I’m a small town boy with a big family from a four-season part of the world. How can there be Christmas without the necessary ingredients: snow, stockings and a rowdy bunch of misfits gathered in celebration? It’s impossible – like cupcakes without icing. So this snowless December when I checked my cabinet and found a ticket to Israel and three Jewish friends I decided to celebrate Hanukah instead.
The first night of Hanukah I spent in a warm Prague pub with Fred and Gavin. We didn’t light candles (not realizing the holiday) but we covered our heads against the cold and Gavin forced me to sing. Each of us was prepared for different holidays in different countries: Gavin in Czech, Fred in France and me in Israel. As I left for the airport a dusting of snow began to fall and I hoped to find a wintery city waiting on my return.
I arrived in Tel Aviv at five in the morning. I hadn’t slept and my first impression of Israel as I stepped of the plane was of the otherness of the air. Even in the temperature controlled confines of Ben Gurion airport I could smell the proximity of the sea.
My friends Jon, Ari and Yael were still fast asleep when I landed so no-one was at the airport to meet me. I changed four-thousand Czech crowns into seven-hundred Israel sheckles, found the train station, bought a 14 sheckle ticket, and took the train one stop to HaHagana, following directions to Ari’s flat in Tel Aviv. In the night sky Tel Aviv’s skyscrapers rose above the city, glowing Hebrew signs illuminating their peaks.
The buildings at HaHaganawere low and boxy like something a pre-adolescent boy might cobble together from cardboard boxes. Everything was dirty and a heavy, fetid scent hung in the warm night air. As I walked up the street looking for the bus station a stream of North African immigrants in hoodies passed me heading in the other direction and stray cats darted into alleyways.
The police caught my attention when two officers jumped out of a Suburban armed with assault rifles across from an all-night shop. One crossed the intersection immediately while the other waited for the pedestrian light to turn green. Both entered the shop simultaneously while a third officer pulled the car over. I couldn’t see what they’re doing in the shop but I assumed it was a bust – why else would they need such guns? When they came out, I saw that they were buying snacks.
The morning was getting light when I finally found my bus but instead of getting off near Ari’s I missed my stop and ended up near to the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. I walked down past lifeguard huts and gazebos for summer tourists; squatted in the sand; and let it’s cool water lap at my hands while the dawn rose behind me.
To the south where the shoreline curved out of sight I saw a hill dominated by a central tower. It’s buildings were old and small. It looked interesting so I marked it as a destination for my days wandering and started back up the beach toward Ari’s.
Ari answered the door a minute after the first knock. As he stood there in his underwear rubbing sleep out of his eyes I laughed, suddenly realizing it had been three years since I’d seen him last but nothing had changed. This is how I often saw him when we lived together on the Upper East Side. We chatted for a moment then both went to sleep. The sun had just risen after all.
I woke up in the late morning and set out to explore the neighborhood. Ari lives in the best neighborhood I saw in Tel Aviv – the old Yemeni quarter: a small area between the Carmel Market, which is the biggest open air market in Tel Aviv, and the beach. The small, boxy buildings were packed tightly together on a grid of tiny, verdant streets mostly unsuitable for car traffic. Small cafes sprawled onto the street further limiting vehicle access and making the place feel cozy.
By the time I started exploring the market was crazy. When I passed it at dawn it was a skeleton of empty stalls. I thought it could never be filled. Yet several hours later it was crowded. Not only was the main street packed with vendors, shops had opened up behind the market and spilled down the adjacent streets. Grandmothers were arguing over the price briskets while children delighted in piles of candy, teenagers haggled over sneakers and mothers did the weekly shopping. Later in the trip we took two minutes to find Shoupie Markers (knock-off Sharpies) for a project and then got schwarma sandwiches. It is Ari’s Wal-Mart; where he shops for everything.
That day I took a coffee at an outdoor café, had a falafel, and then spent rest of the day wandering along the beach. I walked south for a while, down to the old port and walled city of Jaffa. This is where the original Arab settlement was placed – on a hill overlooking the sea. It’s what I saw in the morning sunlight. There are many historical buildings, mosques and gardens packed together in an unplanned, old-world way that’s not so different from Prague’s Old Town. Sandstone stairways linking to passages leading up to roofs then back down into squares in a confusing mesh of buildings.
As the sun was setting I took my shoes of and walked back up the beach to Ari’s place to meet him and Jon for dinner. Along the way I collected a smooth, brown beach stone as a souvenir.
Ari is a little sarcastic guy – the kind you either love or hate. He served in the Israeli army, worked real estate in New York, Hotels in Florida and now for a non-profit in Tel Aviv. He’s one of my oldest friends from college, now almost bald with a huge pot belly and an easy smile. He’s in Israel to live with his fiancé Yael while she finishes school. Jon caught up with us at Ari’s.
“So here are our options. We can either go out for dinner, or, Yael invited us to her parent’s house. There will be Hanukah food. It’s up to you,” Jon said, putting me in an awkward spot.
“What’s Hanukah food?” I asked.
“I don’t want to go over there,” said Ari.
“Like, latkes and quiche. Comfort food. Yael’s going over there but it’s up to you.”
I agreed, Ari argued, and we all ended up in celebrating the second night of Hanakuh with Yael’s family. The night is cool but the air still has a wisp of the Sea though we had driven several miles inland to her childhood home. The lighting of two candles was accompanied by a song – then we ate.
The food was simple and delicious: two quiches, fried dough balls with cheesy centers, latkes, bowls of cut vegetables, olives, and corn on the cob. Then we have homemade blueberry doughnuts, spicy pickled-lemon wedges, lemon peel jelly, and homemade pastries for desert. Yael’s mom Eta, taken by honest assessment of her delicious food, offered me a secret taste of her private stash of candied lemon peel – a perfect balance of sweet and tart that drove me mad.
I spent the third day of Hanukah with Ari. We started the day by walking over to Neve Tsedek, which is the oldest neighborhood in the Tel Aviv and now one of its most expensive neighborhoods. It was a lot like Ari’s neighborhood, full of small buildings packed tightly together, but there they are in much better condition. Tall trees grow over small, shady parks and gardens abound in back lots. Tucked in between the private homes, like the small restaurants around Ari’s, are the galleries and art museums that signify gentrification.
After that we retired to a small café on the side of a busy street where we watched the city pass by. Ari complained about the massive herds of American tourists that lumber by on their way to and from local tourist sights. We spoke of Israel and space travel then visited Independence Hall where we joined a group of college-age Americans tourists and learned about the birth of a nation.
That afternoon we had a late lunch of Arab food at a cheap, outdoor café in Ari’s neighborhood. I had lamb and chicken skewers served with tahini, hummus and stewed vegetables. Fresh pita bread served on the side with garlic sauce and beans and an Israeli Goldstar beer. It was delicious, fresh and served hot as it was ready.
Jon met us shortly afterwards and we lit three Hanukah candles at Ari’s then started to gamble with a dradle that I had picked up at the shook (Hebrew for “market”). Dradle became a continuous thing throughout the trip. We played in the street while, waiting for Yael, at restaurants, on bars and bus seat. Once we had Yael the four of us drove to Florentine, a busy district full of clubs and businesses, for dinner at a trendy Mexican restaurant whose food was better than Czech Mexican. Afterwards we dabbled in the nightlife of Tel Aviv. Beer was very expensive.
Friday morning we had a cultural mix for breakfast: Czech bacon smuggled in from Prague and Yemeni breakfast delights Jon and I retrieve from a nearby café. The highlight is fatoot – a French-toast like mash-up of eggs, bread and sugar. Then we caught a mini-bus called a shayroot outside the main bus station which took us to Jerusalem which was only an hour away – small countries are amazing.
The landscape changed quickly between the two cities. As we got outside of Tel Aviv we passed sprawling suburbs then farm fields then up into the hills of Jerusalem. The landscape full of low, scraggily trees is full of history that the boys periodically share.
The two central cities of Israel could not stand more directly in contrast. Jerusalem is the center of religious and cultural heritage while Tel Aviv is a center of hedonism. Jerusalem is thousands of years old and Tel Aviv one-hundred. The Jews in Jerusalem are much more conservative breed than their secular costal cousins and we couldn’t have come at a worse time: Friday afternoon – the beginning of Shabbat.
We arrived with a couple of errands to run but it’s already late because the city closes with sunset. Our first stop is the shook but the place was a madhouse as Jerusalem prepared for their day of rest. We skirted it, nearly getting separated in the crowds spilling out onto the sidewalk, and headed to a famous bakery for half a kilo of rugala. Then we get American slushies just as the next store is closing and drop off our bags at Ari’s grandparent’s house.
We carefully walked into the old city. Ari knows Jerusalem well and is wary of its population. Drivers are especially reckless on Friday evenings as they rush to beat the sunset which ushers the Shabbat ban on driving but the streets were growing quite. Later that night Ari would impose strict regulations on us – detouring around certain neighborhoods where our secular activities could lead to confrontation with the local black hats, who are conservative uber-religious locals known for meeting trespasses on their faith with aggression.
We entered the old city through a massive gate in the stone wall in the last rays of the afternoon sun. It’s easy to imagine Jerusalem as a desert oasis and the seat of biblical history. The whole city, both old and new, looks like the desert because it’s built of the same beige “Jerusalem stone.” We quickly left the open road leading past a sandstone fortification to head into a narrow market street which js walled by small vendors. We made our way through a maze of these narrows streets to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – the holiest place in Christian Jerusalem.
Inside it’s like a theme park of Christianity. Every sect has a corner – some empty, some packed with photographing tourists, some in active ceremony. There are relics everywhere. The most impressive is a slab of marble on which the dead body of Jesus was laid after his crucifixion. It’s mobbed. One women seems to be a work laying out tarot cards and other tokens on the slab then praying quickly over each one. When I had a chance I laid my beach stone on the marble and pressed my palm down on both stones.
After the church we make our way back through the vendors to the holiest place in the Jewish Jerusalem – the Wailing Wall: the only remaining part of a once great temple destroyed by the Romans. Just beyond the wall we could see the Dome of the Rock – a Islamic shrine so holy to Islam that non-Muslims can hardly enter – glowing with the last rays of sunshine.
The wall is even more crowded than the church with the many sects of Judaism come to prayer on the eve of Shabbat. It has two layers of protection: physically there is a bullet-proof glass wall, security booth, metal detector and trained guards; and spiritually there is a man ensuring that anyone nearing the wall is wearing a Yakama.
After the second layer of security we were surrounded by hundreds of people worshipping. The different sects hung together made obvious by their dress and mannerisms. Farther away from the wall were desks where men study the Torah. As we got closer there were plastic chairs scattered about with people lounging in them. Some groups were singing. Some were preaching. Hundreds of people stood against the wall praying. When I approached I noticed paper jammed in every crack – they’re prayers. When there was an opening I stepped up to the wall and said a prayer.
Afterwards we had dinner seated at the corner of the bar in a popular restaurant in the downtown New Jerusalem. When I slammed the dradle on the bar to initiate play the bartender a started laughing so hard that he spilled the drink he was pouring and later offered us shots of whiskey. Then we stopped for a drink in the bar district. Despite the early hour there were only a few people out and the city felt empty – like a theme park after hours. As we walked home we pass a café that a suicide bomber destroyed in 2001. Both Jon and Ari were in Jerusalem at the time – Ari was just around the corner at another cafe.
When we get back to Ari’s grandparents we saw that four candles had already burnt out so we went to bed.
Saturday morning Yael picked us up early and we drove east out of Jerusalem along empty streets – cars forbidden on Shabbat. The city droped away suddenly leaving us in a desert of dusty hills – the first desert I’d seen since arriving. We passed some high-security suburbs and an army base but no checkpoint. They don’t care who leaves. We pass Beduin settlements on the side of the highway. Their semi-permanent hovels are made from corrugated tin roofs and wood. My ears popped as we dropped from +400 meters to -423m at the Dead Sea. It’s the road to the lowest point on Earth.
After forty-five minutes of driving we reached our destination. My first view of the Dead Sea was over the greenery of an agricultural date Palm forest. It’s like a great lake except Jordon is visible through a thick haze on the other side of the blue water. The sea is long, however, it’s end invisible. We drive along the coast for another forty-five minutes – passing several kibbutzesand a military check-point where Yael’s greeting of “Shabat Shalom” acted as a shibboleth identifying us as Israeli’s and allowing us to pass without issue.
We stopped at a desert oasis for a picnic brunch then hiked up into the desert plateau along a dusty canyon. Ibex wandered among the hills. At that low altitude in the desert the temperature had risen into the high seventies. After our brief hike it was comforting to stand under the green mists of a waterfall. So much life thrives around the water and so much death away from it. It’s easy to see why this was a land of miracles.
After we climbed down from the waterfall we headed over to the Sea. It’s a surreal to float in the Dead Sea. The buoyancy is so great that it changes what you know about the physical world. The water holds you up like a very soft mattress – allowing you to sink just a little.
After my first bath I covered myself in mud like a wild boar (which is some kind of mad health tradition), waited for it to dry, then bathed again in the sea. I accidently got some water in my eyes and was blind for ten minutes.
Afterwards we drove back through Jerusalem – stopping in an Arab town for a dinner of hummus with meat, falafel, kebab, pickles and lemonade from a famous Arab restaurant. Then we drove back to Jon’s place in Netanya – another beach town just north of Tel Aviv. It was dark and a storm was kicking up. Jon had the Rolling Stones Top 500 songs as a playlist and we made a game of guessing the artists. I lost terribly and by the time we tucked the car into the safety of the garage the storm was in full rage so we settled in for the night. The wind blew out the five candles we had lit when Jon tried to show me their balcony.
The next morning I took the train into Tel Aviv with Jon. He went to work and I spent the day exploring by playing hide and seek with the beach. In the evening the four of us had dinner in Ari’s neighborhood, then lit six candles at his place before Jon drove me to the airport to catch my flight.
I slept for most of that day too but in the evening I got up for long enough to scrounge seven candles. I lit them in silence then went back to sleep.