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Karen and Joy's Excellent Adventure
Joy Weinberg. Exploration of unique Israeli adventures such as snuba, camel riding, and visiting the largest spring migration site for birds in the world. Part of "Israel at 50" pullout guide produced in conjunction with the Israel Ministry of Tourism. Fall 1997.

Karen and Joy's Excellent Adventure

By Joy Weinberg

"It looks like an ordinary road," I said, lounging in the white Mitsubishi van en route from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem.

"That's the hill marking the Israeli border in 1967," reported our tour guide, a tanned, muscular Israeli, who, it turned out, hailed from upstate New York.

"What about here?" asked my friend Karen, a 30-year-old native New Yorker, gesturing at one of the fir tree-lined fields.

"Forty-eight years ago, that's where Israel fought and lost the battles of Ben Nun against the Jordanians." Down the road, he added, "That way's Bet Shemesh, the birthplace of Samson."

Only minutes after arriving in Israel for the first time, we found ourselves right in the middle of living Jewish history, winding all the way back to the Hebrew Bible. We would soon learn that this tiny country, keenly aware of her past, is reinventing herself every day, and inviting visitors to partake in the new adventure--a venture that, to our surprise and delight, would send us reenacting our ancestors' camel trek through the dusty mountains, diving into the depths of a coral reef, and surviving a rollercoaster jeep ride into the core of the largest crater in the world.

The Riches of Jerusalem

The City of Gold offers a panoply of riches, old and new. Strolling on the Haas Promenade for a panoramic view, our eyes feasted on her Dome of the Rock, shining 250 pounds of pure gold right where our First and Second Temples had stood, marking the center of Jewish life 3,000-2,000 years ago. Here is Mount Moriah, where Abraham had prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as God had commanded. And here rises the Mount of Olives, where, it is said, the Messiah will someday come.

Minutes away is Talpiot, a regular Jerusalem neighborhood built in the early 1950s to house new immigrants. Today it is dotted with diamond factories, shopping malls, the largest gold chain factory in the Middle East, and the austere grey lottery building where, last year, two students from Tel Aviv jubilantly walked off with seven million dollars. (In Israel's profitable lottery system, every citizen is issued a plastic card bearing his or her number for life. Just tell your bank how many tickets you want--the money comes right out of your account!)

Opposite the lottery headquarters, perhaps not coincidentally, stands the Caprice Diamond Factory, Israel's largest diamond manufacturer. Here, tourists snap up the exquisitely-crafted and moderately priced rings, bracelets, and pendants displayed in a showroom sparkling with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, lapis lazuli, amethyst, and purple tanzanite. Through glass windows we watched a master and a polisher--both Russian Jews--absorbed in creating scintillating jewels (hint: don't say "hi"; a split-second distraction might mean the loss of thousands of dollars). The first master craftsman carefully studied the stone, then slowly began to shape it, maximizing its natural brilliance. The polisher painstakingly angled a cut stone on a polishing wheel covered with diamond dust, effecting a jewel that would be unlike any other in creation. Diamonds, we learned from Caprice's home movie, are actually crystallized from trapped carbon gasses. They were first discovered in the jungles of India 6,000 years ago, and today they are Israel's biggest export. Buyers from all over the world purchase the jewels in the halls of the Ramat Gan diamond exchange, where even million-dollar trades are transacted with just a handshake and the words mazel u'bracha. (luck and a blessing). What if someone is dishonest? "I've never heard of such a thing," our tour guide said. "Here, your reputation is everything."

Prima Cuisine

Jerusalem's culinary offerings are delightfully eclectic. A pyramid of wine bottles greeted our entry into the Sheraton Plaza's Primavera Restaurant. Blue and brown earthenware pottery lamps cast a soft glow onto the walls of the Italian dairy (kosher) restaurant famed for its chef, Shalom Kadosh, who is regarded as one of Israel's finest. This truth was evident even from the presentation of the butter tray--sweet pesto butter carved in florets with sprigs of parsley, accented by ripe garlic, rosemary, and basil. Next on the fare was the insalada di Toscana--succulent potatoes and artichokes flavored with crispy breaded scallions, black olives, and warm goat cheese piqued by full-bodied extra virgin olive oil. Potato gnocchi "Mamma Rosa" style in a sweet herb tomato sauce melted like chocolate mousse in our mouths. Trota (trout) alla griglia in a tangy garlic and parsley sauce centered on a bed of zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers brought the meal to a buonissima fine.

Our feasting continued next morning at the hotel's regal breakfast buffet, a casino of delectables where each is a winner--breads, cheeses, blintzes, made-to-order omelets, potato pancakes, and lox (and that was just the first go-around). We squeezed our own Jaffa orange juice and topped our plates with bright red Israeli ptangoes (what happens when you mix a ripe cherry with a hot pepper); purple fajoyas (passion fruit); and labaneh, a soft milky white yogurt cheese sprinkled with zataar (the most popular Arab spice, melding oregano, sesame seed, and thyme).

One of Israel's newest--and, in some ways oldest--exquisite eateries is Jerusalem's Eucalyptus Restaurant. Chef and owner Moshe Basson has fashioned an unusually exotic Israeli menu utilizing herbs indigenous to the land of Israel, piquing the interest of chefs throughout Jerusalem and gourmands throughout the world. Using native Israeli herbs is not new, Basson told us--in fact, native herbs such as hyssop were a staple in biblical times--but the spices came to be associated with the food of the poor and fell into disfavor. To maximize their flavor, Basson has mastered the environmental secrets of each spice; he knows which hill grows the best hyssop and precisely when the plants have been bathed in the optimal amount of sunlight.

The result is extraordinary eating. As we gazed upon the dried garlic cloves arranged with artistry on the back wall and heard firecrackers lighting up the sky to hail the opening of the new Dan Pearl hotel, Basson arrayed our table with minty Jerusalem artichokes filled with rice and cyclamen; potatoes accentuated by stuffed organic vegetables and Jerusalem sage; and dried mushrooms grilled and marinated with hearty olive oil, garlic, hyssop, sage, and sumac. We topped off dinner with a simmering cup of tea flavored with lemongrass, verbena, geranium, rosehips, and mint.

Our Past, Our Future

The Israel traveler cannot help but be awed at the seamless intermingling of ancient and modern, of the present and past. At Jerusalem's Israel Museum, we marveled at the sacred texts and documents of daily life of the Jewish people more than 2,000 years ago. The Shrine of the Book, architecturally shaped like the lid of the earthenware jar in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, houses the original Isaiah manuscript, dating from c. 100 B.C.E.--the only biblical scroll discovered in its entirety. This scroll and many others found in the caves of Qumran have revealed that first-century Jews did not light Shabbat candles (it was forbidden), and observed Rosh Hashanah (known as Yom Hazikkaron, The Day of Remembrance) in the spring, rather than in the fall, as we do. We gazed at the oldest known Bible in the world, written one thousand years ago in Aleppo, Syria; and at the Aleppo Codex, thought to be the earliest known Hebrew manuscript comprising the full biblical text, reputed to have been used by Maimonides in setting down the rules for writing Torah scrolls. Among the historic treasures on display was a get (Jewish bill of divorce) from Masada, written in Aramaic in 71 C.E., more than a year after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. As the Roman siege of Masada had not yet begun, Miriam, the divorcee, was able to leave the site and save her life.

Later that Friday, the clinking of cafe glasses softened. Shabbat was drawing near. Basking in a light summer breeze, we strolled to Kol Haneshama Congregation, one of the two Reform synagogues in the Holy City. Sitting upright in white movable chairs positioned in an intimate semi-circle toward the bimah, we joined a large 300-plus crowd of Israelis and American Jews, many of them young couples with children, joyously chanting the entire service in Hebrew. Walking home through the quiet streets of Jerusalem, the music of Kol Haneshama's exuberant children's choir lingered.

A Desert Eden

From Jerusalem we headed south to Ein Gedi, the Eden of kibbutzim. Palm trees and a variety of brilliant red, yellow, and orange flowers enlighten the desert peaks in the distance. The kibbutz came to life in 1956, said Daniela Cohen, the strong, soft-spoken woman who runs the kibbutz's well-stocked gift shop. Its founders had just completed military service and were determined to pursue their dream of creating an agricultural garden, against the wishes of their concentration camp survivor parents, who didn't want them to leave.

They chose an isolated site. There was no road to Jerusalem; women about to give birth were flown out by helicopter. Everyone said that nothing could grow in the sandy soil, and it was unhealthy for children to be born in the middle of the desert. But everything grew beautifully, roses bloomed, and people stayed. Today Ein Gedi's membership numbers 230, including 30 of its pioneers. There are apple trees, ten different kinds of dates, a turkey farm, full sports facilities, and a hotel. The spa features the highly-oxygenated Dead Sea water, where people from all over the world come to rejuvenate and heal themselves. The Danish government subsidizes its citizens who are afflicted with psoriasis and stay at the guest house, where they soak up curative sunshine eight hours a day without exposing themselves to highly cancerous rays. "I love this place so much," Daniela told us. "I think that's what Israel and our kibbutz are all about, this willingness to make it work, this not giving up. We can do it."

From "the little kibbutz that could" we descended to the lowest point on earth: the Dead Sea. No where else in the world is 85% of the mineral water pure salt! Thousands of years ago, Cleopatra, King David, and the Queen of Sheba had all journeyed to the Dead Sea for health and beauty treatments. Now it was our turn.

Checking into the luxurious Nirvana Hotel, we deliberated over their massage menu--would it be "magic crystals," scented oils, deep cleansing, or anti-stress Cleopatra soaks? We elected the gooiest of them all--mud. After twenty minutes of being patted down with mineral mud mixed with lavender, rose, geranium, and other aromatic oils, we walked through the sands of the spa's private beach and reclined "on" the warm waters of the Dead Sea, floating effortlessly as a cool breeze tickled our airborne toes; we almost fell asleep.

Eilat: Fun in the Sun

Back in the van, we drove to Israel's southern playground--Eilat. Amidst manmade green water lagoons, swaying palm trees, and an always sunny sky, thousands of tourists crisscross the Red Sea in every conceivable water contraption, from "bananas" (inflatable pillows towed by speedboats) and pedalboats to water scooters and glass-bottomed boats. For a change of pace, they windsurf, waterski, parasail, surf, dive, and swim with bottlenose dolphins (who are free to venture out to sea but prefer to play with us anthropoids). On land, adventure-seekers zoom through the mountainous desert on quadrunners, all-terrain vehicles resembling monster go-karts. At sundown, the bright lights of Eilat's discos and cafes illuminate the coastal landscape--a great time to take a cruise and learn the ancient art of star navigation.

We began our entry into Eilat's Waterworld at the Coral Beach Nature Reserve, the northernmost location on earth in which natural tropical coral reefs are found. Visiting the Underwater Observatory, we followed the floating journeys of the yellow/green Steepheaded Parrotfish, the blue/green Broomtail Wrasse, and 82 other Red Sea natives.

After meeting the fish across a glass divide, it was time to join them for a swim. Eilat's Snuba adventure combines the simplicity of snorkeling (where you stay close to the surface) with the thrill of deep sea scuba diving, without the burden of a heavy air tank (divers breathe through a regulator attached to air tanks floating on a nearby boat). Though a klutz par excellence, I nevertheless squeezed into a rubber wet suit, bit into the air regulator for dear life, flapped my pink fins, and descended into a world inhabited by colorful, gentle denizens of the deep.

That afternoon we went off to one of the most fun adventures in our lives--a four-hour sunset camel ride through the desert. Mounting our camels on the grounds of an old Wild West film set (immortalized in "Not Without My Daughter"), we learned the ABCs of camel riding (one leg hangs down the camel's side, the other around the stirrup; if you sit correctly, it honestly doesn't hurt). As the sun crept below the corners of the mountains, we wound our way through the desert, leading our camels by foot through rocky terrain. At sunset we dismounted and kindled a fire at a clearing in the road. As we rested around the flames, eyeing the star-studded sky, our two Israeli tour guides baked us Bedouin-style pita--soft, finely burnt, stuffed with creamy cheese, olives, and herbs. Back on Chadra (my 19-year-old camel) and Ruti (Karen's 10-and-a-half year insatiable grass guzzler), we rode up the mountain into the night, imagining what it would have been like for our ancestors to have made this trek. As our camels jerked up and back in the final climb to the outpost lights of home, we looked behind us and saw what we had become: dozens upon dozens of sharp shadows, nameless camels and riders, cascading down the ridges of darkness.

From Landfill to Birdland

Fully experiencing the joys of Eilat required us not only to traverse her by land and sea, but to stare at her sky. Every year, two million birds--honey buzzards, levant sparrowhawks, steppe eagles, black kites, and other species--soar through Israeli's southernmost city, the spring migration capital of the world.

Situated at the edge of the Sahara and Arabian deserts, Eilat forms the only land bridge between Europe, Asia, and Africa, providing a rest area for nearly 300 different species of birds en route to distant nesting sites. After an exhausting flight over hundreds of miles of inhospitable desert, they land in Eilat, finding critical nourishment to complete their journey.

"Until three years ago, the fate of these migratory birds was in jeopardy, as the vegetation here was not suitable for their sustenance," explained Dr. Reuven Yosef, director of the International Birdwatching Center, a soft-spoken, 40-something man clad in a white T-shirt, shorts, and sandals and sporting a close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard. "We were essentially creating havoc for generations of birds, animals, and plants which have been evolving in three continents for millions of years."

Two years ago, Yosef petitioned the government for a parcel of land to create a bird sanctuary. It refused--not a priority. A determined Yosef acquired the only tract of land no one else wanted: a 60-acre garbage dump filled with rusting cars, tires, rubble from old hotels, and other refuse. He himself bulldozed, crushed, and compacted the rubble. Local contractors provided him with clean earth excavated from new building sites. The Jewish National Fund became a partner, planting trees and shrubs native to the area that would fruit or flower during the birds' migration season. Yosef irrigated the trees with partially-treated sewage water, known for its rich organic matter, enabling the plantings to grow at an accelerated rate. Today this former ecological travesty is a verdant bird sanctuary. Filled with awe at what one determined, heart-felt man was able to achieve, we strolled along the winding paths, gazing at the acacias, catching sight of a graceful grey heron, a pair of egrets, and a group of flamingos.

"Love of the land of Israel is important," Yosef declared. "We want aliyah, but we also need to take care of the environment in which these people are supposed to live. We need to do more to protect all of Israel's natural beauty."

Daydream Believer

The next day, we met another man intent on changing Eilat's landscape--tourism and peace visionary Dov Sharf, director of Regional Cooperation in the city. "The idea came to me in 1982, when I was the liaison officer [to Jordan]," said Sharf, a fit, 50-ish, former army man with bright, inquisitive blue eyes. "I realized: we're in Eilat, right over the border is Aqaba, the Jordanian port; we both have a seaport and an airport--both cities have to incorporate. We should have a joint airport, trains, roads, water resources, sewage treatment, and more. We can learn from the Jordanians, especially about ways they respect the environment. Moreover, economic cooperation in this region can serve as an example for all the relations between Israel and Jordan."

Sharf wrote to government officials urging their consideration of his ideas, but until Israel signed its peace agreement with the PLO, they all thought he was crazy. Then one of his friends became head of the legal department and invited him to join the transportation committee. Soon thereafter, Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty. Committed to developing the human dimension of the peace process, Sharf began organizing cross-border visits. Prince Ra'ad, uncle of King Hussein and head of Jordan's handicapped society, attended an international sports competition for the handicapped in Eilat, and four Jordanians competed in a windsurfing competition in the port city. Eilat and Aqaba schoolchildren started visiting one another. Most importantly, Israeli and Jordanian businesspeople have begun crossing the border to exchange ideas.

Sharf's next two goals are to upgrade the economics of Aqaba and to continue to bring together the children from both sides. He believes the future is bright. Jordan's King Hussein shares a vision of peace and cooperation. "And," Sharf told us, "this is the only place where two large cities, remote from the rest of their countries, face each other across the border. It's a perfect location to make peace work. We can do it."

Journey to the Center of the Crater

Leaving Eilat, we hopped back in the van and traveled north. In just two hours we reached Mitzpe Ramon, site of the world's largest crater. Climbing on to the torn leather seats in the back of an open jeep and clutching its side rails, we embarked on a cliff-hanging rollercoaster ride through unpaved roads to the crater's core.

Formed 65 million years ago, the crater's multi-mineral surface is home to more than 1,000 varieties of plants, many of them medicinal. Achiluf, found only in the Negev, is used to treat high blood pressure and stress (I stuffed a few leaves in my pocket); silon kotzkanit relieves rheumatism. Our driver picked some fresh yafruk, ground it into his left palm using his right thumb until its liquid was released, poured water over the mixture, and rubbed his hands together: soap suds!

After a more thorough cleansing at the Ramon Inn, we sat down to dinner on a cozy pile of floor rugs at the Tzell Midbar "Hafla," a recreated Bedouin open-air ohel (tent). As we dipped our pita into a copious mound of hummus and sampled other Middle Eastern foods, we listened to the life stories of our handsome, baby-faced 23-year-old Bedouin waiter, Salame, a member of the Azazme tribe. The only unwed sibling among his five brothers and six sisters--Bedouins are usually hitched by age nineteen--Salame confessed that instead of saving his money for a typical dowry--a small herd of goats and sheep--he had accumulated only one goat and one donkey. "Where did the money go?" we asked. "To Tel Aviv discotheques," he replied, smiling.

And so we were on our way to Tel Aviv.

En route to Israel's cultural mecca, we stopped to befriend half a dozen miniature camels, proffering our feed-laden palms to the alpacas and llamas of Mitzpe Ramon's Alpaca Llama Ranch. Eight years ago, a young couple, Naamad and Ilam Dver, dreamed of owning their own animal farm. They traveled to the Andes and collected alpaca, picked up llamas in Chile and South America, and then settled on the rim of the crater, in a dry climate where their animals could thrive. Today, 50 llamas (the tall, less woolly-necked ones which visiting children love to ride), 300 alpacas (shaved each spring for their soft, quality wool), and chickens, peacocks, and egrets roam the grounds, where water streams form a clear pond, purple flowers bloom, and the jagged crater punctures the sky.

Living Liberal Judaism

Venturing into the Negev, we visited a more familiar world, where 60 Jews live by the ideals of Reform Judaism in Eretz Yisrael 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In this desert outpost, where no Progressive rabbi is "on call," Kibbutz Lotan's members take turns officiating at Jewish rites, including weddings, which are not officially recognized by the Israeli government. Visiting rabbis lecture and broaden the perspectives of kibbutz members.

One of Israel's youngest kibbutzim, Lotan was founded in 1983 by Israelis and North American Jews who grew up in the Reform youth movement. One public building serves as the synagogue, housing the ark; another area is called the clubhouse; still another is the video corner. In the organic garden, melons abound (the kibbutz is presently pioneering a machine to clean them); there are also potatoes, onions, grapefruits, dates, and a few lemon and orange trees. The bomb shelter has been converted into a small shop offering living staples and that prized desert commodity--ice cream. Guests are treated to sparse, comfortable, newly-renovated living quarters. Birdwatchers: consider joining the savvy British aficionados who bunk up at Lotan each spring. When you open your door at sunrise, your aviary friends will already be perched on the patio.

Tel Aviv: Culture and Action

After a hike through a canyon of white limestone strata in Ein Avdat National Park (important: don't stop drinking), we entered the bustling streets of Tel Aviv. Only 88 years have passed since Tel Aviv was first established as a settlement, yet today it is the home of two million people, plus a multitude of theaters, galleries, museums, parks, pubs, sports clubs, beaches, exotic markets, and malls!

Our first stop--Beth Hatefutsoth-The Museum of the Jewish Diaspora--addresses the question that goes to the heart of our Jewish existence: after being expelled from Israel and dispersed to the four corners of the earth, how have we Jews overcome the challenges to our faith, surviving and thriving for the last 2,000 years?

Jews still exist, explained our grandmotherly tour guide, because of our religious convictions, our ability to adapt to cultural change, and--she smiled--"der yiddishe kup" (brains). One exhibit features models of eighteen historical synagogues of diverse styles. The synagogue in Toledo, Spain is painted blue to ward off evil spirits. The Danish synagogue replica is purposefully indistinctive; the Jews had been forbidden to erect recognizable houses of worship. The synagogue in Kaifeng, China was visited in the 1600s by Franciscan monks, who thought it was a church; the Jews thought the monks were Jews, and, it is said, it took hours before everyone figured it all out.

At the museum's Douglas E. Goldman Jewish Genealogy Center, we searched through the "Personal Dorot" database, which contains thousands of entries from Jews who have recorded and registered their family trees. Our pay dirt came later, on the way out, when the guide handed us our surname histories. My name, Weinberg, I learned, was most probably derived from Wyntbark, a suburb of Danzig (now Gdansk), Poland, where my father's family had lived for generations. I couldn't wait to call home.

We then visited Tel Aviv's newest aesthetic treasure: the Ilana Goor Museum, tucked in one of the alleyways of the city's 4,000-year-old Jaffa port. It is said that Jonah emerged here after his encounter with the whale. Today the area is bustling with flea markets, art galleries, antique shops, and open-air cafes. Once upon a time Ilana's museum was a seaside inn, the first hostel for 18th-century Jewish pilgrims seeking shelter on their way to Jerusalem. The internationally recognized Israeli artist has reinterpreted and reconfigured the space, still marked by the ancient arches and stones, by mixing modern art with objects and images of antiquity, fashioning sculptures with ancient plows, stripping chairs of their cushioning to derive at an unadorned essence, and showcasing raw treasures from a lifetime of art hunting and gathering. "She's a quintessential Israeli artist," our young Sabra tour guide whispered. "She shows you don't have to do Judaica to be a truly Jewish creator."

Doing What the Israelis Do

It was then time to do what Tel Avivites do. On Friday afternoon we shopped for fresh fruits and vegetables in the Carmel Shuk, where the scents of ripe olives, tomatoes, cherries, and assorted greens mingled in the open-air market. We strolled past the artisan stalls on nearby Nachlat Benjamin Street, eyeing finely-crafted jewelry, ceramics, woodcarvings, and blown glass. On Shabbat, we joined hundreds of tanned Israelis of all ages swimming, dunking the volleyball, and soaking in the sun of Tel Aviv's refreshingly clean white public beach. Shmuel, a jovial middle-aged man, invited us to try our hands and feet at matkot, a cross between paddleball (wooden paddles) and badminton (the ball shouldn't bounce). After a few minutes, we were rifling the black ball back and forth above the translucent blue Mediterranean. Later that night, the seaside promenade sprang to life. Handsome young men sipped wine with pretty women around cafe tables as the beat of American music rocked the beach. Two dark-eyed, sweet-talking Israeli men joined us on the cool sand, laughingly correcting our Hebrew into the early morning (note: we recommend this method of grammar instruction).


Our encounter with adventure land continued on the El Al flight home. Munching on bagels topped with lox, we listened intently as the Israeli woman in the next seat told us her life story. After coming "out of the ashes" of the Holocaust, she and other survivors have rebuilt their lives by founding a kibbutz, erecting a Holocaust museum, and manufacturing health products--foods for life.

Her bittersweet saga, we now understood, is but one of thousands that are creating the ongoing miracle of Israel, a tiny but grand country where the past and the present fuse, where courageous people actualize their dreams, and where the future is truly beyond imagination.

Joy Weinberg is managing editor of Reform Judaism magazine.


Union for Reform Judaism.