked on water) give constant reminders of the stories of Christ, paralleled by the a remains of countless ancient synagogues. Evidence of the Romans, the Crusades, the bible and Judaism are everywhere! (Ruins along the Galilee (Golan heights, looking to the mountains of Syria; sunset at the Golan heights; paintings inside an ancient olive press, Golan; shores of the Galilee; Ruins of the white synagogue and Christian village at St. Peter’s home; ancient Tiberius, on the Galilee)
The coast from Haifa north brought flat land with farms and empty beaches, giving way to the stark, magnificent cliffs at the border with Lebanon. The beaches on the way up there— miles and kilometers of empty stretches of coast— were a bit depressing. The sand looked more like dirt, and there was lots of debris, in the form of old cement military outposts, rusting cars, and garbage. The garbage was a constant reminder that issues regarding the environment are not as central in Israeli culture as they are where I live. At home, you are scorned for not composting, let alone not recycling. To throw something on the ground is sacrilege. The coast around the Lebanon border however at Rosh-Hanikra, gives way to a rockier coast again, and gorgeous beaches with a few people fishing. The beauty is only only belied by the hostilities between the two countries. This same beautiful landscape is within easy missile distance from Beirut. The people who live there, live there knowing that any change in relations will likely impact them first. The threats are very real. (Students at the border of Rosh-Hanikra, Israel and Beirut, Lebanon; Sea Caves at Rosh-Hanikra; Fisherman on at dusk, near Rosh-Hanikra)
The West Bank splits the country in half and includes all of these landscapes, but the coast. Some Palestinians, who cannot leave the West Bank, grow up within thirty minutes of the sea, but never see it. This piece of land is divisive and controversial, and having driven it, it’s easy to see why. Israel is a nation of survivors. Survivors of the Holocaust, survivors of oppression, survivors of their faith. The politics are extremely complex, and that is most evident in the West Bank. To really drive this land, and see it, makes it easier to see why Israel does not want to give it up. If Canada wanted to take a comparable slice of the U.S., that ran right down the center of the country- east to west- with borders on Mexico- it would be a very difficult thing to live with. I venture to say that Americans would never accept it. That is what the West Bank is: a slice of land, that runs right through Israel, with Jordan flanking it on one side. (driving back through the West Bank and the fertile Jordanian Valley- one side of the road is Israel, the other is Jordan.)
For many Israelis, this land is worth fighting and dying for, and for Palestinians, this is land that they wish to call their own free homeland. Neither side wants to give an acre. While Israelis and Palestinians each see this very differently, it was hard for me to not feel torn throughout my trip. I found myself challenged personally, by prejudices I didn’t even know I had, which complicated the issues further. Israelis looked like Arabs/Palestinians to me, and Arabs looked like Israelis, barring those who were religiously dressed. When I first arrived, they all scared me. That, that fear was a shock for me. I think of myself as liberally minded, and not prejudiced against any one based on ethnicity or culture, but there it was—my irrational, media driven fear. And that kernel of darkness in me, that distrust of people I didn’t know, and had no reason to mistrust, but who based only on looks, made me very uncomfortable. Everyone looked like a potential suicide bomber. “Would this place be a target?” I asked my girl, many place we went, as I eyed the people around me. Would I be able to tell the good guy from the bad? Which side is bad? Everyone seemed a little frightening, despite their smiles and offers of help. I had to really dig deep, push myself emotionally, to apply the same open heart I was offering my girl, to the people she lives around.
It happened. Gradually, I relaxed. As the days went by, I saw the faces individually, and I felt the conflict that lives in those faces, all the time. There were neighborhoods and areas where we knew we were not entirely safe, as Jews, and neighborhoods and areas where we knew that Palestinians were not welcome, or even allowed to enter. I can not imagine Israel giving up the West Bank, I understand why they would fight to defend it, having traveled that place and seen what it would mean— and yet, it was appalling on so many levels to see how Palestinians are treated and how they live. It was appalling to see the massive developments that Right Wing Jews have built in the West Bank— land that had been set aside for the Palestinians— pushing Arabs out of their homes, and off of their land. I had so many questions as we drove around the small country, and these news issues were right there, right before me. The faces became human on both sides, not news stories. I saw the wariness in eyes that wondered where I stood, why I was there, as they wrapped up a pastry, sold me a water, or rented me a car. The Arabs I met were warm and friendly at every turn. The Israelis I met were warm and friendly as well. That makes it that much harder to see them fight and kill each other over a piece of land, that is indeed desirable and rich with history, on both sides.
In India and Africa, I took countless pictures of the people: their faces, their work, the people all around me. In Israel, it was an unspoken understanding that I shouldn’t. Too many issues, too many reasons not to trust? Out of respect for the religious, and those who would prefer to only glance briefly and then look away. I can’t say for sure, but the ones I took were done so with stealth, instead of the usual openness with which I photograph people and places. But those faces are seared in my mind, unforgettable. The young Hassic man on the bus, who caught me watching him, and hid his smile. The young boy on a bike in Wadi al-Joz, and his shocked expression at seeing our shocked expressions. The young Hassidic boy who saw me photographing him and his friends in the King David pools, and then proceeded to show off and goof around, like little boys everywhere (despite the looks of scorn from his teachers). The man selling vegetables in the Mahane Yehuda Market, the Suk, who was pleasantly surprised when I could pick out fresh thyme, without asking. The beautiful faces of my daughter’s friends, when they yelled “Surprise!” at my surpise 50th birthday party… their faces as they sang many versus of God Danced the Day You Born, similar to this. They sang with passion and joy, and it was one of the happiest moments of my life… brought to me by my girl and a room full of strangers, who brought open hearts, joyful voices, and did it for love, of my girl.
I felt loved in so many ways, during my time in Israel. I felt love for so many people I met and for the experiences I had. I felt love for the land, for the faith, and for the people. They all moved me in unanticipated ways. I came with an open heart, and left with a full one.
Note: As I finish this story, Israel and Syria are fighting anew. I hope for peace, and an end to these struggles, for all involved. As a mother, I hope for the safety of my daughter, and all of the other mothers, fathers, daughters and sons I encountered while there. Shabbat Shalom.
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