Thursday, May 7, 2015

Jerusalem: A Reading by Debbie

Michael has wanted to go to Israel for years. I'm not sure why, maybe fear of the unknown or concerns about safety or just because it seemed overwhelmingly complicated, I was not as enthusiastic. Now that we have almost two years of intrepid Senior Nomad travel under our belts, I was finally ready and perhaps it would prepare me for an upcoming visit to Belarus and a potential dip into the Ukraine. Regardless, I am so happy we spent ten days in this amazing part of the world. Israel will be a Senior Nomad highlight no matter where else we travel. And I am a better traveler for it.

In this blog I will stay away from any deep political opinions - those of you who know me, know that I don't let facts get in the way of a good story - and in this case I don't want to offend or misrepresent the situation in this complex corner of the world. While we were there, I read a book called The Lemon Tree by Stacy Tolan and it really helped me understand the background of the conflict here - but it was meeting real people that live their daily lives under often intense circumstances that taught me the most. I admired their pride, their courage and their history as well as their faith and hope for peace. Michael stays current on Israeli politics and should be the one to write this - all I can do is share my journey. So here it is.

We were ready for whatever the week brought on!
We found cheap airfare from Cyprus and two lovely airbnb apartments; one for three nights in Tel Aviv and one for week in Jerusalem in April. Sometimes that's all it takes for us to choose a destination, so Israel moved to the top of the list.

Had we given the dates a closer look we would have have realized we would be arriving during Passover - the holiest week on the Jewish calendar! That's like spontaneously deciding to go out to dinner on Valentines Day. As it turns out, it was also the week Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter, so we got a double dose of religious fervor.

Once in Israel - it was a good thing we didn't have a burning desire for bread, because during Passover that was off the table as the saying goes, and there were other quirky thou shalt and shalt nots, closures, shut-downs and, of course, extra security. Tel Aviv was a soft landing as it was more laid back about strict observance of Passover than Jerusalem. Beach life continued, bread was discreetly available, and there were fewer Jewish citizens in full regalia. In fact, a lot of citizens wore very little clothing of any kind both on the beach and on the streets.

A long walk along the shore between new Tel Aviv and the Old City of Jaffa.
Tel Aviv is a young, vibrant city stuffed with skyscrapers and nightclubs that stretches out in the sun along the Mediterranean before bumping up against the ancient walls of the Old City of Jaffa.

Tel Aviv curls up next to the Old City of Jaffa like a child on Grandma's lap
Our apartment was a five minute walk to the beach, however it was in a neighborhood that you'd call "in transition". That means the location was great - and lots of trendy bars with indie retail were within walking distance, but our actual building and those in it's immediate surroundings were works-in-progress.

"What are you lookin' at?" The Guardians of our doorway in Tel Aviv.
I have mentioned before that with Airbnb, you often don't know what your front door looks like until you arrive. Maybe every host should be required to post a photo. Or not. If we had known we'd have to cross a gauntlet of feral cats along a sketchy side alley we might have made a different choice. But as veteran Airbnb guests, we knew there was a nice apartment just behind door #41 just as long as we got to it. Here's the link:

The highlights of our three day stay included a walking tour of the well preserved Old City of Jaffa where several centuries of history came visibly alive. A perfect lunch of fresh vegetables and lamb kufta hot off the grill in the famous Carmel de Hay Market where we jostled for seats at a tiny restaurant counter. We could feel the push of the next hungry customers pressing in behind us as we ate. Michael had an opportunity to experience an exceptional football match - his story, including his determined quest for a ticket is can be found on his blog post MC Sports Report: Never Give Up!

Early morning prep at the tiny restaurant where we fought for two of the four seats.
A delicious, hot off the grill lunch in the Ha' Carmel market. Three little salads and a pile of fresh pita not pictured.
Tel Aviv could be any of the larger beach resort cities we've visited. Our real Israeli experience would start in Jerusalem. Since our coverage in the New York Times we experienced an explosion of responses both to the article and our blog. Michael has answered every e-mail with enthusiasm. I try and run-along-side to keep up the blog and help him with answers to comments and questions.

During the initial deluge of e-mails we received after the article ran we flagged a note from a couple living in Jerusalem hoping we could spend a little time with them during our stay. They were very proud of Jerusalem and wanted to show us their city, and if there is one thing we have learned along the way - never turn down an invitation from a local! That is where the magic happens.

Our new found "forever" friends, Ruth and Stu. They kept us safe, fed and informed.
Ruth and Stu, two of the most generous and helpful people we've ever encountered, not only took us under their wings, they sat on the nest to make sure we were safe and well taken care of. They moved to Jerusalem from New Jersey 15 years ago to live the dream of settling in Israel. They knew there would be any number of challenges and even danger, but they were committed to their faith and their vision for the future. Their insight into life in Jerusalem was the perfect introduction for us. That and living for a week in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. More on that later.

Ruth came to Tel Aviv on our last day to show us her favorite parts of that city - including a stop at Le Mamma del Gelato for the best ice cream and sherbet we've had on our entire trip.

To say this Gelato was better than any we tasted in Italy is a bold statement. But true.
Stu swooped in with his trusty white mini-van complete with a flapping Israeli flag to drive us all the way to Jerusalem. There were stops along the way for expansive views and some further commentary on the political situation - but also lots of laughs and discussion around just how we became "Senior Nomads".
Stu and Michael could have talked politics for hours. Oh wait - they did!
They even took us grocery shopping at their supermarket because most everything around us would be closed for the next few days. But wait, there's more. Once we realized the Old City of Jerusalem was just about impenetrable due to the Passover holiday they drove around tirelessly looking for a "local" way in. In desperation Stu made a swift maneuver past stalled traffic and a road block to shoot down a back alley into a parking lot where a shuttle bus was about to make it's last run of the night into the Old City. Our first miracle! With Ruth and Stu still in tow we jumped on board and found our new home.

The next morning they came to collect us to share their favorite stalls in the famous Mahane Yehuda Market - a sprawling inner-city food mecca. Bakeries closed, of course. A few days later we visited their son's home, and met his wife and four of his six children. He is a Rabbi, and has just recently returned to Jersualem with his family after living in Los Angeles for several years - of course Ruth and Stu are happy to have them close, but worry about their safety. They live in a settlement about a half an hour out of town very near a lookout point where we saw miles of rolling desert, Bedouin camps, and in the far distance, the Dead Sea and the red hills of Jordan. Our lively discussions around life in this ever challenging country continued, and again, having so much time with people who actually live here made all the difference in our understanding of the Jewish perspective.

A bird's eye view of the Mahane Yehude Market from a little known perch.
Our time in the Old City turned out to be another incredible piece of our Senior Nomad puzzle. Michael sometimes refers to our travels as a "Self-Directed Masters Program in 20th Century European History and World Affairs".  If this experience didn't fit that description, nothing does. We were in the absolute heart of the Jewish Quarter during the holiest days of the Jewish religion.

Our host Yishia at our front door in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City
Our Airbnb was a "mother-in-law" style apartment in the home of Yishai and Rivka. They were wonderful and very hospital hosts that made sure we had everything we needed. Here's the link:  I did have to ask for a few things in the kitchen because (and here's a first) there were two sets of dishes and cookware. One for Kosher cooking and the other for non-Jewish guests. I coveted a few things on the Kosher side (is that a sin?) so Yishai found a large pot, a colander and a frying pan for "my side". We were all set.

One of the reasons it feels good to "Just say No!" to souvenirs.
As for shopping - yes, everything in the Jewish Quarter and most of downtown Jerusalem was closed from Friday at dusk until Sunday. However, the Muslims in the next quarter were doing brisk business! I could find whatever I needed, including bread, just a few cobbled streets away. There is a certain reverence to shopping along streets that existed in biblical times. If you look past the bobble-head bible figures and smiley face yamakas you can still buy sandals and over-priced cold drinks just like the Apostles did.

It was fun to spend  these colorful "Shekels" - unless you did the conversation rate. It was very expensive here.

We were tucked in the Jewish Quarter near the Western Wall.
The Old City is a narrow maze of passages that weave drunkenly between four distinct populations. Today, 36,000 people actually live within the walls of this quarter mile enclave! So of course the streets are teeming with locals, and during this week in particular, thousands of tourists and pilgrims from around the world. It was truly a gauntlet to get from our apartment to the Jaffa Gate where we spilled out into relative calm outside the walls.

Just one of the many streets in the Muslim Quarter where you lose yourself in the sights and smells.
The largest of the four quarters is the Muslim Quarter. This labyrinth overflows with cubbyhole sized food and souvenir stalls and shops for daily needs. The Christian Quarter was more sedate. This is where pilgrims gather to follow Jesus' tortured walk through the city carrying the cross to his crucifixion. There are 14 stops along the way that conclude at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - the world's holiest Christian site. Inside this elaborate church two monuments mark the sites of Jesus' death, and the nearby tomb where he was buried. Thousands of people visit the church each day - and of course, the week were were there, multiply that by 10. The Armenian quarter is quiet, but their presence in Jerusalem dates back to the fourth century A.D following Armenia's adoption of Christianity. It recently got a little buzz due to a visit from the most famous (or infamous for this conservative population) Armenian - Kim Kardashian. Kim and Husband Kayne West had their daughter North baptised into the Armenian Christian faith in the Old City. All televised, of course.

The Kardashian clan visits the Old City with body guards and cameramen along side
The Jewish Quarter has it's own very distinct personality. It was filled to the hat brim with the families that live here, and because it was Passover it was even more crowded with worshipers from around the world visiting the Western Wall and sacred synagogues. Everyone was dressed in their finest including the children. I won't even try to go into all the variations on that theme, but suffice it to say Jews can wear whatever represents their particular sect, and their beliefs on a daily basis with pride, and without prejudice here. I like that.

A typical family in Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter in the Old City
We took a moment to pray at the wall - it was a profound experience for any believer.
Just steps from our apartment was a small courtyard that looked over the Western Wall - sometimes called The Wailing Wall. It was fascinating to walk out there at any time of day and see hundreds of people praying - women separated from the men by a barrier. The Dome of the Rock was also in clear view from our apartment window. That golden egg of a building is the most contested piece of land on earth since it is coveted by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. Currently it is controlled by the Muslims and Jews are not allowed to go there.

Just a few steps from our apartment we had a panoramic view of the Western Wall.
The vast site of Dome of the Rock can only be appreciated in person. Security was tight.
In order to get a balanced experience while we were there we wanted to visit the Palestinian Territory known as the West Bank. We weren't sure exactly how we were going to do that, but we remembered when we watched Rick Steve's Holy Land special a few weeks earlier he credited the guides that he used. We watched it again while in Jerusalem - a good idea in itself, and then contacted one of the guides that presented the Palestinian perspective. His name was Kamal. Unfortunately, he was unable to accommodate us, but his mother, Faten was available. She is also a licensed guide. Three days later, we found the right bus that took us through the checkpoints into Bethlehem. We spent a full and very informative day with Faten (including a home-cooked lunch at her house). In an unusual twist her family is Orthodox Christian - a super minority in Palestine. She took us well beyond the tourist sites although we did have a brief visit to the birthplace of Christ as well as the site where the angels appeared unto the Shepherds. Speaking of Good News - that is exactly what happened when our bus driver called Faten to say that he'd found my wallet on the bus! I hadn't even noticed it was missing. We jumped in the car and met him on his route to collect it with everything safely inside. People have been so nice here on both sides of the walls.

Standing along a portion of the security wall that now runs through Faten's family property.
Almost every surface of the walls on the Palestinian side were covered in graffiti. This was a prominent image by the world famous artist Banksy.  
Other graffiti images were less peaceful and the difference in living conditions was eye-opening.
Back to our tour - we drove to a piece of farm land that had been in Faten's husband's family for generations. It was now split down the middle by the security wall that surrounds Israel. From there she drove us past the heavily graffiti-covered wall (including works by Banksy) and told some harrowing tales of life in Palestine. We returned to Jerusalem by walking through the long, heavily guarded security checkpoint that Palestinians must cross daily to go to work in Israel. It was daunting.

By the end of our day in the West Bank, our heads were spinning with all that we had learned from Faten, Stu and Ruth, Yishai and Rivka and many others. It would seem the problems here are intractable and all we can do is hope and pray for a peaceful solution for our new friends.

The full day at TEDx Jerusalem will go down as one of the best days of our trip.
On our last day we attended an all-day TEDx Jerusalem event! What an absolutely perfect way to end this journey. We heard 12 incredible speakers on a wide range of topics - several of which had to do with the current politics of Israel. I could write an entire blog about it. If you are ever in a city where you can attend a TED or TEDx event we strongly recommend you drop everything and go. Here's a link to the event we attended:

Without trying to gloss over the complexities and problems of this part of the world, I would end by saying that walking the streets of this holy place that has witnessed thousands of years of conflict and persecution, but also renewal and hope, was life changing for me personally and certainly sums up why Michael and I are on this journey.

Thank you for following along.

Debbie and Michael
Senior Nomads


  1. Incredible experience - can't wait to talk to you in person about it. It was life changing for me for sure. xoxo

  2. I really enjoyed reading this and seeing all your pictures. I have much the same feeling about Israel as you did. And my husband would love to go there. Since we are not nomads but stuck on a fixed income as retired people, we will probably never get a chance to share your experience, so it was wonderful to have this "journey" there. Well done! :-)

  3. What an excellent post! I have not been to Israel in 31 years, but often think of my short time there. Your personal style of blogging really brought your trip to life for me. I liked how you showed pictures of food! I remember the food was so different from what we have here in the US, even in Mediterranean restaurants, but how delicious it is. I also love how you meet people! Both of us love meeting people and easily change our loose plans to be with the people we meet. They always give such a refreshing view of their home. I always look forward to your blog posts! Thank you.

  4. Very nice article. The photos are great. Enjoy your time in Israel. Safe travels.
    By the way - are you ignoring our question (?). We've asked twice in the past several months =

    we're still waiting to hear how you get around the Schengen Agreement in all your European travels to nations signatory to the Agreement.
    Michael and Gina Zullo
    Kyoto, Japan

  5. A fascinating post. Israel is a country I've never had any desire to visit but now, thanks to your insight I may just change my mind. However, I must beg to differ about the gelato. If you ever get an opportunity to visit The Gelato University just outside Bologna, Italy try the gelato there. It is the best we've tried and we've been eating gelato throughout Italy for almost 2 years! Ciao, ciao, ciao.


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