Experiencing a different side of Israel

I’ve visited Israel four times so far and each time has been a completely different experience.

My first visit, back in 1992, had a religious focus. I had just gotten married and was living a religiously observant life so over the course of the trip, we stopped to pray at the burial spots of many prominent religious figures, including at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a spot that very few Jews are allowed to visit today as it’s a Palestinian city in the West Bank. This place, also called Cave of Machpelah, is said to be the burial place of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah.

We also visited Rachel’s tomb, which is in Bethlehem, another Palestinian city in the West Bank. Other stops were in Jerusalem, Tiberias and Haifa, where we spent Shabbat with my aunt and uncle and their nine children in nearby Zichron Yaakov. We also went to the top of Masada (riding up in the cable car rather than hiking up at sunrise as we were not morning people. I remember discovering on the way down that I had forgotten to put film in my camera.) For our visit to the Dead Sea, I went to an inside area with other women rather than outside on the beach.

Our visit also happened to coincide with the wedding of a couple I went to college with so we attended their wedding, along with several other people visiting from our community in Long Beach, California.

My second visit was more than two decades later, in 2013. Since that first visit, I had divorced, remarried and had three children. I was working as the managing editor at the local Jewish newspaper and was fortunate to be part of a press tour through the American Jewish Press Association that was hosted by the Israel Ministry of Tourism and El Al. (I’ll be forever grateful to the publisher, Flo Eckstein, for sending me on that trip!)

It was an amazing experience that I wrote about for the paper’s blog and print issue: “Discovering Israel’s multiple layers,” “Arizona nonprofit sends medical supplies to Israel,” “Thoughts in the Air,” “Technical difficulties,” “How I came to understand Israel’s elections,” “Yad Vashem rescuing personal items from the Holocaust”Sites marks Israel’s early days” and “Phoenix represented in El Al Torah scroll for the unity of Israel.

I really enjoyed getting to know my AJPA colleagues and learning so much about the country.

My third visit, in 2016, was with the Jewish Connection of Phoenix and part of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project so I was part of a group of 20 moms from my own community in Phoenix who joined about 500 other Jewish moms from around the world. Our tour of the country included Tiberias, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Safed, Masada and the Dead Sea. We heard inspiring lectures from the tour leaders throughout the trip, with most of the focus specifically for mothers. I also wrote about that trip for the paper: “Israel through a mother’s eyes” and “Translating inspiration into action.”

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On top of Masada from some of the women from the 2016 JWRP trip.

This year’s trip was very different and was more personal than my previous ones. I never expected to be able to have another opportunity to return to Israel so soon so I was thrilled to win two El Al tickets at an American Jewish Press Association conference last year. I wanted to be able to take our whole family to Israel since we have family there who have never met my husband or our sons, but I wasn’t even sure how I’d use the two tickets since a trip across the world isn’t currently in our budget.

However, my mother-in-law mentioned that she’d love to take our oldest son to Israel on a pre-bar mitzvah trip. She grew up in Tel Aviv and has family and friends in Israel. We discussed the idea of me using my two tickets for me and my oldest son and the three of us would travel together for a visit and soon after, we booked tickets for the week after his school year ended.

It was such an incredible feeling to be headed to Israel again, especially to share the experience with my oldest son, and it was a miracle how well everything fell into place.

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Arriving in Israel

My mother-in-law coordinated our schedule and her friends and family were amazing hosts, from hosting us in their homes and driving us from one place to another to sharing their lives and their hearts with us. Our schedule also included visiting one of my cousins who I hadn’t seen since she was 8 and it was a highlight to see her again and meet her four children. I also got to see my aunt and uncle in Zichron Yaakov and it was so great having them meet one of my kids. Maybe someday we’ll have a big family reunion and I’ll get to see all their kids and their 50 or so grandchildren. (I’m not posting pictures here of the people we visited because many have chosen not to be on social media and others I didn’t ask permission to post their pictures.)

What was unique about this trip is that we stayed in people’s homes rather than hotels and got to experience the incredible home hospitality of Israelis. We discovered little things like the floors of the showers are often the tile of the bathroom floor with a drain and glass doors and the light switches are outside the room. Many people have washing machines and no dryers and instead hang their laundry outside their window with clothespins. At each home we visited, there was a delicious spread of fresh fruit, juices and sweets.

We celebrated Shabbat with my husband’s cousin’s family, who are Breslov Chasidim. We visited their son’s family in the religious neighborhood of Me’a Shearim. We stayed in central Tel Aviv, in the heart of the city walking distance from the beach. We stayed at Kibbutz HaOgen, a secular kibbutz with Savta’s childhood friend, a place my husband stayed when he was a child. We also spent a night in northern Israel, in Haifa, at the home of another one of Savta’s childhood friends, whose parents were Holocaust survivors and whose husband grew up in London.

We ate falafel and shwarma in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, we ate falafel from a little stand across the street from our Tel Aviv apartment, we saw several sunsets over the Mediterranean Sea, including one from an apartment high on Mount Carmel in Haifa with an amazing view. We ate a delicious Mediterranean meal after watching sunset at Mikhmoret Beach and ate sushi in Tel Aviv. Z even had a Happy Meal at a kosher McDonald’s in a Netanya mall food court.

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A kosher McDonalds in a Netanya mall food court
Banana Beach meal
Dinner on the beach (at Banana Beach)

We saw Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and Z put his note in the Kotel, along with notes from his brothers. We made a second trip to the Kotel after lunch because he wanted to touch the wall one more time. We floated in the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth.

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We took a train from Haifa to Tel Aviv and on our last day in Tel Aviv, Z and I took a bus to Carmel Market, found our way to Independence Hall and, through the guidance of some passersby in the street, found our way back to Ben Yehuda Street to ride Bus #4 home.

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Savta showed us her parents’ apartment, where my husband stayed as a kid, and Z had freshly squeezed juice from the stand Ron sipped his own juice when he was Z’s age. She also showed us the strip of beach where her father, who Z is named after, walked every day. I was amazed how many people were out in Tel Aviv that evening, It was around 10 p.m. and people were playing volleyball on the beach, exercising on outdoor gym equipment and zipping by on bicycles and scooters.

Savta and Z walk in Tel Aviv
Juice stand in Tel Aviv

On Friday night, out of respect for our host’s Shabbat observance, we didn’t bring our purses or phones or any money and after the meal we realized that we hadn’t planned a way home. It ended up being about an hour walk home through the streets of Tel Aviv and we got back to our apartment around 11:30 p.m. Z was a good sport and since he slept most of the afternoon, he enjoyed the walk. Despite it being Shabbat, there were still many people on the streets, gathered on the patios of bars and restaurants so walking home that late felt completely safe. This late at night, there weren’t as many bikes or scooters to dodge on the sidewalks as there were during the day.

During our walk, we came across Rabin Square, where there is a memorial for Yitzhak Rabin in the spot where he was assassinated in 1995.

Since it was the week before Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride festival, many of the stores and restaurants had rainbow flags on display. (According to news reports, 250,000 people gathered for Tel Aviv’s 20th Pride Parade on June 8, the day after we left the county.)

We heard many stories of Savta’s childhood escapades from her and her friends, caught up with relatives and were treated to many delicious meals and refreshments in their homes as we looked at old pictures. We saw beautiful backyard gardens, such as one in Hadera at the home of one of Ron’s cousins, with papayas, bananas, lavender, cilantro, mint, rosemary and lemons.

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We walked around Kibbutz Haogen, where Ron stayed as a child, and I fantasized about kibbutz life, where children run freely around the property. Z especially liked the couple’s three dogs, Luka, Mona and Tommy. When my husband stayed there, the kibbutzniks all ate together in the large dining room, but as is the case in many kibbutzim these days, that’s no longer the case and people eat in their own homes instead. Z had a great time playing with the grandson of Savta’s friend, even though they spoke different languages. (Pokemon cards were a good icebreaker.)

Savta’s friends and family are so creative: A filmmaker, an artist who paints and makes sculptures, a jewelry designer, a wedding dress designer who also makes beautiful decorative items for her home, a professional singer-songwriter. My cousin is a professional makeup artist. We found out that the new husband of one of Savta’s friends was the composer of one of the songs sung at my wedding. He also knew my aunt and uncle because he performs at many weddings and events around town.

One evening in Tel Aviv, as we walked on our street, several firetrucks and police cars sped by, with blinking lights and roaring sirens. When I skimmed the news later that night, I learned that there was a riot at the Central Bus Station. After our walk through Carmel Market the next day, we found ourselves at the bus station, although it was peaceful at that time.

On the first day we were in Israel, Gaza launched more than 100 rockets into Israel, which was reported as the largest bombardment since the Gaza conflict in 2014. I had no idea this was happening until I read about in the news late that night. When I mentioned it to a sabra, she shrugged and said, “That’s nothing new.” It saddens me that news of rockets being launched into their country is not unusual and that so many people around the world have such hatred for this beautiful country.

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Sure, it may have it’s share of problems, as does every other country, but when you look at the history and what has blossomed on that land in the last 70 years, it’s truly amazing. There were some reminders of the hardships that residents face, such as signs for public bomb shelters or a sign at the entrance of a road to a Palestinian city stating that it could be dangerous for Israeli citizens to go there.

And I admit, when I was on the bus, I did feel a sense of apprehension as I remembered past news stories of bus bombings (and later found out that one of them happened on the same route in 2002). But the Israelis I met create beautiful things and don’t let fear prevent them from embracing life.

L’hitraot, Israel, until we meet again.

4 Comments on “Experiencing a different side of Israel”

  1. After reading this I feel like I’ve been there! What a great experience!

    1. Thanks for reading! It was an incredible trip!

  2. Leisahle ,
    I read this over and over. Your expression moved me so.
    Seeing life in Israel through your eyes has brought back the forgotten awareness of my beautiful homeland .
    I was fun travelling with you , and I was so proud to introduce you and Zachary to my childhood friends.

    Love,
    Sarah,
    Savta
    Mother in Law.

    1. ❤️❤️❤️Thank you for sharing your homeland with us, it was such an incredible experience and it was so fun travelling with you, too!

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