This is another guest post from frequent contributor Brian Goldfarb. This post is different from his (and my) usual posts: it is a sort of travel diary of his recent trip to Israel with his wife and two non-Jewish friends.
I added relevant links and occasional photos to the places that Brian visited so that you can learn more about Israel’s wonderful tourist and archeological sites. Other photos were provided by Brian himself.
*Note: all names besides Brian’s have been changed.
When I mentioned to Anne that we (my wife Rachel and I) were off to Israel with two non-Jewish friends, she promptly suggested that I write a report for this site about it. Not least, as she noted, it would be interesting to see what their reactions were and whether they would see the place as positively as we here do. Which seemed like a good idea at the time, but I realised, while in Israel, that I needed space to do this: it was too hectic while there to do it “on the hoof”. So, okay, we’re back now and the time has come to report and, just as importantly, try to give our friends’ impressions of the place.
A little background: these friends, Ellen and Simon, are nominally, Church of England Protestants; however, they ducked the Religious Education (RE) that was compulsory when we were all growing up in the U.K. as fast as it was thrown at them. Further, we had all been in Israel last year (2012) for the wedding of the daughter of mutual friends, and they had said then that they’d like to come back. As we’d been on holiday together before (and were still friends), we immediately said we’d come with them. They had taken themselves off to Caesarea and Jerusalem in a (failed) attempt to find the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and we had all gone to Megiddo. While most of us note the commanding position overlooking the Jezreel Valley, such that whoever controlled Megiddo controlled the trade through the valley, Simon was much taken with the notion of it as the site of the final battle between good and evil, Armageddon.
So, not all of that RE had missed its target!
I’m not sure what Ellen & Simon had expected of Israel in 2012; indeed, some of their friends, local to where they live (in the English West Country) had expressed doubts as to the wisdom of the trip. Wasn’t Israel dangerous? All those rockets?
What they found, of course, and expected to find (they have several Jewish friends) was a vibrant place, where the lights worked, the water from the tap was potable, the food excellent (provided you didn’t want to eat dinner in your hotel!) and (as Simon said) they didn’t meet a bottle of Israeli wine they didn’t like. And where it was safe (in most places) to walk the streets at night. Just like in the UK. And, of course, most people in the tourist industry (as well as lots of others) spoke enough English for visitors to get by.
Anyway, on this trip, we had our own interpreter, because Rachel had lived in Israel from 1965-68 and spent 3 months on an ulpan (intensive Hebrew-language school). We also had our own tour planner: me – all carefully planned to see the best of the land, given the time constraints. We had, in essence, two weeks, so I planned a two centre stay: Tiberias and Jerusalem.
On numerous occasions, there would be an impromptu history lesson from me (bear in mind that I’m not only a teacher – we’re never “ex-” – but also an ardent Zionist, as is Rachel), which our friends bore with great fortitude, then and throughout our stay. I was determined to get a centrist Zionist message across! That said, I was encouraged by questions from Ellen and Simon.
I have to digress to note that our first full day was spent on a trip to Petra, which is at least as wonderful as all the words written about it, possibly better. It’s well worth its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
I must also note that the Israeli side of the Arava border crossing was quite quick and smooth, on the Jordanian side, long and bureaucratic. All worth it for the walk through Petra. One point that Ellen brought up was how barren Jordan was compared with Israel (and even allowing for flying over the Negev from Tel Aviv to Eilat). No milk and honey here!
We spent two Friday nights and two Saturdays in Israel, which affected what we could do, one in Tiberias and one in Jerusalem. Bear in mind that Ellen and Simon are not Jewish and Rachel and I secular, as this affected what we were prepared to do. Beyond that, the weather was unseasonably warm for late October/early November: shirtsleeve warm, in fact.
We drove to Tiberias, to arrive at our hotel late, but not so late that we couldn’t walk into town and eat an excellent dinner. The following day being Friday, we established from the concierge that “everything” would be closed the day after that, Saturday (Shabbat), so we planned to visit Tel Hatzor on Friday.
Tel Hatzor is in the north, close to Kiryat Shmona and nestled under the Israel/Lebanon border (or perhaps it’s the Israel/Hezbollah border these days). Anyway, as soon as we got out of the car, we heard, and continued to hear, intermittent gunfire, which we all assumed to be the sound of the Syrian civil war just on the far side of the Golan Heights. The sound of people trying to kill each other. It wasn’t the last time, either. And it sent shivers down our spines.
What impressed us all at Hatzor was that the visible history goes back to the 18th century BCE, with a further 1000 years beneath our feet, unexplored, as yet.
We went on to Tel Hai, which pleased me no end, as Rachel and I had been there 25 years ago. This is where Joseph Trumpeldor and his comrades defended Tel Hai and Kfar Giladi with their lives: more history lessons. That Trumpeldor was a Maccabi boy had nothing to do with it, of course! Said he who had spent many years in Maccabi UK.
That evening, we went to Rachel’s cousin’s home in the Galil (Galilee) for Friday night dinner. The candles were lit and the blessings made. Then we ate (Jews are good at eating: Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzburger note in their book “Jews and Words” of Jewish festivals – ‘they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!’). Simon noted later that he was impressed that Eran, the (grand)son of the family, aged 18 and waiting to go into the army, disagreed with his father on just about everything: he didn’t believe that it was just teenage hormones at work. I suggested that it wasn’t: Israelis are almost encouraged to dispute and engage over their disputes. Ellen said that Eran’s father asked her whether she felt safe in Israel. As she noted, it had never occurred to her to feel anything but “safe”. Whatever: our friends got yet another insight into Israeli life. As Rachel and I noted later: Israelis feel isolated: their natural allies, the democratic West frequently let them down.
Ellen and Simon’s reaction to this indicated that the reality of the place was getting through to them.
The following day being Saturday/Shabbat, we mainly visited the Christian sites around lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee to Ellen and Simon): Yardinet, where Christians go to be baptised in the Jordan; Capernaum (Kfar Nahum); the Churches marking the sites of the Sermon on the Mount and the miracle of the loaves and fishes; and the building erected for the Pope’s visit in 2000.
However, we did also visit Katzrin, on the Golan, which, until 1967, had been Syrian held. Katzrin is the site of a 9th or 10th Century CE synagogue and village. [Note: It goes back to Talmudic times – Ed.]. Again Rachel and I had been there 25 years ago, when just the synagogue had been excavated. Now, much of the village has been excavated too. Being highly secular, we were happy to find that while the Katzrin industrial estate was closed, neither the archaeological site nor the tourist office was! What I was most pleased to point out was a ruling from Rabbi Eliezer (reproduced on the “Talmudic Building”) that ruled that providing the human work of starting the olive press was completed before the commencement of the Sabbath, it was entirely allowable to leave the process to itself for 25 hours, until the Sabbath was ended, then come back and finish the human labour. A most liberal interpretation.
The point I wanted to get across was that in an agrarian society, life was hard, the harvest was short and it had to be completed, and that this was not necessarily a ruling that all contemporary Rabbis would accept. I was trying to get over the point (without using a sledgehammer) that Judaism was, is and could be responsive to changing circumstances.
Tuesday found us at Metzudat (Fortress) Yesha, (also known as Metzudat Koach) which had been a Mandate police station handed over to the Arabs by the British. It commanded the Upper Jordan Valley and had to be taken by the Israelis in 1948 to stop a Syrian invasion. We listened to the English-language explanation of the various attacks leading up to the taking of the fortress and the human cost to the Israelis (including a Bedouin unit). Before leaving, Rachel and I placed stones on the memorial, explaining the Jewish mourning custom to Ellen and Simon, who seemed to be moved by the action.
Wednesday saw us transferring to Jerusalem and repeating Ellen and Simon’s walk on the walls of the Old City from the Zion Gate to the Lions’ Gate.
Thursday we went on a booked English-language tour of the Knesset. As well as a lesson in Israeli democracy, what was equally impressive was that our guide was a young lady in smartly tailored trouser suit, bare-headed, who, when she joined the four of us for a late breakfast in a Knesset cafe, turned out to be a Moslem. Simon asked (he has no shame!), and we all took this as a good sign for life inside the Green Line, irrespective of what happens elsewhere. After lunch we managed to find the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Ellen and Simon. They were impressed but, as far as I could tell, unmoved.
We also went to the Kotel (Western Wall), where we witnessed a sight I found both moving and distressing: a company of soldiers came down to the square before the Wall (both men and women), where they were addressed by their officer, after which he turned to face the Wall, saluted, and started to sing ‘Hatikvah’, (Israel’s national anthem) accompanied by many in the crowd as well as the troops. That was moving. What was distressing to me was noticing two teenaged Haredi boys peering at the soldiers and plainly not singing. This upset me mightily: here were young men and women prepared to lay down their lives to protect those teenagers, and they wouldn’t even sing the national anthem. Refusing to recognise the State is no excuse.
Did I join in the anthem? I would have done if I hadn’t been so choked up. But Rachel did.
The following day we went on a tour of the Western Wall Tunnels below the current base-level of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Our guide, Noam, who sounded as though he had learned his English in North America, gave a brief history of the two Temples (Solomon’s and Herod’s) before leading down stairs to some 3 metres below the current street level. He explained how the “tunnel” came into being – it’s really a passageway beneath arches built to support later building at the current street level – and who built what. Then we came to the point which is claimed to be the closest to the now unreachable Holy of Holies: and found a group of women praying there. Even I, a very secular Jew, was moved. And also amused by the fact that because women were praying here, all those ultra-Orthodox men at the Kotel would never pray at this spot.
Ellen and Simon noted my feelings: they had listened closely to Noam’s explanations of the different parts of the Temple and what occurred there.
The following day was Shabbat. We walked (it was very close) from our hotel to the Israel Museum through an empty and quiet city. The Israel Museum is one of the few public places open on Saturday in Jerusalem. We entered, and went first to the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden. Having quietened our souls, we entered the Museum proper and joined a volunteer led tour of part of the Museum. Our guide took us through the archaeological areas, demonstrating the huge depth of history to the land, as well as the 3000 year history of the Jewish presence in the land. We followed that with a visit to the Herod exhibition. As Simon noted, “he gets a better press here than in Europe!” (a reference to the New Testament tale of the Massacre of the Innocents). Finally, we visited the Shrine of the Book.
What I noted to Ellen and Simon here was that I could read the 2000 year old writing, even if I couldn’t translate it. As I always say to the passport control officers when entering Israel, I can read Hebrew well enough to daven (pray), but not to speak it – apart from a little “tourist Hebrew”.
This was, essentially, the end of our joint trip to Israel: except that the following day we took a cab to Tel Aviv, and the driver insisted on calling it Judea and Samaria, and driving along the Security Wall. We had explained the reason for the Wall to Ellen and Simon before, and how it had reduced suicide bombing to virtually nothing. However, when we got into our hotel, I did point out to Ellen and Simon that our driver was, politically, right wing: they had never heard Rachel or me refer to it as anything other than the West Bank. A further lesson! We did, however, walk to and from Jaffa, passing both the memorial to the “Altalena Incident” and the Irgun Museum. I tried to be fair to both, noting why Ben Gurion had insisted that the weapons be handed over to the Provisional Government and Begin’s agreement to that and to the integration of Irgun with Haganah: to avoid Jewish on Jewish fighting and casualties. I was less kind to the Irgun.
So, did Ellen and Simon change their attitude towards Israel? I don’t think so. They have had Jewish (and Zionist) friends for some years, and they have become aware of the centrality of Israel to us (collectively). I believe that they have never had an animus towards Israel. Oddly enough, being non-religious, they are perhaps more aware of the origins of Christianity in Judaism than many, more religious, Christians. I hope that they are more aware of the hopes and fears of Israelis and non-Israeli Zionists (like us). They certainly will know now (if they didn’t before) of the very long attachment of Jews to the Land of Israel, going back 3000 years, and of the continual presence of Jews in the land, even after the various conquests and dispersals of the inhabitants of the Land.
Anyway, we’re going to visit them over the first weekend of December, taking our camera cards (their camera broke) and planning to download our pictures, so we’ll talk some more.
BTW, anyone out there who still needs convincing of any of this, do try to watch Simon Schama’s TV series “The Story of the Jews”: it’s excellent. The final episode is on Israel and starts with Holocaust memorial Day in Tel Aviv. Never mind me choking up: Schama plainly did too.
Anne adds: Brian, I’ve had a lovely time reading and editing and reliving your tour through your eyes. I am familiar with most of the places you visited, but the north in particular holds many happy memories for me since my elder daughter used to live in Kiryat Shmona and we spent many happy holidays in the area exploring all those sites.
Thank you so much for this great travel diary.and for giving us a glimpse into Israel through foreigners’ eyes. It sounds like you had a wonderful time. I hope your friends did too, and that they will visit here again, perhaps bringing some of their own friends along.