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Imagine, We're in Israel!

Shalom / Salaam travelers!

How do you know you're in Israel? (A) the signs are in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, (B) the breakfast buffet is literally 10 miles long, (C) there are 3 sukkot in the dining room,
(D) travelers on your flight are carrying lulavs and etrogs, (E) all of  the above?

If you guessed (E), you are corrrrect! Welcome to Wendy and Emily's Amazing Adventures in Israel! (Wayne has a conflict this time of year and this itinerary was too good to be true, so Emily graciously agreed to accompany mom in his place). We are blessed to be joined by our dear friend Susan McCaffrery as well.

We arrived yesterday and will be traveling with an organization Wendy is involved in -- Hands of Peace ( on a dual narrative trip led by Mejdi Tours ( That said, this is not the official Hands of Peace commentary on the trip-- these are Wendy's and Emily's personal thoughts.

Before we get into the trip per se, some context about the upcoming blog posts for this trip. Typically, our blog can be fun, silly, delicious and even a tad irreverent.  We certainly plan on having fun on this trip and there absolutely will be delicious meals and accounts of those meals. However, this blog will be different. Just as our blog on Central Europe (including memories and experiences concerning where and how our [actual forebears and] Jewish people lived, including the Holocaust) got emotional and serious, so will this blog-- but in an altogether different way. As a Jew, my relationship with Israel is complicated. I kissed the mezuzah when I exited the airplane and entered the hotel room (where else could that happen?) and I have marveled at the buffets laden with Jewish food (among other types) and the crowds of people who kind of look like me and certainly share some of my life experiences. But those who know me well know my Jewish journey and it is anything but typical.  To make matters a tad more complicated, this is a journey in which we will be exposed to a multi-faceted Israel. And I'm the current chair of our sponsoring organization. This will be emotional and not always politically correct. I understand right now if some of our past readers decide not to read this time around. I hope you stay with us, but that's your call and I respect it. So buckle your seat belts, you're in for a different kind of ride!

Our tour officially begins Tuesday evening but we arrived mid-day Monday, allowing time to acclimate and adventure beforehand. I didn't think far enough in advance to expect the cultural components of our trip to begin with the flight to Tel Aviv. This is a heavy travel time of year to Israel, as it's in between Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) and Simchat Torah, so many of the most observant (orthodox) Jews have the week off and travel to Israel now. At least a third of the travelers on our flight (not El Al either) were Orthodox. And many were carrying their own lulav and etrog (symbolic branch of a date palm tree and young citrus fruit to mark Sukkot) on the plane along with top hats and conservative dress. Indeed, after we boarded, the flight attendant announced that if any travelers could not sit next to women, there were several open seats. The menus were in Hebrew and English and so were the announcements. And two hours prior to landing, we noticed several men wrapping themselves in their tallith prior to prayer and, indeed, one gentleman sought out a minyan beforehand.    

We arrived at the hotel, took a nap and then ventured out on the boardwalk across the street (Tel aviv sits on the Mediterranean, strange that earlier this year we were also on it in Greece and Turkey).  There was a huge festival going on with many young families--

 -- kids are the same everywhere!  We wandered a bit longer and then it was time... to eat! Based on several recommendations, we ate at Manta Ray Restaurant right on the beach and our first treat was a gorgeous sunset.

As good as Santorini!

Speaking of treats, the food was outstanding. We started with several mezze (we're on the Mediterranean).
There were three of us but six mezze plus amazing Bulgarian bread (don't ask me to do the math)! We enjoyed roasted cauliflower, tzatiki, eggplant purée, beets with goat cheese fritters, shredded salmon with arugula, nuts and herbs, and shrimp with mango salad. We made a pretty good dent in these delectable appetizer sized salads. For our mains, Em and Susan chose blue bream with red mango rice and I had grilled grouper with gnocchi and carmelized eggplant with cashews in an herbed lemon butter.

Delicious! Run, do not walk, to this restaurant when you are in Tel Aviv. 

And while we're on meals, they say Israeli breakfasts are something to behold but this jaded "Breakfast buffets Around the world" traveler was in a "prove it to me" mode. Well, I'm a believer. There were tables extending the length of a football field containing cheeses, smoked fish (several kinds), salads, blintzes, breads, pastries, cereals, shaksouka (a spicey Israeli egg/ tomato sauce dish), eggs, pancakes, waffles, fruit, Halvah, vegetables, and much much more. There was a coffee bar (our guide made clear that Israeli coffee surpasses Starbucks-- no contest) and even the opportunity to squeeze your own orange juice.

You would think we would have been sated after that breakfast but our next stop was the famous Carmel open air market for fruits, vegetables, bread, pastries, olives, meat, fish, etc., as well as the art market (only on Tuesdays!). This market was terrific and the souk setting made it all the more fascinating. The wares were exquisite.

Next stop: lunch of course. A light lunch at an Israeli family spot-- the Station. We returned to the hotel to freshen up prior to our Tel Aviv architectural tour. Our guide Daniel, recommended by a friend and just secured today, did an excellent job of walking us through the Bauhaus style buildings on Rothschild Boulevard (now the 5th avenue of Tel Aviv-- great shopping, theatre, restaurants, coffee houses--and close to the beach). This architectural style was developed in Germany from 1919-33 but was outlawed  by the Nazis because it was too "free spirit". Developed in response to the ravages of WWI, it was intended to be plain, simple, inexpensive to construct, light, airy, and intended to harness industry to improve people's lives. Among early emigrants from Germany (in the 1930s) were Jewish architects who fled to Israel and promptly began building homes in the Bauhaus style. There are more buildings remaining in this style in Tel Aviv today than anywhere else in the world-- so much so that it is called "The White City".  Daniel also pointed out buildings in the eclectic style-- a blend of Muslim and European influences.

Initial perspectives: it's awesome to be here. It's Jewish.  It's Hebrew  (which I don't read by the way). It's Israeli--bringing out my inner New Yorker to a new level. It's miraculous how this desert became much much more. My people played a huge part in making that happen . The juxtaposition of visiting Auschwitz only two years ago and now Israel is powerful. And therein lies the rub. One of our guides, Husam, is Palestinian and so dear to me.  So we continue... 

Dinner was back at the hotel with the group followed by our orientation session. We begin touring with Husam and Yuval tomorrow. Our group is energized and ready to go. Tomorrow night we will be in Jerusalem, so our next report will be from there.

In the Jaffa section of Tel Aviv.

Peace, shalom, salaam

wendy and emily

The Froth on the Latte

Shabbat Shalom! As I write this, it is Sunday morning and we have seen and experienced so much. On our first evening together, our incredible and poetic Israeli guide-- Yuval Ben Ami-- characterized the current Israeli experience  as "the froth on the latte". There's so much below the surface here and very little is exactly what meets the eye. You could really get carried away with that analogy but let me just say it's complicated and it's unlike any journey I've ever taken.

I haven't blogged since Tuesday night because it's been so emotional and intense that it has been difficult to find the energy (that says a lot for me) to quietly reflect.  I was suffering from a serious case of writer's block has well. Where to start?

Specifically, since Tuesday evening: The Diaspora Museum, tour of Rothschild boulevard in Tel Aviv including the Neve Zedek neighborhood, old Jaffa, Neve Shalom - Wahat al-Salam (a planned co-existence community situated mid-way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem) ...

...and an amazing dinner in the Palestinian village of Abu Gosh -- and that was Wednesday alone!

On Thursday, it was off to the Old City in Jerusalem for the important religious sites of all three Abrahamic religions and then off to Bethlehem (on the West Bank) for the Church of the Nativity preceded by another sumptuous repast (roasted eggplant anyone?).

Friday took us back to West Jerusalem including the Mahne Yehuda Market with several of the most extensive Halavah stands (shout out to Pauline Baron) ever seen in the history of mankind.

Then out to Tent of Nations (an educational and ecological  farm in the West Bank run by a visionary Palestinian, Daoud Nassar-- who brings people of all backgrounds together in order to maintain projects and activities on the ground and build bridges of understanding, reconciliation, and Peace on a broad-spectrum basis). 

Friday dinner was the amazing Israeli fusion restaurant-- Mona with our guide, Yuval. Friday evening after dinner we visited with Hands of Peace teen alums and staff from the region for a candle-light ceremony honoring the victims of the violence this summer. Again, tears were shed to see these incredible kids and witness their dedication to peace.
On Saturday we drove through the West Bank, catching several tented Bedouin camps, past Jericho and our first camel sighting, to Masada and the Dead Sea.  Saturday dinner, after Shabbat, brought us to the fascinating Kosher Eucalyptus restaurant-- featuring Biblical flavors (we passed on the King David and Queen of Sheba tasting menus-- but enjoyed nonetheless). That brings us to Sunday when we will visit a refugee camp, have lunch with a local family in Hebron, and view the Tombs of the Patriarchs-- through both Muslim and Jewish perspectives.  Whew. No wonder we're tired!

So, back to Wednesday. Our guide's description of the Jewish diaspora brought me to tears (a common occurrence on this trip so far), setting high expectations for Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People (formerly the Diaspora Museum) on the University Campus. It was fascinating to see the exhibits profiling European Communities where Jewish communities once flourished (most of which we have visited)-- but this museum is in need of technological and curating makeover (and indeed, that is underway).
We enjoyed the walking tour of Neve Tzedek which included some additional Bauhaus structures
and an overview of the history of Tel Aviv (a vibrant metropolis risen from the desert since 1909 with an exhilarating music, art, restaurant, coffee, and theatre scene). Next, we visited the ancient Arab port of Jaffa (with beautiful views) -- a definite highlight.
Included was a tasty lunch with chicken schwarma big enough for two (didn't last long enough to photograph).

After lunch, we left Tel Aviv and journeyed to Neve Shalom - Wahat al-Salam. In their idyllic setting, our local guide Daoud explained their philosophy: bi-national schooling, School for Peace, pluralistic spiritual center, and inspirational. Many of our Hands of Peace facilitators have been trained here.

Then, time for dinner! We visited the "Lebanese Restaurant" in Abu Gosh (a Palestinian town) which is really a Palestinian restaurant but, sadly, Israelis and tourists are more likely to visit if it is called something else!  Such a spread!
Again, multiple mezzes-- eggplant spreads, hummus (there is a friendly competition  across the region for the best hummus!), peppers, Israeli salad with cucumbers and tomatoes, onions, it goes on and on. And then they brought skewers of meat with amazing French fries! Almost Brazilian in quantity!

Long day, lots of images, and more to come. For easier reading, I will keep these blogs relatively short with lots of photos . Look for another one soon!

Peace, shalom, salaam,

wendy and emily  

Life Affirming and Emotional

It's Monday morning and this blog entry will recapture Thursday, the day we went into the Old City of Jerusalem and visited the sacred places of the Abrahamic religions. But before that, a bit of context. We are staying in East Jerusalem (near the West Bank)  in a Palestinian hotel.  Also, for those who do not know, I affiliate with the North American Reform Jewish Movement-- the largest group in North America and the most flexible in our religious practices. I am not particularly observant and I do not read Hebrew (though I  sing the alto part when trans-literated). Further, I am an emotional person, but generally I "hold it together" in public.

On Thursday, we left the hotel and drove to the Old City. This area has a history dating back 3,000 years and is divided into four quarters--Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Armenian. Here it gets a little complicated because some Christian sites (the Via Dolorosa-- the "way of sorrows" where Jesus walked on Good Friday, for instance), are in the Muslim Quarter and more and more Orthodox Jews are taking apartments there.  See this link for more background.

There are four gates (entrances) to the City. We entered through the Dung Gate where we immediately were subjected to a pretty significant security search.

Then, without warning, we were passing through a walkway overlooking the Wall (referred to by many as the Wailing Wall). It was extraordinarily serendipitous and fortunate beyond words that Thursday was Simchat Torah.

There were 100s of men marking the holiday and at least 100 women (separated by a fence) sitting quietly and reading their prayer books-- a very powerful and poignant sight. Unexpectedly, I was overcome with emotion and started weeping.  Seeing this iconic symbol of Judaism appear before me was truly one of the most moving experiences of my life. I had a hard time breaking away from the overlook and was lucky to get a number of great photos (particularly given the vantage point).   

An important note, photographs cannot be taken at the Wall on Shabbat or Festivals so we lucked out with the overhead walkway photo ops.  We did return to the Wall after the Dome of the Rock -- where my emotions stirred once more-- particularly when I secured two notes / written prayers there.  Suffice it to say, if those prayers are answered, the world will be a much better place.

We moved to the iconic Dome of the Rock (more a shrine than a mosque per se), which is adjacent to the El-Aqsa Mosque. Sacred to both Islamic and Judaic and Christian traditions, the Dome of the Rock presumably protects the rock where Abraham brought his son (Ishmael or Isaac respectively) as an offering to G-d. In the day, travelers could actually enter both sites. But, because like so many other places here in the Holy Land, "who has sole right" is disputed, skirmishes between observant Jews and Muslims are now quite common, so non-Muslims cannot go inside and it is even difficult to get permission from the border police (assigned in droves to the Old City) for a decent vantage point. As usual, our guide Husam, prevailed and we had some wonderful photo ops.

After our return to the Wall, we moved to the Muslim Quarter and Market to walk the Via Dolorosa (the "Way of Sorrow") where shrines have been erected to mark the 14 Stations of  the Cross, finishing at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which marks the places of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection. The streets were so narrow-- not exactly as Hollywood has memorialized them. This experience was very moving for all of us and it was particularly poignant to see our senior statesman, Jerry-- an 86 year old retired pastor--recount his experience seeing Jesus's tomb.

No historical or religious site here is immune from disputes. At the Church, there is an ongoing debate (certainly not dialogue) across the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholics,  the Copts, the Ethiopians, and the Armenians. Indeed, a ladder from an ill-fated painting job of 150 years ago remains in place because there is discussion about whose responsibility it is to move it. Crazy.

Leaving the Old City, we could readily view King David's Citadel...

...and the old City wall.
We left the Old City and ventured to the West Bank to see the Church of  the Nativity and enjoy a Palestinian Lunch and an experience with the hookah.

Once again, we had quite a repast. The salads are amazing! And the view was great.

The Church of the Nativity was originally built in 326 AD and rebuilt in 530. Yikes. We saw the place where Jesus was born and the manger. This is one of the spots in the West  Bank that still gets many travelers.

A long, stirring day with great spiritual meaning for all of us . Watch this space for a recap of Friday and Saturday.

Peace, Shalom, salaam and love,

wendy and emily

Highs and Lows (Part 1)

On Friday through Monday, we were exposed to the broadest range of Israel / Palestine experiences possible--evoking emotions all over the map (as well as altitudes!).

Friday began with a tour of West Jerusalem and then a visit to the wonderful Mahne Yehuda Market (a definite high). Beautiful produce, olives, bread and pastries, nuts, fish, meat, cheese and more varieties of Halavah than I've ever seen in my life!!! 



There's lots of graffiti here-- pictures and words. While strolling around West Jerusalem, Yuval pointed out the graffiti below:
"Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies"-- with the  "refuse to be" partially scrubbed out and repainted several times. Indeed, we have also seen plenty of folks wearing T-shirts with that same slogan . So, there is hope.
Also this one:
Emily: Saw this today on the side of a building, driving through Bethlehem in the West Bank. I feel like my eyes are being opened and mind being blown as I am exposed to the complicated realities of life in this storied land. Our tour guide today compared it to something from a fantasy novel and I see it now - joy and beauty co-existing with despair and injustice, the history of thousands of years playing out in real time. No simple answers...
And that's a nice segue to our next stop, Tent of Nations-- which (like Neve Shalom) is predicated on the notion of working together. We spent the afternoon there, on the West Bank near Bethlehem. Some of the signage near the checkpoints is absolutely terrifying. Alternate routes are available.


While the landscape is desolate and the situation desperate, this is an inspirational program run by Daoud Nasser--whose family's farm has been properly documented with the authorities (whether those be the Ottomans, the British, or the Israelis) since 1916, yet that ownership is constantly being contested in the courts. In the meantime, the land is being encroached upon by Settlements, access roads have been cut off, and there is no running water or government-provided electricity. Last spring, most of Daoud's fields were destroyed by settlers. Daoud invites groups for olive / apricot picking, reconciliation, and other programs. While his story is heart-wrenching, he is a visionary who refuses to give up and continues to protest via peaceful, legal means. This visit was a high (in that we were inspired) and a low (in that the family's circumstances are so depressing and emblematic of the property issues facing many Palestinians). 


We needed our spirits lifted, so we had an extraordinary meal at Mona-- Israeli fusion. We were honored to be joined by our Israeli guide Yuval. Yuval and I started with deconstructed Caprese salads that were as delectable as they were striking to the eye. Emily enjoyed crab bisque and Susan feasted on soft polenta with truffle oil and mushrooms. Can you spell delicious? (Whoever told me that dining in Israel is boring did not know what they were talking about or went to the wrong places to eat!)  Yuval and I had salmon in miso for our mains. Emily had pasta with clams and Susan went back to the sea bream with quinoa (twice this week)! We shared a lemon tart and chocolate fantasy desserts. No fantasy-- this meal was tremendous!

After dinner, we visited with some Hands of Peace alums for an exhilarating, emotional, and inspirational candle-lighting tribute to those who lost their lives this last summer in the violence.

Saturday was an altogether different kind of day. We visited Masada and the Dead Sea. Both are way below sea level-- thus the "low" experience-- but they have been definite 'high points" on the trip. While both were fascinating, the visit to Masada took a dual narrative twist as Husam explained a good portion of the site from Herod's perspective. Apparently, the story of the heroic Jews who withstood a horrific siege from the Romans only to kill themselves at the end rather than lose their freedom has been challenged as of late. I greatly prefer the narrative I was brought up on (read The Dove Keepers by Alice Hoffman if you want a romanticized version). Regardless of which narrative you believe, the fortress at Masada has truly withstood the test of time.



After Masada, we journeyed to the Dead Sea where our visit was totally relaxing and fun and included a mudpack for one of us-- guess who?

Yes!!!! You can float without really trying!

Our post-Shabbat dinner on Saturday was at Eucalyptus in West Jerusalem-- a
highly-touted Kosher restaurant with an inventive menu tied to Biblical themes. We passed up the "King David" and "Queen of Sheba" tasting menus in favor of more reasonable (as in fewer courses) fare.  Truly, if they ate like this in Biblical times, they would have had a hard time crossing the desert!  We enjoyed smoked eggplant and fish falafel appetizers, followed by a trio of soups (Jerusalem artichoke, mint tomato, and red lentil). These were absolutely scrumptious. The main courses we chose were neither particularly notable nor Biblical-- but the desserts more than made up for it-- baklava and chocolate. We are eating well here!




The next blog will detail the juxtaposition of two challenging and emotional touring days--- on Sunday, we visited a refugee camp and Hebron-- an ancient and important city where we walked through the Tomb of the Patriarchs and wandered the streets of this occupied town of 250,000 Palestinians and about 800 Jewish settlers. Then, on Monday we visited Yad Vashem (holocaust memorial) and S'derot-- an Israeli town located very close to Gaza. 

Stay tuned! 

Until then, peace, shalom, salaam and love,

wendy and emily