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Tags - tel-aviv
"Jerusalem, if I forget you, let my right hand forget what it's supposed to do" - Matisyahu lyrics
Our first day in Israel was somewhat unreal. First, it should be noted that we flew into Tel-Aviv at 5am and did not check into our hostel in Jerusalem (yes, completely different city) until the afternoon; in other words, we were straight to touring from the airplane. It is also important to keep in mind that I still had a full fever while this was going on, but, as usual, ascribed to the "mind over matter" axiom that leads me to (often erroneously) believe that I can kick my own sicknesses into remission, and kept pushing along.
We got off the airplane in an excited frenzy despite the dire lack of sleep and the less than desirable conditions provided by Lot airlines...those two elements quickly became worth it (personal bias here) when we: (a) happened upon the Israeli National Soccer Team at the airport and (b) knelt down in mass to kiss the ground. It was a muggy, hot, dark morning but we were here, we were in Israel!!
Our sojourn began with a visit to Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, which was named after the 26 year-old commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was oddly anachronistic to be in a place that was named after someone whose bunker we had stood in front of just a few short days earlier. I must say that there could be no more appropriate memorial to Mordechai Analewicz than such a living and continuing place, even more so since this small kibbutz held back overwhelming Egyptian forces for six whole days in 1948, giving the new Israeli army enough time to organize and ultimately defend Tel-Aviv further up the coast. How apropos that a place of such courage should follow in the figurative footsteps of an equally courageous man. After being introduced to the history of the kibbutz, etc, we had breakfast in their kitchen. This was my first taste of hummus and, I have to say, I ate it with incredible and unparalleled contentment! Even the random hummus in a dining hall somewhere in Israel is better than most hummus I have had across the Atlantic. (Sigh) I was so happy! Everyone on the trip knew to expect a minor epileptic attack when I encountered my first taste of hummus, so it was quite amusing for everybody!
After this, we drove to Sderot, an Israeli town that borders Gaza and that is known for suffering almost constant fire rocket fire for seven straight years. We stood upon a hill and looked out into Gaza for the first time, and I must admit it was strange to imagine that in a land that topographically looks exactly the same and that is crowded into such a small space with its neighbors, such conflict could rage so furiously for years. The people in Sderot had to adjust to the situation by building bomb shelters in every conceivable public area - schoolyards, streets, parking lots. If a siren sounds, you have 15 seconds to make it to a secure bomb shelter. I was tired and feverish but I could not avoid being entirely sobered up by standing in the physical location I have read about in so many accounts of the Gaza conflict.
From here we went on to Jerusalem. Our first stop was a panoramic view of the city. Beautiful! Our second stop was the Israel Museum, where we saw an incredible reconstructed model of what the city must have looked like during the Second Temple Period and (wait for it) got to see, in person, the Dead Sea Scrolls. Yes people, only a glass place separated me from these age-old documents (earlier known source of Biblical documents before 100 BCE); it was absolutely surreal!!
Let me briefly interject to say that we then went for lunch in the Arab quarter. First of all, the experience of walking through those streets alone was awesome in my opinion, because they are bustling with vendors, brimming with colors and smells and just, well, ordinary life in most ways. The lunch was at a restaurant that Avi recommended to us and entailed, among other things, hummus and falafel. Despite the loss of appetite that I usually experience when I am ill, I literally ate my weight in falafel while we sat there - it was so incredible!
At this point, we finally checked-into our hostel and had a few hours of much-needed nap and shower time! In the evening, after much-needed naps, showers, and dinners, we walked through the governmental campus (Knesset, Supreme Court) and had some lounge time at Ben Yehuda St, which was bustling with nighttime activity, wonderful life music, and people milling in and out of stores. A couple of us had bagels which, I must admit, were quite possibly The. Best. Bagels. I. Have. Ever. Eaten. So far, the food in Israel was treating me quite well which, as a Cuban woman, I very much appreciated.
During the day we talked about the Israeli banking system, their form of government, some economic aspects, etc...it just peaked my interest to learn more about all these subjects so I essentially walked away with a list of things to research!
I have to say that the feeling of this day was uplifting beyond my expectations. From seeing the work being done at the Kibbutz to the observations I could make from my window on the break-of-day drive from the airport, to the mere feeling I had overlooking Jerusalem under the mid-day summer sun...I couldn't help but notice that we had come from a place of destruction and death to a place of fulfillment and rebirth. Coming from Auschwitz to Jerusalem can do nothing if not take one's breath away with the stark contrast of its very core.
"And here is what I know now...goes like this, my salvation lies in your love, my salvation lies in your love" - Orange Sky (the OC Mix 1)
We woke up at 4:15am, ate some pound cake in a hurry, and walked to Masada. The face of the rock - completely devoid of any softening vegetation - rose up swiftly before us as we began the ascent. Masada, the desert fortress built by Herod the Great was the cite of the last great battle between the Jewish rebels and the Romans in the 70s CE. I was the 5th person up from our group and the first girl, which, modesty aside, made me (and our hyper intense tour guide) pretty proud.
After touring the top, we made our way down to breakfast at the hostel, before heading out to the Ein Gedi nature reserve, where we (gasp of happiness!!) swam in a waterfall!! Especially because it had been so hot in Israel, this was beyond refreshing! After returning to the hostel and getting ourselves cleaned up and packed up, we drove to Tel-Aviv. On the drive, we stopped at a rest stop, where one Mr. James Kimmey and I shocked the rest of the bus by buying chips and beer (of course, James bought some crappy, light beer and I went for a Guinness, as usual, thereby gaining respect points from our hilarious bus driver)! Once in Tel-Aviv we had a couple of hours to spend on the boardwalk, resting, eating, enjoying our last day together as twilight set in. And then, sadly, we made our way to the airport. The goodbyes to Ohad, Yisrael, and Avi were sad - I for one, being my usual sentimental self, had become legitimately close with them...I felt like I was leaving really good old friends.
It's a good thing I will be back here in several months though! I am looking forward to spending more time in actual Tel-Aviv (especially since I have decided to move here in a couple of years), to doing some intense hiking, to seeing Avi and Ohad again, and to seeing Israel when it is not in the middle of its dry season (I want to see her hills covered with green!). In the end, we boarded our airplane at 1am. As we did so, I looked down at a ring I had personalized and ordered in a little shop in Jerusalem...in the sterling silver is inscribed, in Hebrew, "Ahava," meaning "love." I couldn't help but smile even as I was leaving, for I had found a place that touched me greatly and differently than any of my other travels, a place that had renewed me in many ways, a place that challenged and welcomed me at the same time; and that, my friends, that is love.
On that note, I should say that I am separating from newfound friends whose friendship I hope to keep for years to come. (Some of us are already making plans for a reunion). In all honestly, I must also admit that even though I have apparently rubbed off on them with funny hand gestures and Nataliaisms (it's been pretty funny actually), the people on this trip have contributed something much greater to me, for they have injected me with a renewed sense of serenity and a belief that the surprises, the luck, the pure joy in life is always greater than the knocks, hectic stresses, and pains and disappointments we may experience! I consider myself thankful and blessed to have crossed paths with some of the people on this trip.
And so, as they say during Passover Seder, "Next year, in Jerusalem..."