In mid-June, my wife Maria and I headed off to Israel and Jordan with our two “kids”, Nick (16) and Isabelle (13), in tow. Though each kid had professed a strong desire to visit Israel, we were unsure how much they would enjoy a land long on archaeology, history and religion, especially during summer, when temperatures are often sweltering. In the past, our family trips have usually taken us to countries with a good deal of soft adventure and wildlife and a lesser emphasis on “culture”. Also, with Nick and Izzy solidly into their adolescence, Maria and I were praying for peaceful coexistence given that our “spirited” kids would be rooming together for 14 nights and sitting together on two long plane rides. The Middle East is combustible enough without throwing our kids into the mix. Fortunately, although there were a few unspectacular excursions and a couple of flareups (between the kids, not among locals), we all really enjoyed the trip. The itinerary allowed the kids to have a blast while learning a ton, while Maria and I, as adults of differing religions — she’s Catholic, I’m Jewish — were able to explore our respective traditions in a balanced, enjoyable way. Maria and I had each visited Israel as young teenagers in the early 1970s when the country was barely 25 years old. Now, forty years later, at the ripe old age of 64, Israel has changed quite a bit — demographically (with the vast influx of Russian and other immigrants), technologically (hi-tech powerhouse instead of agrarian), politically (no longer the sympathy-garnering “underdog”) and sociologically (secular versus religious Jews). Not that either of us was thinking in these terms as teenagers. Still, a few more basic differences stood out.
First, the supposedly prickly and abrupt Israelis — apparently conditioned by living in a perpetual state of red-alert — could not have been friendlier, showing us gobs of Mediterranean warmth, whether we were in need of help on a public bus, asking passers-by to take family photos for us or striking up conversations with locals at restaurants and museums. The “sabra personality” — prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside — seems to have gone the way of the Ugly American. We had warned the kids not to get offended or be surprised should we run into many gruff personalities, but we failed to find any! (Of course, we studiously avoided walking through a notorious ultra-orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem so as not to push our luck!)
Another pleasant surprise was the quality of the nature, wildlife and soft adventure excursions we found in Israel. We enjoyed wonderful hikes, biking, stunning scenery and good wildlife-viewing when we explored Tel Dan Nature Reserve, Banias Nature Reserve, Hula Nature Reserve, Ein Gedi Nature Reserve and Hula JNF. Water buffalo, river otters, tremendous birdlife, porcupines, and mongoose were our hosts and, at Tel Dan and Banias, there were impressive archaeological goodies as well. The Dead Sea was an absolute blast as we caked black mud over every inch of our bodies and then floated atop the water like no where else on earth! We also took part in a wonderful archaeological “Dig for a day” at Beit Guvrin – a real highlight. On the extreme border with Lebanon, at Rosh Hanikra, we were able to walk through incredible (and highly photogenic) sea grottoes carved out by waves pounding away against the chalky rock. In Jerusalem, we hiked along the ramparts of the Old City and that was enlightening, scenic and fun! Two disappointments on the adventure-nature front were the Jordan River rafting/kayaking and the visit to Hammat Gader (mineral pools, alligator farm, zoo). The rafting was tame/boring aside from the river otters we encountered (only good for young kids). We could also have gone camel trekking but we saved that for Jordan (fantastic at Wadi Rum). Nick badly wanted to go Uzi-shooting as preparation for his desired military career but Maria and I decided that there might be better ways to spend time in the Holy Land. Repelling down caves or waterfalls (snappeling) was another option that we just didn’t have time for. Snorkeling at the Red Sea in Eilat would have been nice but the memories of Ras Mohammed National Park in Egypt will have to suffice for now.
A third difference was my experience at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (As a retaining wall for the First Temple built by King Solomon, and known to some as the “Wailing Wall”, it is the world’s holiest site for Jews, but people of all faiths are welcome). As a youngster, I remember the visit being so serious and grim that the spiritual aspect was completely lost on me. And I certainly did not have any fun. This time as I entered the “male” enclosure with Nick (Maria and Isabelle went to the female side), we heard joyous singing and celebrating by members of a Bar Mitzvah party as the torah was being carried around and eventually put back in the altar. Others, as is the custom, sat reflectively and wrote down private prayers on a piece of paper, folded them up and then inserted them into the cracks in the wall. Feeling relaxed by the festive-spiritual vibe, Nicholas and I each took our time and followed suit, and then walked over to soak in the continuing music and happiness. Maria and Isabelle also felt that the experience was very special.
Fun Learning opportunities:
Israel really makes learning easy, even for those not inclined toward formal studying. Most of the important historical. religious and archaeological sites offer high quality audio-visual presentations, many of which bring to life historical events and figures through reenactments and nifty graphics. At Masada, I got goosebumps listening to the defiant and faithful words of leader Elazar ben Yair as he spoke to fellow Jews on the eve of their conquest by the Romans. But I was just as moved as we retraced Jesus’ final footsteps along the Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering) in Jerusalem, and this experience required no technological enhancements. Neither did the five-times daily call to prayer emanating from the plentiful mosques. Which goes to show that, in the places like Jerusalem, Tiberias, Tel Aviv and the West Bank, one can learn a lot just by looking at one’s physical surroundings and by observing people living their daily lives. For me personally, I relished the opportunity to fill in some of the gaping holes in my knowledge of ancient history and of the Old and New Testaments. As for the kids, they actually ended up enjoying the historical timelines we had them work on individually! Note: Museum lovers will be treated to a number of world class museums that even the kids liked — Diaspora Museum, Israel Museum (Dead Sea Scrolls, amazing archaeology), Yad Vashem (Holocaust) and Ayalon Institute (formerly a secret underground bullet factory).