Day 6 – Tel Aviv

After we woke up on the sixth day and made our way out of our rooms, we compared notes and discovered that most rooms in the hotel were falling apart. Luckily I did not have to deal with the broken sinks or dirty rooms that most others did. To mitigate our discontentment we stepped outside, where we were treated to an unbroken vista of the Mediterranean, sparkling right outside of our hotel. Sadly I slept late, and could only rush through breakfast before packing up my belongings and boarding the bus; there was no time to enjoy the view.

Tel Aviv - 2

On the bus we sat through about an hour of stop and go traffic, evidently everywhere near Tel Aviv is like this, before reaching the city proper. We stopped along the side of one street and filed off the bus, only holding up traffic for a few minutes. We had arrived near Rabin Square, at the spot where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. At the monument Shimi spoke to us about the assassination, and the life of Rabin.

Tel Aviv - 8

Afterwards we went over to the square and did an activity that had us speak to Israelis that we ran into. I ventured out with a few other people, and we ended up talking to a group of soldiers about their hopes for Israel. After reconvening and sharing our findings we got back on the bus for a quick drive over to Independence Hall. At Independence Hall, the site of the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, we attended an excellent lecture on the events surrounding the signing, and listened to the radio broadcasts from that day. The building had been transformed into a museum commemorating both the signing and the history of the city of Tel Aviv. Following the lecture we watched a short film about the founding of the city, and it was engaging enough that only a handful of people napped.

Tel Aviv - 12

Now, to the great disappointment of all, we had to say goodbye to the soldiers who had been traveling with us for the past five days. We gathered in a circle and as each soldier said goodbye we shared how we had connected, and how they had helped show us a more personal side of the country. Of course once this was done we all left to get lunch, with the soldiers in tow, so it wasn’t a true goodbye, yet. We walked through the garment district, past shopfront after shopfront filled with hundreds of bolts of unique fabrics spanning every color under the sun. What shops that weren’t filled with fabrics held clothes, and wedding dresses in every style imaginable seemed to fill most of these windows.

Tel Aviv - 15

At this point we split up to eat lunch and do some shopping, with instructions to meet back up in two hours. I ended up getting a burger, I was slightly worried about the lack of cheese going in, but found that guacamole with fried peppers makes an excellent substitute. I also got some wings, which were some of the best I’ve ever had, no matter what country I was in. Afterwards I walked around the garment district and through the open air market; it was just a smaller version of the market in Jerusalem. As our time wound down, and the sky started to open up, I grabbed a coffee and waited for the bus under a tree. Here we finally said goodbye to the soldiers, and started our long trip down to Arad.

Tel Aviv - 18

Again, we sat through traffic as we left Tel Aviv, and then again as we passed by Jerusalem. Throughout the trip we did a lot of backtracking; evidently efficiency wasn’t a priority for our planners. The only thing to note on this trip was the strip mall where we stopped to stretch our legs a half hour out from the hotel. The strip mall itself wasn’t remarkable, but next to it was a playground. While walking around two of us stumbled on it, and to our delight it was nothing like playgrounds back home. The playground itself was huge, probably the size of a softball field, and dominating it was a huge jungle gym, reaching three stories into the sky and sporting three slides. One of these, a long corkscrew, started at the top of a three story tower, which I was able to summit by climbing up a rope ladder and a spiral staircase. Then, with not a little trepidation about its weight limit, I launched myself into the corkscrew slide. I bounced off the sides, and let my feet drag one too many times, but emerged from the bottom dizzy, and ready to run back to do it all over again.

We spent the entirety of the half hour we had at the playground, rode all the slides, climbed every tower, and swung every swing. By the end there were ten of us there, acting like kids again and loving every minute. Thinking back, it’s depressing that no kid in the US will ever get to play on a playground like that, it was possible to fall, and on slides that big someone could get hurt. But does eliminating every chance of injury really help anyone grow? I’ve never known anyone who’s been irreversibly scarred by breaking an arm as a kid.

Far too soon our time at the playground, and brief relapse into childhood, was at an end. We climbed back on the bus and dozed through the last hour of our trip to the hotel. Here we got settled in our rooms, ate, and and gathered for an activity called “Where the Wind Blows.” The activity was similar to “Never Have I Ever,” though adapted for a larger group. Quickly this became as perverted as every other game of “Never Have I Ever” I’ve played. After everyone had been thoroughly embarrassed, and some rather personal questions asked, we split up for the night. While the other groups in the hotel were getting up at four to do the sunrise hike of Masada, Shimi decided we would wait until a more reasonable hour. The next morning was supposed to be overcast anyway.


With a few more hours of sleep to waste, a bunch of us gathered at the bar to play cards. We past an hour like this, but unfortunately met a young kid on another trip dealing with a serious bout of homesickness. I say unfortunate because it was quickly apparent he was having some serious mental issues and we were left to shepherd him through them. This eventually led to the front desk waking up Shimi, thinking that this kid was in our group, and then his group leader. Eventually we were all able to get some to fitful sleep, though several hours later than we had originally planned.

Day 5 – Mt. Herzl & Yad Vashem

Our fifth day in Israel, as I have previously mentioned, was spent at Mt. Herzl, in Yad Vashem, the new holocaust museum, and Israel’s national cemetery. We started the day, after breakfast of course, with a group activity where we shared our personal connections with the holocaust. Hearing the family stories of all these people who had quickly become my friends drove home how closely we were all related to the holocaust.

After packing up all of our belongs we loaded ourselves into the bus and headed out through the newer side of Jerusalem to Yad Vashem. Yet again the contrast to the day before, when the streets were devoid of traffic because of shabbat, was striking. Our hotel was not far from the museum, and the traffic was not bad, so we arrived before very long. We disembarked and gathered near the entrance to the museum. The courtyard where we waited overlooked a lush valley, but I could not concentrate on the view; I was too filled with trepidation about the journey before me.

Our tour guide, whom Shimi had been on a tour with before, was supposed to be excellent. He had completed his doctorate in history with a several month stay at Auschwitz before starting to give tours. English was his third language, with French being his first and Hebrew his second. That, combined with his English coming from his Welsh father, gave him the most interesting accent I’ve ever heard. Our appointed time arrived, we put on headsets and started our journey into the main exhibit of Yad Vashem.

The exhibit was built recently, completed in 2005, and attempts to show the stories of the Jews involved in the holocaust, the perpetrators of the holocaust, and the gentiles who risked their lives to protect Jews in Nazi Germany. When entering the museum you first look down a long open hallway, bracketed by two flat stone walls, which almost meet thirty feet above your head. Instead of them meeting, however, there’s a skylight that runs the length of the two hundred yard long structure. The path through the museum winds back and forth, crossing over the main hallway. As I’m sure the designers intended, the light streaming in from above serves as a distinct contrast to the dark and depressing exhibits on either side.

The individual exhibits start in the prewar era, and continue to the war’s conclusion. At the very end of the museum is the Hall of Names, a round room with thirty foot high bookshelves surrounding the exterior walls. Here, our guide explained, were all the names, along with as much information as had been gathered, of every known victim of the holocaust. More striking, to me at least, were the empty spaces along the wall where the museum had reserved space for the as yet unknown victims.

After leaving the Hall of Names we exited the main exhibit of the museum. As we walked out of the hallway the two sides of the building, previously leaning over us, spread to the sides to reveal a view over a valley in the suburbs of Jerusalem. Probably primarily because of the context, it was one of the most beautiful sights of the trip. We were all silent after leaving; I think we all needed to do some processing of what we had just seen. Before long though we set out walking across the grounds to the Children’s Memorial. This was small and simple, a handful of candles in a dark, mirrored room, and was all the more beautiful and powerful for it’s simplicity. It was the most moving, and upsetting, exhibit of the day.

We left the Children’s Memorial, trying to regroup, got on the bus, and headed to a nearby shopping center for lunch. I grabbed some felafel, the old standard, and sat alone, trying to process the day. Soon, we got back on the bus and headed back to Mt. Herzel.

Tree at Mt. Herzl

We walked up to the summit to the tomb of Herzl. Understand that Mt. Herzl would only be called a mountain in Israel, it was really just a glorified hill. Near the summit we sat and Shimi talked about Herzl’s life and his role in the foundation of the state of Israel. Then we paid our respects at the tomb, a simple rectangle standing three feet high and caved out of black marble. It’s only decoration was Herzl’s name, carved in relief on one end and painted gold. On top of the tomb lay a scattering of stones; in Israel it is customary to lay a stone on top of a tomb to pay respects.

Sunset in Helkat Gedolei Ha'Uma

Leaving the tomb we walked over to the National Civil Cemetery, which contained those citizens who sacrificed their lives for the state and it’s leaders. Starting in the leader’s section, Shimi gave us a brief overview of the public figures buried here. Like Herzl’s tomb almost all of the tombs were plain rectangles, set in pairs with the leaders resting beside their spouses. The only difference was Rabin’s tomb, which consisted of two flowing shapes. We stopped here for an introduction to Rabin, that Shimi promised would be expanded upon tomorrow, when we visited Rabin’s Square.

Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial

As we left the leaders and entered the Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial the sun started to set, painting the sky, which had dull and overcast all day, with a brush of fiery reds and oranges. While the last few hours had been a welcome reprieve from the depressing mood of Yad Vashem, it ended with the memorial. The memorial is a square with two sides bordered by high walls. The other two sides look out onto the valley. Upon these walls the names of every victim of terrorism in Israel is carved, grouped by decade. We stood by the section of wall for the 2000s, and Shimi told of the names he knew personally on the wall, and some of their stories. Then he asked those soldiers who knew someone on the wall to raise their hands; they all did.

Graves in the National Military Cemetery

In the fading light we walked though the military cemetery. One thing I noticed immediately, and had been true about the entirety of Mt. Herzl, was that it was much more lush than Arlington, the only other national cemetery I know. While Arlington had a very simple beauty, grey headstones on rolling hills covered only in well cropped grass, the Israeli National Military Cemetery was nestled on the side of a mountain, with each grave containing a small planting of ivy and each area bordered with tall trees that reached over the graves. I felt that it gave the cemetery a more intimate and personal ambiance. The graves were organized simply by date of death, with no separation for rank, age, or unit. It was not uncommon to see soldiers who had died at sixteen and seventeen. Among the graves were two sections where we stopped to see the graves of unknown soldiers, and soldiers who were missing in action. The most moving monument was a tribute to a submarine which went missing with all hands.

Missing Submariner Memorial

Then we came to the section of the cemetery which contained the newest graves. We stopped at one section, and Shimi told us the story of two of his commanding officers in the special forces, officers who died on missions he was on. The story was so personal, so touching, so depressing, and told so well, that I think we were all touched. Then we walked over to even newer graves, where one of the soldier’s neighbors was buried. We gathered around the grave and listened to his story, and a letter written to him by his younger sister after his death. Our last stop was at the grave of Max Steinberg, an American who lost his life while serving in the Lone Soldier program, a program which allows jews with citizenship in other countries to serve in the Israeli armed forces. When he was killed his parents came to Israel for what they thought would be a small ceremony, they knew no one in Israel, at Max’s graveside but instead found Mt. Herzl filled with people. Thousands, most of whom didn’t know Max, came to celebrate the sacrifice he made for the country.

Grave of Max Steinberg

Seeing these graves and hearing these stories brought the Israeli struggle into a more personal light for me, and I imagine a lot of us. After leaving Mt. Herzl we got on the bus and headed north, to Netanya, where we would spend the night before heading into Tel Aviv. We got stuck in traffic, and our two hour drive turned into a four hour crawl. We didn’t get in until after nine, got some lukewarm dinner, and then had a reflection activity. Needless to say everyone was exhausted, physically and emotionally, so the activity didn’t receive a lot of participation. As soon as it was over I collapsed into sleep.

Day 1 – The North

  

As I sit down to write about all that we did yesterday I’m astounded we managed to pack so much into one day. I’m also glad I’m endeavoring to write it down, because otherwise I’m afraid I would forget. After rolling into the hotel around seven last night, and playing ice breakers until nine, most of us went straight to bed. A few people had a drink at the hotel bar; I was not among them. I was, however, among the group of us who woke up at six to watch the sun rise.
  Stepping out of the hotel was my first shock of the day, unknown to us the night before our hotel overlooked the Sea of Galilee. In the quiet of the morning, if you really listen, you can hear the lapping of the water against the rocky shore. The hotel is up on a hill that rises steeply from the water, climbing to almost vertical beyond the hotel. My room is in on the third floor, and because it’s in the rear of the building it’s at ground level.
  It is interesting here, the sun rose far before six, but because of the hilly land we didn’t see the sun above the horizon until after six forty five. Of course once the sun first peeks above the horizon it is up in what seems like a matter of seconds.
  After watching the sunrise we headed back inside for some breakfast. Loads of veggies, fruits, salted fish, yogurt, honey, jams; I could very easily pack on the pounds. We loaded up on food, then packed some water and hopped on the bus for a forty five minute drive (we would later realize that everything in Israel is forty five minutes away by bus) to Nahal Banias for a canyon hike.

image

Ruins of the Roman Temple

  Banias was an old Roman town, once centered around a temple to Pan. Before starting the hike our guide, Shimi, explained the situation that precipitated the Maccabean revolt by having two of the group members act out a play, staged in a bath house, of course. It was an entertaining look at a serious situation. After talking about the Greek influence we moved on to the Roman history of the town. Then we got a chance to look at a bunch of those ruins; my first Roman ruins. It’s awe inspiring to think that we are standing on ground that has harbored civilizations for so long.

image

Views along the hike

    After taking a quick look at the roman ruins, though I probably could have stayed there for at least another hour, we started the hike through the canyons. Calling it a hike is a bit of an embellishment; it was really a relaxed stroll through the woods. Don’t let that diminish the hike, while not strenuous it was beautiful. The wildlife and fauna is so different from anything I’ve seen back home. We stopped along the way for some Druze pita; I got mine with Lebanon, a type of yogurt with spices and olive oil. Other people got honey, chocolate, or both on their pitas. The hike ended at a waterfall, where we got our first group picture; I think to prove to our families that we are in fact still alive and having a good time.

image

The waterfall at the end of the trail

   Back on the bus for another forty five minute trip Shimi talked about the Druze people in the area, the Six Days War, the Yom Kippur War, and the crusades. It tied together, I promise. Along the way we drove past a crusader castle; I would have loved to get out and explore. There’s so much history here. I know I’ve said it before, but continues to blow my mind. Driving along these roads it seems as if every turn brings a new ruin, each with it’s own story.

image

Syria - Damascus is in the upper left

  At the end of the journey; with our bus barely making it up the last hill, we arrived at Mount Bental, a volcano overlooking the Syrian border. Though in the past few years it’s been mostly turned into a tourist attraction, Mount Bental was an active military outpost, and is still staffed by the U.N. We looked out over Syria, all the way to Damascus. Shimi said that in the past he’s seen explosions and heard gunfire from the fighting in the capitol. The war has quieted down, or at least moved away from Damascus, so we heard nothing. Still, the views were amazing, and really drove home how compact the area is.
   We spent some time in the bunkers on the top of the Mount while Shimi told several stories from the wars. While the stories would be powerful in any setting, there was something about listening to them while in a pitch black room under tons of Earth that added some potency.
   After coming down from Mount Bental we stopped for lunch at a small shack. We ended up ahead of schedule, so we were able to stop at a near by olive oil factory. This was the only bus ride of the day that wasn’t forty five minutes. They gave us the full tour, including a cheesy introduction video with ridiculously high production values. The company also makes skin care products from the remnants of the olives, and gave us samples of an exfoliating cream and a hair treatment. I was skeptical at first, but eventually had to admit my hands have never been quite so soft. After the tour we sampled their four different types of olive, all of which tasted worlds better than anything I’ve had in the states.

image

It felt "disgusting but amazing"

   Next on the agenda was a trip to the hot springs. These ended up being right next to the hotel, so we were able to walk back after our time there. While the springs are natural they have been tamed. It seemed to me like a giant bathtub, with pools inside and out, filled with salt water. Technically it was mineral water, but it had the same sort of smell. Don’t get me wrong, the hot springs were relaxing, and the two trips I took to the sauna (both wet and dry) were equally so. We spent about two hours there before heading back to the hotel, though not before a couple of the guys got the fish foot treatment. After changing we had dinner and then did a group activity.
  Tomorrow we will meet the Israelis assigned to our group, so Arielle, one of our group leaders, assigned us to groups, gave us the name of the Israeli we are assigned to, and had us draw a picture of what we thought they would look like. We were instructed to include as many stereotypes as possible. Not being familiar with Israeli names we had no idea if ours was male or female, so we started out drawing an androgynous person. This quickly turned into a hairy man, that I got to model for, with duck face. I can’t wait to see the reaction.

image

  To close out the evening a singer from a famous Israeli band came to sing to us, and tell us his personal story. We heard about his father’s experience in the holocaust, and then his own in a town frequently attacked from Lebanon. He tried to keep the mood light,  but given the subject matter, and also how exhausted all of us were, it was difficult. I think most people only had a beer or two before calling it a night.

Day 0 – The Journey’s Start

  For the next ten days I’ll be reporting on my own travels through Israel as I embark on a birthright trip. After my younger sister went on the trip this summer she told me in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t allowed to pass up this opportunity. I saw her pictures and listened to her stories, and had to agree. I got my act together, finally got my passport, and applied for the program.
    Four months later I’m sitting on a plane to Tel-Aviv while the rest of my group sleeps through the night. I started the trip at noon yesterday, leaving from Baltimore on the train. Traveling by train was also a first for me, and I’ve got to say it’s the way to travel. Two minutes after getting dropped off I was ready to board, no security, no lines, it was great. Then I got two large seats to myself in the quiet car, and was able to write and read without distraction while we sped north. The travel time might be longer than by plane, but overall I probably spent less time than if I had flown, was much more comfortable, and paid half the price.
     The train dropped me off in Penn station, though it left me with some sort of allergen that I’ve yet to shed. I tell you, sneezing every five minutes sure makes a great first impression. At least I won’t be forgotten. Penn station was an interesting experience, I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but when I found a subway map, not a trivial task mind you, I spent only thirty seconds studying it before a native asked me where I was trying to go and gave me directions. I never expected NYC to be such a friendly city.  The ride on the subway was also interesting, the breadth of cultures jammed into such a tiny space was astounding. Another hour of travel later and I was at JFK.
    Beyond the terminal we had no meeting spot, but I found several other people from the trip, who were also wandering around looking lost. Eventually we found where the group was gathering and got the all important nametags. Then it was off through security and to the gate, where we would wait another two hours before boarding the flight. I stopped at Panda Express before hitting the gate to get my last taste of some traditionally American food for the next few weeks.
   At the gate a group of us started talking, and we established that we were all at the top of the age range; and were all glad to meet one another. I know I was worried about being the only twenty six year old in the group. After unofficially getting to know one another the trip leaders brought us all together to go over some announcements and do some icebreakers. Unfortunately the airport’s PA system had other ideas. The leaders forged ahead, but I think most of the group only caught most of the words. When it came time for us to do icebreakers I gained new appreciation for their ability to project; I don’t think I even heard a third of the introductions. Still, I’m sure we’ll be introduced several more times before the trip is over.
     Soon we found out that we would be going through yet another security checkpoint, after passing through the gate. The security is much tighter going to Israel than I’ve ever seen. We passed through the checkpoint and started waiting once again, we were on the plane an hour before we were scheduled to take off. I went to fire up True Detective, my planned entertainment for the trip, only to find that I had only put episodes four through eight on my tablet, forgetting the third episode, the next one I needed to watch. With my original plan killed by my carelessness I resorted to the kindle through takeoff, then promptly fell asleep. It’s a testament to my exhaustion that the discomfort of airline seats barely disturbed my sleep.
   In thirty minutes, give or take, I’ll be stepping off the plane into a new county, for the first time in my life. I couldn’t be more excited.