By Stacey Dresner
This spring, my colleague Judie Jacobson, editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, and I were invited on a press trip to Israel, organized by EL AL Airlines and the Israel Ministry of Tourism, to promote EL AL’s new direct flight from Boston’Logan International Airport to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. Of course we jumped at the chance to go on this amazing trip, which took place from June 30 through July 9.
The last — and only time — I had been to Israel was in 1995 when I went on the “Mega Mission” of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. The mission flew more than 180 members of the New Haven Jewish community to Israel, including Marvin and the late Murray Lender and their families, Starter Corp. founder David Beckerman and his brood, and New Haven’s mayor at that time, John DeStefano. Needless to say, due to former AJC chairman Marvin Lender’s longstanding ties to Israel, we got a bird’s-eye view of Israel and heard from a variety of speakers, including up-close and personal visits from Natan Sharansky and former Israeli president Shimon Peres, a friend of the Lenders.
The trip this summer was a much more intimate look at the country. With the aid of our tour guide Michal Neumann (see “Conversation with…Michal Neumann on page 4) and driver/escort Tzvika Abramovich, we slowly made our way around the country for a week of visits to many of the country’s most famous cities and landmarks, as well as a few more out of the way sites. Along the way, we were reminded of the strength, the humor and the resilience of the Israeli people. Here is my mini-travelogue of my second – and hopefully not last – visit to Israel.
Our first stop after arriving at Ben Gurion Airport was Mount Scopus, where we saw a panoramic view of Jerusalem. We checked into the Inbal Hotel, and for dinner, Michal arranged for us to partake in a tasting menu at the Mona restaurant in downtown Jerusalem. Located in a picturesque building that years ago housed the Bezalel School of Art and Design, the hip restaurant and bar features both Mediterranean and European fare. Mona must be trendy – Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat had lunch there with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian earlier this spring.
The first of our three full days in Jerusalem included most of the usual sites – the City of David, with its ongoing archeological excavations, a walk through the Western Wall tunnels and the Kotel, and the Jewish Quarter and Cardo.
On our second evening, instead of dining with our fellow reporters and guide, Judie and I attended the wedding of Hadar Markus, the daughter of West Hartford’s Eitan and Anat Markus. Hadar married Israeli Netanel Herzberg in a beautiful early evening wedding at Kibbutz Ein Tzurim near Kiryat Malakhi in southern Israel.
Laid back and filled with ruach, this might be the best wedding I have ever attended. The event was sheer celebration, from the time the groom’s friends danced him joyously to the badekin to lift the bride’s veil, through the spirited ceremony and on to the reception where everyone danced non-stop ‘til the wee hours.
Back in Jerusalem the next morning, we headed to the Israel Museum and the Shrine of the Book. The white dome-like building houses the Dead Sea Scrolls – the earliest known biblical manuscripts. The pages of the scrolls are on display in a cool, dark underground room. To preserve the ancient writings, they are displayed for three to six months before being rotated out to stay in a special storeroom where they are protected to exposure. The shrine also houses the Isaiah scroll, dating from the second century BCE, the most intact of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Aleppo Codex dating from the 10th century CE, the oldest existing Hebrew Bible. Next to the Shrine is a model of Jerusalem from the Second Temple Period, which had been formerly housed at Jerusalem’s Holyland Hotel.
On July 4th, we drove to the Western Galilee region. The first stop was scenic Acre (Akko), the ancient Phoenician and Crusader seaport. The fort there was also once a prison famous for executing several post-war martyrs of the Irgun. On April 19, 1947 Dov Gruner and three others captured by the British 6th Airborne Division were hanged in Acre Prison. Two weeks later, the Irgun attacked the prison, blowing a hole in the wall through which 28 Irgun prisoners and 214 Arab prisoners escaped. Three Irgun men who took part in that attack were captured during that attack and imprisoned and executed there.
After Acre, we headed to the Sea of Galilee region and visited the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus is said to have made his “Sermon on the Mount,” then went to the Museum Beit Yigal Alon, where an ancient fishing boat — known as “The Jesus Boat” is on display.
In January 1986, two brothers, local fishermen, spied a mysterious object poking up out of the mud on the Sea of Galilee. Twelve days later, an ancient vessel that sank nearly 2,000 years ago was unearthed. While no one knows exactly who rode in the boat or what its purpose was, for Christians it serves as a reminder of the Gospel stories of Jesus and his disciples, many of whom were fishermen. But most fascinating is how the boat was salvaged and restored. Today, the boat sits on display at the Yigal Alon Center at Kibbutz Ginosar on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where visitors learn the history of the boat and the story behind its complex restoration.
A Sunday morning excursion to Bet She’an, archaeological excavations of a Roman-Byzantine city, complete with theater, ancient buildings and columns, was followed by drive along the Jordan Valley to the Dead Sea region. A visit to Nahal David – David’s Stream — in the Ein Gedi Reserve was a welcome respite from the heat with its series of picturesque waterfalls.
A visit to this area would not be complete without floating in the Dead Sea. So after checking into the David Hotel, we ran down to salt-filled sea, which during the early July heat was as warm as bath water.
On Monday, we visited Masada, the last stronghold of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 73 C.E.
The sun was strong, so Michal took us to the area that had been King Herod’s palace. Standing at the edge of the cliff, we felt a cool breeze – probably why King Herod chose that spot for his lavish digs.
After leaving Masada, we drove to the Negev Region and to the Ramat Negev Research and Development Center, established in 1981 years ago to encourage the development of agriculture in the desert. Through its experiments, the center aids local farmers, then shares the knowledge and technology developed to other developing nations with similar agricultural problems, particularly in Africa.
We were given a tour of the center by Elisha Zurgil, a professor of agriculture with the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, who came to the area in 1964. He spoke about one of the center’s main projects – brackish water irrigation and the study of how using salty water from local wells affects the growth of different kinds of fruit, vegetables, flowers and other plants.
Zurgil showed us around the greenhouses filled with ripe red tomatoes and told us of his friendship with Ben Gurion.
“I knew him before he became an airport,” he joked. “He lived in the same kibbutz and my door was about 10 meters from his doorstep. He was also in my wedding. Once he called me because he wanted to offer his guests high quality wine…He said, ‘Elisha, can you produce here in our kibbutz high quality wine?’ I said ‘I just graduated university and my professors are experts in wine, and they told me in the kibbutz in the middle of the desert the land is salty, the water is salty, don’t even think about it. So I must disappoint you Ben Gurion’….. And Ben Gurion said, ‘Elisha. You must change.’ I said, ‘Change what?’ He said, “Change the experts.’”
Ben Gurion was right. In recent years, vineyards have been established in the Negev, using innovative computerized watering methods for irrigation. One such family-owned winery is Carmey Avdat, Israel’s first solar-powered winery, located not far from Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev highlands. A boutique winery producing just about 6,000 bottles per year, you won’t find Carmey Avdat’s wines on the shelf of your local liquor store, or throughout Israel for that matter. Bu they’re sold on the premises, in local restaurants, and online (they ship to the U.S.) Built on terraces that are part of a 1,500-year-old agricultural settlement, the winery utilizes an ancient irrigation system and harvests its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes by hand. We were treated to a wine tasting which took place among wine barrels, then went to their farm store which offers a range of Negev products.
Called “Makhtesh Ramon” in Hebrew, the Ramon Crater is not really a crater at all. “The Hebrew word ‘makhtesch’ doesn’t mean crater; it doesn’t mean canyon,” said Gilad, the guide who took us on a – bumpy – ride to the world’s largest makhtesh in his circa-World War II jeep.
“Machtesh means machtesh. It’s a geological phenomenon unlike any other. Is a ‘tsunami’ a tidal wave? No, it’s a ‘tsunami.’ There is no other way to describe it,” he said.
Indeed, Makhtesh Ramon, located just north of the small town of Mitzpe Ramon, is a geological landform exclusive to the Negev that scientists believe was created through erosion. Twenty-five miles long and six miles across at its widest point, and nearly 2,000 feet deep, it can take hours or even days to explore and features hiking paths, sites of historical interest, red and yellow clay hills, dry river beds, black prismatic rocks and many other geological wonders, as well as the sighting of a wild Ibex every so often. The makhtesh is also believed to be rich in minerals – including uranium – “the purest uranium ever found in nature,” says Gilad.
The makhtesh offers excellent view of other sites – including Har Karkom, which some believe to be the biblical Mount Sinai. More commonly known to Israelis as “the unit mountain,” Har Karkom is the small mountain that members of Sayeret Matcal – the IDF’s elite special forces – trek 140 kilometers to get to after they complete basic training, inscribing their names at the top. Among those names: Yoni Netanyahu, who died during the Entebbe rescue mission, and his brother, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In 2013, a museum dedicated to the memory of Ilan Ramon opened at the Makhtesh Ramon Visitors’ Center, which seats on the edge of the makhtesh.
Ramon, Israel’s first and only astronaut, was killed aboard the Columbia space shuttle in 2003, was born Ilan Wolfman. But he was so taken with the makhtesh, that he changed his name to Ramon.
Our first stop in Tel Aviv-Jaffa was Old Jaffa, the ancient seaport which is the oldest and most southern point of Tel Aviv. We strolled leisurely through Jaffa, admiring the historic architecture, churches, mosques, stone alleyways and arches, and the famous Jaffa clock-tower and Jaffa Museum. We gazed out at the port of Jaffa, which plays a part in the biblical stories of Jonah and Solomon as well as the mythological figures Andromeda and Perseus.
We headed to Tel Aviv, checking into the David Intercontinental Hotel then dining at the Herbert Samuel restaurant.
We had the next day – our last day in Israel – to ourselves, so of course, we went to the beach. Tel Aviv’s promenade, which runs along the beach, is awash with people walking and jogging, riding bikes or just enjoying the glorious sunshine. We sat on the beach, with our toes curled in the clean sand, watching as an army of paddle-boarders hit the waves. After sunbathing, one can find dozens of restaurants, cafes, and ice cream parlors open along the promenade all day. A slew of bars and dance clubs open after dark, in habited by Tel Aviv’s young and beautiful crowd.
On the way to dinner, we walked through the neighborthood of Saronam which has quickly gained a reputation as one of Tel Aviv’s hottest spots. Originally settled in the late 1800s as a German Templar colony, it was one of the earliest modern neighborhoods established in Palestine. Located in the heart of Tel Aviv’s central business district, the complex was recently renovated. Opened in 2014, it is today a beautifully landscaped open area, surrounded by offices and apartments. Thirty-three of the original Templar buildings dating up to more than 140 years, have been painstakingly restored, and today house boutique stores, artist galleries, cafes, and some of the city’s hottest restaurants and bars.
After Sarona, we headed to the HaAchim Restaurant in Tel Aviv. Then, unfortunately, it was time to go. We headed to Ben Gurion to depart and fly back to Logan.
They say it is a small world. My recent trip to Israel proves that.
Example one: While leaving Yad Vashem on our third day in Israel, my co-worker Judie Jacobson and I noticed a familiar figure standing with a small group in front of the visitor center. It was Jerry Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut. After stopping for some hugs and to chat a while, we all marveled at what a small world it is and that you always run into someone you know while making your way through Israel.
Example two: As our group sat eating ice cream at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem that same day, I inadvertently left my small wallet behind on the chair where I was sitting. Luckily, the only things in it were my driver’s license and a few American dollars. I didn’t even know it was missing until I received an email that evening from Steve Temkin of West Hartford. He and his family, including his mother in law, Bonnie, had sat down at the same table right after we left. They found the wallet, Steve recognized me as a staff member of the Jewish Ledger, and he emailed me that I could pick up the wallet at the hotel they were staying at. Is that mazel, or what??
These are a few of my favorite things about my visit to Israel:
Hummus at Abu Hassan
Abu Hassan in Jaffa is known for its out-of-this-world hummus. We entered at lunchtime when it was absolutely packed. As two women ate alone at a large table, the owner of the restaurant began yelling at them to move to a smaller table that had just opened. They just rolled their eyes and moved, letting our big group sit down in their former space. Tired and hungry from our jeep tour to the Ramon Crater that morning, we devoured bite after bite of pita, drenched in several kinds of creamy, fresh hummus, served with onions and lemon juice. The food was so good we didn’t even mind how loud and crowded the place was. In fact, the atmosphere made lunch all the more enjoyable.
We could see this Tel Aviv neighborhood and its red roofs from our hotel window. Founded in 1887, Neve Zedek was the first residential neighborhood built outside the gates of Jaffa – before Tel Aviv was even founded. In the early 1900s, the neighborhood was home to many artists and writers like Nobel prize laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Hebrew artist Nachum Gutman, Neve Zedek went through some urban decay over the years, until the 1980s when people began an effort to preserve the area. On our last morning in Tel Aviv, we decided to take a walk through Neve Zedek and were charmed by its great little shops, galleries, artist studios and cafes.
Dinner at Ha Achim
Another great meal in Israel that I feel I have to mention was our last dinner in Tel Aviv at Ha Achim (The Brothers). The trendy restaurant with an open view into the bustling kitchen, serves barbecue/middle-eastern cuisine. They brought us a sampling of dishes: deep fried artichokes in Labane, an assortment of kabobs, several yummy salads including grapes and onions, lentils, and a delicious beet salad – along with the prerequisite hummus, tahini and pita, and a selection of Israeli wines. A great dinner in a great city.
The Beresheet Hotel
After taking us to the Ramon Crater, our guide Gilad took us for a quick spin around the luxurious Beresheet Hotel, part of the Istrotel chain. Perched on the edge of the Ramon Crater, it features 111 rooms, including several guest villas, some with their own small private pools, views of the crater and an infinity pool that looks as if it flows right off into the makhtesh. Out of my price range, the Beresheet is now on my list of places to visit if I ever win the lottery.
The Cabins at the Carmey Avdat Winery
As luxurious as the Beresheet Hotel is, the cabins at the Carmey Avdat Winery are… how should I put it? Rustic. But hiking around Israel made even this middle-aged mom of teenagers feel young again. The winery’s cabins, set into the hillside above the vineyard, looked like a great place to stay for a night or two, sipping wine, looking out over the wide desert, and gazing up at the starry sky. This remote spot is one place to definitely get away from it all.