With the pleas of friends urging me to cancel the trip behind me, and a 45-minute drive to Jerusalem ahead of me, the El Al Airlines 767 deposited me at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. Shalom! Peace! Welcome to Israel!
Conditioned by world news, check points in this part of the globe can unnerve travelers. The one on our route out of Tel Aviv proved to be simply a formality, and, having passed it uneventfully, we subsequently entered Jerusalem - the heart of fascinating and intense Middle Eastern crossroads situated north of Bethlehem, the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea. It was a journey worth waiting for, worth making, and worth making again.
Housing 2000 years (and in some cases 4000 years) of history and three of the worlds great religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam – Jerusalem deserves to be given as much time as you can spare. Most of the religious sites are within the walled Old City. You’ll find the Via Dolorosa bustling with vendors, but the Stations of the Cross where Jesus walked are marked and solemnly observed by pilgrims despite surrounding commerce.
Tucked away in the Old City by the Sheep Gate (and, I might add, tough to find despite endless well-meaning directions) is St. Anne’s Basilica. Named after the mother of Mary, the church commemorates Mary’s nearby birthplace and also Bethesda, where the Bible story says Jesus miraculously made the lame man walk.
Reputed to be a healing center since around 150 B.C., the excavations outside the church clearly define a water cistern, baths and grottoes arranged for medicinal or religious purposes. This often forgotten church and surrounding areas have a fascinating and complicated history with an impressive air of peace and dignity. Three women sitting in contemplation in the empty church surprised me by suddenly beginning to sing. Their outstanding voices enhanced by the amazing echo and acoustics, for which the Basilica is famous, was one of Israel’s many unexpected, non-commercial treats.
Back in the maze of market streets, locals shopped for produce in the Arab section. I shopped for pottery, fabrics and leather goods. Unique, well priced (after vigorous bargaining) and expertly crafted, the domestic earthenware pottery is well worth considering.
Blaring horns, accompanied by a couple of ambulances and military jeeps suddenly careened through the narrow streets. Unfazed crowds cleared the way only to clog the alley a minute later. A wailing Arab woman emerged from an old restaurant. Two Arabs –much the worse for wear after a fight and assisted by Israeli ambulance attendants – followed. Signage on the Israeli ambulances proclaimed them to be gifts to Israel from two Jewish families in New York. The drama passed. Bargaining resumed.
Jerusalem is quiet only on Shabbat – the Jewish Sabbath. Late each Friday afternoon a siren announces the beginning of Shabbat. Women observe orthodox rituals by lighting candles; public transportation comes to a halt, and shops, schools and offices close. By sunset, the city takes on the air of tranquility reminiscent (to those of us old enough to remember) of when Sunday was a day of rest in the west.
Snapping your fingers won’t get you a taxi on the Sabbath in Jerusalem. In orthodox quarters streets are frequently closed to traffic. Hotel elevators are programmed to stop at every floor based on the orthodox law, which states that operating an electric appliance (even switching on a light) is forbidden. Snapping a sign near the Western Wall earned me a photograph of a forbidding finger accompanied by a stern Hebrew warning, "no photographs on Shabbat!" Christian and Arab sections of the market are still active, but tourists may wish to consider Shabbat observances in their travel plans.
Escaping the following day from the frenetic pace of the city to Mizpe Hayamim – the spa at Rosh Pina founded in 1923 by Berliner Dr. Eric Yaros - I savoured sun-up warmth combined with the tranquility of the dry, pale yellow, sun baked Galilean hillside. Nature and all its healing elements are at the core of this laid-back, rambling property to which I had retreated.
In the distance, past the green, lush, lower levels of the hillside. Lake Kinnereth lay tranquil at the foot of Mount Hermon. Tiny blonde thorns pricked through my sandals. How many shepherds had rambled this hillside? Tiny bells heralded the arrival of a herd of goats jostling their goatherd through a gate looking for breakfast. The goats were right – chow time. Mizpe Hayamim, in addition to offering spa treatments, is famous for herb teas, local honeys and all the homegrown produce of an organic farm. The cheeses here alone could be the excuse for extending your holiday.
"Are you beginning to relax?" called my hostess as I wandered through the cool foyer. Relax! I pitied those who had tried to dissuade me from coming, and mentally juggling my schedule to see if I could squeeze in just a few more days in the Holy Land.
If you go:
Note that shorts and immodest dress (for men and women) should be avoided. For women a light, long skirt and sandals with an enclosed heel are best bets and tucking a large, scarf in your bag for head or shoulders is a good idea.
Article and pictures by Ursula Maxwell Lewis
Ursula shopping for carving in Jerusalem's Old City by M. Maxine George
El Al and Air Canada both offer non-stop flights from Toronto to Tel Aviv
Contact the Israel Government Tourist Office at 1-800-77 ISRAEL (774-7723). On the web www.goisrael.com
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