Jill and I celebrated our version of the Sabbath by dining on hangover food at a Mexican restaurant. I know you are thinking I’ve now been in Israel two days and I’ve partied with an Irishman and now I’m eating Mexican but it had to be done. I like the Sabbath. It’s the only time it’s safe for me to go shopping. None of the stores are open. We walked some of the Tel Aviv neighborhoods and I found them to be just like any big city in the States with plenty of designer home and clothing stores and a cafe on every corner. After the Sabbath ended, we came alive again and headed to a fabulous yuppie restaurant on the Mediterranean named Montaray. Just as we arrived the hurricane wind and rain returned and we continued ordering course after course until it ended. Don’t worry should you think I was suffering the grouper and double fudge chocolate surprise with rum ice cream tasted amazing. Jill has visited Israel twice before so she mapped out an itinerary for the curious Christian. We rented a car and set off along the Mediterranean Coast to Haifa. The first stop proved to be an adventure as we ended up –on accident–in a kibbutz. A kibbutz is a community in Israel where everyone shares resources. It’s typically a private or gated community that produces some type of agricultural crop. It’s Israel’s answer to socialism. Once we followed a wayward bikers directions and found our way out of the kibbutz, we toured a sleepy yet romantic city called Caesarea located on the water. Today, ruins of its former occupants tell a story of greatness in the time of King Herrod to gloom and destruction during the crusades. Romans, Greeks, Christians, Jews and Arabs have all controlled Caesarea at some point in the city’s long history. Tourists flock to Caesarea to play golf and enjoy the beaches. It’s a beautiful break between Tel Aviv and Haifa. We stayed the evening in Haifa the third largest city in Israel. It most reminds me of San Francisco with Mount Carmel and the Mediterranean Sea being the vocal point of the city. Haifa is most known as a university town but it also maintains one of the country’s most vital ports. Made up of equal part Arabs and Jews, Haifa is recognized for its historic German Colony and the Bahá’ís World Center. The founder of the religion, Bahá’u’lláh, was imprisoned here by the Ottomans. The city is the perfect mix of history and culture with academia and religion. As an aside, we dined at a restaurant downtown in the German Colony called Fatousch. No one needs to eat 5 plates of food but was exceptional. I mean I totally understand the meaning behind the name. If you eat at Fatousch you will be its namesake….Fat! It was fabulous but again I must learn control and moderation.
Anxious to leave Jordan, I awoke at 6 am and hired a driver to take me to the Israeli border. My perfectly laid out plan turned to crap when I found out only Arabs can cross into the West Bank. It seems the preferred route for the British and Americans is another 2 hour jaunt up river. After my detour to the Jordan River Crossing near Galilee, I exited Jordanian customs, took a bus to the Israeli border (another $10USD), waited for Israeli soldiers to sweep the bus, walked off the bus, grabbed my bags, dumped my bags on a security screening ramp, stood patiently while the Israeli soldier examined my passport and I answered 15 questions about why I had traveled to Arab countries. Finally, the soldier lady stamped my passport sent me to another soldier and after two grueling hours I was free.
With the hours of shabbat nearing(sundown Friday to sundown Saturday), I hired a cab to drive me to the bus station. The cabbie tried to convince me it would be more economical to drive directly to Tel Aviv. He was pushy and a bit arrogant so after I told him I was unemployed and would not be paying $100 USD he left me in the torrential downpour regretting my decision.
I was shocked to find nothing in English. I begged a local Israeli student to help and he informed me I needed to take a bus to the main station. Ugh! A bus pulled up and I struggled in the rain with all my belongings. The bus driver was none to happy to have my bags occupying a seat and I informed him after he made some fanatic sign language movements that he should be nice to tourists. That shut him up for a few minutes. At the next major hub, I hobbled off the bus having no idea where I was but I figured with 100 soldiers with guns awaiting buses for the weekend home I would be safe.
I became a little frustrated when I asked four different people where the bus to Tel Aviv departed and none of them spoke English. For some reason, I surmised since Israelis were such great buds with the English and the US, everyone would be fluent in my tongue. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong. My Chicago friend Tali who lived in Israeli and is Jewish, received my irate email berating the Israelis as I was exhausted and not up on my Hebrew. A female soldier finally took pity on me and escorted me to the Tel Aviv cue. She even prevented me from getting on the local bus when I became impatient and tried to jump ship.
The bus trip to Tel Aviv from Afula lasted two hours. I arrived to a metropolitan and secular city and a monsoon rainfall where the Mediterranean played havoc with the Israeli coastline. To my surprise and my utter delight, my friend Jill joined me in Tel Aviv. I last left Jill at the Jo-burg airport crying as I watched her leave for the US and I was stuck wondering which African country to conquer.
Before I tell you about our weekend, let me cover a bit of Israel’s history. There are 7.37 million people living in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. This includes Jews, Arabs and Christians. Israel is the approximate size of New Jersey and is completely surrounded by Arab countries many of which are hostile neighbors –Lebanon and Syria share the Northern Border. Israel is a deeply religious place and there is no separation of religion and state.
Accodrding to the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible and the Torah, God promised the Israelites (descendants of Israel, grandson of Abraham) that this land would be a great nation. There are stories-we all know-of Moses leading the descendants for 40 years through the Sinai Desert in Egypt. Many make fun of the history but it is believed that Moses wanted to make sure past generations who worshipped idol gods died off before crossing into the land of milk and honey. While Moses looked out on the Promised Land, he remained at Mt. Nebo in Jordan never stepping foot in Israel. Joshua actually lead the people across the River Jordan into Israel. This occurred around 13th Century BC. Later around 1200 BC, the Philistines occupied part of what is now Gaza.
Much has been written about the back and forth between the Israelites and Philistines. One of the biggest stories referenced involves Israel’s King David destroying the Philistine Goliath and resurrecting Jerusalem. Many Jews claim the right to live in these lands dating back to King Solomon and King David while the Palestinians argue they are descendants of the Philistines. Other Israelis believe God gave Israel to the Jews and that the land is theirs by divine right.
In the late 1800s, many Jews started returning to Israel desperate to establish a homeland. The British gained control of the lands during World War I and then in 1917 the British promised a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. It wasn’t until after World War II that the British withdrew from Palestine and the Jews declared an independent state of Israel. In 1967, the Six Days War broke out and Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and Sinai. Later in 1973 Egypt would regain control of the Sinai Peninsula.
Today, the Palestinians control various territories in Israel. You are likely most familiar with the Gaza strip (a tiny area on the Egyptian border) and the West Bank, which borders Jordan. The historic cities of Jericho and Bethlehem are located in the West Bank. What I find most interesting is the number of Arab Palestinians living in these territories that are not represented by any government. Palestine is not a state and it’s “controlled” by Hamas, a terrorist organization. Israelis and Palestinians alike live with the realities of war everyday. It’s not unheard of for Lebanon to fire rockets over its border for no reason.
This leads me to my Friday night fun. Jill and I ventured to an Ex-Pat bar since it was the Sabbath and everything was closed until Saturday night. We started at Mike’s Pub. It’s a tourist favorite and located near many embassies including the US. Thankfully, Jill let me finish my dinner before telling me the pub had been bombed five years ago.
After a beer at Mike’s, we got to talking to two engineers who helped us secure our food order. One man hailed from the Netherlands and the other a native son of Dublin. Jill being Jill grilled them about fun places to go later in the evening.
Our fine Irish lad offered to take us out on the town. We considered him a local as he lived here since June. After testing out a few pubs, we settled on a shaddy dive bar with 80s American music, NY sports pennants and Route 69 license plates clustered on the walls. I knew it couldn’t be good when the Irishman ordered shots and the 19 year-old university students asked me if I was Christian. Again, the blond hair gives me away. One sweet girl even invited me to her parents house in Nazareth. Nevertheless, the night ended at 5 am with a good time had by all. Leave it to me to find the Irishman in Israel.