An unforgettable journey to Israel

View of Tel Aviv from Jaffa

8 days, 3 destinations, 3 distinct experiences. The fact that we embarked on our first visit to Israel with two friends we love made the journey all the more momentous. And it certainly was a long time coming.

Having been bat-mitzvahed, I had until the age of 27 to travel to Israel for free as part of the Birthright program, with a group of ten to twelve other Jews from around the country. I didn't ask to go, my parents never outrightly encouraged me to go, so I stayed local and told myself that the Bat Mitzvah closed a chapter that offered me little personal value, at least so I thought.  And I didn't even consider what I may have been missing until my network of friends and colleagues raved about their time spent in the country. Many of them waited to make the trip in their twenties, presumably because by that point they were more mature and intellectually ready to embrace the experience, and documented it all online. Seeing their photos and hearing their stories made me question if I hadn't actually made a colossal mistake in not seizing the opportunity to go when I had the chance.

For years, I was firmly uninterested in exploring the contours of my Jewish self beyond the considerable effort I believed to have invested in the practice as a kid. Every eruption of violence and report of escalating tensions in the region meant another year I wouldn't be going even if I had the desire. Once I moved to France and settled into life as a couple, my vacations and travel time were driven by trips we could take together (C. is not Jewish) and that truly interested both of us. As a somewhat lapsed Jew, Israel just didn't rank high on the list. Of course, this was largely an excuse, much like the preposterous 'we can't take enough time off to go' argument. We live and work in France, we could have gone.

Jaffa, Tel Aviv

As we started to go further afield and exchange travel stories with other writers and acquaintances, the urge to explore different cultures and landscapes blossomed quickly. The more my friends expressed interest in visiting Israel, the more I thought about it until it became the only trip I wanted to take. When our friends announced in February that they booked their tickets for a spring getaway, the fire was lit and we jumped aboard.

8 days in the country was all it took for me to realize that this visit was all about timing. Occasionally, an opportunity presents itself that has the power to shape our future, the decisions we will make or the priorities we will define for ourselves (if we let it). These moments are rarely of our own choosing and we can't anticipate how it will shake us. Whether I had visited ten years ago or two years ago, it's certain that I would not have been open or nearly as receptive to the idea of engaging in any sort of dialogue about what it means for me to be Jewish today and to confront the questions and uneasiness I have about faith. 2014 has been the year of scrutinizing introspection and while it's been a somewhat painful and uncomfortable process, it made this trip all the more timely.

A few highlights: 
Jaffa, Tel Aviv

Prior to the trip, a French friend assured me that most of the world's apprehensions about safety in the country are shamefully misinformed. And furthermore, he added, "Israelis are some of the most zen people you'll ever meet", which was evidenced by the insouciant way they live. So many of us are swayed by what we read and the depiction of the country overall on television but the reality on the ground hews to everyday realities of life elsewhere. People go about their business without living in perpetual fear of turbulent acts. Every place we visited felt safer than most spots I've been to in America and even some neighborhoods in Paris. Life rolls on because, well, it has to. And the attitude is admirable. Why should their lives be governed by what-ifs? Our families admonished vigilance and yet we expose ourselves to potential danger everyday on a crowded metro or by passing through dense tourist areas where thieves prey. This was one of the first lessons we gleaned from the trip and one I felt it was important to call out right rom the start.

Back to carefree lifestyles, Tel Aviv is a beachy, cosmopolitan city that oozes with international flavor, both in culture and cuisine. It's dynamic, colorful and brimming with people excited to share their favorite corner of the city with visitors. Everyone was delightfully warm and helpful.

We were struck by the pastel-hued Neve Tzedek neighborhood and Jaffa (or Yafo), the ancient port city and oldest section of Tel Aviv which we visited with my Israeli friend Sivan Askayo, both of which had an air of southern France and all the village-y charm that is often associated with it. But even in the areas that felt oddly recognizable, the juxtaposition of old and new (or in many cases, ramshackle vs. under construction) was a palpable reminder of the city's singular travails and checkered past. We ate extraordinarily well and could see the appeal of having a second home in a city like this (though it wouldn't come cheap!). It was the perfect way to ease into the visit before going off the radar in the Negev desert, our next stop. 

Naot Farm, Negev Desert Ein Akev, Negev, Israel
Naot Farm breakfast

Israel isn't very large but given our time table, we had to choose between heading up north (to the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights and Haifa) or spending a few days in the desert to the south, which ultimately required less driving. When I spoke of this plan with another friend who knows the country well, he immediately recommended we stay at the Naot goat farm which is in close proximity to sites like Ein Akev, Ein Avedat and Sde Boker. We each had our own cabin which included an incredible farm-fresh breakfast (see above) with cheeses made from the herd's milk, delivered to our doorstep each morning, and individual barbecues to prepare our own dinners. It was glamping at its finest, with the added benefit of farm animals.

Mineral Beach, Dead Sea
The hikes and awe-inspiring landscapes that the Negev offers allowed us to disconnect from the bustle we're accustomed to and properly readied us for a relaxing few hours at the Dead Sea (Mineral Beach, specifically) on our way to Jerusalem. Unless you're looking for a resort experience with spa treatments and lazy afternoons at the beach, I wouldn't recommend spending more than a day here but everyone really should have the chance to float in the Dead Sea at least once in their lives. Incredible.

Jersusalem seen from the Mount of Olives

While the first two destinations felt only mildly unfamiliar, Jerusalem awakened all of our senses and kindled the kind of greater self-reflection I've read about but didn't anticipate. We spent what can only be called a truly enlightening 9 hours with Lyana Rotstein, a spectacular academic and guide whose boundless passion and focused storytelling captivated us throughout the day, despite the intense heat. There were no bombastic tales of the city, no agenda and certainly no judgement about our own beliefs. 

Old City, Jersualem
Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The spiritual importance that so many people confer on this place has always been a great mystery to me (perhaps I should have been a more diligent Sunday school student) but this trip has largely lifted that veil of incertitude. Its significance cannot be wholly understood or conceptualized until experiencing it firsthand; feet to 2,000+ year old stone and memory.

As we stood on the Mount of Olives to start the day, intensely discussing the geology of the city and tracing its complex and turbulent history, I felt a disarming jolt of emotion. That I had to repress a few tears soon thereafter left me stunned. I'm not an observant Jew nor am I really able to codify my spiritual beliefs, so why was my response so visceral? Because of the soul-expanding enormity of it all - the place, the people, the religious narrative that hovers over every street, as well as its undeniably symbolic history. It's a state that has been mooted about for so long, even in my own life, that standing perched above such a spiritual icon and touching off on this edifying crash course was like realizing a dream I wasn't fully aware I even had.

Western Wall, Jerusalem
Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem

I may have felt regret for not experiencing a place when I had the chance as an adolescent but I came at the right time in my own personal journey. This isn't about suddenly becoming religious or assuming life clarity emerges simply because of Israel's holy leanings. For me, it offered a series of questions and the start of some answers that I'm better equipped and far more apt to tackle. And for that, this trip was invaluable. 

For more photos from Israel, click HERE. Other highlights on Instagram. Some of my favorite addresses to follow!

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