Part III: Sushi for One, Guns & Moses, and “Jesus Christ Superstar” – My Journey to Israel

The flight to Israel from Amman, Jordan to Tel Aviv was just a 45 minute hop, and I arrived at 5:00 on a Friday afternoon, the start of the Jewish Shabbat or sabbath. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, Israeli public transit, stores, and many restaurants and services close down. The airport was like a ghost town, and the heavy security screenings I’d anticipated did not happen at all.

The jumbled city-scape of Tel Aviv as seen from my descending plane

Since the trains and buses into the city weren’t operating, I was forced to take a cab and the driver was playing beautiful, soothing music as we drove the half hour into Tel Aviv. He told me that we were listening to was part of a Greek music broadcast that airs once a week on the radio. He said he was born in Greece, but that his family was Jewish and had moved to Israel when 60 year ago, when he was only 3 years old. We were driving on modern freeways, the lights of Tel Aviv’s skyline were twinkling in the distance, there were trees and flowers everywhere along the highway. I felt like I’d been transported 1,000 years into the future after my prior night’s stay at the Bedouin camp in Jordan.

My hotel, the Maxim, was small and tidy and my room was on the second floor facing the Mediterranean, which was only a half a block away and visible from my windows. I was so tired that when I lay down to rest my eyes I fell soundly asleep for almost two hours, only waking up because my phone rang at 8:00 PM. I had two acquaintances I’d planned to see while in Tel Aviv: my former student Tanya, who was now doing graduate study at a university here, and an Israeli online penpal named Chen (the CH is pronounced like the throaty start of the word Channukah) with whom I’d been corresponding for sevral months. The 8:00 phone call was from Chen, so we ended up meeting in person that night. He’s a 36 year old single, gay man who works as an accountant in Tel Aviv. Chen’s father is 6th generation Israeli, and his mother was a Jew who came to Israel from Libya. He’s from a small village in southern Israel, the first actual town north of the volatile Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip that borders Egypt and Israel. He recounted frequent shelling of his town in attacks emanating from Gaza while he was growing up, and he shared with me that his mother had just recently been traumatized by the sound of an explosion from a shell that struck a mall only 1/4 mile from her apartment. He also expressed a very profound fear that Israel will one day be hit with a nuclear weapon from Iran. The news headlines seem to come to life when you talk to people here.

On Saturday morning I heard from Tanya and we met for Shabbat brunch at a place called Orna and Ella, a restaurant that was actually featured in an excellent Israeli film I saw a couple of years ago called, The Bubble. It was set in Tel Aviv, which is often referred to as “the bubble” because it is a cosmopolitan, secular, liberal city that is seemingly removed from (or in denial about) the turmoil, conflicts and stresses faced by the rest of Israel and its feuding neighbors. Interestingly, in the film, a restaurant is blown up by a suicide bomber, and they used Orna and Ella for the exterior shots. The restaurant’s owners even appeared in the film. Thankfully, no such fate has befallen Orna and Ella in real life, and Tanya told me I could not miss their famous brunch.

Now, for those of you who noticed that my usual descriptions of amazing culinary experiences were noticeably absent from my Egypt and Jordan blogs (except of course for Lunch Buffet #6 in Cairo!), get ready to salivate. I ordered an Israeli Breakfast, which consists of a huge basket of warm breads and rolls, accompanied by various spreads: butter, jams, sun-dried tomato and olive spreads, chocolate, sour cream with chives and more. You also get the most delicious fresh-squeezed, pulp-filled orange juice and strong coffee, and then an egg dish of your choice. I chose a dish consisting of corn bread, into which holes had been carved out and filled with poached eggs. When you punctured the yolk, it ran into the cornbread, and well, there simply are no words! However, Orna and Ella also makes famous pumpkin pancakes that they serve ONLY at Saturday brunch, so I HAD to sample those too. They were served with an orange syrup, and could compete with the very best pancakes back home. What an amazing breakfast!

Tanya then had to run off to meet some other students who were arriving in Tel Aviv that day and we made plans to meet at a sushi restaurant called Moon for dinner at 7:00 that evening. Meanwhile, I was feeling physically very weak. Walking even a couple blocks made me feel winded and tired and my legs were still not fully back to normal after the “camel incident” and the high sodium diet back in Egypt. All I could do was trudge to the beach and lie in the sun and then return to the hotel for a long nap. I suppose I just needed the rest.

I got to Moon at 6:55 that evening and waited….and waited. I had no working cell phone with me, and foolishly hadn’t brought Tanya’s number with me. By 7:30 there was still no sign of her. I asked inside the restaurant whether anyone had called or left a message for me, but the answer was no. At 8:00 I finally gave up and since I was already there, I decided to have dinner at Moon. I was a little skeptical about going to a Japanese sushi place in Israel, but I had the most wonderful dinner: salmon sushi, a veggie sweet potato sushi, and a shrimp and vegetable tempura. It was all delicious. Once back at the hotel I found that Tanya had called me not two minutes after I’d left to tell me that they couldn’t get a reservation at Moon and were going to a different place instead, so that was disappointing.

Sunday morning is a normal workday in Israel, and all day I kept thinking it was Monday. I successfully rendezvoused with Tanya and her friends at another Tel Aviv breakfast institution called Benedict, noted for its Eggs Benedict and other tasty breakfast specialties. I had a salmon Benedict, a little bit of Heaven, along with the huge assortment of breads and spreads, fresh juice, and coffee. Fueled by enough carbs to fuel a marathon, I then walked about five miles through the city, exploring its vast markets, walking on the beach and visiting the old port area of Jaffa (pronounced YAFO), which truthfully was rather seedy and didn’t have much to offer, though I did get some nice sunset pictures and had a couple of chats with locals I encountered along the walk.

That night I met Tanya and her gang again, this time for dinner at Orna and Ella’s and it was even better than their brunch. We all shared a huge appetizer of sweet potato pancakes, served with a cucumber and dill sauce, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. I also ordered a bruschetta made on a sweet brioche bread, and topped with Roquefort cheese and fresh figs. Unbelievable!  I actually got my appetizer for free; our very sweet waiter took our order without writing anything down, and I commented that he must have an amazing memory. Well, my bruschetta got lost in the shuffle and he ended up bringing it much later on in the meal, saying, “This is on the house because it’s so late, but it IS your fault, because when you complimented me on my memory, you jinxed me and made me forget it!”  My main course was a pasta with fresh lamb and tomatoes, and for dessert I had chocolate hazelnut torte served warm with cream and raspberries. My traumatic memories of salty dinner buffets in Cairo were beginning to fade; I love Tel Aviv!

On Monday I picked up a rental car so that I could explore the rest of the country for a few days. The woman at Hertz asked if I was enjoying Tel Aviv and when the topic of food came up, she asked if I’d been to either Orna & Ella or Benedict; she was surprised and impressed when I said I’d been to both.  “You’ve gone to some of the very best local places. And if you like Sushi…” and I finished her sentence with, “I went to Moon, too!” We had a good laugh together before she handed me the keys and off I went, out from the city and headed southeast toward the Dead Sea.

In 1970, my mother brought home a copy of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar that she’d borrowed from a co-worker, as we really couldn’t afford to buy a copy of the double album set at that time. I was 12 years old and I remember how my mother sat down with me, going through the libretto, playing the songs and explaining each scene in the musical to me. A few years later, in 1973 we saw the movie version, which was filmed in various locations throughout Israel, and we bought a copy of the movie soundtrack. While Sunday school classes and boring Protestant sermons did not exactly spark my curiosity about the story of Jesus when I was young, that musical did and to this day I can sing almost every line of every song by heart.

In 1974 my mother developed cancer and she died in early 1975, leaving me a very lost and lonely 16 year old living with my elderly grandmother. I remember a time when my mom was hospitalized for one of several surgeries, and the news from the doctors was becoming increasingly pessimistic. Alone at home I used to play one particular song from Jesus Christ Superstar called,  “Could We Start Again Please”. It is from a scene following Jesus’ arrest by the Romans in which Mary Magdalene and Peter make a plea to Jesus about wanting to begin again and return to a time when they were all together and the situation was not so dire. I played that song over and over during that time in my life, half singing it to God, half singing it to my mother who was in the hospital, and just desperately wanting things to be the way they were before she got sick. Over the years not only that song, but the entire production has had a special place in my heart and I have an Easter tradition in which I take a long drive in the California desert and play the entire two-CD set from start to finish.

So here I was 36 years later, in Israel in a rental car with a wonderful sound system and a copy of Jesus Christ Superstar on CD that I had brought with me, driving through the twisting and turning desert roads leading down to the Dead Sea and playing this music. It was an amazing experience for me; the whole thing just came to life. At one point, as I was driving along a deserted stretch of highway, “Could We Start Again Please” started to play, and I was suddenly that scared 14 year old boy again. I cried like a baby, and I swear to you that in the midst of all that, I saw the most beautiful white bird sitting near the side of the road. It stood out because it was brilliantly white against the red desert rocks and because it was the first living thing I’d seen for hours. Two years ago a psychic in New England told me that my mother would send a sign in the form of white birds or doves to me to let me know she was there for me. It’s happened twice since then and these were both times when I was very down or when I had been thinking about her; this was the third time. This was becoming quite an emotional trip for me.

I drove to the town of Ein Bokek, located on the Israeli side of the Dead Sea. The closer one gets to the Sea, the more dramatic the scenery becomes, and although it was raining, the air was warm and fresh, and I couldn’t help but gasp when I rounded a bend and saw my first glimpse of it, hundreds of feet below sea level, bluish-green colored, with otherworldly salt formations in and around it. I stayed that night at the Daniel Hotel, one of a dozen spa hotels located on its shores, staring across the water toward the mountains of Jordan. There was a beautiful spa in which water from the Dead Sea is heated to about 85 or 90 degrees for a large indoor/outdoor pool. There are so many minerals and salts in the Dead Sea that it is virtually impossible to sink or even submerge yourself in the water. All you can do is simply bob like a cork and the water leaves your skin feeling silky and smooth, unless you have any small cuts and then the salt stings them a bit. I happily floated from the indoor pool through a sort of plastic “doggie door” into the outdoor pool, liking the contrast of the cool desert night air and the warm water. There was a great deal of thunder and lightning all around, and it rained a bit too, again providing a wonderful contrast to the hot water I was floating in. It was among the best and most relaxed moments of my entire trip.

I had a delicious steak dinner at the hotel, and talked to two medical students who were on their holiday break; both were Jewish-Americans, but had family they were visiting in Israel. I then watched TV for the very first time in almost three weeks: an episode of what I believe was actually an American reality TV show called Shalom in the Home in which a rabbi visits with and tries to solve issues and problems faced by a different family each week. It seemed so appropriate to be watching this in Israel. I was hoping for an episode of Fran Drescher’s The Nanny, too, but I wasn’t THAT lucky!

On Tuesday morning I spent more time soaking in the spa pools and then left Ein Bokek, driving a bit farther south to the site where the wicked city of Sodom supposedly once stood; now there are only badlands and salt mines. I saw the very interesting rock formation called “Lot’s Wife” that really did look like the woman in the biblical story who was turned into a pillar of salt because she disobeyed God’s order not to turn back and look at what was happening to Sodom. Just seeing road signs directing me to Sodom made for a rather surreal experience.

From there I headed inland to reach the ruins of the ancient city of Masada. Masada had been a thriving outpost built by King Herod but after Rome conquered most of the area, Masada became one of the last rebel hold-outs, a heavily fortified city built atop a high, steep plateau. The Romans tried to starve the residents into submission and then began to build a giant ramp which they used to reach the city walls and then attempted to break through the walls with battering rams and fire. Sensing that the end was near and that the Romans would soon overpower them, the approximately 900 people in Masada elected 10 soldiers to slay all of them, and then one soldier was chosen to slay the other 9 before killing himself. When the Romans entered the city and saw the tragic results, they were shocked, and according to the writings of the general who led the troops, he was impressed by the fact that these people would rather die than live in subjugation under Roman occupation.

I’d read that on one side of Masada there is both a long, steep path up to the ruins, or a cable car that can be ridden to the top; on the other entrance there was only a trail. I decided I would be better off giving my legs a needed break and taking the cable car, but whether I was too lost in Jesus Christ Superstar or whether I was suffering early dementia at age 51, I got the two sides mixed up and ended up on the side which ONLY had the trail. Mine was the ONLY car in the parking lot. I looked up at the heavens and said, “OK… I am going to make it up there on my own power” and I climbed the trail that runs alongside the Roman ramp, which is still visible after 2,000 years. I made the climb slowly, but without much pain and was glad I’d done the walk. It was certainly worth the effort, as the views from the top were amazing, with the Dead Sea looming below on the eastern side and the Judean desert to the north and west. It is a very powerful and emotional site to visit and is one of those places where you can almost feel the energy of what happened there so long ago.

Leaving Masada, I drove back to the Dead Sea, passing a group of Bedouin kids riding mules and herding a group of at least a dozen camels up a steep slope, which made for great photo opportunities. I then proceeded north along the shoreline, stopping at Ein Gedi, where there was a rocky beach from which I could easily enter the sea. Despite it being January, it was almost 70 degrees that day, and I refused to miss an opportunity to float in the sea itself, so in I went. The water temperature felt warmer than the air and I felt like a child as I floated and bobbed on the water. I called out to a British woman who was taking pictures of her family nearby, asking her to take my camera from my backpack on the beach and snap a few candid shots of me floating around out there and they really captured the carefree feeling I had that day.

Soon after passing Ein Gedi, there is a military checkpoint which divides the Palestinian-controlled West Bank from the rest of Israel. The soldiers barely gave me a second look as they waved me through, but this highway is a narrow “safe zone.” Heading north, the West Bank is to your left; rental cars are not allowed to go into this area and the State Department of the U.S. strongly suggests that Americans avoid it. On the right was the border with Jordan. There were miles of barbed wire fencing on both sides of the road that appeared to be electrified, and cameras and radar stations lined the highway at regular intervals. After passing through another military check point, I reached Israel’s Highway 1, another small strip of roadway cutting across the West Bank toward Jerusalem, which lies only 20 miles or so from the Dead Sea. On the CD player, Jesus Christ Superstar was still playing, and now as the sun was setting and I began to see the twinkling lights of Jerusalem on the hills ahead of me, the character of Jesus was singing the lyrics:

“If you knew all that I knew, my poor Jerusalem, you’d see the truth, but you’d close your eyes… While you live your troubles are many, my poor Jerusalem. To conquer death, you only have to die. You only have to die.”

Just after sunset, I reached the city. It was cold and rainy, the traffic was nightmarish and the drivers were fast and aggressive. As I found throughout Israel, far too few of the signs were in English and in the dark and with a fair amount of road construction, I was having a terrible time matching up my location with the map I had. I saw a policeman and tried to pull up to ask him for help, but he shooed me away with a motion as if to say, “You can’t pull over here!”  So I kept going. A bit later I saw a place to pull over and rolled down my window to flag down an older man wearing a yarmulke. I asked if he could tell me how to get to the famous King David Hotel, not because I was staying there, but my hotel, the YMCA Three Arches was across the street from the famous landmark. He looked genuinely perplexed as to how to describe what I needed to do, but basically said, “Well, go to the bottom of this hill to the stoplight and make a right. Then somehow in all this construction you’ll need to make a left at some point and get down to another street where you will make a right. And then you’ll see a gas station and the hotel is just past that. I am sorry I can’t be more specific, but it is hard to explain.”  I told him that I thought I understood what he was saying and added, “I’ll get there!” He leaned in the window and quite seriously said, “With God’s help, I KNOW you will!”  It was an interesting introduction to Jerusalem.

I found the stoplight, I made my right turn and with great difficulty, wove across several lanes of traffic and made the first possible left, went down a steep hill, made another right turn and miraculously, there it was, the King David, and across from it, my hotel. The YMCA Three Arches is an art deco style building from the 1930s designed by the same man who designed the Empire State Building; it is a landmark in and of itself. The lobby was dramatically decorated and lush, but the room was rather Spartan and resembled a monk’s cell. However, I was so tired I knew I’d sleep well, nonetheless.

It was too cold and wet and I was too tired to do any exploring of the old walled city, but I found a small restaurant not far away called the Tmol Shilshom Bookstore Café that I’d read about in a guidebook. It was a cozy place with comfortable chairs, and grey stone walls lined with bookshelves and hundreds of books, all in Hebrew of course. The staff was young and very friendly and I had a wonderful meal. I started with the soup sampler: three soups – French onion, lentil-pumpkin, and sweet potato – served in drinking glasses on a platter with wonderful homemade bread. Then I had ravioli stuffed with pears and gorgonzola cheese that would draw the envy of an Italian chef. For dessert my waiter recommended the apple pie and I laughed. “Well, I’m an American and that doesn’t sound very authentically Israeli to me, but I’ll trust you!”  I was glad I did. It was a beautiful tart surrounded by slices of apples in an artistic pattern accompanied by little bowls of ice cream and whipped cream.

Early the next morning I set out on foot toward the “old city”. It was very cold and rainy and I really had to bundle up. I entered the city through the Jaffa Gate and discovered a labyrinth of covered streets and corridors making up the city’s bazaars. I spied a place that offered fresh fruit juices and got a cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice that felt like it was packed with so many vitamins I could fly! However, things went downhill from there and I began to suffer from traumatic flashbacks to the Egypt trip; I was assailed by vendors wanting to sell me everything from “Guns & Moses” t-shirts to jewelry to perfume. They actually even sell frankincense and myrrh! There were exotic spices and tables of hideous candy that looked as if were laced with red, yellow and green dyes #3, #5 and #8! It would have actually been fun to wander the marketplace and take it all in, but just as in Egypt, the vendors were like sharks and a “no thanks” made no impression on them whatsoever. I was followed and teased and harassed until I’d walked almost a block from an aggressive salesman’s stall, but then I had already crossed into the turf of yet another aggressive salesman. I wondered how much Jerusalem had really changed over the past 2000 years, and I almost longed for Jesus to make an appearance and overturn the tables of these aggressive merchants!

Another disappointment about my time in Jerusalem was that I never did get to visit Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock, a very holy site for both Jews and Muslims. The Muslims pretty much control this sector of the city and severely limit the hours when non-Muslims may visit the site. In addition, everyone I asked, from police to merchants to people leading tour groups gave me different answers regarding when I would be able to visit, and every time I checked, the site was closed to non-Muslims. I did visit the Western Wall or “Wailing Wall”, which is probably the most sacred site for Jews in the world. After having to go through metal detectors and security checks, I donned a yarmulke provided at the entrance and quietly approached the wall where I said some prayers for everyone I know and then exited the city walls, heading eastward toward the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed the night before his arrest and crucifixion.

I have to say that of all the religious sites I visited, this was the most moving to me. The site now has a basilica built atop it, but the Garden itself is still there and you can walk through it on gravel paths. To walk amongst the gnarled olive trees and turn around to see the vista of walled Jerusalem on the hill above me gave me chills, thinking that this must have been the same view Jesus had on that night. In the basilica I knelt at the altar and picked up a passage from the Bible that was sitting on the railing in front of me. It was taken from the book of Matthew and described Jesus’ visit to the Garden, and it really brought the whole thing together for me. I wept like a baby from the sheer power of the moment and was a little perturbed that none of the priests who were close-by came to see if I was OK. Maybe they see such reactions often.

From there I hiked up the Mount of Olives to an ancient Jewish cemetery where the stone sarcophagi of at least 2,000 people cover the western side of the mountain facing Jerusalem. The views were spectacular and the sun had finally come out. I wanted to descend the mountain and try to get back to the Temple Mount for another attempt to visit it. I didn’t want to take the same way back down, so I used a different road and unfortunately, it wound around the mountain and led me into the Muslim Palestinian sections of East Jerusalem. Suddenly I noted that the neighborhood had changed. Trash dumpsters were full to overflowing with dozens of stray cats mulling over the scraps. Bottles and cans and broken glass and paper littered every street. More disturbing, in the Jewish cemetery I passed here, the sarcophagi were covered in trash… bottles of soda, Clorox bleach containers, paper, plastic seemingly tossed over the fence. It felt so disrespectful and it made me angry.

Taxi cabs pulled up twice and the drivers offered to take me anywhere I needed to go. I declined, but as the neighborhood deteriorated even further and I started to notice people eyeing me in a most unfriendly way. Perhaps the cab drivers knew that I was truly in the wrong place. I remembered a story I heard once, I think from a rabbi:

A drowning man with great faith in God was floating in the sea. A small rowboat came by and the man inside asked, “Do you need help?”  The drowning man replied, “Oh no, God will save me, I am fine!”  A larger boat comes by and the same exchange happens. Then it happens a third time. The struggling man then drowns and ends up in Heaven before God and asks in great distress, “Why, God? I was faithful! I knew you’d save me, I had faith, but you just let me drown! How could you do that to me?”  And God replied, “Well, I sent you three rescue boats… what more did you want?!”

Chuckling nervously to myself, I vowed to take the next cab that stopped for me, but there were no more cabs and thankfully, I finally made it back to the city walls without a problem. Hungry, I found a place I’d read about that served amazing pita and hummus. Word has it that people come from Jordan with coolers just to buy the hummus to take home! It was really good, and I washed it down with another pomegranate juice. I then decided to walk the Via Dolorosa, the route taken by Jesus as he carried his cross through the city to the place where he was crucified. Along the way are the “stations of the cross” that explain what happened at each place. I began at the Lion’s Gate and as I stood there contemplating all what had happened here, a taxi screeched up next to me and the driver, whom I believe was Arabic (it’s hard to tell the difference between Hebrew and Arabic, except that in Hebrew the greeting is SHALOM and in Arabic it’s SAALAM) asked where I wanted to go. Strange, since I had not called or hailed a cab! He said he could offer me tours to the Mount of Olives and show me good views. After quietly saying “no thanks” three times, he finally demanded, “Well why are you just standing here? What do you want?”  Frustrated, I said, “I want to pray and think about what happened to Jesus here, and I want to be alone!” He DID at least apologize before speeding off.

Inside the gates and walking the Via Dolorosa, which is all uphill, I stopped at the place where Jesus first fell under the weight of the cross and was reading a passage posted at a church on this spot. Suddenly, behind me a loud voice cried out, “As-Salaam-Alaikum, my friend! Come look in my store. What you want to buy? I have scarves for your girlfriend! Tell me what you want! I give you good prices! I have your size t-shirts!”  There was no peace to be had here, so I moved on.

A little farther along, I heard lovely singing coming from a small chapel, went through the open doors, and sat in the back to listen to some nuns singing hymns. It was beautiful – for about four minutes. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. It was time for the Muslim call to prayer. The haunting chants that I actually appreciated hearing in Cairo and in Jordan seemed offensive and intrusive here because they were being broadcast over HUGE loudspeakers on virtually every block of the city. It was like having someone with a bullhorn shouting at you from 5 feet away. Though we were in the same room, I literally could not hear the nuns’ singing, and the call to prayer went on for 20 minutes. It drowned out everything. I couldn’t help but wonder why I can’t even peek inside the gates of what the Muslims consider their holy sites, but that I could be assaulted by the call to prayer while I am visiting inside a Christian church.

Finally, I reached the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the spot where Jesus was supposedly crucified and entombed. A group of kids was playing soccer in the alley beside the church and the ball thudded against the church wall every 20 seconds. Seriously? Within the church itself, it was pandemonium. The place is divided into a dozen different chapel areas: Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Methodist. Nothing was marked, so I had no idea what I was even looking at. I did find what appeared to be the Holy Sepulcher, but there was a long line of people waiting to go inside it, and though I wanted to at least photograph it from the outside, a man in jeans and a t-shirt who was directing foot traffic was prominent in every photo I tried to take. People were talking loudly on their cell phones! An Arab man approached people trying to solicit business for his tour company! “Saalam, my friend. I can take you on a tour to Bethlehem tomorrow. I can show you the Mount of Olives! How much you want to pay?”  I couldn’t take it anymore.

I left the old city after dark, and sighed with relief to be out of the craziness. I wondered again whether Jerusalem has always been like this. Was it the same in Jesus’ time? How long can it last in its present form, with the tensions and religious and racial prejudices and violent disagreements over who even owns it? I left feeling sad, frustrated, angry and confused. It was an emotional and tiring day. I decided to seek the comfort of Tmol Shilshom Bookstore Café for dinner again, and a group of three Jewish women from Buffalo, NY and one of their daughters who has lived in Jerusalem for two years asked me to join them for dinner. Among the things that I learned from my companions is that “buffalo wings” are actually Buffalo wings, as they were invented in Buffalo, NY.

They were eager to hear my impressions of Jerusalem, and I was a bit afraid to tell them what I really thought, but one of them said, “Don’t worry, you don’t need to be politically correct. I don’t like Jerusalem at all!”  I shared my experiences about the intrusive call to prayer and desecrated Jewish cemeteries and it turned into an interesting discussion. The daughter sympathized with my complaints, but also shared some stories about how Jewish settlers in the West Bank play religious music on loudspeakers 24 hours a day to combat the call to prayer by the Muslims, and she said that in one area where the Israelis are doing urban renewal, they are bulldozing through Muslim cemeteries. It’s all a very, very complicated part of the world, and I doubt that anyone can ever know the full truth about the things that happen here. So I sought solace in good company, a bowl of sweet potato soup, an order of Swiss chard pancakes with vegetables, and a killer cheesecake.

The sun was shining brightly the next day as I exited the city and headed north into the Jordan River Valley, passing more military checkpoints and barbed wire and surveillance equipment all along the Jordanian border. The desert blooms within this valley due to irrigation from the river, and there are date palms, bananas, oranges, pomegranates, and any vegetable you can name. Soon I reached Yardenit, the site where Jesus was baptized by John, and where pilgrims from all over the world come to be baptized. There was a group of perhaps 75 people from Kenya there when I visited, and I watched them all don long white robes and step into the rather murky river. One big, muscled man was the “dunker”, taking his fellow pilgrims one by one in his arms and submerging them in the river for a second or two. It was fun to watch the varied reactions: some people shrieked with the cold of the water, some cried and sobbed in apparent rapture, others laughed and hugged their comrades. It was a beautiful place to spend an hour.

Soon I reached the Sea of Galilee, also well below sea level, but unlike the Dead Sea, it is a fresh water lake and is surrounded by beautiful green hills and mountains. Unfortunately, it began to rain, but I made some stops at the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, visited a Benedictine Monastery built on the site where Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and Capernaum, where the disciples John, Peter, Andrew, James and yes, Matthew all lived, and where Jesus himself lived for some time and is said to have done several healings of the sick. The entire time I just could not believe that I was really in this place.

On the eastern side of the Galilee, you can look up at the very green and lush Golan Heights, an area formerly owned by Syria that had been used to stage attacks on Israeli villages below. The area was taken and has remained occupied by Israel since the war in 1967. It looks peaceful, calm and verdant, but guide books warn that straying too far off established roads or trails puts one in danger of being injured by old land mines placed 43 years ago. Again the modern world intrudes into this otherwise idyllic setting.

As the sun set over Galilee, I made a beeline back to The Bubble, Tel Aviv for my last night in Israel. I had dinner AGAIN at Orna and Ella with Tanya and then got together with Chen, who upon hearing where I’d dined, teased, “You know, there ARE other restaurants in Tel Aviv!”  I’ll miss him, and I really hope to see him again.

In the morning I made my way to the airport, but trouble arose when I needed to fill the tank of my rental car. I left the highway one exit from the airport to find gas and I drove for almost 30 minutes in a huge loop 8 miles long without seeing a single gas station. At the Dead Sea there were stations every 10 miles; here in suburban Tel Aviv, there was nothing. Finally, as I resolved to simply go to the airport and face the music at Hertz for returning the car with a full tank, I found a full-serve station and asked the attendant to fill the tank. I started up, drove away, got onto the entrance road for the airport and realized that the fuel gauge was NOT reading as full. It was too late to do anything about that now, so I brought the car to Hertz. They made an issue about the gas, but I really didn’t have time to argue at this point, so I quickly explained what happened and then just ran for the terminal. It was 2:00 PM and my flight was at 3:45.

As I entered the airport and started toward the Alitalia counter I was approached by security personnel who began to ask me a LOT of questions. I had been warned that this happened, but arriving in Tel Aviv had been so effortless, I’d assumed leaving would be too. They asked lots of questions about where I’d been, whom I knew, if I had accepted any packages, and then a stern female security officer asked the $64,000 question:    “Why are you arriving for your flight so late? You should be here 3 hours in advance!”

I tried to explain my gasoline woes, but the woman looked at me as if to say, “We know you are a terrorist; your gas excuse is the oldest story in the book!”  Ultimately she took pity on me and let me pass. Next I had to run all of my baggage through an x-ray machine and when I thought I was home free, I was instructed to take my bags to a nearby inspection table. I watched in horror as several security personnel were opening people’s bags all around me and taking everything out and scanning each item with a wand. All I could think was, “Oh Lord, don’t let them drag all my dirty underwear out onto this table!” But I didn’t panic and after standing there for a few minutes, a man came over and without opening my bags, simply put some sort of tags on them and said I could go! I must have an honest face. And by the skin of my teeth, I was on a flight bound for Rome as the coast of Israel faded from view behind me.

Of all my travels, I would have to say that my time in Egypt, Jordan and Israel was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had, though the reasons that Egypt is etched into my memory are qualitatively different from the reasons I will never forget Jordan and Israel. Since this first trip, I have been back to Israel three more times, maintaining my connection to Chen and exploring virtually every corner of this enigmatic place. Israel is not really the place to go if you’re looking for relaxation and rest. It is challenging. It requires you to think about your own values and beliefs and how they differ from those of other people. It brings you face to face with your own religious or spiritual beliefs, whatever they might be. It makes you consider the past and the future. It makes you wonder how much of what occurred in the past was fate and how much of what will happen in the future is foretold in prophecy. And it makes you feel that all the answers are there waiting for you, but does not promise that you will necessarily find them.

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