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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

My First Trip to Israel, Part I

There are no armed guards in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, at least not on open display. Entering Ben Gurion from the flight arrival area, it at first seems smaller than other airports until you realize that it fans out in a series of circles like a string of shopping malls. “So, here,” I reflected, suitcase in hand, “is the Promised Land of the Bible!” Just what this Promised Land had to offer would reveal itself to me over the next several days, the duration of my visit along with four other travel writers, two from Los Angeles, one from Arizona and one from Quebec City, all of us guests of the Israeli Tourist Ministry.
       Because the El Al jet ride from Newark had been less than comfortable, it was my hope that Israeli ‘land life’ would offer better things. My flight was packed tight with Hassidic Jews, men in hats and long sideburn curls who carried hat boxes of various sizes who seemed to take great delight in lounging or blocking seat entrances or pacing around the plane without letup. For this passenger it was like listening to endless renditions of Ravel’s Bolero. Everyone in our mostly Jewish press group had El Al horror stories. On both my arrival and departure flight, for instance, an Orthodox man refused to sit in his assigned middle seat because there was a woman sitting by the window. At the end of the day I felt grateful that Jewish Orthodoxy had provided me with ample leg room. 
   Once in Tel Aviv, a driver met me at Ben Gurion and drove me to the Herzelya Ritz Carlton Hotel where the traffic was five times the density of the Schuylkill Expressway. We traveled on a special toll road that got you to Herzelya in half the time. Along the way I took note of the billboards and random graffiti on buildings and reminded myself that cities the world over are the same when it comes to urban blight.  When we arrived at the Ritz the world became a Meditereanean luxury spa with a harbor of yachts, an ocean beach and blue skies. My hotel room overlooked the luxurious harbor. Management had also arranged a swag surprise: gifts of body lotions and a small plate of gourmet chocolates. I devoured the chocolates, showered, then took a walk on the beach and watched as teenagers played Frisbee and two guys in wet suits surfed in an ocean that reminded me of the surf at the Jersey shore.

    I’ve no doubt that some people go to Israel for the food, in this case, salads; salads of every variety with vegetables and ingredients you’re not likely to have heard of before. The breakfast buffet at the Ritz was beyond compare, attracting the likes of Tony Blair who rushed past our table with his security entourage.

  “It’s Tony Blair!” one of the LA writers said, even though all we saw was the back of the former UK Prime Minister’s head. Blair seemed to be in important business mode. Israel, after all, is about the size of humble New Jersey but surrounded by large monolith Arab countries, Jordan being the most peaceful of the lot unless at some point, as our tour guide indicated, “It has an Arab spring.” Naturally, fears of possible terrorist activity during our 5-day whirlwind tour of Tel Aviv, Jaffa, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem were very much on our minds.  Before signing up for this press trip, our group had done its homework: An American tourist stabbed to death in Jerusalem in 2010; an attack on taxi passengers, all U.S. citizens in 2000; in 2001 a shooting at a bus stop; October, 2015, the storming of a bus in Jerusalem (3 fatalities); in 2015 a couple and their 4 children were attacked by gunmen in the West Bank. Two days after our press trip, November 19, 2015, terrorists open fired on cars stuck in traffic; another attack in the West Bank where five people, including an 18 year old student from Boston, were killed.

   Prior to my coming here, for instance, some people had advised me to drop out. They prayed for me in my local parish church. They told me to be careful. I was even taken out to dinner and my hosts jokingly referred to it as The Last Supper.

         The instructions from the Ministry were clear: we must remain with our fellow travel writers at all times. Solitary excursions through Tel Aviv or Jerusalem were forbidden. The reality of this hit hard after our first dinner out in a Tel Aviv restaurant when we could not locate the tour bus. We were lingering on a dark Tel Aviv street.  “This cannot be happening,” a member of our group said, panic evident in her eyes. “We are standing alone on a dark street in Tel Aviv. A car could come up at any time and blow us away!” She wasn’t kidding. This was not New York or Philadelphia but we had been lulled into momentary complacency with good food and good wine. Inspired by her words of caution, we high tailed it around the block and hurried to the parked bus since moving along in a group is better than standing idle on a street corner, where anything can happen.

     Our apprehension abated somewhat during our first daylight tour: a walk through Jaffa, the ancient seaport of the Babylonians, Egyptians, Romans, and the Crusaders. From its star-studded history—everything from Greek mythology, Jonah and the Whale to a long stay by Peter the Apostle—we listened as our guide explained how after the Jews won a local battle here with the Turks, resident Arab Christians and Muslims were given permission to remain in the city although newcomer Arabs were not allowed in.  Jaffa, the story goes, was founded by Jacob, one of the sons of Noah after the Great Flood. When Napoleon came to Jaffa to fight the Turks and the British his troops contracted the Plague and for the beleaguered emperor there was only one solution: to have his General surgeon kill the sick so that the disease would not spread. When the surgeon refused, saying he was in the business of saving lives, not killing them, Napoleon asked the Turkish sultan’s General surgeon to do the same thing but got the same answer. Although there are various stories about how the afflicted soldiers died, our guide told us that Napoleon walked away and let his troops die in agony on the vast portico outside the church of Peter the Apostle.
     The church of Peter the Apostle was built in 1654 and looks much like any cathedral in Europe although when I snuck a peek I was amazed that it was in total darkness with tourists milling confusedly about, some walking to the altar while others hung out near the back pews. It was enough to make your imagination work overtime and so it occurred to me that this would be a sinister place for terrorism. I noticed an adult man sneaking up behind a friend of his who was sitting alone in a pew and watched as he poured bottled spring water onto his friend’s head. Was this a Monty Python skit making fun of baptism? I left the church shortly after this.  

   As for Saint Peter, when the apostle came to Jaffa he stayed at the home of Simon the Tanner, a house that is still very much intact. The scriptures (Acts of the Apostles) tell us that during his stay Peter raised a woman (Tabitha) from the dead.  He also fell asleep on Simon’s flat roof whereupon he had a series of dreams in which he was told by the Lord to abolish the old Jewish dietary laws. Peter had to be told to do three times, but once he enacted the change, the new religion was able to spread among the pagans. Had the dietary laws not been abolished, Christianity could have died out as just another Jewish sect.” 
   Officially designated as a Health and Wellness press trip, we journalists were treated to a number of massages. I don’t think we were fearful of terrorism here, although body lotions could easily be replaced with poisonous substances and do strange things to the pores.  After a spin around Tel Aviv’s Sheinken Street and the Carmel open air market, each of us prepared for our 40 minute rubdown at the Ritz spa. In individual cubicles filled with sweet aromatic scents, we undressed and were lathered appropriately with oils and balms, wrapped in hot towels and then set upon by our assigned body rubbers. In my case it was a talkative Israeli girl who, because I told her I wanted a firm massage, went to extreme lengths to pummel my back with road construction drill jerks that had me bouncing off the mattress. Although she did manage to deliver some pleasant sensations, she became even more animated when I told her that during much of the rub that in my mind I kept seeing the face of an infant. Was it her child perhaps? She told m it was not her child but that when she was massaging me she was thinking of her sister’s new baby.  “Are you a medium of some sort?” she asked.  “No,” I said, “but massages send me places.” 

    There would be two other massages on the trip. At the Mitzpen Hayamim Hotel Spa and Farm, we donned white robes and slippers and took turns in the various cubicles for our Sea of Galilee rubs. My body rubber was a sturdy albeit bullish short haired woman who was coming to the end of a long day. She did not speak English but she was adept at pointing, so there was no conversation, no jerking motions just a methodical but thorough deep tissue application that was heads above the first. By this time, of course, we had heard about the killings in Paris, so our group was on high alert. The Mitzpen Hayamim tour guide, after giving us a tour of the farm, pointed to a not so distant mountain and told us that just a few weeks prior he had hiked to the top and was able to look over into Syria, “Where you can see all the carnage down below.”
     News of the Paris killings heightened our apprehension about traveling along the West Bank to the Dead Sea and into the city of Jerusalem. Our tour bus, we were told, would waver among zones A, B and C, B and C being the safe West Bank zones and A being the one to watch out for. The journalist who wanted us off that Tel Aviv street corner was now concerned about our entry into Jerusalem. She told us that she had not even informed her mother that she was taking a press trip to Israel because the news “would have given her a heart attack.”
      Our bus driver, a sturdy man with a lot experience driving buses along the West Bank, Haifa and the Jordan Valley has had stones and rocks thrown at his buses. When we entered the West Bank zones we were careful to avoid the window and sit in the aisle seats. Along the Jordan Valley the tour guide pointed out Jericho, the oldest city on earth (and home of John the Baptist) as being an especially dangerous place. Its small scale very biblical looking skyline seemed too close for comfort. Looking out the window from a safe distance, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the desolate Judean wilderness with its mountains and caves that were once populated by the Essenes, Jewish Zealots and early Christian hermits. I also took note of the abundance of abandoned tractor or military vehicle wheels that seemed to dot the landscape every few miles. Periodically we would pass an Arab settlement and what looked like the remnants of isolated, bombed out buildings. As we approached Jerusalem we were greeted with the timeless spectacle of Shepards guiding their flocks of sheep up and down the sides of mountainous hills.

    Our final group massage occurred near the Dead Sea. In my case I was told to strip and lay face up on a small table by a tall completely bald man who reminded me of Yul Brenner. He painted me with a brush in warm Dead Sea mud and slashed it around like he was swabbing a fence then wrapped my body like a mummy in two layers of cloth. After that he left the room without a word of explanation, returning fifteen minutes later with an order to shower. I was then supposed to float in a rectangular shaped mineral swimming pool with a group of pot bellied men and their wives, the latter bobbing about in flowered bathing caps.
   Needless to say, I opted to get dressed and help myself to complimentary tea in the foyer of the spa.