To explain my fascination with Israel, I’d probably need to bore you with selected details about my childhood and growing up a Jew in the Land of Cotton. I’m sure I’d end up mentioning the Holocaust and the miraculous transition of the Jewish people from victims to victors.
At some point I’d need to explore the importance of cultural identity and my still developing sense of faith, belief and wonder; then tackle the sticky political issues of the day – Palestinian statehood and refugee camps, suicide bombers and pistol-packing settlers, feckless European intellectuals, anti-Semitism, and the “right of return”.
In short, it would be easy to turn what is essentially an emotional response into an intellectual exercise. And still I would fall short. Instead, I will simply try to answer the question a friend asked recently when I announced I was returning to Israel.
“So dude, you going to Israel again? Why?” Given the time, this is what I would tell him:
Because I love the whole airport adventure – arriving early, checking in, being hassled by security guards, then being handed a boarding pass with Tel Aviv stamped across the top.
Because I’m fascinated by my fellow travelers – students with backpacks, visiting the Jewish homeland for the first time; Orthodox families, modestly dressed, the women in long skirts, the men all in black, tzitzit dangling from their hips; businessmen in coats and ties, soldiers in battle fatigues, tourists in Eddie Bauer-chic!
Because halfway across the Atlantic, as the sun starts to peek over the distant horizon, a group of men magically show up in the rear of the plane wearing tallis and tefillin, offering mumbled words of prayer to God.
Because I’m basically a kid and love futzing around with the plane’s entertainment system –TV programs, movies, a variety of music channels – all at my fingertips.
Because after 12 hours or so in the air, when I reach that toxic point of being way too tired, sore and bored, the pilot finally announces that we will be entering Israeli airspace in 30 minutes.
Because I love the palpable sense of energy and anticipation that fills the plane as the blue waters of the Mediterranean give way to the white beaches of Tel Aviv, then the soaring skyline of the city.
Because people still applaud when the plane touches down at Ben Gurion International airport.
Because when I hop into a taxi, after haggling with the cabbie over the price and he says b’seder (okay), I actually understand what he means.
Because one of my favorite hotels, the Adiv, is cheap, convenient and centrally located – five minutes from both the Mediterranean and Dizengoff Street, 10 minutes from Dizengoff Center and 15 minutes from Hacarmel Market.
Because on Friday evenings I can walk along Frishman Street in the heart of Tel Aviv, from Rabin Square to my hotel, enjoying a fresh, cool breeze blowing in from the Mediterranean.
Because I’m Jewish and this is a city filled with Jews, a happening place where I can hear the laughter of friends and family gathered together in nearby flats enjoying Shabbat dinner with one another.
Because in this vibrant, exotic city, I can feast on shawarma, hummus, filet mignon, risotto, sushi, hot dogs or hamburgers – tasty, reasonably priced and kosher.
Because when I order a gin and tonic, the waiter brings me a couple ounces of gin in a tall glass, a full bottle of tonic water and a bucket of ice … tov meod!
Because as I’m sipping that adult beverage, I can sit back, wiggle my tootsies in the sand and watch the sun slowly sink into the sea.
Because I can hop on a sherut and for only a few shekels make my way to Jerusalem – a short 45-minute ride to the east.
Because on Shabbat I can attend services at the Great Synagogue and listen to a world-class choir, then walk a block to Moreshet Yisrael, a synagogue that is part of the Fuchsberg Center for Conservative Judaism.
Because after services I can then walk right next door to the Agron Guest House, a youth hostel that is neat and clean and centrally located, only minutes away from the Old City of Jerusalem.
Because I can safely walk the streets of this magical place before the sun rises, find my way to Marzipan in Mahane Yehuda and buy a few pieces of the world’s best rugelach – warm, oozing with chocolate and delicious!
Because as I enjoy my snack I can take a few minutes – or hours – and wander about the market, a remarkable place filled with kiosks, restaurants, stalls and vendors selling fresh fruits, vegetables, spices and nuts, the air thick with the smells of all these goods, euphonically blended with the sights, sounds and energy of a city coming alive.
Because just a few blocks away I can sit on a bench on Ben Yehuda Street and watch the Jewish world pass by – young soldiers with weapons slung casually over their shoulders; Orthodox boys, sporting kippot and tzitzit; beautiful sabra women in designer dresses; preppy-looking yeshiva students and tourists in flowery shirts and jeans; shop keepers, street cleaners and bus drivers; cabbies, cops and politicians; musicians and street performers; rabbis, prophets and beggars.
Because when I get my fill of people watching I can join the crowd of shoppers and purchase tchotchkes and any sort of judaica imaginable – a hand-decorated tallis or kippot; bejeweled menorah, mezuzah or Shabbat candlesticks; golden Magen David or diamond-filled hamsa; pictures, paintings and enough jewelry to take care of every friend and relative on my must-buy list.
Because at the heart of this fresh new day is a colorful old city, filled with cobblestone streets and serpentine alleys, a place of spiritual energy and ancient secrets.
Because at the center of this place is the Kotel, a soaring, sun-bleached wall of profound historical and religious import, a magnet for Jews from around the world searching for meaning and connection to a belief that traces its roots back thousands of years.
Because given the time I can visit Yad Vashem, the world-class Holocaust museum that details in unique, compelling fashion the premeditated murder of Six Million Jews during World War II; then turn my attention to Mount Herzl, the national cemetery where many of Israel’s leaders – Herzl, Rabin, Meir – and military heroes are buried.
Because one of the most extraordinary archaeological finds of the 20th Century, the Dead Sea Scrolls, is housed at the Shrine of the Book, an architectural masterpiece that fills one wing of the Israel Museum.
Because even if I tire of visiting museums and ancient sites, I can simply stroll in any direction, knowing that I’m treading the same ground that my ancient ancestors walked thousands of years ago.
Because I can visit Mea Shearim on Friday nights, the Jerusalem neighborhood where the ultra-Orthodox gather with their rebbes at a festive meal and spiritual happening – a Tisch – that is at once other-worldly, bizarre and deeply satisfying.
Because I have only a vague sense of the worth of the shekel, so I spend expansively, think good thoughts and don’t worry about the tab – until I return home.
Because I can rent a car or hop on a tour bus and in a day or two – if I’m in a hurry – criss-cross this tiny country that’s the size of New Jersey.
Because of the cosmopolitan vibe of Tel Aviv, breath-taking beauty of Haifa, spiritual depth and richness of Jerusalem and Sfat.
Because of the Mediterranean, Kinneret and Dead Seas.
Because of the Jordan River, the trickling link between the desolate landscape of the Judean Desert and lush richness of the Hula Valley.
Because many of the iconic places I’ve been lucky enough to visit around the world are often beautiful and always interesting but, ultimately, just places; while the cities, sites and attractions in Israel – Masada and Caesarea; Haifa and Sfat; the tunnels beneath the Kotel in Jerusalem and the Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv – all manage in some fashion to touch my soul.
Because I’ve met people who’ve traveled to Israel and had bad moments, but never met anyone who had a bad trip.
Because I’m Jewish and this place, in some inexplicable way, is my spiritual home, filled with my mispucha and links to my distant past.
KODAK MOMENT: This picturesque scene (photo above) is just one of many pedestrian walkways that twist and turn through the Old City of Jerusalem, a place filled with spiritual energy and ancient secrets.