Michal and I recently had a novel trip to one of the world’s liveliest cities – without having to hassle with an airport! It was a four-day/three night excursion to Tel Aviv. under the auspices of the AACI – Jerusalem branch. The AACI is a group of mostly, but not exclusively native English speakers residing in Israel. It sponsors numerous charitable initiatives as well as travel, social, and educational events throughout Israel and abroad. (https://aaci.org.il/)
The tour originated in Jerusalem, so we met the group at a train station in Holon, just south of Tel Aviv. We took advantage of cost-free public transportation provided to seniors over 75. Trains (light rail/trams in Jerusalem and soon Tel Aviv) are undergoing massive development here over the next few decades. Israel is playing catch-up in this area, having spent most of the previous transportation budgets on automobile travel, much like in the US. But with Israel’s population burgeoning and its population density second only to the Netherlands (among the Western countries), this transit revolution is absolutely necessary.
Jacky Sivack was our excellent guide, who took good care of all of us. Our first stop was the Jaffa Institute in Tel Aviv, serving the Jaffa neighborhood’s severely disadvantaged children and their families. This non-profit organization has thousands of volunteers and paid employees helping to fulfill its role providing food package deliveries, home repairs and renovations, volunteer visits and phone calls for the elderly and survivor clients, social workers and therapists for its community, after school activities, youth group activities and more! We toured the busy facility and engaged in a group task of packing dozens of food cartons with dry goods like pasta, rice, and beans, cooking oil, canned goods, and fresh foods too. Once loaded, each box is quite a nice addition to the clients’ nutrition requirements. You can check the organization out at www.jaffainstitute.org.
After a lunch break, we visited the Peres Center for Innovation, also located in Jaffa, in a beautiful spot along the Mediterranean shore. The center is named for Shimon Peres, probably the last serving leader and statesman who participated in Israel’s struggle for independence. A protege of David Ben-Gurion, Peres held many high administrative positions and was particularly effective in procuring critical arms and materiel from France, as well as facilitating the country’s clandestine nuclear weapons project. He became a lifelong politician on the Left. After his “retirement” from politics, Peres fulfilled a successful term as Israel’s President, garnering respect and even love from many diplomats and political leaders around the world. He was able to spend his last few years, still alert and productive, at the eponymous Center. I admired Peres for his incredible vitality and alertness, which he displayed until the very end, at age 93 in 2016.
You can book a tour at the Israeli Innovation Center, an hour and forty-five minute introduction into many of the innovative technologies that Israel has become famous for. My favorite area in the Center was the interactive “talks” with some of Israel’s most prolific entrepreneurs, many of whom are serial innovators founding multiple companies. I especially enjoyed virtually listening to Dov Moran, who invented the ubiquitous USB memory stick/flash drive in 2000.
After navigating Tel Aviv’s horrendous traffic, we arrived at Herod’s Hotel. It’s a nice commercial/tourist hotel in a great location on the promenade along the Tel Aviv beach front, close to the city’s picturesque marina. In the morning we visited the Lehi Museum, which is located in the house where its leader Avraham “Yair” Stern was murdered.
Stern, who was born in Poland and moved as a teenager to Palestine, was a brilliant student who studied Classics at Hebrew University and had a scholarship to the University of Florence. First a member of Haganah (Defense), the original Jewish paramilitary force, Stern took the underground name Yair as an Irgun/Etzel member (a more militant, offensive paramilitary force headed by Menachem Begin-later Prime Minister. He soon founded the Lehi/Stern Gang, the smallest and most extreme group of fighters. For Stern, the British were the Jews’ primary enemy, not the Arabs. His credo: the British were the principal obstacle to Jewish independence in Palestine and had to be actively fought as if there were no war against the Germans. Stern doubted that the Allies would win the war. He was not above allying Israel with the German and Italian fascists, if that would assist the nationalist effort to create a Jewish state.
Not surprisingly, the violent and sometimes terrorist attacks against British institutions and diplomats by Irgun, and especially Lehi, backfired among many Palestinian Jews. This discord caused “the Hunting Season” against Irgun and Lehi, when Haganah cooperated with the British in jailing and sometimes even executing fighters from the two anti-British groups.
The British put a reward on Stern’s head. He was eventually captured in February, 1942, at the site of the museum. Stern was shot in the back of the head by his British captors while unarmed and handcuffed. Yitzhak Shamir, later a Prime Minister, became Lehi head after Stern’s death. There was an excellent film depicting Stern’s life and the exhibits were fascinating. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/lo-x1e25-amei-x1e24-erut-israel
Michal and I skipped a tour of the M&H [Milk & Honey] Whiskey Distillery (https://mh-distillery.com/), instead going back to Jaffa with part of the group to see Israeli fashion in the “Fleamarket” shopping area. We visited Maskit, Israel’s original fashion house founded in 1954 by Ruth Dayan, the first wife of of the famous eye-patched general, Moshe Dayan. Her task was to help provide work opportunities for new immigrants in Israel. Dayan chose to feature the handiwork skills of new immigrant and Arab women, especially from the Negev desert region. We learned about Maskit’s history, producing textiles, clothing, objets d’art, and jewelry. After its successful run diminished, Maskit closed in 1994 after forty years. It was subsequently revived in 2013 by Sharon Tal and her husband. The store’s best seller is the classic and pricey Desert Coat, a wraparound design first made famous by Audrey Hepburn. www.maskit.com
After walking around the flea market area and a quick lunch, we went to the ANU Museum of the Jewish People, the hugely renovated replacement for the former Diaspora Museum/Beth Hafutsot. Michal and I have visited there about a half dozen times, so we had coffee and relaxed for a while. I did return to one of the most interesting exhibits, where I watched many diverse, and I mean diverse, Jewish family heads virtually talking about their experiences being Jewish in their native lands. https://www.anumuseum.org.il/
After dinner at the hotel, we had a special, challenging sign language workshop at Na Laga’at (Please Touch), a unique non-profit arts and cultural center. It’s a meeting place between deaf, blind, and deaf-blind individuals and the general public. We’d been there once before for a theater presentation – exceptional – but this time we had a challenging session learning very rudimentary sign language. I was one of the volunteers and quickly found myself woefully expressing my idea without speaking. https://nalagaat.org.il/en/
The next morning, after the usual amazing Israeli hotel breakfast, we stopped in Neve Zedek, one of the very first neighborhoods that formed Tel Aviv roughly 120 years ago. We stood on a short bridge across a wadi (dry river bed), looking into the neighborhood. The last time I had been there was at least a decade ago, when the wadi was filled with trash, junk, and parked cars. And the small, nearby, old dwellings were mostly in poor repair. The change was dramatic! The buildings were clean and attractive and the wadi had been transformed into a landscaped feature with light rail tracks running down the center. Now I understood why Neve Zedek is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city.
Next we visited a few collective art galleries in South Tel Aviv, something like the East Village meets Off-Broadway. There we spoke to some artists, saw varied artworks, and then took to the industrial area streets on an explanatory tour of the area’s famous graffiti. Some of it was amazing, some more akin to defacement of property.
We stopped at the Sarona complex for lunch, where one can find innumerable cafes and food stands, or just “graze.” Sarona is a beautiful area of shops and offices in repurposed historic homes, restaurants and parkland in the heart of the city. Its origin is a late19th century Templar (German Christians who founded seven settlements across Palestine) farming colony. A prosperous industrious community, they built solid homes with distinctive red-tiled roofs and green shutters, many still standing and occupied in several Israeli cities. All was well for the Templars until the Great War ended in 1918, with Germany’s defeat and the British takeover in Palestine. Most of the German population were sent to internment camps in Egypt and their properties and livestock seized. Things eventually got back to normal, but with the rise of Nazism in Germany, many of the Templars became Nazi followers.
After Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, the Templars were again classified as enemy aliens. Four Templar settlements were sealed off and turned into internment camps. Men of military age were sent to a prison near Acre, while their families were ordered into the camps. Eventually, in 1941 more than 500 Templars were deported to Australia, while between 1941 and 1944 many more were repatriated to Germany by train, as part of three exchanges with the Nazis for Jews held in ghettos and camps. By 1949 the Templars were gone for good from Israel. They received compensation for their properties in the 1960s. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22276494
After a few hours at Sarona, the group departed for the Habima Theater, Israel’s National Theater. Around the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, nearly the entire Jewish theater – Habima – decamped for Palestine. At first its productions were mostly in Russian, but soon Hebrew took over as the actors quickly acquired it. We had an extensive tour of the massive facility, consisting of many levels, bottom to top, including a huge costume department, prop department, dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, and more. All of this was described by a young actress at the theater, who, like many other actors, had to do additional jobs to meet expenses. Though not yet a salaried member of the theater company, she hopes to attain that status, while continuing to work there and in other acting jobs. https://www.habima.co.il/en/
The last day of our tour included a fascinating visit to the Israel Intelligence, Heritage and Commemoration Center, aka the Mossad Museum. Our speaker, former agent and author Meir Amit, spent a few hours telling us the stories of a number of agents who were killed in service to our country. This was a totally different, and even more affecting, presentation than our previous visit. Afterwards we walked in the memorial garden and small synagogue, seeing the plaque on which were the names of those we had learned about, which was only one plaque of scores in the garden. There are even some plaques with no names inscribed, because even decades after their deaths their stories are still secret. https://www.iicc.org.il/
After lunch we arrived at The Squadron, a simulated Israeli Air Force pilot training exercise. There was an option for the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, but we had recently visited there for the second time. https://smnh.tau.ac.il/
At The Squadron, we were soon suited up in our pilot uniforms and gear and, after receiving instructions, were seated in front of flight simulators depicting take off and landings, rolling this way and that, shooting down targets, and trying to avoid crashing, while receiving help from the guides there (lots of help). It was quite an experience! I felt good that I didn’t ‘crash’ or get queasy; some of the others did.
That was the finale of our 4-day tour to Tel Aviv. It was the most time we’d spent in the city since making Aliyah in 1992. And we didn’t even have to go through airport Security!