Memories that last a lifetime are best begun in places you’ll never forget
The excitement of visiting a new destination is thrilling and the temptation is always just to go where the road takes you, discovering delightful surprises at every turn. Each time I thought about my upcoming trip to Israel, I couldn’t wait to see and explore everything, and, as Israel is a very small country, maybe I’d just go with the flow and somehow see it all. Wrong. Israel is indeed small compared with most countries around the world, most states in the U.S. and even most other countries in its region. However, it is big, enormous, gigantic in its offerings and it pays to have a plan of action, lest all too quickly your visit is over and some bucket-list “to dos” remain undone.
I only had a few days in the country, and I chose a few sites important to me with the thought that, in this way, I’d feel no pressure to run to the next location just to cross it off my list. I’d be able to relax and let the particular site speak to me, to seduce me if you will.
I willed it and I’m glad I did. Now, let the seduction begin!
Whimsy, Kitsch and the Truly Fanciful
Over the years, several friends recommended seeing the Ilana Goor Museum in the Old City of Jaffa, saying it would be unlike any museum I’d seen before. That it was. The very location of the museum, an 18th-century building surrounded by the breathtaking shoreline of Jaffa and Tel Aviv, is awe-inspiring. This structure initially served as the first Jewish inn for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem 280 years ago, and it’s been restored to its original plans. Alongside Goor’s stunning creations—unique and important in their own right—the collection encompasses over 500 Israeli, international and ethnic art, with works by Giacometti, Henry Moore, Josef Albers and many others.
Into the Desert
Masada is the place where, several years ago, I was lucky enough to see a production of Aida, live elephants and camels, et al. Now I was hell-bent on visiting the Masada Museum, and this time I was able to walk leisurely through the many evocative exhibits and ruins that were expertly showcased and documented. I took a 3-minute cable car ride to the top of the famed plateau to view and photograph remnants of the palace-fortress from the days of Herod the Great, as well as where Judea’s rebels took their own lives rather than fall into the hands of the Romans during the Great Revolt in 73 CE. The Masada story is so dramatic that at times one forgets that it is about real people and the daily life of men, women and children that lived here 2,000 years ago; it’s all the more touching knowing how the story ends. The historical importance of this tragic fortress in the sky is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, not incidentally, it offers one of the most astounding views you’ll ever have.
Jerusalem of Gold
The panorama of Jerusalem from atop the Mount of Olives is its most iconic view. Across the Kidron Valley lies the Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock, the Al Aqsa Mosque to the south and the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City, all surrounded by Jerusalem’s high ancient walls. It’s awe-inspiring to be at this site of Christian worship and to stand in the noonday shade of the very olive trees that date to the time of Christ. No visit to Israel is complete without spending some time here.
Jerusalem has been a place of pilgrimage and worship for Christians, Jews and Muslims since the biblical era. The Old City retains significant religious sites that include the Western Wall, sacred to Judaism, and the Dome of the Rock, a 7th-century Islamic shrine with a gold dome. Rabbi Mark Greenspan’s musings on this city sum it up quite well: when you open the book and walk the pages of Jerusalem “each stone is a word, each building, a verse, each chapter, a neighborhood. Generations have lovingly written their story into its text, placing a finger on the word and feeling its mystery.”
What better place to begin experiencing Jerusalem in a heart-stopping way? Yad Vashem. The very name comes from the Old Testament: “And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (a ‘yad vashem’)…that shall not be cut off.” – Isaiah, chapter 56, verse 5.
Established as the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in 1953 by an act of the Knesset, Yad Vashem is entrusted with the task of commemorating, documenting, educating and researching the Shoah, of the six million Jews murdered by the German Nazis and their collaborators. The grounds encompass 45 acres on the Mount of Remembrance and comprise a number of museums, research and education centers, monuments and memorials. A million people visit here annually in an atmosphere reflective and solemn, and the entire complex has been created in the most sensitive, moving and memorable manner—another site where plenty of thought and contemplation is of utmost importance.
I so looked forward to walking the route of the Via Dolorosa. It begins at the Lion’s Gate in the Muslim Quarter and incorporates the 14 Stations of the Cross. Because this area is tangled with tourists and the road weaves its way along and through the Muslim souk, where vendors aggressively hawk their colorful wares, I was unable to call up a proper reverential mood. I doubted if Via Dolorosa, with its narrow, winding alleys, snack bars and tourist shops would ever lend itself to awe and inspiration; it’s best to just hold those feelings within you.
A true high-point was my visit to the Western Wall, the site for Jewish prayer and pilgrimage for centuries. The area was alive and swarming with people, men on one side of a divider, women on the other. I felt lucky that I was there on a Monday, the day that Bar Mitzvahs occur. I found an empty chair, stood atop it, and peered over the wall at two ceremonies taking place, the boychicks parading around while holding the torah on high.
Jerusalem was the absolutely perfect place to end my Israeli idyll—the holiest city in the world and the eternal city built thousands of years ago, whose history can be heard in the whispering of the wind along the walls, and the only city in the world that has 70 names of love and yearning attributed to it. The poet Nizar Qabbani expressed his love of Jerusalem thus:
The lemon trees blossom
And the olive trees rejoice.
Our eyes dance.
The migrant pigeons return
To your sacred roofs
And your children play again
And fathers and sons meet
On your rosy hills.
The town of peace and olives.
If You Go
Image courtesy of Slone photography