My New Family of Israel
by Susan Cava
(Deerfield Beach, Florida USA)
Israel at Night
I had been told El Al flights to Israel provided wonderful entertainment by just looking up and down the aisles, this was very true on our midnight flight to Tel Aviv. It was around Rosh Hashana so there were praying Orthodox Jews, children running up and down the aisles, rabbi’s handing out fruit, women laughing while holding 1 or 2 kids – it was a festive, familial flight. When people found out I was pregnant, I immediately had twenty Jewish mother-in-laws giving me advice about our unborn baby. It was impossible not to feel a sense of kindred spirit.
Our arrival into the ultra-modern Tel Aviv airport was like entering another solar system. The well-armed airport security was both intimidating and incredibly efficient. My Israeli husband Miro took the lead and soon one of his best friends picked us up; a lovely man whose typical Israeli driving skills had me clutching the seat of the car in a death like grip. My stomach, morning sickness and I decided to “find a happy place” with Tums and carbonated water anytime we entered a car.
We picked up our car rental in Jerusalem amid massive negotiations (money the issue of course) that seemed worthy of peace in the Middle East and went immediately to Miro’s family. His sister was hosting a henna party for her daughter who was soon marrying. There was lots of food, women laughing and Moshe’s beloved 78 year old mother radiating in the middle of it all. Despite not understanding a word of Hebrew, I was hugged, welcomed and kissed - when a son comes home to Israel, you get wrapped up in that family’s joy.
We went back to Miro’s other sister Miri’s apartment in Tzur Hadassah – a suburban offshoot of Jerusalem. It was a lovely area in the hills of Israel, very European in style but unmistakably desert-like. At Miri’s condo development there were oodles of stray cats. Many of the residents fed them and I befriended and fed a family of cats while there. The Israel SPCA works tirelessly to spay/neuter animals but the stray population is endless. However, Miri had no problem with me feeding them leftovers.
Miri herself is the Queen of her land – fiery, passionate, beautiful and loud mouthed! Women in Israel rule the world – make no mistake. Their opinions that they are never shy of giving, their family filled homes, and their Zatar scented dinners all make up the land of Israel and the men know it. The men are on their cell phones talking to God knows who at rapid speeds while driving rapidly and yet, everything stops when a woman raises her voice.
Women rule the home, but not the land. For example, The Wall has an area for men that is quite large where you can walk up to the wall, place your prayer into a crack and pray. The women’s area is one third the size, incredibly crowded and very annoying if you have the patience of a pea (said this New Yorker). Given it was Rosh Hashana the Wall was mobbed by Orthodox women reciting prayers in a rocking motion. A dear friend asked me to place prayer for her mother’s health. I did not know you could say “excuse me” at the wall, I thought you couldn’t speak. Nope, you can as a woman gave me a Hebrew tongue lashing while I gently nudged her out of the way.
The markets by the Wall are surprisingly seedy for such a holy place. They offer lots of beautiful ceramics, hamsas, scarves and things of that ilk but they are generally run by Arab Israeli’s who align themselves with Palestinians. I’m not even going to touch the politics of that but will say, the grand majority of Palestinians I met were very angry and more anti-American than anti-Israel.
One Palestinian man in particular thought I was Columbian and my husband was from Iraq – go figure – and started rattling off anti-American and anti-Israeli commentary; specifically about “the bombs of Syria dancing in the sky” and that America would be next.
I enjoyed the Dead Sea so much that we went twice; it’s a gorgeous one hour drive from Jerusalem. There is much to take in on the drive – camels on the side of the road ready for hire, camel crossing signs and Bedouin people, Arab nomads tending goats and using milk crates as chairs.
The Dead Sea has many different spas/resorts and you need to use one to actually visit the sea. It’s in the $20 range to park, use their chairs, picnic areas and restrooms. Additionally Ahava Beauty Product’s headquarters is right there in the mountains by the sea… apparently they really do use salt from the Dead Sea!
The Dead Sea area is like being on Jupiter. The sea itself is made up of sulfur rich water that is both blue and gray in its color. Given the high sodium content, there is no life (i.e. fish) in the water and for the same reason you will feel like a swinging buoy trying to do anything but float in the sea. This is a good thing given the slimy mud that makes up the sea floor. As is tradition, you get out, cake mud on yourself, bake yourself in the sun and then rinse off under the showers resulting in the smoothest skin this side of Jupiter!
A quick drive from there is Masada; a historical place high atop a rocky plateau. There is a cable car to the top but on Rosh Hashana it was closed by 12pm and we arrived at 12:10pm. So we returned to the Dead Sea and had the surreal experience of floating with 4 Arabs, 2 Russians and no one else. Everyone else in Israel was preparing for Rosh Hashana dinner which we soon left to attend. But let it be known the time to visit is Rosh Hashana morning when everything is still open but no one is there.
We visited the Sea of Galilea and while my husband said it was his favorite place to visit growing up, I found it to be a simple beautiful body of water that did not overwhelm me. On the other hand, I loved Haifa, a lovely beach town, about two and a half hours northwest of the Dead Sea. I sat on the beautiful rocks letting the warm waves wash away the chaos of Israel. It was at Haifa I felt our baby kick for the first time. It was a magical place that I only wish we stayed longer.
Tiberias, located on the Western side of the Sea of Galilea, was a place I did not need to visit – it was dirty with the daylight on and seemed like a seaside town whose day had come and gone. We were literally the only people in an empty restaurant amongst many empty restaurants. It felt like a run-down amusement park with aimless Middle Easterners walking around. The worst was whenever we tried to drive away we somehow looped back to Tiberias.
Food wise it was very easy to eat vegan and healthy; fresh, beautiful salads, pizza with red sauce and corn, falafel with the greatest tahini sauce this lady has ever had. Everything in Israel is expensive but the food was so delicious it made up for the cost, although paying $2.50 for a small Diet Coke isn’t fun. While the food is more expensive it is also more sophisticated; you can get a gorgeous vegetable Baraka (think of a cheese-less pastry) and Espresso at a gas station that will taste better than four star food in the states.
As mentioned we were there for Rosh Shana which was a high and a low. A high to see an entire nation close down and celebrate a holiday; a low because the entire nation closes down for four days. It’s one thing if you live there, another if you have limited time and want to see the sights of a country.
Instead you would find families sitting outside in the perfect late summer weather eating a glorious feast, saying prayers and enjoying family. This is what we did for four days and on the actual night of Rosh Hashana we had some visitors. In the spirit of Christmas Carolers we had Shofar’ers. While eating dinner outside a father and his three children showed up and sang, read a prayer and blew a shofar. It was a bit odd even for my new Israeli family but if ever there was a conversation starter, a shofar is it.
We went to Armon Hnitz for an amazing view of the Valley of Death or formally known as The Valley of Ben-Himmon or Gehenna; it is a dark valley where a mosque, church and temple sit in shadows. It is here that good and evil are supposed to battle at the end the world.
We also attended a wedding of my husband’s immediate family. It was like a rock concert complete with a stage, stadium lighting, six courses of delectable food and 500 close friends. There was also a safe located at the entrance to the wedding where people were to put their gifts; that safe was guarded all night.
I felt safe the entire time I was in Israel, even with a potential Syrian bombing lurking. Israeli’s are bad-ass and always ready to defend and fight. My husband was an Israeli Special Forces soldier – I always admired his fearlessness, a trait many in Israel shared. Other than the “Danger, this direction can be life threatening to Israeli’s” signs I felt secure.
Yad Vashem is a stunning museum dedicated to the Holocaust and those lost in it. While there is a great deal of anguish in the maze-like journey, it is also an honor to go through the museum and honor the 6,000,000 Jews we lost. We made it up to a pile of shoes in the center of one of the halls which is ¾’s in; shoes from a group of Jews killed. It is what hit my core and overwhelmed me, as real as it gets. I skipped the remainder of the halls as the grief became too much. We walked around the grounds and took in the statues which are just as poignant as what is in the museum. There is no way to miss this place of history and what lies within it.
Israel means so much more to me now that I hear people saying such hostile untruths about what is going on in Gaza. As Golda Meir said “If terrorists put down their weapons, there will be peace. If Israel puts down their weapons, there will be no more Israel.”
Israel can be chaotic, hectic, annoying, beautiful and cathartic all at once. In a region where 300,000,000 people are Muslim, there is a small area of 7,000,000 Jews… that place is Israel. May she always live.
By Susan Cava