She stood, barely taller than the bottom of the apricot stand, biting into the fresh fruit with relish.
“Metzuyan!” she declared.
We followed her lead and asked for a basket of apricots. As she packed her purchase into a rolling cart, she stopped and turned toward us. “Are you from the United States? How are you enjoying Israel? This is the best country in the world!”
Rachel’s face lit up as she told us about her life. A holocaust survivor, she had taught Hebrew school in the United States for many years before returning home to Israel. She talked at length about her love of her country and its challenges. We must have stood there for 15 minutes, listening in rapt attention to her history lesson, before she smiled and turned away.
This is how it is in Israel. People will stop you on the street to tell you about their life, their country. To wish you well. To tell you to have babies. To inquire about your visit. To tell you what to see or what to do or where to eat.
It’s a glorious place.
Earlier that week, Elie and I were walking through the narrow winding streets of Neve Tzedek and Florentine in Tel Aviv. Our friends Mariah and Jon were flying in late that night, when we would begin our two week exploration of the country together.
As we walked, I studied. Buildings alternated between restored pastel-painted townhomes, with shining shutters and overflowing window boxes of brightly colored flowers to graffiti-covered windowless buildings, overgrown with weeds. Cars perched haphazardly on sidewalks. Cats—much thinner and scruffier than our two plump ones at home—slept on doorsteps or peered hungrily from alleyways. Cafes overflowed with black and gray-clad groups of thirysomethings, fashionably dressed in high-waisted Tel Aviv style, holding cigarettes and cups of espresso. Baby strollers are everywhere.
“I wonder if I love it here so much because you love it here?” I asked Elie. “I wonder what Mariah and Jon will think?”
I needn’t have pondered. They fell head over heels in love.
We eased into the trip at the idyllic retreat of Shulamit Yard in the Galilee, with the serene Shuli as our gracious host.
On our last evening, we found ourselves on the Mount of Beatitudes, invited by Shuli to attend a private piano and violin concert for a non-profit music program for gifted youth, the young people practicing for their European tour.
The room, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, was filled with a few dozen parents and relatives, all Hebrew speakers. Because of our presence, the host spoke haltingly in English, just so we could understand. In her moving introduction, she said, “In this place that is sacred to both Jews and Christians, I feel some sense of eternity.”
Afterwards, we wandered the grounds as the last rays of sunlight faded to a midnight sky. We each walked separately, finding a bench or nook beneath a tree to sit and think, or pray. Unexpected presents are often the most cherished.
Another cherished moment came with a visit to Pnina, the Druze woman I cooked with last year. She doesn’t speak English, but her infectious smile and warmth needs no translation. She laughed as we learned she had been banned from praying in the Druze place of worship, because of her untraditional habits, including having a daughter in college and teaching cooking classes to support herself. She shrugged, laughing and waving her hands, before ushering us into the kitchen to begin cooking.
From the Galilee, we descended into the otherworldliness of Jerusalem, with its sharp juxtaposition of religions and traditions and ornamentation. Within the walls of the Old City, the rhythmic call to prayer from the mosque reverberates against the chants of the Armenian monks and through the psalms resonating among the eaves of St. Anne’s Church. Inside the maze of alleyways and tunnels, shopkeepers push their wares, from spices and coffee to t-shirts and soap. It’s a living city, vibrant and mysterious.
Jerusalem is a holy place for Christians, Muslims and Jews. As a Christian, I expected to find a deep connection to God within this city. But each time I return, within the dark recesses of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, cloudy with incense and crowded with pilgrims pushing to touch the shrines, I find it difficult to find God. While awe-inspiring beneath the soaring dome, with intricate mosaics lining the walls and ornate oil lamps dangling just overhead, it is a somber place. Here, the tension of religion is palpable.
But outside, religion falls away as I see God in the vistas. Standing at the top of the Mount of Olives overlooking the valley and Jerusalem, I can imagine Jesus there. The grove of gnarled olive trees of the Garden of Gethsemane might be the same ones sheltering Jesus while he prayed. It matters little to me whether Jesus actually stood in those exact spots, but outside in the silence, I can listen.
Bethlehem lies only a few miles away, but a world apart. We hired an Arab Christian guide to drive us across the border into the West Bank (a guide is recommended, if you want to see Bethlehem). Even if you don’t have a connection to the Christian faith, being on the other side of the wall brings perspective. Aside from visiting the Church of the Nativity, we wondered the hilly cobblestone streets of Bethlehem, eating hummus and falafel in a restaurant owned by Arab Christians, buying cake from a patisserie, and purchasing wooden spoons and carvings made of olive wood from a local shop.
Descending from the white hills of Jerusalem to the Dead Sea takes only about 45 minutes, but looks like the difference between earth and the moon. After descending past clusters of aluminum-topped Bedoin camps, roaming goats and camels waiting patiently in the sun, and date plantations, the Dead Sea rises from the bottom of the dessert, aqua blue and glimmering in the heat.
We conquered Masada, exploring its heroic albeit gruesome history, before floating away in the buoyant waters of the Dead Sea.
Next on our exploration of the country, we headed south into the Negev Desert to Mitzpe Ramon and the Maktesh Ramon—Israel’s version of the Grand Canyon. Standing at the edge, the crater stretches in an expanse of burnt-orange earth, with nothing living in site save for the ibex, which appear to exist happily in the rocks and dust. Our planned two nights at the Beresheet hotel stretched into three, and still we had to drag ourselves away.
We started and ended our trip in Tel Aviv, where we stayed at Elie’s cousin’s Bauhaus apartment. In both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem we spent as much time as possible with Elie’s family, something that Mariah and Jon said was a highlight of their trip. Warm and generous of heart, Elie’s family—now my family—opens their arms to us each year, making us feel right at home.
From Nomi’s place, we explored food markets, studied graffiti with our friend Guy, made the daily short trek to the beach, and walked and walked and walked the streets, sinking into the vibrancy of the city.
And we ate.
Charred heads of cauliflower. Creamy, smoky eggplant on rivers of tahini. Peanuts so freshly roasted, they snap between your teeth. Small, intensely sweet cantaloupes, fragrant of honey. Pale yellow-green cucumbers, crisp and lemony under their fuzzy skin. Falafel with a crackling exterior, herby and airy in the center. Piquant olives, each version tasting uniquely of the maker’s recipe. Crisp, acidic white wines. Goat’s milk cheeses, freshly sweet and creamy. Garlicky, herb-flecked lamb kebabs, sandwiched in fluffy pita. Tangy, earthy amba sauce, drizzled on sabich. Tart lemonade blended with ice and fresh mint, cutting the heat of the day.
From the moment Mariah and Jon arrived, they couldn’t believe the food. Everything in Israel tastes like the best version of itself. At one of our first meals, Jon said, “I’m going out on a limb here, but this is the best eggplant I’ve ever had.” That line got repeated over and over again…cauliflower, tomatoes, smoked fish…. The best.
As Rachel told us at the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, everything in Israel is metzuyan! Excellent! I’m going to go out on a limb and say she’s right.
My guide to what to see and do and where to eat in Israel will be following very soon.