“It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn.”
* * * * * * * *
I started what was to be an exhaustive daily journal for this trip but discovered quickly that there would be no time for such pleasures. We chose the adventure tour, through the backdoor, demanding that every drop be squeezed from our short ten days in the Promised Land, squeezed like fresh pomegranate juice into the cups of our desire to broaden our horizons once again. And we got every bit of that, and more. A whirlwind of wonder from wheels down to wheels up.
There were seven of us total and we were usually out of the apartment by 7 AM, if not earlier, and by the time we returned we were physically spent and thinking only of showers and a warm bed. No energy left for words, much less pecking on a keyboard until the late hours. We averaged around 19,000 steps per day which works out to between 8 and 10 miles, give or take some. We saw, heard, and experienced so much that all I can say to anyone now is this: just go to Israel. Take my word for it, it’s worth every penny spent.
Instead of the aforementioned daily journal I’m attempting a little different kind of travelogue, one written after the fact and focused more on impressions and inspirations. To list every site we saw along with the extensive accompanying background and history would require a book and that certainly won’t happen with my current schedule! I hope to give just a little glimpse into this fascinating country of so many contrasts, cultures and contradictions. As always, this is my interpretation of a place, seen from my worldview and perspective only. Enjoy!
* * * * * * * *
THE PEOPLE – Soldiers to Shepherds and ragtag bands of Arabs in the sun
“The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian, rose up, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed; and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
(“Concerning The Jews,” Harper’s Magazine, 1899)
“Energy is the basis of everything. Every Jew, no matter how insignificant, is engaged in some decisive and immediate pursuit of a goal… It is the most perpetual people of the earth…”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
German dramatist, novelist and poet (1749 – 1832)
* * * * * * * *
Jews and Arabs – A common question since we’re back: So, what were the people like? A fair but rather difficult question but here goes some general impressions regarding the two main groups you meet in Israel—the Jewish Israelis and the Arab Palestinians, who represent approximately 75% and 20% of the population, respectively.
The Israelis, statistically almost all Jewish, seemed more intellectual, focused, and were perhaps not quite as welcoming and friendly. I noted that the women, in general, dressed in a conservative black, were often seen in skirts and wearing a head-band or headdress—but perhaps this was observed more due to the fact that when touring Jerusalem we mostly hung out in the old city. The Orthodox Jewish men (Hasidic and/or Ultra-Orthodox likely) were seen in black suits, a yarmulke adorning their heads, strings hanging from their pants, and the rather curious long braids of hair curling down on each side of their face. Heads down, they moved fast through the old city and seemed distracted and pre-occupied, perhaps engaged in some precise and immediate pursuit of a goal. We got the first taste of their intense religious fervor already on the plane—in the wee hours of the morning, with a few hours left before arrival, men around us stood up, adorned themselves with a kittel, a wrap-around white and black-striped cotton robe, and took out their instruments of religious devotion. Once so adorned they got to the serious work of silently chanting their morning prayers, mouths moving, eyes closed in reverence. These were the same men that had earlier argued and bickered over overhead baggage space, citing their rights to place as many and as much luggage as they wished in the spaces provided, thank-you very much.
We had the opportunity to observe the Orthodox Jews in worship numerous times during our stay. Some wrapped black bands around their arms and strapped a small black box to their heads—these are called phylacteries or tefillin and I believe they take these practices from Exodus 13:9 and 6 as well as Deuteronomy 11:18. It is interesting to note Jesus commenting on this exact same practice in Matthew 23:5: “But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments…”
It felt like the Orthodox Jews really had no time of day for anyone other than themselves and their God. To be fair, we had two Jewish guides, one on the Western Wall tunnel tour and one that took us through the digs of the City of David and Hezekiah’s tunnel who were delightful; personable, funny, and fun. So, there you go. All different, like humans everywhere.
The Palestinian’s, on the other hand, seemed happy-go-lucky, welcoming, more curious, friendly, and fun-loving. Staying in the West Bank we received a good picture of Palestinian city life. Abu Dis—the town we stayed in—Jericho, and Bethlehem, for example, are all located in the West Bank, that is, Palestinian-held territory. We were privileged to have numerous interesting interactions with Palestinians of various stations in life. In Jericho, at the top of the cable car station, a group of young college students, girls all, their bright young faces shining out of their bourkas, surrounded us and wanted to practice their English and take selfies with us. We found them rather delightful, like a flock of beautiful birds, preening and posing, blowing us kisses as we boarded the cable car for the trip down. Other encounters were with Arab food sellers, mostly curious, amused young men, eager to please, eager to stuff a little extra shawarma meat into that pita bread or add an extra baclava to the plastic platter. And we must not neglect to mention their driving: risky, dangerous, and highly entertaining. As they say, “The use of a turn signal is a sign of weakness.”
The Bedouins – These are a traditionally and historically nomadic people that have roamed and ranged the Middle East since time immemorial. You see pictures of them crossing the desert on their camels, flowing robes, long cloth headdresses. I suppose they would be considered Arabs although I believe they are classified in their own socio and ethnological category, sort of like the gypsies of Eastern Europe. We saw Bedouin camps from the outskirts of Jerusalem down south to the Red Sea. I don’t recall seeing any north of Jericho, that is, north of the desert regions. A rough-cut people in a harsh and unforgiving environment, drawing the nutrient of life from some deep invisible source, like a true desert flower.
We had an interesting interaction with one Bedouin family, a mother and her son, as we were hiking down in the canyons between Jericho and Jerusalem. As we splashed our way up-stream we met this young lad—one of numerous young shepherds we saw that day— herding his goats over the steep rocks. He was a sober sort but curious and friendly, watching us carefully while guiding his long floppy-eared charges. His mother, who we met a few minutes later, further up the path, was personable, smiling and gesturing to us in a flurry of hand signals. She was evidently quite concerned for us as the rocky water-path we were taking was heading into high water and she gestured that it would be above our heads. She pointed up the steep hillside, indicating that we needed to climb higher and take the upper trail (indeed, the old Jericho road), which we proceeded to do. Heath and Jeanie, our beloved and intrepid guides, had been on this hike before and knew about the high water, the required climbing up and through a waterfall, the wading against rushing water through narrow canyon walls. As we climbed higher we looked across the narrow wadi and noted this lady’s camp in a rocky overhang where she had a large black skillet hanging over an open fire. We assumed she lived there with her small family, at least in the spring months, when the grass was green and the goat and sheep herds were free to roam. Likely they came from a village or settlement higher up the canyon somewhere.
Ladies with machine guns – I must mention the young ladies with machine guns. To be honest, carrying automatic weapons by anyone seemed rather commonplace, even by the occasional individual dressed in civilian clothes. I used to fret, and I admit I still do, upon seeing a fellow American here in a supermarket wearing a gun on his hip. It doesn’t seem safe to me—what if I tick him off by taking the last banana? But in Israel I think it made me feel safer—literally everyone here has gone through the army at some point and been well-trained to operate these rather sinister-looking devices.
I had the opportunity to speak to two young ladies at the baptismal site on the Jordan river. They both looked to be about 13 (no doubt they were at least 18), dressed in full battle gear, carrying machine guns equipped with grenade launchers. They were friendly and happy to tell me about themselves, a little shyly at first, not sure of their English. They said that every youth, both male and female, must fulfill a 2 year and 8 month stint in the military. I asked them if they knew how to use their weapons and they flashed wide smiles and said, “Oh yeah, we do!” They waved their arms around the four points of the compass and said, just look around, we are surrounded by enemies, we must be ready at all times.
The soldiers were always of interest to us. Large “youth groups” of them on street corners waiting for the light to change; hanging out in the market, laughing and talking like kids do; ordering up shawarma in the old city. All armed and dangerous. All leaving home at such an early age to learn the art of warfare.
The Hawkers – I have been to foreign markets before in other parts of the world and bartered for items with shrewd sellers. Occasionally I feel I have received a good deal. More often I feel a little “taken” or “fleeced.” Nowhere have I experienced professional hawking as it is practiced in Israel, most notably down the narrow passageways of the old city in Jerusalem. Let me just say that they were good, really good. I was fleeced, flounced and freed of shekels and never really learned my lesson, although I was learning enough that I want to go back and try again. We got the whole line-up: “Oh you are first tourists back after COVID, I have very good price for you. You are my brother. We are best friends. My dad is dying and selling the shop. I am moving to Philadelphia, close to you, we can be friends, here take two, third is free. These camels are very special and usually I sell for 400 shekels, today, just for you, it is 50. Take the handmade nativity scene for 1200 and I will throw in two key chains.” This all seems like pretty straightforward hawking talk but mix it with clenched hands on the arm, packing up stuff before you even knew you wanted it and on and on. Or they would agree to your price for something, take your money, and then not give back the change, all the while trying to sell you another piece that was exorbitantly expensive but something you had made the mistake of glancing at earlier when you were scratching your eyeball. I had the unsettled feeling of being well fleeced every single time I bought something. I never looked back, however, for fear I would see them dancing.
Do I dare mention the swarthy Bedouin hawkers selling dates and capes up in the hills west of Jericho? Scary times here with us spitting gravel as we roared out of the parking area, they hot on our heels. These fellows, perhaps desperate after lean COVID times, literally wrapped headdresses around our heads and almost picked the shekels from our hands. I bought a box of dates from a young lad of maybe 5 and thought I’d finally gotten a deal only to find, once home, that they were certainly inferior, small, and not as sweet. Fleeced again!
The Tourists – Or should I say, the lack of them? At least the lack of western tourists. We were apparently some of the first foreign tourists back after Israel opened for post-COVID business. This was an amazing treat; virtually no line-ups anywhere and many of the places we visited were perhaps not exactly vacant, but had few people. Many places we met Israeli tourists and scads of school children – more on this in future postings.
(Part 2 to follow)