Israel. Where to start?
Between 2017 and 2020 this place was like a second home to me. In late 2016 the company I work for, Kik, acquired a video chat company based in Tel Aviv. I was part of the team that did the acquisition so I travelled there in the initial due diligence process. That trip then turned into a quarterly cadence of return trips – often 2-3 weeks per trip – for the next three years. From the first time I hit the ground I felt at home. Not because of any physical infrastructure (Israel is a stark contrast to North America, we’ll get into that) but because of the people. The selflessness to serve is inherent in everyone you will meet. And if anyone has anything to say about it, you won’t get a chance to live like a tourist because you’ll be experiencing the culture like a local.
What makes this experience so humbling is that it is in a nation that is under consistent persecution. If any nation could justify an insular culture it would be Israel; however, as soon as you make it into Israel you can expect a welcome embrace. But maybe that is because making it into Israel in itself is no small feat. I have much respect for those who have gone through the gauntlet of entering the country.
Airport security in Israel is unlike anything I’ve experienced before, it makes the border experience in places like the US and China feel like the security level of the movie theatre ticket attendee at a Saturday matinee (I’ve never been to a Sunday matinee, but I assume it’s light). The experience begins before you even leave your home destination, in my case, Toronto. For intercontinental flights the bulk of security is on arrival. You typically go through the standard bag check and passport check, but beyond that the only questions you’re going to get is if you want to check your carry-on (there’s never enough room in the cabin, ever). When you’re flying to Israel though, the interrogation begins before you can even get close to the gate. Flights to Israel are always out of gates strategically quarantined from the rest of the terminal with a single way in and out. Before you can get in you’ll get a battery of questions about your intention to go to Israel, who packed your bag, what’s in your bag, and a bunch of other random questions. By my third or fourth trip I had the answers to these questions rehearsed and locked in, but no matter how air-tight I was, I was always “randomly selected” for additional screening. It’s definitely not because I have a beard, wear all black, and only travel with a backpack. Yeah, I’d probably “randomly select” me too.
Once clearing the checkpoint (I’ve never not cleared, but have had varying degrees of difficulty — one time they delayed the flight so they could do another full screen of my bag, and call a few people in Israel to say they knew me. Thank goodness Israeli’s aren’t as sarcastic as me. I’d probably jokingly say “no, never heard of him.”) — they give you a little piece of paper with a scribble on it. You have to then give that scrap piece of paper to someone on the bridge before you get on the flight, as a way to denote that you have in fact gone through the additional screening. The paper is literally a ripped piece of standard printer paper with a blue squiggly – very hard to counterfeit. The Israeli’s are known for their defense systems so I feel like they planned the paper + squiggly system on a Thursday afternoon (their Friday, we’ll get to that).
The flight is long by most standards, but after a few 18 hour bangers to eastern Asia, the 12 hour Israel flight feels like a breeze. I’ve got it down to a system at this point. Get on the flight, work for 1.5 hours, pop two melatonin, pick away at the airplane meal, then hit a snooze. This usually nets me about 7 hours of sleep (pretty good!). My wakeup call is the function another idiosyncrasy of Israeli air travel. Once the flight reaches Israeli airspace, no one is allowed out of their seat. Everyone has to be locked and loaded. So about an hour before that, the pilot will come on and announce the procedure to everyone and encourage all passengers to use the washroom before this period of confinement begins. An experienced traveller (like myself) makes sure to use the washroom 2 hours out from landing to avoid the mass of humans lining up to relieve themselves.
Once you land in Israel it is very easy to tell who has been here before and who is there for the first time. It’s about a 5 minute walk from the gate to customs. Anyone who has been through customs before knows it can be an ordeal, so the experienced traveller will be hitting a brisk power-walk or maybe even a jog. I am not just experienced though, I would put myself in the expert category. So while everyone is deplaning with their rolly bags, you can find me with my backpack straps tight, ready to shoot off the plane in a full sprint. Once my feet hit the jet bridge it’s on. I’m dodging elderly people like a game of frogger. Once I hit the hallway I’m sure to avoid the conveyor belt sidewalk in favour of good old fashioned carpet – less foot traffic and lower margin of error for a slow family taking up the whole space. The final stretch toward customs in Ben Gurion Airport is a 200m downward slope. There are only a few gate agents at the bottom for a sea of hundreds of people, so the difference of 30 seconds in your descent to the gates could be the difference of an hour at customs. I am unapologetic in my desire to be first in line.
Once at customs, prepare to be grilled. The Israeli defence team is trained to suss out suspicious activity. That’s what happens when all of your neighbours want to kill you. You should expect a lot of repetitive questions “Why are you coming here? Who do you know here? Where are you staying? What’s the purpose of your trip? Who are you meeting her? What’s the address of your residence? Hotel? House?” Those questions will be asked over and over, all the while they’re staring deep into your soul, waiting for you to blink. And they will notice because they sure aren’t blinking.
Once you make it through customs though, the entire experience changes. The cold reception at the border is a stark contrast for the warmth of the people (and the temperature) inside the country.
I’ve spent most of my time in Israel in Tel Aviv. In a country full of contradictions, Tel Aviv is a microcosm. You might expect a traditional culture with strong orthodoxy, but Tel Aviv is as liberal as they come. A beach town right on the Mediterranean Sea, you’d be overdressed wearing a t shirt and pants. The official uniform for men and women are mid-thigh shorts, a loose tank top, and thongs. Thongs on your feet, that is (sandals).
There’s enough that’s been written about the food scene in Israel so I won’t waste your time re-hashing that, just take my word that it is very, very good. Expect lots of fish, meat, vegetables, and sweet bread. Oh the sweet bread.
While it is a liberal city, one thing I do appreciate is the commitment to the Shabbat, or, the Sabbath for us North Americans. The weekend in Israel begins Thursday night and everyone goes back to work on Sunday. On Friday (our Saturday), the city shuts down starting at about 4pm. The Shabbat technically starts at 7pm and stretches to 7pm on Saturday (our Sunday), but the city effectively starts at 4pm so that everyone working can pack up and be home with their families. It is a forced period of slowing down, and spending time with those you love. It’s Biblical in its origins, but even those who don’t subscribe to any particular faith still observe it. It has become cultural, and I find this refreshing.
The one place that does stay open is Old Jaffa. Prior to assuming the identity of Tel Aviv, this whole metropolitan area was called Jaffa, or Yafo. It was a port city where ships would often land and make their journey inland to other colonies. Jaffa Road stretched from the port all the way to the gate of Jerusalem, with offshoot roads along the way to other cities in this region like Bethlehem, Jericho, etc. Today Jaffa Road is a series of highways, and the city of Jaffa is now Tel Aviv, a modern city dominated by high rises and modern apartment buildings. But at the southern tip of Tel Aviv, along the water, is Old Jaffa. A section of the city that is free of the modern high rises and new apartment buildings. While the buildings have been resurfaced, the architecture and aesthetic remains consistent. During the Shabbat, Old Jaffa is a go-to destination for many locals because a number of the bars and restaurants remain open. There is a popular market that engulfs the streets of Old Jaffa throughout the day – at about 4pm the market starts wrapping up but the people remain. The kiosks of items are replaced with a massive makeshift patio – benches, standing tables, live music, and the Meditteranean sea just a stone’s throw away. What is beautiful is that it doesn’t feel antithetical to the Shabbat – while technically there are restaurants open serving food and drink, it feels more like a big community potluck. Patrons help with set-up and tear down. And everyone implicitly understands that this is a low maintenance arrangement. While there are servers, they are there to enjoy it all too. When God proclaimed the Sabbath, I think this is what he had in mind. A collection of people coming together to enjoy community together.
Now, outside of Friday night the social scene in Israel is electric. The streets are lined with cafes, restaurants, and bars. No matter what night of the week there are people spilling into the streets with cocktails and cigarettes in hand. I guess the North American anti-smoking ads didn’t make it over the Atlantic. On my first weekend in Tel Aviv a few friends from work wanted to take me out for a “proper Tel Aviv night”. Something told me this wouldn’t be my scene, but given it was my first time in town I figured I would oblige.
They took me to a bar called Jimmy Choo. This bar didn’t open until 1am – not exactly my ideal start time. I’m usually about 2-3 hours into my sleep by the time the doors at Jimmy Choo open, but, when in Rome. Getting into Jimmy Choo is an experience in itself. There is no line, just a crowd of people out front. A good looking woman stands on a platform overlooking the crowd and hand picks people to go in. I’m assuming she’s not picking people based on their perceived “personality”. This is a beauty contest. Lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) for us, my Israeli friends are good looking. We got in quickly.
Smoking isn’t reserved for the good-looking people on the street. The bar was a cloud of smoke. I might as well have smoked a pack myself. The music was loud and the temperature was hot. And I mean hot. This was definitely not my scene. In no more than five minutes I had already had a drink spilled on me and a still burning cigarette butt fall in my shoe. I had to get out of there, but my friends insisted I stay a little while longer. Fine. But I was going to visit the washroom as a short reprieve. I asked the bartender where it was and he pointed me to the back wall. I was looking for a men’s and women’s sign but they were nowhere to be seen. I walked through a door expecting to then be diverted into separate washrooms but what I found was a large open room with stalls on either side and a large trough in the middle. Men and women commingled walking throughout, and a bunch of guys standing face to face on either side of this trough relieving themselves. That is community. And that was also my cue to go. I headed back out to the bar and told the guys I was heading back, this time without the option to be persuaded otherwise. I had more important plans the next morning.
While the bar scene was “interesting”, I was happy to chalk that up as a one-time experience. What I really wanted to do was experience the rich historical context of Israel. Growing up with a strong Christian faith, I had read about and studied this place my whole life. Specifically, the life of Jesus.
From what I gathered talking to people at work and talking to the hotel staff, the most common thins for visitors is to get a private car to the city, or take a shuttle from the hotel. That’s not really my style though. I want to experience places the same way that locals experience it. So for my trek to Jerusalem I woke up at 5:30am to head over to the public transit station and catch the first bus to Jerusalem. As I boarded the bus I was surely the only non-Israeli. It was also quite overcrowded. Each bench seat was designed for 2 but we were jammed in 3 or 4 per seat. I got paired up with a quiet lady and a service member holding a semi-automatic with him. For most of the 1.5 hour journey the barrel of his gun rested on my right quad. Not sure the hotel shuttle had the same experience. Regardless, I was happy I went this route – this felt real.
Jerusalem today is a much bigger and developed city than what was present in the Biblical context – referred to as Old Jerusalem. The bus terminal is about 1.5 miles from the gates of Old Jerusalem so there is a bit of a walk, but I did not mind. Old Jaffa Road picks back up around the bus terminal so you can walk to Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. Similar to the path that those on the last leg of their journey from Jaffa would have walked. The same path that we read about in 2 Chronicles, in Jonah, and others.
This is where things started to become truly surreal for me. To be able to have a full sensory experience of something I had only read about and seen in episodes of VeggieTales as a kid was special. The city is broken into four quadrants: the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter. These four sections are accessible by anyone, you can walk freely through each of them but you definitely notice when you are moving between the quarters. The Armenian Quarter is the smallest of the four and is the most understated, however, it is rich in significance.
One thing about Jerusalem, and Israel in general, is that everyone has a different opinion about where things happened. Some of this is a lack of record keeping, some of this (a lot of this) is for commercial purposes. Given the nature of tourism, people stand to gain a lot of money by charging for entry to specific sites, or monetizing in ancillary ways for freely accessible areas.
But apparently, a lot of historians generally accept that the last supper happened in the Armenian Quarter. The Jewish Quarter is the most modernized. The architecture is still reasonably similar to the others, but it has the most updated facade. The Christian Quarter is the quietest with a couple of larger courtyards and churches. The Muslim quarter I found to be the most culturally rich. The market in this section was bustling with spices, tapestry, and fresh food. The closest analogue I’ve found to this was the streets of Istanbul (see post).
Candidly, Jerusalem was an up and down experience. It was powerful to be there, but at the same time it has been heavily commercialized. That makes sense, and aligns with my expectations, but it is challenging when you are standing there, trying to take it in. Or trying to piece together physical context with Biblical context, and someone is in your face trying to sell you something. Regardless, that is part for the course. One insight I picked up while I was there that left an impression on me is about the people who maintain the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is said to be one of the holiest places in Jerusalem as it is stated that this is where Jesus was buried and resurrected. Now, a lot of historians would argue against that, and this is what I was saying about different ideas of where things happened. But regardless, this church has been a place of worship (and tourism) for different faiths – Jews, Christians – and different strands of faith within these faiths. This has resulted in a lot of conflict over who the church belongs to and who maintains it. So in the twelfth century, a Muslim family took over the church to quell the conflict. This is not a religious site for them, so they are impartial. The keys to this church has since been passed down generation to generation, and the family still takes care of the church. I love that.
I’ve visited other historical sites that are cool, but you can read better summaries than I can write online. I will say though that the Dead Sea is overrated and Masada is underrated.
I’ve been to Israel about 20 times, and outside of the first trip I mostly just stayed in Tel Aviv. However, last year I decided to surprise my parents and book them a trip to come join me. That was special. For as long as I can remember they have both talked about going to Israel. My Dad is a pastor and my Mom grew up in the church so the Biblical significance of Israel was big for them.
When they came to Israel I was working during the week so they both went and adventured on their own. They went to the Dead Sea, Masada, Jerusalem, and Petra in Jordan. On the weekend we met up to go to the North. This is what I was most excited for – it’s less touristy but rich in Biblical significance. And we had my Dad – a pseudo Biblical scholar – to lead us. I rented a car that was roughly the size of a smart car and we took off early in the morning en route to the Sea of Galilee.
Our first stop was Nazareth. Nazareth has a few tourist attractions, but for the most part it is a quiet residential city. It’s situated on a hill, so each street has a steep slope. And because there is no industry there have been minimal infrastructure updates, leaving the city with narrow roadways and old stone architecture. The beauty in Nazareth comes in its simplicity. You won’t find pictures of Nazareth on postcards from Israel, but there is a quiet, understated beauty in the originality of the city. It is what it is, and it’s not trying to change.
Because of the landscape, my parents and I decided to park on the outskirts of the city centre and walk (luckily when your car is the size of a refrigerator it’s easy to find parking). On this Saturday morning the city was quiet. For the most part there isn’t a lot to do and see, it’s more the act of being there that is special. But near the centre there is the Basilica of the Annunciation. This is an austere Catholic Church that is supposedly built over the house of the Virgin Mary. The day we were there I happened to wear shorts, which is a rarity for me actually. But I quickly found out that to enter you cannot have uncovered legs. I thought about bowing out, but I had come this far, and also didn’t want to offend and break the rules so I wore my mom’s scarf like a long skirt. I may have gotten a few looks, but it was worth it. This place was a sprawling courtyard with big cathedrals. It was dead silent as well. No one was to speak. What a tranquil experience.
After Nazareth we journeyed further North to Mount Tabor. This is where the Transfiguration was said to have taken place. To get up to the top, you have to drive a long and winding road. At one point, as we were driving, the car was making almost no progress – I thought we were going to slide down. But we did make it to the top. The most perplexing thing was that at the top we saw tons of cows. It was hard for all of the humans to get up, but apparently cows had no problem. What a ride. At the top there are two small churches, again, both claiming that is where the Transfiguration happened. Regardless of where on the top of the mountain it happened, it was amazing to be there.
After that, we took off further north to go to the place where the Jordan meets the Sea of Galilee. In the Biblical context, this is where Jesus was supposedly baptized. There are a few sites that claim this, but this seems to be the one with the highest odds, given the proximity to other sites, and the qualifier that it was where the Jordan meets Galilee. My Dad, Mom, and I took some time to ourselves to wade into the water. It was quiet, surprisingly, and we had an area to ourselves. Again, there is no way to know for sure that this is exactly where it happened, but each of these experiences I do feel brought me closer to Jesus. Each compounding on the last.
The last stop in our journey that day was Capernaum. This is where Peter lived, and where Jesus lived for a time. This is where Jesus told Peter to cast his net on the other side. This is also where Jesus did a lot of his healing. What made this so cool is that the Sea of Galilee is so small, that the margin for error of going to an incorrect place is also small. Capernaum is a small section along the water that you could walk end to end from in a short amount of time. So to be there, and to sit in the historical context feels real. This is where Jesus healed people and where his disciples grew close to him.
What made all of this day so special was being there with my parents. My dad in particular having studied scripture more than anyone I know, being able to talk about all of the nuance in each place we met, and to have all of these stories from the Bible to tie it all together. This made it special for us, but to see the joy he got from being there was even more special.
Israel has a special place in my heart.
It brought me closer to people. I had an opportunity to truly experience the culture and the city with people I can now call lifelong friends.
It brought me closer to myself. Over the 20+ trips, I had a lot of time to explore and reflect. These moments of solitude, with the perspective of Israel, helped build perspective for my life.
And it brought me closer to Jesus. Being in Israel, walking where Jesus walked. Where he performed miracles. That was powerful. And to get to do some of that with my parents. That was special.
I am better because of Israel, and I can’t wait to go back.