In my last posting (Israel Trip Report) I made the point that Israelis no longer deserve their reputation as a prickly people. I then went on to describe the cultural and adventure highlights of their country. Having had more time to reflect, I regret glossing over the “people” aspect: as much as any of the sites we visited, we’ll remember many of the personalities we came across, both Jews and Arabs. Yes, we did encounter one less-than-fully honest taxi driver but practically everyone else we met was delightful, interesting or inspirational — sometimes all three. Too bad the Middle East headlines we read back home only report or bemoan the latest flareup!
I enjoyed meeting Yoram, a veteran of three wars who grew up in an “early” kibbutz (before children were allowed to sleep with their parents) and who drove us along the Jordan Valley, through the agricultural fields of the southern Hula Valley, picking fruits for us, showing us closeup how hi-tech agriculture worked and happily answering all our questions about kibbutz life back then and about the wars. He then showed us his house and lovingly-tended garden on the kibbutz and talked openly and in good humor about how his eldest son had made himself rich by “buying stupid things and selling them to stupid people”. We were sad to leave Yoram.
Later, inside an almost-empty but lovely Sephardic synagogue in Tzfat (Safed), we listened rapturously as a bearded man, presumably a rabbi or guide, played guitar and sang Lecha Dodi — in a manner that made clear his love of God.
Also in Tzfat, we met Orna, the owner of a small but beautiful weaving shop/factory, who, even when it became evident that we would not be buying her very expensive weavings, spoke with us at length and with much affection about how much one could learn about life by carefully observing weavings. She often found lessons and equanimity in the colors and patterns of the wall hangings. Though she never said so, to her the act of weaving and of interpreting the weavings was almost a spiritual endeavor. We really did not want to leave this gentle woman.
At the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, the curator of the Israeli music section, was kind enough to share her very personal thoughts on a variety of subjects for over 45 minutes, stopping every 10 minutes or so to see if we were bored and wanted out, which we most definitely did not. A sweet, fascinating and totally unpretentious woman who knew we wanted to learn, she felt compelled to share her thoughts, and we were indeed mesmerized, as she spoke to us about major historical figures (Hertzl, Mendelssohn, Dreyfuss etc), Israeli social issues and about what being Jewish meant for her as a secular person in today’s Israel. We were so lucky to have met her.
In Jerusalem, we met a very sweet and simple waitress (a farm girl) who, much to the consternation of my wife Maria and the kids, insisted that I was indeed a “very funny man”. No wonder I liked her! When Nick mentioned that the pizza was very good, she enthusiastically and naively said that we should “come eat here every single day!” We didn’t but that was only because falafels, shwarma and kibbeh beckoned from other establishments.
Ann, our archaeology guide at the “dig” site of Beit Guvrin, absolutely wowed us with her passion, intelligence and idealism as she delivered the final presentation. Her positive energy seemed to represent the very best of Israel.
In Jordan, near Shoubak fortress, we met Abu Ali, a humble and delightful Bedouin who is also a real-life hero. He had once saved the life of a visiting Israeli and in return the Israeli Government invited him on a free 10 day tour of Israel and, in an unusual gesture of confidence, allowed him to visit the Knesset (parliament) without undergoing any security check whatsoever. Once a well-known castle guide, Abu Ali is now a small merchant operating out of a cave. Abu Ali had items for sale but instead of selling us anything, he kept giving us gifts. I started buying things to try and bring things more into “balance” and to help him avoid a loss, but it was useless: no matter what I bought he insisted on giving us more. We had developed such a bond that when we were leaving he completely ignored the other people who had entered his store so that he could escort us to our van and see us off properly. He stood outside his cave-store waving to us until we were finally out of sight. Which reminds me: I still need to send Abu Ali copies of the photos we took arm-in-arm!
We also had an interesting day in the West Bank (Palestinian territories). We got held up for 20 minutes at a military checkpoint before proceeding to Jericho, the oldest town in the world, and stopping for an absolutely scrumptious lunch at Tel Sultan restaurant. The owner, Abu Raaed, allowed me to take photos of his wall photographs of Yasser Arafat, Jimmy Carter and Mahmoud Abbas, all previous diners there. His 12-year old son was our waiter, and he was incredibly charismatic, charming and efficient. After we had finished eating and had smoked “apple jam molasses” from a shisha (water pipe), Abu Raaed kissed me on both cheeks and bid me farewell. It was a very nice and genuine touch but not likely to change my world-view in light of other things I saw and heard. Still, I left with a warm feeling for Abu Raaed and his son.