Overlooking the Dead Sea from Israel's Masada, a fortress dating back to the first century B.C.
I was in Israel when three teenagers in yeshiva – Jewish seminary – had just been kidnapped. As I left the country, they were discovered to have been killed, which touched off a firestorm between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Female soldiers at an Israeli truck stop.
While I saw signs that living under constant stress and threat of war has toughened the citizens’ personalities – a brusqueness and impatience that people usually attribute to New Yorkers, but I never experienced there – Israelis still show a desire to live and enjoy their lives. Maybe it’s that despite everything, they’ve still progressed up Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs and can create glorious art of all kinds. So, in addition to being the world’s most important destination for Judaism, Christianity, the Bahá'í faith and one of the world’s most important places for Islam, Israel is creating beauty in modern times.
What to do
Get a tour guide. Covering a lot of distance and spending a good deal of time together, you’ll want someone who’s well versed and respectful of all the different cultures you’ll encounter, plus who will be fluent in English, make you feel safe and be a lot of fun. Ali, a Bedouin tour guide who says he learned 5+ languages by being “clever,” is the one people from all over the world flock to.
One of the oldest Muslim architectural/holy sites: Dome of the Rock in Old City Jerusalem.
I was shocked how many places in Israel don’t accept credit cards! The most surprising was the gift shop for a huge tourist stop – one of the oldest churches in existence. They quietly would take currencies from around the world, but not cards that leave a paper trail. I recalled the New Testament admonition to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” in exasperation.
Fun shop in Tsfat (also called Safed).
Sure, historic Tsfat is the center of Kabbalistic learning and the highest point in Israel, but they also have a fun and vibrant artists’ scene. Here on an ancient pathway, artists man their own booths, selling their creations. As has been true throughout the Middle East for millennia, price bargaining rules the day. (Incidentally, the same is true for taxis, so beware.) I bought gorgeous art created by Vito, a Libyan Jew. He not only accepts credit cards, he gave me a cherry pop from his cooler when I was overheated and faint. Vito’s A-OK in my book!
They sell all kinds of things in the ancient marketplace of Old City Jerusalem.
Another artist destination is within the walls of Old Jerusalem. Salamon at Petra Souvenir (Shop #1, David Street) will make you laugh with his corny price negotiations, but his prices are very modest and his wares exquisite.
Neveh Tzedek is a neighborhood that pre-dates modern Tel Aviv, filled with funky artists’ houses and murals: great for strolling around.
Prelude to the Night Show at Tower of David.
One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen – worth an overnight trip to Israel all on its own – is the Night Spectacular Show at Jerusalem’s Tower of David. Four nights a week year round (but due to holidays, etc., the time changes, so check), the actual Biblical tower is used as the backdrop for a fierce lightshow that tells the history of Jerusalem.
All my life, my father would shrewdly look at breathtakingly scenic places and proclaim, “They oughta have a jazz fest there.” Since he spent time as an opera manager, he would have loved the idea of operas staged in unique settings even more! At the foot of Masada, (a UNESCO heritage site) the fortress-cum-site of self-massacre, the Israeli Opera Festival performed La Traviata. The desert locale near the Dead Sea was complete with light show, live horse and fireworks. I was unprepared for the opera having to take a 12 minute break during the local PA system’s call to Muslim prayer. The concessions bars are surrounded by chaise lounges!
The festival also performed Don Giovanni at another UNESCO site, Old Akko (Acre). This wild and well-intact underground city includes remnants of Caananite buildings, Hellenistic-Roman settlements, Crusader forts and monasteries, ruins from Byzantines, Mamluks, Turks and the British. But opera can’t live by settings alone! For Don Giovanni, the Israeli Opera had a younger cast that was, dare I say, really sexy. I never saw an audience so entranced by looking as well as listening.
Where to stay
When staying at rural hotels – and the Dead Sea is rural – do a Hotel Impossible-style peek of the room before you check in. I experienced one that was not up to global cleanliness standards.
Tel Aviv Beach.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Haifa's Dan Carmel Hotel Haifa. Along with the outdoor pool, there are rooms with balconies overlooking the Mediterranean. There’s also a rooftop club lounge with outdoor seating: very impressive. In Israeli hotels, you’ll find mezzuzim on the doors as well as a mini synagogue on site.
Hotel Metropolitan in Tel Aviv is a block away from the beach with clean, simple rooms. The beach itself has bars that have no official closing time and offer hookahs.
What to drink
With most restaurants adhering to strict Kosher dietary laws, I was more intrigued by the bars. Vicky Cristina, a wine and tapas bar in Tel Aviv's Neveh Tzedek area, is part of the open-air entertainment district surrounding the old Ottoman-era train station. Rusty Rails is a nearby outdoor bar part of the same complex. It’s pretty tame; I saw a little girl in pigtails there.
Jimmy Who – in a former bank – has a tongue-in-cheek take on the Cold War era. They have a secret VIP bar in the basement where the safe deposit boxes were. It’s so secret, employees won’t even admit it’s there! Don’t get separated from your friends. The servers claim they won’t make mixed drinks, though.
Nanuchka is a Georgian-owned resto-bar that does make cocktails: loud, proud and strong. Classic rock plays in the background.
Muslim call to prayer at Masada
Israeli Opera Fest had to break for the regional Muslim call to prayer on the PA system.