Israel (off duty)
I love Israel. My love for Israel is different from my love from India for example. I feel as if I have a relationship with Israel, almost as if Israel were a lover. So sometimes I love her and don’t like her, sometimes we argue and sometimes we sit together companionable and at peace. Sometimes she is maddening too but I love the way she looks and smells and feels. I love the food she gives me and I love the sunshine and the sea. I love that she is ancient and yet so very modern. I love her compassion and spirit. She is beautiful and she is clever, she teaches me and allows me to grow. She always accepts and includes me and I always feel her open arms welcoming me so that I feel loved and valued. Something inside of me takes a deep breath and whispers “I am home” when I reach this land. Most of all, I love the energy and passion that IS Israel.
Phew! Where did that come from!
So, if you read my post titled Sarel – Private Benjamin, you will know that I spent 3 weeks as a volunteer in the IDF but of course one gets weekends, from Thursday after work, until early Sunday morning, off duty. I also took the opportunity to spend a few days either side of being Private Benjamin to relax and have fun in Israel.
I am really lucky to have amazing friends who live there which helps of course and I have been there too many times to count but although this is such a tiny country (roughly the size of Wales) there is so much to see and do that every visit reaps rich rewards in some way. But this is about this time, so I revisited some places and visited some new ones, and had some new experiences too.
I spent one long weekend in Tel Aviv in a “boutique” hotel (small, no lift, fake orchid, gratis shower cap!) called The Bell which was great because it was one block from the beach and five minutes walk from the souk. Location, location every time. My room was tiny but it had a REAL BED ( see pic of my army bed with its 2 inch thick mattress on the Sarel post!) and a shower en suite,(what bliss) free Wifi and the most delicious breakfast buffet imaginable. Israeli breakfasts are legendary, all the usual things, cereals and fruits and eggs and a big selection of cheeses, humus, olives and Israeli salad which is chopped cucumber and tomato. There is also tuna and mashed avocado and all types of bread. Did I mention cheese cake and chocolate puddings plus a variety of cooked delicacies and Jewish herrings (the herrings themselves whilst alive didn’t belong to any particular religion I am pretty sure, but once dead, poor things, they become herrings in wine and herrings in brine and shmaltz herrings and pickled herring and roll mop herrings! But never a kipper! An Israeli hotel breakfast sets you up for the day, except it doesn’t because eating in Israel is a big part of the experience and the food is wonderful. This is no place for a diet.
A new experience on the Tel Aviv weekend was to go to the boardwalk in front of the beach at The Renaissance Hotel where every Saturday morning, one can watch the dancing, or even join in. It is quite hilarious to watch and even though I was laughing I know that if I lived there, I would be twirling along with the rest of this motley crew! There were some VERY old people swooping and clapping and clearly enjoying every moment. There was a gay guy in tight white pants and open to the waist shirt, with a dancer’s posture and a perma- tan strutting his stuff and a middle-aged lady dressed somewhere between a cheerleader and Minnie Mouse, with red full skirt, frilly white blouse and black buttoned shoes and even a red bow in her hair! The dancing is a cross between line dancing, jive and an aerobics class and there must have been a hundred people dancing in perfect synchronicity. Great fun to watch and great too to be out in the sunshine and part of the crowds of families and teenagers and couples enjoying the music and the beach at the weekends.
On Friday morning I walked along Allenby Street all the way to the souk (the market) which is just wonderful. On the crowded narrow streets, there are thousands of people buying food, fruit and spices and wonderful breads and phone covers, and T shirts and cd’s and easy wash no iron tablecloths and souvenirs of all kinds. It’s a Middle Eastern souk and it is so colourful and vibrant and noisy and alive, I love it! I was walking past a cd stall and the man selling was dancing along to the music, a rotund, happy John Travolta and as I passed I couldn’t help a little wiggle to the music whereupon he pointed to my eyes, which being very blue are unusual in the Middle East, clutched his heart and theatrically fell to the floor! I went on my way laughing and enjoying myself hugely and of course smiles spread like a lovely infection….. as do gloomy miserable faces and moaning and complaining which are very contagious.
Another day I went to the Yitzhak Rabin Centre also known as The Israeli Museum which tells the story of Israel beginning in the 1920’s through to the assassination of Rabin which was a great tragedy for the region and the world too in terms of the peace process.
This trip I dined in the old city of Jaffa on two evenings, once in an Arab restaurant where of course there was no wine but instead a huge pitcher of fresh pomegranate juice to go with the delicious food. The place was packed with both Jewish people and Israeli Arabs and everybody was enjoying themselves, even babies and little children still up and smiling at 11pm. Getting there however was why I said that Israel can be maddening! I was going to meet my friends by bus. The bus ran back from Jaffa but not directly to Jaffa. Taxi then. So one was ordered and I was told to wait for five minutes. Thirty minutes later I gave up and went into the street and hailed one. I told the driver where I wanted to go, a main road hard to mispronounce but he didn’t understand although he was repeating what I said exactly. About 25 times. I ended up speaking v e r y s l o w l y and VERY LOUDLY like this! No joy. But he drove anyway and then casually lit up a cigarette. In a car! A confined place without asking permission and my newly washed hair and new top were going to stink! ” STOP THAT NOW” I yelled! (More virtuous meditation needed here!) He shrugged and said,”I put out” so I sank back in my seat, he opened the window and carried on smoking and in between puffs INTO the car, rested his hand on the “out” . And then he spoke rapidly into his cell phone, so smoking and calling and driving all at the same time and next thing I know is we are joined by a second man who was having a free ride on my dollar! And still no idea of where I was going.
I ended up very late, and not exactly at my destination with nerves twanging from frustration, danger and asphyxiation!
Take the bus if you go, the buses are much more fun! And go to the old railway station in Tel Aviv to eat, drink and browse. Fabulous!
On another weekend I went for the day and evening to Jerusalem. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe how beautiful Jerusalem is and its amazing energy. It houses The Western Wall which for Jews is the holiest place in the world and the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s most holy places and of course this is also the holy city for Christians. This is not a guide book so instead of listing all there is to see and do I will try to describe how being in Jerusalem makes me feel.
Tired! It is so hilly and there are steps everywhere and there really is no alternative to walking. Energised too because this is a truly unique city, a microcosm of the world, teeming as it is with so many people of different faiths and tourists from all over the world who have come to see where Jesus walked or to pray at the Wall which is all that remains of the second Temple. Apart from the fact that Jerusalem is one of the great cities of the world and I never tire of it, my reason for going this time was because I wanted to say a very specific prayer for someone in my family and illogically or not, I felt that if God is going to listen to me, this is where the hotline is!
I’m not sure why going to the Western Wall is such an emotional experience. Perhaps because I know how privileged I am to be able to do that. I was awed as I approached this sacred place and waited quietly until I got up close to the huge ancient stones. I rested both hands and then my forehead against it and then the quiet tears came….I stayed for a while, lost in the moment, then I carefully posted my entreaties, written carefully that morning on a tiny scrap of paper, into a crack between the stones, there to remain until at some point all the letters to God are removed and given a Jewish burial as befits them.
After I finished my prayers for all my loved ones and especially those who are sick and for recently departed friends I thought for a moment and then straight from my heart came the realisation that I had nothing to ask for, for ME. I have everything I need and so I gave thanks from the bottom of my heart, for my wonderful life, for my amazing family and friends and for my health and asked just that I should be sent whatever He thinks I need.
And I realised with that thought that somewhere in these last turbulent and sometimes difficult years I really grew up. So my tears were tears of happiness and tears of gratitude that I can come to this amazing place and that THIS year I was in Jerusalem.
We had such fun after I was done crying! My BFF and I explored the souk in the Arab quarter with its higgledly piggledly (perhaps not the most appropriate phrase and narrow, cobbled streets where I haggled good naturedly for gifts to bring home. There was time to stop and stare at beautiful views and to come across a big square where lots of people wearing yellow T shirts seemed to be practising some strange ethereal dance whilst other girls twirled around like ballerinas in pink tutus.
This lovely scene turned out to be a demonstration against the persecution of a practise called Falun Gong, which is (straight from the leaflet they gave me), “an ancient practise for self-improvement of mind, body and spirit based on the principles of Truthfulness, Compassion and Tolerance”. It seems that in China this practise is not popular with everybody as they claim that there are 3079 confirmed deaths from torture and the real figure is many thousands more. What was amazing to me was that this big organised protest against the Chinese regime was taking place in Israel and in Jerusalem. Wouldn’t you think that they have enough troubles of their own! But no, this was one of three different demos I saw that day including a noisy march of many young Israelis and Arabs, together objecting to the settlements. So this is real democracy at work, in one countryat least in the Middle East.
Given that I was in the army for most of my month, I crammed an awful lot in! I went to my first Israeli wedding which was quite an experience and to one of the many thousands of bonfires lit all over the country for the festival of Lag B’omer. If you want to know anything about it, please just ask me! I did and I must have listened because back at base we had a quiz and guess who knew all the answers
Another afternoon I visited a charming little town founded by the Rothschild dynasty called Zichron Yaakov. Lovely! All arty and eclectic and with the best ice cream parlour outside Italy. There was also an enchanting visit to a guide dog centre to see how the puppies are trained which is amazing, they are so clever and mega cute! We saw a short film which started with just some beautiful images, a sunset, flowers, a butterfly, the ocean and a baby smiling and that was enough to hit home how very precious the things are that we tend to take for granted.
I had a ball! I experienced warmth and great hospitality from friends and from strangers. Of course there are huge problems and much heartache in this region but people just get on with their lives and maybe because it can be very dangerous and difficult, the people seem very strong and positive with really strong values. As usual I have come away with a shopping list of where I have to go on my next visit. This is a remarkable country in every way.
What an amazing year I am having!
Shalom. May peace be with you.