Just before leaving many of my friends and family members asked me – do you really have to go to Israel this very moment? They were very worried for my safety. There were moments when I asked this questions to myself as well. I also asked it to my American friend, who moved to Tel Aviv four years ago, and what she answered left me even more puzzled. She said that not that long ago she would have said that there aren’t any issues and I will be safe, but now even she is not sure… Many say the Third Intifada (Palestinian uprising against Israel) is taking place right now. Some say it’s been going on since the summer of 2014. Another name for this set of attacks is also Knife, Silent, Individual or Stabbing Intifada. These attacks have been done by young men who have been nicknamed the lone wolfs. In October alone there were 55 attacks, most of those stabbing cases, on some days as many as five per day. 250 causalities since September. In January the number of attacks subsided, in February rose again, and with the Passover celebrations the worry about more attacks increases. It’s a good thing I didn’t read all the statistics before coming to Israel, as I might have decided to cancel my trip after all, have I known this all before. The reason for disagreement is the Temple Mount, which is the third holiest place for the Muslims after Mecca and Medina. This is the place from which Prophet Muhammad rose to the heavens for one night. In Judaism this is the holiest place in the world, as this place has such presence of God as no other location in the world, and Adam was created from dust of this place. The Bible says this is the place where Abraham wanted to sacrifice his son Isaac, but God stopped him at the last moment. This place alone is proof enough why Jerusalem is the city of three religions.
When I asked the locals if there are any places I shouldn’t visit, they told me the Old Town, especially Muslin quarters, but, for it’s mostly true locals. As long as you are a tourist, noone will touch me, they said. I laughed and asked – what if we speak Russian? They answered that it might be more difficult, as 20-40% of Israeli inhabitants speak Russian. I did not get the impression that the number really is this high, but I did hear Russian a lot. Often in restaurants waiters would switch to Russian, telling tales of their birth countries being Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and many other former Soviet Union countries. They smiled and struggled to find words, as they don’t practice Russian that much. I also saw a few signs on the streets in Russian.
Landing at 4 am in Tel Aviv airport, I am greeted by heavy rain. Just the day before it was 30°C, but the weather forecast for the upcoming days is not pleasant – 15°C and rain. I didn’t even pack my summer clothes, but I did take my lightweight umbrella, which I almost always leave at home. While waiting to get out of the airplane, I hear other passengers talking about their previous experience in Israel, and it sounds like they come here for at least the fifth time, most likely they are pilgrims. I listen to them carefully and wonder – what is it that makes them come back to this country again and again? When I exit the plane, I breath in the clear, fragrant air and think to myself – how wonderfully tasty this place smells! Like fresh leaves, just blossomed flowers and summer thunderstorms. The security doesn’t take long, but they do ask quite a bit more questions than your usual airport guy would. I also see a photography exhibit in the airport, but it’s on the other side of the hall at the departures, and promise myself I will take a better look when I leave. The exhibition is about 60 inventions done by Israeli people, starting with pharmaceuticals, inventions in chemistry that have gotten the Nobel prize and ending with flash drives and cherry tomatoes.
A sleepy, very early morning ride to the hotel in Jerusalem and finally I am there. That’s where I see the first sign of true Israeli hospitality. Although I am not supposed to have any breakfast in this hotel today, some cakes and tea await me at the reception. Lovely!
At 7am it’s raining really hard, when I am eating my breakfast in a nearby cafe. Then just after ten minutes it stops and sun is shining bright. Suddenly sky turns dark and it’s pouring again. Locals say it never rains more than a few minutes here, but it doesn’t stop it from raining again.
The air smells as wonderful as in the airport, city is full of flowers, but the streets are empty. I see modern trams passing by. Instructions in Russian on how to use the ticket machines are broadcasted in the tram stops. Every tree and bush have a small watering tube attached to them, as otherwise everything would dry out here. I see the first orthodox Jews, who have the traditional hats and payots – two strands of hair, one on each side, which look all curled up. I see young boys sitting at a bus stop and roll hair between their fingers. Some wear kipas, small round hats on the top of their heads, others wear fedoras, which get packed up in a plastic bag during the rain and worn with it. It’s because Judaism says that the head must remain covered at all times.
Later I notice more unusual headdresses, especially on women, some even look like turbans. Of course, Muslim areas of the city have women in hijabs and even a few niqabs. I watch intently how men, dressed traditionally, push the baby carriages somewhere. Interestingly, it’s mostly men with kinds on the streets.
Dating & Guns
The second most surprising thing for me on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is the number of armed people. There are those who look like regular policeman, also young women, who walk in pairs or threes, in uniforms, with a small or even a large gun or automatic. One of the biggest surprises for me was seeing a man during my even walk in Jaffa. He was standing by the cafe, dressed in flip flops, swim shorts and a T-shirt. At first it seemed he has some kind of man-purse with a strap around his shoulder. The man-purse turned out to be an automatic gun. Then there was couple walking at the seaside in Tel Aviv, holding hands. The girl had a coffee in her other hand and the guy had a gun. Carrying a gun to a date… After the attacks in October the mayor of Jerusalem encouraged everyone who has a registered firearm to actually carry it with them at all times. It’s often the peaceful locals who end up shooting the terrorists during attacks, and there are many debates if this is appropriate usage of power.
Many locals have experience in active military service, as even women have to participate in mandatory military service. One of my friends from Tel Aviv served in air forces. It’s equality in the army – if a woman is qualified enough to hold a certain position, she can perform the same jobs as a man. Women now serve in also previously masculine positions. When I was in Israel, I read an interview with a woman who works in the bomb squad, and she is the first woman at this kind of job in Israel. Despite the many armed people on the streets, it doesn’t feel unsafe in the cities. You walk, observe local life and at no point have a feeling that have push your purse deeper in the armpit, and quickly run to the hotel without looking anyone in the eye. Locals are extremely kind, those same armed policeman showed directions and wished a nice walk. When I was looking for the Holy Sepulcher church, a woman approached us herself, seeing the confusion in my eyes, and showed where do I have to go. During the breakfast in the cafe, the owner approached us and said that she is grateful to us for visiting Israel at this challenging time, especially after everything that is being shown in the mass media, it must have been a difficult decision for us! Even now, writing these words it seems absurd that after everything that I have read, I enjoyed this country so much and would recommend it for someone to visit! But I really did fall in love with Israel from the first breath I took in the airport.
Another reason to love Israel is it’s food. Arranging dining remotely was really not an easy task, as most websites were in Yiddish, people didn’t answer the phones and emails. If they did, the answers sometimes where written from right to left. There were so many mistakes in the sentences that at times you could read things like “serving til the last death”. But the places we did manage to get to were truly amazing. In the restaurant Machneyuda at the market I experienced such ambiance and food I have never ever seen in any other country, although I have had a meal in more than forty countries! From roughly fifteen dishes that I had that day (the so-called tasting menu), each of those had a completely different taste and all of them were delicious! I also noticed that there was a queue at the door all the time with people who waited for a table. While they waited, they kept getting small drinks and snacks from the staff. I am also not a fan of loud music in the restaurants, but the track in this restaurant was so energetic and authentic that already at the second dish I noticed I was tapping my feet and dancing in my chair, just like all the other people in the restaurant!
The view from the second floor allowed me to see how the cook worked, and I kept seeing more and more dishes coming our way. The usual example of hospitality in Israel is to overfeed their guests. I believe we had servings at least three times bigger than a human can eat, but we kept getting more and more servings of tahini (sesame seed paste), hummus and different sauces, and plates and plates of food. Israel will remain in my memory as the country of hummus, as the menu could be characterized as hummus at hummus with hummus. It’s also a good place where to taste other nations food, such as Arabic or Lebanese, and they have the same principle of numerous enormous servings. For example, the restaurant Abu Gosh holds the world record of largest ever served plate of hummus in 2010. Of course, it was much larger that what you would get on a regular visit!
Religion and Israel
Of course you will think “religion”, when hearing the word “Israel”. Tel Aviv is very different from Jerusalem – beaches and hotels in the first line, modern restaurants and shops. In Jerusalem in some areas of the city even all of the signs are in Arabic, and other streets are full of Orthodox Jews. Locals told me that Arabic and Jewish languages have common roots, and Arabic is taught in local schools. The legend says that Arabs come from the Abraham son Ismail and Jewish come from Isaac, but later their paths have parted.
I don’t believe it’s possible to plan a visit to Jerusalem without any mention of religions questions. Although the churches here are not as grand as some of the European cathedrals, many of the foundations are much older, rebuild during the years. Most probably, any visitor of Jerusalem will visit the old town to see the church of Holy Sepulcher, which is supposedly build in the place of Golgotha. There are six working confessions here. Main rights belong to Latin, Greek and Armenian churches. Interestingly, the church is opened every morning by a member of a Muslim family who has had the honors for generations.
In the morning of my visit, the orthodox have a service there, and about forty women in head-kerchiefs are kneeling, and I feel awkward for taking pictures. From the second floor I see a beautiful view to the mosaics, similar to those in Istanbul’s Aghia Sophia. Next to the mosaic is the Stone of the Anointing. Pilgrims kneel before it, kiss it and put on numerous rosaries on it, to get a blessing. But the main object of interest is deeper inside the church, as there is always a queue. It looks like a temple inside the temple, the empty tomb of the Christ. The holy fire burns next to it, and you can consecrate the candles here (can buy them inside the church, but here they are more expensive). A clergyman controls the queue and doesn’t allow anyone to push in without having waited in the line. I notice a Russian couple dressed in camouflage, and they really do try to cut the line, but he doesn’t let them, several times, and doesn’t care that they say they are in a hurry. He also takes care than noone stays inside for too long, otherwise it would be impossible for others to get their turn. The best visit for these sites is when there are no religious festivals in Jerusalem, and then, at about 9 am the city is very peaceful and quiet, most crowds arriving at noon. My luck at no crowds also might have been due to the horrible weather in the morning. The sun was shining later in the day, but it was very windy. After the weather got better, more people starting showing up but it wasn’t nearly as many as in the videos I have seen about Jerusalem.
Shortly before noon all of the souvenir shops open up and I hear a few words in Russian, directed at me. I buy some postcards, stamps and move on the Wailing Wall. I notice there are many sculptures of lions in the city – this is the symbol of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judas, capital of which is Jerusalem.
The Wailing Wall is the holiest place where Judaism followers can pray. The reason for that is simple – it’s the closest location to the Temple Mount, and they are forbidden to enter it not only by their own religion, but also current legislation of Israel. Not to fuel the already serious disagreements, non-Muslims are banned from praying there.
Interestingly, the “Wailing Wall” is actually a derogatory term, Roman Christians introduced it. It was at the time when Judaism followers were banned from entering Jerusalem. The only exception was the Tish B’av memorial day (remembering the destroyed first and second temples). On this day only they were allowed to enter the city to remember the temples, and people came and cried. Why did they cry at the wall? It is said that after temples were destroyed the God moved his holy presence from the temples to the wall, and now resides there.
Nowadays the wall has two sections – for men and for women. The entrance of the female section is guarded by volunteer women, who will not allow improperly dressed women to enter. Married women should wear and head-kerchief. It’s not allowed to bring in any electronics on Saturdays due to the Sabbath. It used to be allowed to collect dust from the wall, as well as take pieces from it, especially if the person was leaving abroad. Now it is forbidden. The only thing that is allowed, is to collect the branches of the bushes that grow on it, as those are not holy. It’s also not allowed to wash the wall, which causes problems in vandalism cases, as drawings have to fade in the sun and rain.
It is believed in Judaism that the gates to the paradise are right here, and all of the prayers go there directly. It is also said that to find your soulmate, you should pray at the wall forty days straight. Since 18th century people put notes inside the cracks in the walls. Every year more than a million notes are put it, and some organizations offer the service of putting in emailed notes too. But many Jewish people believe putting notes is inappropriate and should be banned.
At the other side of the Temple Mount is the Mount of Olives. The name comes from the olive grove that used to grow here. There are numerous stories of this place in both Old and New Testament. This is the place where Christ cried for Jerusalem. The Gardens of Gethsemane are here, Bethany is on the east slope, and this is believed to be the place where Christ ascended to the paradise. This is also the place that will be very important at the end of days, as this is where resurrection will begin. That is the reason why many want to be buried here. Mount of Olives is one of the oldest cemeteries, more than 3000 years old with over 150 000 burials. Unfortunately during Jordan occupation, around 1949 numerous burials were destroyed, including those thousands years old from the first temple period. The land was plowed, a gas station and parking lots where build, even a hotel at the top of the mountain. Some tombstones were used for Jordan army toilet construction. UN has never condemned this action.
Without the many religious sites, there are also other places to see in Jerusalem. One of those is the Mahane Yehuda market, also called the Shuk. It’s not just for tourists, and locals do shop here as well, but you can find signs in English as well.
More than 250 sellers offer cheese, fruits, vegetables and various religious items. You can also have lunch here, in places like Manou Ba Shouk. It belongs to a French lady who uses Lebanese recipes from her mother in law. You can sample spices, sweets and traditional falafel in the market, and sellers let you walk in peace, unlike in Turkey. Interestingly the market grew significantly during Ottoman empire, but sanitary conditions deteriorated. During the British rule special places for sellers were build and a roof over their heads.
Tel Aviv and Jaffa
Tel Aviv is the second largest city of Israel with 450 thousand inhabitants, still, Jerusalem is bigger. Same as the state of Israel, Tel Aviv is young, officially proclaimed in 1909 as a Jewish immigrant city next to Jaffa. Since 1950 both cities are in Tel Aviv -Jaffa municipality.
If Tel Aviv is a modern city, know globally for it’s White City or largest number Bauhaus International style buildings (more than 4000 buildings, build after Jewish German immigrants architectural plans), Jaffa is completely the opposite. Not only it has been inhabited 7500 BC and is mentioned in the Bible stories about Jonas (who was eaten by a fish), wise king Solomon (who determined which woman is the real mother of the baby), Saint Peter (one of Christs apostles) but even in Greek mythology about Andromeda and Perseus. Andromeda was the daughter of the Aethiopian king Cepheus and his wife Cassiopeia. When Cassiopeia announced that Andromeda is more beautiful than the Nereides, Poseidon set the monster Cetus to destroy Aethiopia. Andromeda was chained naked to the cliffs in the sea, but Perseus saved her from death. The legend says that you can still see the cliffs off the old Jaffa port.
Jaffa is a beautiful place for walks in the evening or even at night. An easy walk from Tel Aviv by the beach lets you enjoy the sound of crashing waves, and you can see the Jaffa clock tower several kilometers ahead of you. Jaffa is a town of the small streets, where there are pretty houses, souvenir shop and nice stairs to the seaside around every corner. There is also the St.Peters church here, build in 17th century, as well as the post box of the Embassy of Vatican, where you can mail a letter to the Pope. Jaffa is a true Mediterranean city, only if because you will see dozens of stray cats here. Ginger, striped, black, grey, they keep running around the squares and sometimes let you touch them. It’s also very calm in Jaffa, people walk, eat out, and observe the Tel Aviv beach.
It seems to be that leaving Israel was more tricky than getting in. We managed to obtain a mokdan form with the help of the accepting party. It contained all passport data, purpose of visit, accepting parties contacts and other information. When arriving to the airport, first you have to go to security and not to check in, this can sometimes not be clear right away. All of the waiting takes places at security. Even with the mokdan form and special line it takes over ten minutes for them to check one person. Dropping off bags is quick, and the run to the next security check point too. I see from the corner of my eye that the security guard is following me to check if I have really went to the next security point. Finally they check the bags, suspicious items, and passports. This is the quickest step, as it is self service, I get a piece of paper confirming my exit (no stamps in passport upon entry or exit) and head out to the tax free area, where there are thousands of people already. Most buy Death Sea cosmetics and the sweets and perfumes as in every airport of the world. Most of these items can be purchased also land-side.
Israel unexpectedly took a really big piece of my heart, as a very pleasant, interesting country. I now get those who want to come back again and again, or even move here. Of course, when I read the news I sometimes get terrified. One day after returning back home a bus explodes in Jerusalem. But at times it seems this could happen anywhere now. Is this a reason to stay home?