Here’s where it all began.
Whether you’re a Christian, Muslim, Jew, or simply a worshiper of antiquity, Israel delivers a lodestone of layered history—those almost mythological locations talked about in Sunday school or Latin class.
It’s also one of the planet’s youngest nations, named the Jewish homeland in 1948 as a haven from persecution from the time of Moses to the Holocaust. From nothing more than sand and chutzpah, the country made itself a world force, while also forging its position as a cultured playground. As David ben Gurion, Israel’s first premier, explained the phenomenon, “If you don’t believe in miracles, you’re not realistic.”
In El Al’s darkened plane, you know morning has arrived when the Orthodox gentlemen fumble for their prayer shawls in the overhead—and the cabin crew comes down the aisle with lox and bagels. In Jerusalem, men in black from hat to toe pray before the holy Western (“Wailing”) Wall. Women, too, in their own section, tuck notes with prayers into its crevices.
The wall clasps the epicenter of Jerusalem: the City of David. Who knew? Well, no one, exactly, until recently, if this Biblical title was maybe legend, maybe fact, until an intrepid archaeologist, armed with shovel and Bible as travel guide, unearthed the Temple of Solomon, David’s son, the spot where he was anointed king.
We tunnel down to what were in ancient times streets and an amazing water system, drawing from the river outside to sustain its people during sieges, such as the Romans conducted in 72 AD. The bad guys won—and destroyed the mighty temple.
As we emerge, we hear the nasal strains of a muezzin calling faithful Muslims to prayer, reminding us this is a sacred city for everyone—including, of course, Christians. We tread the Via Dolorosa, marked with the 14 Stations of the Cross—where Jesus was whipped; where he stumbled. It ends in the Church of the Sepulchre, site of his tomb, and, almost obscured by multitudes of worshipers, the spot where the cross was raised.
Another gate tumbles us into the scintillating chaos of the Arab souk, a labyrinth of alleys lined with vendors—gold bangles, leather sandals, you name it—and name your price. Bargaining is the day’s entertainment.
Then, a somber final hour at Yad Vashem, the park that bears witness to the Holocaust: One dark hall, lit only by prayer candles, lists the names of all the death camps; another calls out the name and age of every child murdered. Never again.
Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays….
And Haifa conducts business. This decidedly down-to-business seaport also hosts the lovely tiered garden World Headquarters of another religion, the peaceful Bahai. Next, we set out to wrap our minds around the depths of history encompassed in this tiny land, stopping in way-stations of the distant past, such as Hazor, whose excavated houses, shops, and city gates reach back to the regime of Solomon.
Then, on to mountaintop Tzfat, the highest, oldest town in Israel, home of ultraorthodox Jewry, where women meander in long skirts, and men in oversize black hats sway in the synagogues sprinkled among the artists’ galleries.
The port of Akra, now a pretty marina, harks back to the time of Ptolemey, then Julius Caesar, then the Apostle Paul, and most “recently” the Medieval Crusaders, who built the massive citadel we’ll visit.
Back in Haifa, a sumptuous dinner at an Arab café, where dishes kept flying from the kitchen: hummus, tabouli, eggplant, kibbe, and the ever-present cukes and tomatoes—enough to sate an army. But those were just the apps. Next, lamb chops, chicken schnitzel, and a whole fish appeared, washed down by Maccabee, the local beer, and strong, sweet Arabic coffee.
The next day’s dip into history revealed revered Christian sites—the Mount, of Sermon fame; Capernaum, where Jesus spent this youth—then on to Megiddo, site of the Battle of Armageddon.
Playtime in Tel Aviv: We arrived on a Saturday afternoon just as quiet of the Sabbath gave way to pandemonium. The stretching beaches echoed with the thonk of Ping Pong players; the grunt of passing joggers; the swish of kamikaze bikers; the buzz of passersby; the sizzle of barbecue; and the fizz of foaming Maccabees.
Follow the bustling boardwalk to Old Jaffa, the original port—today a tangle of romantic passageways between artisans’ galleries; the Church of St. Peter; a way-station of Jonah; and the harbor’s fisherman, spreading out husky nets to dry. Duck into a funky café called Dr. Skakshouka, a Mecca of Moroccan food, for the addictive dish that’s the trademark of the darling dive: a frying pan erupting with eggs and garlic sizzling in tomato sauce. Cures what ails you, the “doctor” testifies.
Come morning, the Negev Desert grasped us in its endless skein of undulating sand, with a stop at Avdat, an excavation of a caravanserai that served parched traders on the Silk Route. Then, Masada, topping a stony cliff high above the Dead Sea, where Herod built his palace, and, most famously, Jewish patriots chose to die rather than succumb to the hordes of Roman soldiers assailing them below.
A quick dip in the fabled Dead Sea—10 times saltier than any ocean—and time to say Shalom.
For info, visit www.goisrael.com.
Remember: Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays. Be discreet in the former. Be naughty in the latter. Throughout Israel, the Crowne Plaza hotel chain is gay-friendly.
June 10, 2011
Fronts the Hilton Hotel
(just like it sounds)
(drag nights; bar-cum-coffeehouse)
(dance bar; home of The Notorious G.A.Y. Night of Music)
(intimate, ladies only)
(biggest is best—club, that is)
Poper’s Sex Shop