Israel: The Non-Spiritual Experience

By Andrea Odintz-Cohen and Jeff Cohen
From New York
June 18-30, 1996
First we must explain that although we are American Jews, our main purpose for traveling to Israel was NOT to make a religious pilgramage to the Holy Land. Rather, we were primarily going to attend the wedding of one of Andrea's closest friends, Rachel, who is indeed Israeli and will be living with her husband in Ramat-Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Since we hadn't visited the country before, it certainly made sense to do some touring during the 12 days we were there, as well.

It's important to note that unlike the United States, where there are various sects of Judaism (Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructist), in Israel, most Jews fall into two categories: Relgious (Orthodox) and secular (anthing else). By that definition, our friends are in the secular category.

In line with Israeli culture and custom, Rachel insisted that her friends from the States (there were two others, plus her sister, who also flew in from New York) stay with her and her then-fiancee, Asi, in their 2-bedroom apartment. Because we're a married couple, we got the guest room, and the others split couch-beds and a mattress in the living room. We were all on different incoming and outgoing schedules, but some nights, there were as many as 7 people staying in that apartment. But the impression we got when making travel arrangements is that staying in a hotel would be an absolute insult. So we created our own hostel environment.

(JEFF: We should have let them accept the insult. More on this later.)

We landed on June 19th at 4:15 in the afternoon Israel time (7 hours ahead of E.S.T.), and after 11 hours on a plane, we were disoriented. So the first evening, we just had dinner and hung out at Rachel and Asi's, talking and watching TV. The funny thing about Israeli television is that most of it is American programming with Hebrew subtitles. Israeli TV has "Roseanne" reruns and an equivalent to a Thursday-night "Must-See TV" lineup with "Friends," "Seinfeld," and "ER," but on Sunday nights. (Incidentally, another friend of ours, Miriam, who is an American immigrating to Israel, gets together with a group of friends on Sunday nights to watch these shows together. Except that as a native New Yorker, she's the only one in the group who "gets" "Seinfeld.") Anyway, one network without subtitles is a children's channel (like the Israeli Nickelodeon), which has cartoons like "Alvin and the Chipmunks" dubbed into Hebrew ("Shimon !"). Kind of surreal if you aren't used to it.

Our kind hosts had arrranged a pre-wedding getaway with us to Eilat, a beach resort town all the way at the southern tip of Israel. Incidentally, the borders of Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia surround the south of Israel, yet Eilat is a party town where Israelis go to get away from stress and relax. Go figure.

June 20th-22nd

Andrea in front of Club Med, Eilat

Eilat is approximately a 4-1/2-hour drive from Ramat-Gan. That's a mighty long trip to take with jetlag -- we left at about 10:30 the morning after we landed!

(JEFF: This is one good reason we should have taken a hotel room for a couple of nights. Being trapped in the second bedroom of a two-bedroom apartment while everyone else is snoring away is not pleasant. Especially when you still feel like it's 8 PM.)

But we saw a good chunk of the country in passing this way: city (Tel Aviv) that became plots of BRIGHT green agriculture (like Ireland!), which turned into desert, where the Bedouins are (nomads who live in tent communities in the desert), and finally, beach. The trip severely knocked us out, though. One suggestion if you find yourself traveling to Israel in the summer, as we were forced to do because of the wedding: CARRY WATER WITH YOU. A LOT. It's very easy to get dehydrated in the desert. Also, if everyone tells you that there's no humidity in Israel so you don't feel the heat, that's a load of crap. In JERUSALEM, there's no humidity; there was every place else we visited.

We rested a while and met for dinner at Nargila, a Middle Eastern restaurant, for some authentic native cuisine. We walked around the town and along the boardwalk to get a feel for where we were.

The next morning, we visited Coral World, the Underwater Observatory (a.k.a. aquarium, but the fish are in their natural water and you go below sea level indoors to see them). This is a must-see if you plan to stay in Eilat. Amazing tropical fish. Vivid colors, big & tiny sizes. Easy to spend a couple of hours there. Went to the beach, which is along the Red Sea (yes, THAT Red Sea). Very pretty, like a Carribean island, and HOT.

Dinner at another Middle Eastern restaurant. There was a fair on the boardwalk that night, so we rode bumper cars, shot hoops, played air hockey, drank Israeli Slurpies ("slushies"). It was a Friday night, but no one seemed to be observing the Sabbath in Eilat. Full-time partying going on. In fact, as opposed to the Orthodox crowd in Jerusalem, the women in Eilat wear tank tops with their midriffs revealed and matching leggings; the "in" colors now are lime green and electric blue. Even 10-year-olds partake in these fashions! This is also where we first became aware of the "prickly pear" reputation that Israelis have -- a generalization, we realize, but somewhat true. For instance, there's little regard for waiting in line. People just walked around us as though we were invisible. Kids run around and bump into strangers, and you have to wonder if their parents give a damn about where their children are. More beach the following day before heading back "home."

Sunday, June 23rd:

Planet Hollywood in Tel Aviv -- the modernization of the city continues.

Andrea's 26th birthday. Rachel showed us around Tel Aviv. Included "points of interest" like where ATM site exploded and the stairs Rabin was walking up when he was assassinated. Tel Avis is an interesting mixture of city and beach (this one, along the Mediterranean Sea). Birthday-lunched at Planet Hollywood (very American, but right across the street from the beach). Appropriate movie memorabilia included Moses' tablets from "The Ten Commandments." Even got a birthday dessert, which Rachel ordered in Hebrew while I was sitting at the table, thinking she was asking for water or something. Shocker: They serve chesseburgers! (NOT kosher!)

That evening, we took the 1-hour bus ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. An air-conditioned "express bus," it only makes those two stops, one in each city. Seemed perfectly safe and rather comfortable. Got to see more scenery along the way.

(JEFF: Because Israel has one main, two-lane highway, travel is always a crapshoot. One lousy driver turns a 40-minute drive into a 90-minute tortune in the U.S. Just imagine that kind of scene when it's four lanes, not six.)

Started our Jerusalem stay with Andrea's previously-mentioned friend Miriam Simon. Her apartment is near the center of town, behind a department store (the Mashpir) and near the square (Ben Gurion Plaza). Because Miriam has a studio apt., she was very generous w/us and lent it to us for two nights while she stayed at her boyfriend's apt., about a 30-minute walk away.

Monday, June 24th:

Jeff recreates Moses descending the mountain with the 10 Commandments, using the Jerusalem Post and USA Today.

Time to tour the Old City! Miriam served as our tour guide, as she was a history major. We walked through Jaffa Gate and looked around the Jewish Quarter, as well as the Armenian Quarter, including the market. We hadn't seen anything that looks like Jerusalem, so there's not even a basis for comparison. All the buildings in Jerusalem must, by law, be made of a certain type of white stone, so that when the moon reflects on the buildings at night, it looks like the Golden City. It may also help keep the climate slightly cooler than the rest of the country. Hey, it's a theory. Surprise: people do actually live right in the various Quarters of the Old City, which are set up just like apt. projects, with buildings near each other and playgrounds.

The Western Wall -- prayer space for jews o'plenty. Just keep those knees and shoulders covered.

Highlight landmark was the Western Wall. Took pictures from above, then went to it. Andrea placed a note into the Wall. Shocker: people ask you for money at the Wall -- isn't that sacreligious? Saw the guy dressed like King David who plays a hand-held harp. (He had been featured on "60 Minutes.")

The view from the Tower of David in Jerusalem.

Also saw Dome of the Rock (main mosque), Tower of David, Damascus Gate, which leads into the Muslim Quarter. Walked about 4-1/2-5 hours in 95-degree (F) heat. Ah, but yes, this is the place where there's no humidity. Sorry, you could still tell it was 95 degrees! Finally took an air-conditioned lunch break at a kosher Sbarro.

(JEFF: After five hours on foot, Miriam made the mistake of asking Andrea if we wanted to do an "authentic" walking tour the next day. I kind of lost it. Two days of shlepping in the sun, following by Masada, is not my idea of a vacation.)

That night, we were lucky to be in Jerusalem for one of the year-long Jerusalem 3000 celebrations. Though it was apparently expensive to buy tickets to sit in the outdoor coliseum to hear an orchestra and political speakers, everyone could see the fireworks over the Western Wall. Miriam and her boyfriend (also an immigrant from the U.S.) knew someone who was hosting a rooftop barbecue on the roof of his parents' apartment building, next to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The roof had an absolutely AMAZING view of the Old City! Funny thing: not one native Israeli seemed to be present at this party. Everyone spoke English to one another. The guests were from the States, Canada, England, and Australia. Actually, quite a few were from Australia, several of whom had immigrated to Israel. We noticed a lot of TV screens in scattered hotel rooms at the King David, as guests waited for the TV broadcast of the fireworks to begin before they went onto their balconies to watch them. It was actually kind of chilly, the one time we experienced that feeling while in Israel. Fireworks started nearly an hour late -- the joke was that this was typical Israeli time -- but were amazing. Supposedly cost the equivalent of $1 million. Between the spoken English, Jeff's conversation w/Miriam's boyfriend about baseball (he follows his home team, the Kansas City Royals, even from Israel), and the fireworks a couple of weeks before the American Independence Day, this was one of the few times we truly felt at home.

(JEFF: A note about meat in Israeli supermarkets. It is frozen. Dead solid frozen. Don't bring this meat to a cookout. It never cooks. It gets kind of warm, and soft, and melts in your mouth. This is not the kind of hamburger civilized Americans want to eat.)

Tuesday, June 25th:

Hadn't gotten back to Miriam's apt. the night before till about 12:30 a.m. Was awakened at 6:00 a.m. by Miriam's friend, calling to say that she and her sister just landed in Tel Aviv and were taking the bus to her place. (We had known they were coming to be the next shift in Miriam's apt. for a couple of nights, but didn't expect it to be this early.) Went back to sleep till 7:30; they knocked on the door at 7:45 a.m. Miriam wasn't returning till 8:15, so we introduced ourselves. After Miriam came home and we all visited and exchanged travel stories, we set out to walk around the Plaza a little and buy breakfast. Miriam and her friends soon parted ways w/us, since they were exhausted from their flight. Jeff and I took the time to enjoy our bagels and beverages at an outdoor cafe and read a copy of USA Today's international version.

(JEFF: Yeah, I bought USA Today for two days in a row, primarily for the puny baseball coverage. Wouldn't you know, the second day, they reprinted the results from the previous day, as if nobody would notice!)

We then set out to do some sightseeing on our own. Unfortunately, the Israel Museum doesn't open until 4:00 on Tuesdays, rather than 10:00 (like museums in NY are closed on Mondays), so we walked to the Old City and went to the Tower of David Museum. A guided English-language tour was starting in 20 minutes, so we waited for it. Tour guide was an older British man, sometimes difficult for us to understand, but a volunteer who was extremely knowledgable and the tour was quite extensive (about 2 hours, both indoors and outdoors).

Lunch and souvenir shopping for the family. Back to Miriam's apt. to pack for the return bus ride back to Tel Aviv, where Rachel would meet us that evening.

(JEFF: Miriam's two friends were completely jet-lagged. The most hysterical thing they spewed was how the older sister's husband -- an Israeli citizen -- didn't want to serve in the military, so this was his wife's second trip in a year to Israel that he hadn't accompanied her on. What a sport.)

That night was Rachel's bachelorette party. Jeff took the welcome opportunity to have a usually crowded apartment to himself to eat, read, and watch TV, but was also saintly enough to do laundry and dishes to clean up the place a bit. (The living of 7 people in a concentrated area tends to get messy fast!)

(JEFF: Yeah, like I had any choice. Andrea told Rachel that Jerusalem would tucker me out and I'd want an evening in. So off went the women, literally locking me into the apartment while they went out on the town. I stayed in and watched Sylvester Stallone in "Nighthawks," in English with Hebrew subtitles.)

The ladies went to a restaurant in Tel Aviv called Punchline, where there's a stage and the waiters/waitresses sing and dance between taking orders and serving. The performances were mostly in Hebrew -- someone even sang "One" from "A Chorus Line" in Hebrew! But the recorded music between the live numbers were in English. There were Three bachelorette parties at Punchline that night. Ours was rather reserved; Rachel didn't want to be the center of attention. The table next to us, for 18 people, was a surprise party for the bride-to-be, who proceeded to get rowdily sloshed with her gal pals. The waiter called all the women of honor up on stage to sing a song to them, then told them to stay on stage to dance to a livelier number. Then he invited the bachelorettes' friends up on stage to dance with them (most of us did). Later on, we were invited back; a waiter rapped (in English) "Gangsta's Paradise"! I noticed racks of costumes/props behind us on stage, and grabbed a black leather cap w/chains to dance with. Many followed suit. A waitress gave out sparklers. Got home around 1:00 a.m.

Wednesday, June 26th:

And after two nights of not enough sleep, THIS is when we happened to have tickets for an all-day tour of Masada and the Dead Sea on a bus that was leaving Tel Aviv at 8:00 a.m. It also happened to be 100 degrees (F). AND we left the Dramanine at Rachel's, which proved disastrous. Not ideal conditions. But we went, determined, because this is a one-time experience.

Our tour guide was a 4-5 months pregnant Israeli woman who spoke fluent Hebrew, English and French. Half the tour was in English, then she translated everything she said into French for the others. Masada is fundamentally a mountain in the desert. King Herod and his people actually lived there for two years, and their rooms are carved out at the top of the mountain. Was secure from warfare, and when finally they were going to be attacked, they committed mass suicide. Quite a story. It's part of the Israeli heritage to learn about Masada; elementary schools take class trips there, climbing the mountain at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. before the sun rises and the heat of the day hits. Because of the heat and the organized tour, we didn't climb the mountain by foot, but by cable car, although we did see just 2 or 3 people attempting it by foot while we were ascending. But the heat was nearly unbearable at 11:15 a.m., plus our stomachs were empty, so we were satisifed w/the cable car. Were warned to each carry a big plastic bottle of water, because of dehydration. About a 2-hour tour.

The view from Masada, the mountain at the bottom of the world

(JEFF: Too damn hot. And people wonder about Jewish intelligence. If we control the media, and Hollywood, and politics, like some bigots think, then how come Jews tried to live on top of this stupid mountain?)

Then on to the Dead Sea. Definitely ate before attempting anything else at this point. Went into the the spa's locker rooms to change into bathing suits and walked to the mud area. The mud (and it IS mud, there's no two ways about it!) is supposedly excellent for softening your skin and purifying your pores. We tried it and showered it off, though Jeff's shower area was salt water and stung. Also the ground was unbearably hot, just to walk from one little area to another. After the mud experience, took a tram to the actual Dead Sea. Frankly, it was slimy, and even walking into it was painful, because you had to step on sharp rocks. Be aware that you are advised to stay in no more than 15 minutes because the intensity of the salt and other minerals causes your heartbeat to quicken. Also be aware that pregnant women cannot enter the Dead Sea, for health reasons. Because of the slimy salt, we had to shower off again. Our allotted time there was a bit of a whirlwind -- don't think we enjoyed this as much as we're "supposed" to.

In the evening, we were dropped off at the wrong bus station in Tel Aviv but found our way back to Rachel's apt. It was the night before the wedding, so Rachel had her mikvah -- a ritual purifying bath at which blessings are recited by a spiritual advisor -- that night. Because there is no separation of church (synagogue) and state in Israel, all rabbis there are ordained as Orthodox rabbis, and all Jewish weddings and preparations are Orthodox by definition. The mikvah is part of that official Orthodox experience.

Thursday, June 27th:

Finally, we could sleep late! (And we did, to recuperate from the 10-1/2-hour door-to-door tour the day before.) Today, all we were doing were things related to the wedding. Keeping Rachel sane. Reminding her what to pack in the overnight bag for the hotel that night. Ironing our outfits. Washing towels for everyone staying in the apt. Rachel and her sister left at 2:00 to get their makeup and hair done. The excitement of the later preparations was that Rachel's father couldn't find his tuxedo pants that he had brought w/him from his home in Jerusalem. He actually had to go out and buy a new pair. Fortunately, that purchase was hassle-free, and soon thereafter, off we all went.

(JEFF: This was great. Two pair of pants in a white plastic bag, in an apartment where EVERYTHING is in a white plastic bag. I was just dumbfounded that her father waited until 5 PM (ceremony at 7) to concede defeat and go downstairs to buy another pair. Later we found out why -- Israeli stores do not give refunds. Once they have your sheckels, you can exchange, exchange, exchange, but at risk of gunpoint your cash is gone for good.)

The wedding was held at the Hotel Carmel in Netanya, toward the north, between Tel Aviv and Haifa. The cremony was called for "7:00 p.m. sharp," but for Israelis, that still meant 7:45. We arrived w/Rachel's parents the same time Rachel, Asi, and the other immediate family members did, at about 6:55. We, along with the other American guests we knew, went to the cocktail area inside, where there were drinks and snacks like nuts and potato chips. Because the immediate family was busy greeting guests, Jeff used Asi's brother's camcorder to videotape the proceedings.

The ceremony was outdoors, in back of the hotel, on the beach, at sunset: a beautiful setting. The ceremony itself, from the very start of the music till the joyous chanting of "Simcha Tov, Mazel Tov," was a total of 15 minutes. The rabbi did almost all of the talking, all in Hebrew, of course. The ceremony was standing room only, but still, most of the guests hadn't arrived yet. Everyone bumrushed the chuppah (canopy, under which the ceremony was performed) at the end to greet the newlyweds -- no receiving line necessary.

Wish we knew or we would have saved seats: There are no placecards at an Israeli wedding. And of course, everyone was saving seats for their own parties. As a result, our American group had to separate by pairs, so we only stuck around our respective tables to eat.

(JEFF: I know, placecards for 260? Those smart Jews...)

No one else at our table spoke English. Andrea danced a lot, and eventually, Jeff danced a fair amount, too. Mixture of Hebrew and English music. Surprises: "Hands Up," "YMCA." Not surprises: The Hora, chair dance, "Macarena" (a popular dance song in Spanish!) Rachel had us all on the "important list" for the photgrapher and videographer to capture, because we came all the way from America. She pointed us out to the photographer, who said, "You didn't have to show me. I can tell."

Total guests that RSVP'ed yes: 260. Total that showed up: 340. Five extra tables had to be set up I guess that's how the word "chutzpah" generated. One "guest" didn't even know the bride OR the groom; he crashed the wedding for the free food, then left a thank-you note. Without placecards, and so many people just showing up late and unannounced, how would anyone notice? Yet there was still plenty of food for all, and the reception room never felt crowded, as it could accommodate 500 people or more.

Friday, June 28th:

Another welcome opportunity to sleep late. (We got home about 2:15 a.m.) Rachel's parents came over and made breakfast. While we were eating, the newlyweds arrived. Guess it wasn't an exciting wedding night. (Particularly because Asi's parents insisted on going to their hotel room to open the envelopes and count the money. But that's another story.) Watched footage that Jeff and others took on the camcorder at the wedding. Chatted, soon saw that married life wasn't changing them when Asi started to play a computer game and intended to play basketball later. Went to the private pool in Asi's parents' community.

Rachel's mother insisted on cooking a big dinner for everyone (tonight, 13 people). Not because it was Friday night (the Jewish Sabbath), but because it was something she felt she should do for company. We tried to help out, but it she was running the show.

After dinner, we went out to a pub in Tel Aviv called Arnold (supposedly they exist in London & Paris, too). A newlywed celebration w/Asi's brother, sister-in-law, several cousins, a few friends, and well, us Americans. Jeff and I ordered a piece of cake w/a sparkler in it for Rachel and Asi.

Saturday, June 29th:

Decided to split up for the day: Jeff to the beach in Tel Aviv w/most of the others; Andrea w/Rachel and her parents to see Haifa; Asi to play basketball and volleyball.

Waves were very rough in Tel Aviv. Easy to fall down, could rip someone's bathing suit off.

(JEFF: Great beach. The women all dress like hookers, while the men have hair protruding from areas generally hairless on this continent.)

In Haifa, Andrea got both the scenic and nostalgic tours, as this is where Rachel grew up. Some beautiful countryside, mountains, looked like European suburbs. Saw Rachel's former house and met w/their close friends/former neighbors. Had a complimentary lunch from another friend who owns a restaurant. Nice to see something toward the north of the country; every city had a different feel to it. The expression is: "Haifa works, Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays." That seems to sum it up accurately, though on a Saturday, Haifa was pretty laid-back.

Took Rachel and Asi out to dinner for their extended hospitality. Went to a Tel Aviv boardwalk restauarant, London, which had different stands and chefs for different specialities. Walked on the boardwalk, last-minute shopping.

Sunday, June 30th:

Homeward bound. Flight was scheduled for 10:45 a.m. Rachel took us to and stayed w/us at the airport. Bad airport experience. Not like the U.S., where you check in and THEN wait. There, you wait and wait TO check in. Extra-cautious security, rude Israelis. There were 5 lines with airline personnel checking people in when we arrived 90 minutes before our flight, but soon everyone crowded around two Arab-looking men who were scheduled for our flight and being interrogated by seemingly everyone at TWA. Eventually we looked around and realized that the Israelis had cut around the non-Israelis in line, and there were only a handful of us left to be questioned before we could even check our luggage -- and the flight was scheduled to depart in 30 minutes! Andrea lost her temper, probably not the smartest thing to do in the Israeli airport where we were yet to be questioned, but actually, it did get someone w/TWA to come over and take care of us. At this point, we were ready to go home. 12 hours on the plane w/out sleeping, and major jet lag to follow, but we won't get into that.

(JEFF: People who must travel with children should have their own airline. Either that, or how about a nursery area on the planes. Or perhaps relaxed regulations so people can check infants up to a certain age into heated baggage compartments.)

Overall, we have to admit that we don't feel any "more Jewish" than we did before our trip to Israel. Sure, that has to do with the WAY we traveled, staying with people we knew and spending time with them as friends in addition to seeing the sights. But in a sense, we think we got a better representation of the country BECAUSE we traveled with people who actually live there. The history of the nation is undeniably rich, and certainly it's fascinating from the historical/Biblical perspective. But other than our friends, we did NOT feel welcome as soon as we stepped off the plane onto the Holy Land simply because we're Jewish. We always felt like we were in a foreign country and had the distinct impression that many native Israelis were looking down at us for being American oddities.

The most practical advice we can give is: if you don't have to plan a trip to Israel during the summer months, don't. The people we know who went there from November to March had a much more comfortable trip.

(JEFF: My revised slogan for Israel -- Next Year, YOU Go To Jerusalem!)

Jeff & Andrea

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