I grew up primarily on the westside of Los Angeles, where the vast majority of my friends were Jewish, and I was the girl who went to Presbyterian pre-school. As a middle schooler, I attended my share of Bar Mitzvahs, Friday night Shabbat dinners, and various other celebrations in the local temples. So, it’s no wonder that I would have many preconceived ideas about Israel, and about one day getting a chance to travel there. Once my five-day trip was arranged, I was lucky enough to get restaurant, museum, excursion, and cultural advice from friends on what to see and what to avoid. Everyone said that a “guide as a driver” was necessary to cover the extensive list of sights I had planned to visit over my five-day itinerary.
Since we arrived by cruise ship, the customs clearance was different than typical. In every other seaport I have been to, the customs officials check passenger’s passports which are handed to them by the ship’s agents. The passengers don’t do anything except get off the ship at their leisure and begin sightseeing. In Israel, the ship was required to temporarily dock at a “customs port” while the passengers and crew were assigned one hour (early morning) to get off the ship with their passport (retrieved from the ship), wait in line, be profiled, answer a series of questions such as “Why are you here?” and hopefully be granted permission to enter the country. Then the ship had to leave the customs area exactly four hours later to dock in the slip it had been assigned. Since we disembarked after being granted our entry permission, we were later completely lost trying to board the ship again in the new port position. (Being creatures of habit, we are used to getting on and off the ship in exactly the same spot.) We ended up playing a sort of “Where’s Waldo” along the port while I was exhausted and hungry after our first day of exploring the country.
The following day, we left the ship and checked into our hotel in Tel Aviv (which I had heard was an art, beach and party town)…expectation again. The hotel was on the beach, but it wasn’t a Santa Monica beach or party vibe. There were military officers on the street corners, ambulances had the names of victims on the sides of them as dedication vehicles, and the people were serious.
Our guide, Amir, showed up packing a 9 mm pistol in his back pocket. OK, game on. He drove us through the West Bank on our way to Masada. We went through checkpoints. We saw Palestinian settlements, Jewish settlements, and Amir discussed the tension in the area. It wasn’t the kind of car ride where you sing along to “Tiny Dancer.”
When we spent the day in Jerusalem, the intensity grew. I expected to see joyful people visiting religious sites. Instead, I felt the angst and aggression of frustrated people who want to own pieces of land but do not own them. I learned from Amir that the holiest place on earth to the Jews is The Foundation Stone, a rock in the earth where they believe life began, or the spiritual juncture of Heaven and Earth. The same spot of earth is now covered by The Dome of The Rock, a Muslim Shrine, as it bears significance in the Muslim faith as the place where the Islamic prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven accompanied by the angel Gabriel. Today, the Shrine is guarded by Israeli police, and only Muslims may enter the premises. It is maintained by Jordan, not Israel. East Jerusalem is now regarded by the international community as part of occupied Palestinian territory. We got caught in a sort of melee as people were racing toward the Shrine to make it there in time for morning prayers. The significance of the Wailing Wall (which is nearby the Dome of The Rock) is that the wall is the closest Jews can get to their sacred place. I learned that men get 75% of the wall to pray at, women get a designated 25% of the wall to pray at, and the men get the side closest to the Foundation Stone/Dome of The Rock. Didn’t seem fair to me.
Along with the Christians, we walked the stations of the cross, and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, and also where he is said to have been buried and resurrected. I saw people buying plastic crosses and miniature Jesus statues, then touching them to a rock at the church in order to bring the good mojo back home with them. I saw Ethiopian black Jewish churches, I saw Eastern European Jewish churches, I even saw Jerusalem bagels that were long and floppy like they had been made out of silly putty. The reality was so much different than I had expected.
We walked through the wealthiest neighborhood in Tel Aviv, called Neve Tzedek. Beverly Hills it was not. Some of the original shutters were still on the doors. The shutters had the depiction of a woman’s face on one side of the latch and a man’s face on the opposite side. When the “man of the house” left for the day or night, and the woman was home alone, he would flip the latch down to the woman side, and that was a symbol for no one to knock or solicit that home. Can you imagine that today? Signaling a woman home alone….come on in and attack!
Then, all hell broke loose, for lack of a better term. The sun went down on Friday night, and the Sabbath started. That meant that our elevator would now stop automatically on EVERY SINGLE FLOOR so no observant Jews would have to push the floor buttons. We were on the 22nd floor! It also meant that the cappuccino machine, the omelet station, the toaster, and everything else that was “cool” about the breakfast (which was included in the price of our room) would be deleted. Yet, the electricity and air conditioning were working. When I asked Amir how come those items were OK…..he said they were placed on “shabbos timers.” It seemed to me that a coffee machine could be placed on a Shabbos timer too, but maybe that’s just me. It all seemed rather random. When I discussed this with the hotel manager, he said his hands were tied as the rules were set by the Rabbinical Council. Didn’t expect that. Taxis were hard to come by. Basically, the country shut down until the following day at sundown. I thought tourists might still be catered to, but religion takes precedence in all matters.
Israelis have intense patriotism. The men and women serve in the Israeli Defense Force, they are very proud of their Iron Dome Defense System which is designed to block incoming missiles. They live with handguns, a constant police presence, and in cities where different religious factions run different parts of the land through checkpoints, metal detectors, and profiling. They live with the rules set forth by the Rabbinical Council, and no one owns the land they live on. By day four, I was ready to return to what I was used to in Southern California; our drought, our homeless, and our bizarre national political campaign. Israel was just too far out of my comfort zone.