Going through immigration in Tel Aviv with S was a problem. We have both been through immigration and security in dozens of countries, and usually pass with little delay. The immigration officer was not especially impressed with my husband’s middle name, Jordan. She asked where his father was born, where his grandfather was from, what the meaning of his middle name was, etc. It was intimidating because we weren’t prepared to explain his family history, let alone explain why his parents took a liking to the middle name “Jordan”. For those who do not know, Israel and Jordan have not always been besties. I on the other hand did not receive much questioning at all.
Once we passed through immigration somewhat unscathed, we worked our way toward the Airbnb we reserved. Israel has something called a Rav-Kav, a reloadable public transportation card you can get at a kiosk in the airport. Employees at the airport were very willing and eager to help, and they pointed me in the right direction of the Rav-Kav distributor. With our transportation cards in hand we were able to board a bus headed into the center of Tel Aviv. In every city we land we heavily rely on innocent bystanders to help us navigate, like finding the right bus (Google can only take you so far).
Prior to arriving in Tel Aviv I was having a difficult time finding affordable accommodation. In general the city is upscale, and even some youth hostels were charging $150 for a private room. We saw rates for the Sheraton running upwards of $500 during our travel dates. I quickly realized Israel is not a suitable location for long-term travel because it is cost prohibitive. After scouring the Airbnb website I came across a shared space, a small room in someone’s apartment for $40 a night. When we arrived to the apartment we noticed the “room” was merely a closet (it did not have windows). Turns out the closet is a bomb shelter! All new construction in Israel requires apartment buildings to have these shelters in case a war breaks out. The rooms are intended to be completely sealed and protect against not only missiles but also chemical attacks. We joked with our Airbnb hosts and told them they should charge extra, as it is the safest place to sleep in the apartment.
The hosts we stayed with are Jewish Hungarians. They immigrated to Israel only a few years ago, for aliyah. Aliyah is the term used for the immigration of Jewish people to Israel. Staying with our hosts was a major highlight of our time in Tel Aviv. It can be uncomfortable to live in someone else’s space but they treated us like family. We were invited to a barbecue with their friends who were also Hungarian. Many of them had visited Romania and spoke Romanian (Hungary borders Romania). Having so many commonalities between cultures led us to bond instantly. Beyond inviting us to the barbecue, our hosts spent time chatting with us in the evenings and other nights cooked us dinner. One night they invited a woman to join us for dinner, and later we found out she is a Holocaust survivor. It felt like an honor to have dined with her. We were blown away by the hospitality and kindness of our hosts, and have been staying in touch with them. Making this connection shows how beneficial it can be to take a risk and share a home with strangers.
The apartment in Tel Aviv was a five minute walk to the beach. Israel had great weather in November, and it was still warm enough for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea. Tel Aviv has a built-up and lively beach scene, including beachfront restaurants and a great boardwalk for strolling. More people were active playing soccer, volleyball and other beach games rather than lying in the sand. Everyone around seemed young, beautiful and fit…it felt utopian.
We stumbled upon the first segregated beach I have seen, catered to Orthodox Jews. Each day of the week dictates which gender is allowed to swim, and only one day is left for combined gender swimming. We learned from our hosts the Orthodox Jews don’t exactly work but are supported by the Israeli government, paid to study the Torah and pray for the coming of the Messiah.
Jerusalem is reachable from Tel Aviv by bus within an hour. We chose to take a guided tour through Jerusalem because we wanted to better understand the complexities and history of the city. You can pay for a tour to innumerable sites in Israel, both religious and non-religious. Again, cost will be the limiting factor for how many tours you decide to take. Our guide in Jerusalem was knowledgable and from a secular background, meaning he provided us with unbiased information. We learned the Old City in Jerusalem is divided in four quarters: Armenian, Muslim, Christian and Jewish. Interestingly, the Armenian are more private than the other three, opening their gates to the public only during short windows of time. Otherwise, we were free to roam and travel through the other three quarters of the Old City.
The Old City in Jerusalem felt like a melting pot of religion. The religions represented within the city are the most polarizing in the world, yet they are seemingly managing (for now) to live in close proximity to one another.
As you can guess, the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall lies within the Jewish quarter. The Wailing Wall is sectioned off by gender; the men go to the left side, women to the right. The men’s portion of the wall is larger than the women’s and includes an indoor space (I was unable to enter but saw photos from S). Living up to its name, I encountered women actually weeping and wailing as I approached the wall. It is believed if you write your prayer on a piece of paper and cry out to God, your prayers will be answered. I wrote down my prayer but found it difficult to find an empty crack to secure my note. The cracks between the stones are not deep enough to support all of the the scraps of paper, and many have fallen to the ground below. Our guide mentioned a couple times a year the prayers are collected and the rabbis bury the notes in the Mount of Olives. For the Jews, the Mount of Olives is the location where the Messiah will appear when he arrives.
The most anticipated part of the Old City for me was the Holy Church of the Sepulcher. The church was built over the site believed to be where Jesus’ crucifixion took place. The amount of people waiting outside and pushing to go inside was intense, definitely the most crowded area of the Old City. I snapped a few poor-quality photos because I did not have the energy to squeeze through the masses for a close-up.
The interior of the church was much more ornate than I expected. Crowds and lines formed inside for each of the meaningful components like Jesus’ tomb and site of crucifixion. You need stamina and tenacity to make your way through.
We continued our tour of Jerusalem out of the Old City and into the Mahane Yehuda Market. Israel has many markets selling souvenirs, street food, spices, and all sorts of goodies such as halvah. Halvah is a crumbly and dense treat, sold in a variety of flavors. It is typically made from tahini, and a little taste goes a long way. Although the foods in the market are neatly and attractively presented, the open-display concept allows fingers and flies to linger–I had to pass on most of it because of this. You’ll see in the second photo a man is smoking a cigarette while arranging his product.
Israeli food is not my favorite, and it is likely because finding a cheap meal is an Olympic sport. Restaurants serve a variety of food but the typical presentation is comprised of a a bunch of small plates, anchored by a main entree. The menus frequently offer falafel, pita, and varieties of hummus. I would be perfectly happy to never eat a falafel again. You’ll also find shakshuka, a tomato-based dish with poached eggs. It’s a hearty dish and appeared to be available at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Dining in Israel became exhausting by the end of the week. We frequently ran into issues with being overcharged at what seemed to be every possible opportunity, and I had to closely inspect every single receipt. Other times we were served food we did not order and subsequently had to incur the cost of the dishes (it is hard to keep track of what you actually ordered because of the many small plates). If you are planning a trip to Israel I recommend paying close attention to your bill, and keeping track of what food is being brought to your table.
One of the more memorable parts of the week was sitting on a bench on the famous Rothschild Boulevard. S and I were having a tranquil evening when we were interrupted by someone talking to us from behind. The man said something in Hebrew, and S kindly turned around to let him know he did not speak Hebrew. This was no problem for the man because he quickly translated what he said to English. He goes, “I am homeless, this is my bench, and I want to sleep here.” We were shocked but nonetheless jumped to our feet to give him his bench. Keep in mind we live in Portland and are more than used to interacting with homeless people but this was a unique experience even for us. I am mostly dumbfounded because there was no shortage of empty benches; nearly every other bench around was unoccupied. As we walked away we looked back to take in the scene and attempt to identify what made that bench so special. It will remain an unsolved mystery!
Would I travel to Israel again? Definitely. The media makes the entire Middle East seem terrifying but I felt completely safe throughout our stay. We had planned to visit Palestine on our second-to-last day, specifically to see Bethlehem, but I became sick and we ran out of time. In the context of this trip spending a lot of time in Israel was not practical for our budget but I don’t regret dropping in as we were lucky enough to meet some incredible people. We left the country by doing a land crossing into Jordan, which has become one of our most-loved destinations. I can’t wait to show you about our time there!
P.S. Sorry I have not been blogging as often. We just spent the last 2.5 weeks in Nepal, where good WiFi was scarce and power outages were not scarce 🙂