Israel, pray tell
An agnostic goes to the Holy Land and shares the sites loved by Jews, Christians and Muslims
Waiting to board our flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv, my husband and I were surrounded by an excited group of young Canadian Jews en route to Israel courtesy of Birthright Israel. The program was founded by two philanthropists who believed that it was the birthright of all young Jews (aged 18 to 26) to visit their ancestral homeland. Since 1999, Birthright Israel has sent more than half a million kids to the Holy Land. For most, this was their first trip. Mine too.
True confessions: I am an agnostic and my Sunday School Bible lessons are long behind me. A trip to Israel was not at the top of my bucket list. I was confused and overwhelmed by the wars, politics and religious conflicts. Israel, however, was number one on my husband’s wish list and that’s why we found ourselves at the Ben Gurion Airport looking for our guide.
Enter Motti Saar (mottitour.com), the man whose enthusiasm for his country turned me into a “believer.” Saar introduced himself as a true sabra, Hebrew for prickly pear cactus. Think tough and feisty on the outside and really sweet inside. I met a lot of sabras in Israel and I must say that the moniker suits.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem and died in Jerusalem, but it was around the Sea of Galilee that his ministry was forged and most of his activities outlined in the New Testament took place.
We began our journey in Tiberias at The Scots Hotel (scotshotels.co.il) overlooking the Golan Heights. The hotel, once a hospital, is owned by the Church of Scotland, which explains why the kilted fellow who checked us in offered us hot cider spiked with a wee dram.
After a bountiful Israeli buffet breakfast, we made a pilgrimage past orchards of oranges, bananas, mangos, olives and avocados to the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus gathered his disciples and gave his “Sermon on the Mount” in which he pronounced the eight blessings. Nearby, Jesus is thought to have fed the multitudes with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread.
Well-tended gardens lead up to a simple church by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi. Its octagonal shape is an homage to the eight beatitudes; the hole in the middle of the dome represents eternity. It’s a lovely place to contemplate this landscape of earthly delights.
Later, we met up with Captain David for a cruise around the Sea of Galilee. His boat is a replica of the fishing vessels (feluccas) used in Jesus’ times — except his has a motor. We tried our luck casting the nets for St. Peter’s fish (tilapia), but with no luck.
Dinner was at Magdalena (facebook.com/magdalena.restaurant) in Migdal, birthplace and home of Mary Magdalene. Here, chef Yousef Hanna has resurrected Arabic cuisine to gourmet heights. Our feast included cauliflower with roasted red peppers, lamb chops and pine nut dumplings, wild hickory served with garlic confit and caramelized onions. All this washed down with a crisp white wine from the Golan Heights.
The Big Orange
Next stop, Tel Aviv where biblical tales and a hip cosmopolitan vibe go hand in hand. We stayed at the Brown TLV Urban Hotel (browntlv.com), minutes from the beach, bohemian Neve Tzedek quarter and trendy Rothschild Boulevard.
We strolled along Rothschild Boulevard to the Social Club (socialclub.co.il) where brass railings, leather banquettes and a noisy crowd gave it a Manhattan feel. The waitress brought a parade of starters (mezes). We devoured plates of cheese, charcuterie, Israeli salad (finely chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and onion), hummus, stuffed peppers and fried eggplant.
“Pace yourself,” advised Saar. “Those were just the starters. We Israelis live to eat.”
The next morning Saar led us to the bustling Carmel market. In a country that is mainly desert, the Israelis have created a remarkable irrigation system so that the once barren patches of sand are now producing mangos, pomegranates, prickly pears and more. Did you know that cherry tomatoes were invented in Israel? Also, thanks to an investment by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, there are more than 200 wineries in this land of more than milk and honey.
As we munched on locally-produced dates and olives, Saar gave us a tour and a bit of a history lesson.
Jaffa is one of the world’s most ancient port cities, dating back to the Bronze Age. At the beginning of the 20th century, a large number of Jewish immigrants landed there. In the spring of 1909, a group of these immigrants, fed up with Jaffa’s noisy and unsanitary neighbourhoods, bought some uninhabited sand dunes north of Jaffa, divided the property into parcels of land and voilà, Tel Aviv, nicknamed “The Big Orange” — a variation on New York’s Big Apple and the Jaffa orange — was born. Believed to be founded by Japheth, son of Noah, Jaffa is one of the oldest towns in Israel. Disciples Peter and Simon lived there and you can visit St. Peter’s Church and the home of Simon the Tanner. Today, the Old City perched high on a hill overlooking the sea is a marvellous hodgepodge of twisting lanes full of art galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Don’t miss the Ilana Goor Museum (ilanagoormuseum.org), an 18th-century house where the Israeli sculpture artist resides and works.
Back in Tel Aviv, foodies have to visit Sarona Market, the upscale eating emporium. Craft beer from the Golan Heights, popsicles made with ouzo and grapefruit, halvah spiked with chilies, cheese soused with truffle oil, celebrity chef restaurants and so much more vie for your shekels here.
“We can make shekels out of nothing,” said Saar. “Despite all the wars and strife, see what we have accomplished. Imagine what we could do without one arm tied behind our back!”
Dead Sea wonders
The ancient “beach resort” of Caesarea, north of Jaffa on the Mediterranean Coast, deserves a few hours visit. It was founded by Herod the Great in 22 BCE, but is a posh real estate area today that boasts Israel’s only golf course. We saw a stone tablet inscribed with the name of Pontius Pilatus, the Roman prefect who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s also here that the Apostle Paul was imprisoned and where Peter baptized the centurion Cornelius. King Herod encouraged culture and horseraces, and the ancient amphitheatre is so well preserved, it’s still used for concerts.
The following day we headed south toward the Dead Sea. Saar pointed out the cave where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found by a Bedouin shepherd who stopped to rest in 1947. The shepherd took what he thought was a piece of leather to a shoemaker in Bethlehem to have a pair of sandals made. The shoemaker took the leathery parchment to an antiquity store where the scrolls were declared to be one of the major archeological finds of the 20th century. Today more than 50,000 pieces from 900 biblical scrolls have been uncovered. Most are housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
At Masada, we took the cable car up to Herod’s magnificent palace atop an isolated plateau on the western shore of the Dead Sea. This was the site of the last Jewish stand against the Romans in 73 CE when 967 defenders, realizing they had no chance against the Romans, committed mass suicide. In 2001, Masada was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To wash off the doom and gloom, we took a dip in the briniest place on earth. The Dead Sea is 10 times saltier than oceans so nothing can live in this body of water. At the Premier Spa Resort (dead-sea-premier.com), we paid a few shekels for towels, locker room facilities and beach chairs. Saar instructed us to wade out to knee deep and lie on the water, which is so buoyant, you can just float without any need to kick or paddle. It was a bit like lying on jello.
“I could not conceive of a small country having so large a history,” wrote Mark Twain after his visit to the Holy Land in 1867. Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, embodies this impression. Jerusalem’s golden stones are saturated with history, sanctified by pilgrim prayers and scarred by wars. At every turn, you’ll find shrines and lessons in the co-existence of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Jerusalem has been a place of turmoil since King David pronounced it Capital of Israel around 1000 BCE. In 638 CE, it was conquered by Muslims who built their Dome of the Rock over the site of the Temple.
On Friday, just before sunset, we visited Judaism’s holiest shrine, the Western Wall where the devout sing, dance and insert written prayers into the cracks of the otherwise known Wailing Wall.
“You can call God from anywhere in the world,” kidded Saar, “but you’ll only be charged for a local call from the Western Wall.”
The New Testament tells of Jesus’ final, fateful week in Jerusalem starting with his triumphal entry of what we now call Palm Sunday, the crucifixion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Most visitors will follow the Via Dolorosa or 14 stations of the “Way of the Cross.” The last five stations are in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that most Christians venerate as the site of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
All Kosher establishments in Jerusalem close from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset so after the Via Dolorosa we spent Saturday morning strolling the warren of souks in the Muslim Quarter where a heady aroma of burning incense, spices and coffee filled the air. If you want a hookah pipe or some gifts of the Magi (gold, frankincense and myrrh), this is the place to pick up souvenirs.
We stayed at the Mont Zion Hotel (mountzion.co.il) with lovely gardens framing views of the Hinnom Valley below. After a dip in the pool, I succumbed to the Turkish baths for detoxifying steam followed by a massage. Jerusalem can’t compare with Tel Aviv on the food scene, but we enjoyed crispy calamari and fun cocktails at Chakra (chakra-rest.com). We also haggled for halva at the boisterous Mahane Yehuda Market.
Our “last supper” was back in Jaffa at a private home, part of a program called EatWith Israel (eatwith.com/list/israel). Muslim Israelis Mahmoud and his wife Alia greeted us in their lush garden and escorted us to the dining room where the table was set with a groaning board of Middle Eastern dishes: moussaka, pastries stuffed with cheese and spinach, meatballs in tahini, baba ganoush, salads galore, homemade pickles, a casserole of roasted eggplant and basmati rice. We washed this down with rose water and sage tea.
Alia and Mahmoud produce such feasts several times a week in a kitchen the size of my desk. Over this amicable repast, we learned that every home and hotel in Israel must have a bomb shelter. Saar also showed us the app on his phone that warns of rocket launches. Despite what we hear in the news, EatWith is a terrific example of how many Arabs and Jews live peacefully side-by-side. And to that I can only add salaam/shalom (peace).
For more info on travel to the region, visit the Israel Ministry of Tourism (goisrael.com).
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