5 Places to Visit in Israel (Once It’s Safe To Go Back): Part One
One goy's irreverent guide to a country that's really, truly safe and fun to visit, 99% of the time.
November 23, 2012 - 7:00 am
Folks who say visiting Israel is like traveling back in time don’t know the half of it.
Say: Do you find yourself missing the 1970s — even though, like me, you vowed you never would?
That is: Do you miss litter, graffiti, off-leash dogs, free-range cats, smoking on the beach, 13 TV channels, no wheelchair ramps — plus polyester everything?
Seriously: This shiksa just got back from her second trip to Israel — not a moment too soon, from the looks of things — and I’m here with the first of a series of articles that will go from macro to micro.
PJMedia’s own Barry Rubin literally wrote the book on Israel. I read it before I left and recommend it highly. But he’s a Jew who has lived there for years. I’m writing as a gentile two-time visitor.
To that end, I’ll start off with an overviews of major cities and regions in Israel, then drill down in the coming weeks, to cover specific attractions; define words that don’t mean what you (or more accurately, your dorky grad student nephew) think they mean (i.e., “check point,” “settlement,” “refugee camp”); then offer tips on food, language, manners and more.
Spend at least one Friday there, to experience the controlled frenzy as this holiest city in Judaism shuts down for Shabbat, starting around noon.
(Being a gentile, I never find these “days of rest” very restful.)
Book the sabbath dinner at your hotel well in advance. Only one elevator may be in service, and will stop at every floor.
In other words, think ahead about your food, transportation, and other necessities for the next 24 hours.
At the Kotel (live web cam!), modest dress is not just a suggestion. No-nonsense ladies shove raggedy shawls — NOT tallitot (that would be illegal) — and/or long, ugly aprons at visiting females showing too much cleavage or leg (or even arm).
I hate it, but I wear a long “wife-of-the-cult-leader” skirt and carry a pashmina at all times in Jerusalem anyway, and keep a kippah in my pack for my husband. When you travel with Jewish groups, as I do, spontaneous multiple visits to the Kotel are pretty much to be expected; why look like a brainless tourist with a smelly used cloth around your shoulders?
(And yes, the dress code for men is much more relaxed. Sorry.)
At the Wall, you’ll likely see bar mitzvah and wedding parties from all over the world, singing local schoolchildren, maybe newly sworn-in Israeli soldiers — it’s a Jewish Fellini movie, but reverent.
In contrast, the Christian sites in Jerusalem (and in the entire country — I’m looking at you, “Spaceship Jesus”) are mostly depressing, shabby, and grim. Too much… beige. Capernaum in particular made me think of that WW2 parody song, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On the Farm, After They’ve Seen the Farm?” What can I say? I’m Catholic. I need some bling.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre alone is enough to turn anyone atheist, and not just for aesthetic reasons. For centuries, the Arab family who lives across the way have been the keepers of the keys to the Church, because the warring Christian factions who run different bits of the building can’t agree on which of them should get to keep it.
And then there’s the stupid ladder thing.
Oh, and we learned on this trip that some Protestants think this is where Jesus was really buried. So that’s great.
Anyhow, Saturday in Jerusalem isn’t 100% “dead,” since Muslims have the run of the place for the day and keep their stores/attractions open and their taxis on the roads. We saw one guy riding a grey horse, bareback, at a canter, down HaPalmach.
Plan at least two visits to the Cardo and the Four Quarters. There’s a lot to see, eat and buy. However, if you aren’t Muslim, the IDF won’t let you near the Temple Mount area on Saturday; this is the closest we got to the al-Aqsa Mosque.
If you do make it to that location, remember that Bibles are forbidden there, and a Jewish politician (who we met on this trip) was arrested for “moving his lips” (i.e., praying) at this (cough) “Muslim” site.
The first time we went to Jerusalem, we stayed in a newish boutique hotel in the funky new Nahalat Shiva neighborhood, where hip cafes, late night hookah bars, art galleries and Judaica shops (including ones selling Superman and Simpsons kippot — but for how long?) are seamlessly nestled among ancient alcoves, alleys and courtyards. This charming combination of old and new shouldn’t “work” anywhere near as well as it does. We didn’t make it there this time around, and I regret it.
2. Tel Aviv and Old Jaffa
“There’s Israel, and then there’s Tel Aviv,” our first cab driver in that city explained wistfully, echoing the old “we pray in Jerusalem but party in Tel Aviv” line.
Think “red state, blue state.”
Now, you may have heard that Tel Aviv is really, really gay.
So having lived in Toronto’s Boystown for over a decade, I expected rainbow flags, well-dressed dogs, public hand holding and, given the time of year we were visiting, remnants of Gay Christmas.
In New York City, you know you’re in Chelsea because the number of florists and pet food stores suddenly explodes.
However, the “gayness” of Tel Aviv flew way below even my seasoned straight girl gaydar, except for the almost comical abundance of hair salons on Ben Yehuda Street.
Locals might have been wondering why we found that so hilarious.
Not so funny: there are almost as many storefront real estate agencies on Ben Yehuda as hair benders. Many of the (multimillion dollar) listings in the windows were written in French. Apparently, France’s Jews are figuring out they’d best find new places to live.
Speaking of real estate:
The city is in flux, as many of Tel Aviv’s old buildings are crumbling. Most of these are dwarfed by hoardings advertising pricey hotels and apartment buildings “coming soon.” If we go back in a couple of years, the place will look very different in some respects, but not in one in particular:
That is, I’m not a beach person, but there’s no point in staying anywhere in Tel Aviv that isn’t on the booming main beachfront hotel/luxury residential drag, Hayarkon Street.
(Not incidentally, that’s the same street the U.S. Embassy is on, which makes it handy case of emergencies, or just in case you want to “woot!” when the cab drives past it.)
Also on Hayarkon Stret. This is known locally as “the nutty building.”
But unlike most of the buildings in Tel Aviv, its style is Gaudi. And while in Jerusalem, it’s the law that all new buildings have to be built from that distinctive Jerusalem stone, Tel Aviv is more or less all Bauhaus. It’s not the law or anything. It’s just that the city is pretty new and as Grandpa Simpson would put it, “It was the style at the time.”
And there’s no denying that the cloud-like whiteness and illusion of airiness suit this hot modern city on the shores of the Mediterranean, one that Jews a century ago could have only dreamed of. You can take a tour about the city’s Bauhaus heritage and everything.
We walked back and forth, again and again, to Old Jaffa, the picturesque ancient port that Arabs complain they can no longer afford to live in, now that it’s becoming a gentrified yuppie/hipster residential area in addition to a longtime tourist destination:
Everybody goes to the Shuk HaCarmel, but again, the food/tacky knockoff clothing section is nuthouse on Fridays. If you hate loud noises, strange smells, and other human beings (especially rude ones), pick a quieter day.
However, the separate, more modern “arts and crafts” section of the market is less insane, as well as less tacky. I bought an adorable little painting of men praying at the Kotel from a local folk artist for the equivalent of US$20. (A shekel is 25 cents — just multiply everything by four to get your financial bearings.) Look for handcrafted jewelry, art, and accessories you won’t find back home.
Gay or not, my husband told another guy in our party that “Tel Aviv is great for girl watching.” I hadn’t noticed him doing said girl watching even once during our trip — which is why it is ok for him do it, and one reason we married to each other in the first place.