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Israel through a tourist’s eyes 

We recently spent an enjoyable time with Michal’s classmate from ACHS (Atlantic City High School). Jimmy has a great love of Israel and a great interest in Judaism – although, or maybe because –  he’s a religious Christian. Jimmy began his tour with three days in Tel Aviv-Yaffo (Jaffa), where he walked around the town, met people, got lost, ate great street food, and marveled at the sights, especially in Yaffo. 

Jimmy then took a bus to Kfar Saba and settled in at our apartment. The following day was Friday, so we went to our young friends’ nearby apartment for a festive Shabbat meal, welcoming in the Sabbath after sunset. Jimmy was impressed by the short ceremony preceding dinner (a “welcome” song and blessings on the wine and challah bread) and relished the incredible Israeli food. We all enjoyed his company, as did he: the chance to meet the two primary school age girls, the young married couple, their parents, and others. 

The next day the three of us traveled the short distance to Caesarea, to explore the Crusader and Roman ruins and enjoy a great lunch at one of the many seaside restaurants there. Another couple joined us and we had a long repast by the Mediterranean. Next we went to the newish museum there to see the film (we love the films) which portrayed King Herod at a critical juncture in his murderous career, his role in building Caesarea into the most advanced Mediterranean port of the time, and also the execution of his two sons for trying to replace him. No wonder he was called, “Herod the Great.” There were some wonderful artifacts in the small museum as well. Herod died from a hideous disease four years before the 1st century BCE.

After visiting the port and the “Old City” we enjoyed a walk to the area of  the Hippodrome, where chariot races and others events were held. There we saw reconstructed frescoes, an ancient lavatory, the Bath house and more.

A few days later we drove south into the Judaen desert, where we stopped at Qumran, located on an arid plateau overlooking the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. An archeological site dating back to the Iron Age, during its heyday Qumran was home to about 200 people, and included homes, cisterns, a fortress, a cemetery, and most famously, a series of caves in which scriptures were stored. 

“The discovery of these caves – and the Dead Sea Scrolls contained inside them – was one of the greatest archeological discoveries in history, and gave Qumran a permanent place in the imaginations of scholars, historians, theologians and believers around the world. The Qumran hamlet was established in the eighth century CE. A rectangular fortress on the site dates from this early period, which lasted until the Babylonian invasion of Judea and the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. The site was abandoned in the wake of the Babylonian exile, and resettled in the second century BCE, the Hasmonean Era [which ended with King Herod]. https://qumran.com/ancient-qumran/

Qumran was home to one of hundreds of Jewish sects in the period leading to the First Jewish-Roman War (66–73 CE). Today the Essenes are the sect mostly identified with the very popular Qumran site, especially among Christian tourists. It is conjectured that John the Baptist may have resided at Qumran for a time, which is most likely the reason for its connection to Christianity. Of course, there was a great film telling part of the story.

We continued on from Qumran along the windy and beautiful two-lane road between the Judean mountains and the Dead Sea. On the eastern side of the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth and the saltiest lake anywhere, are the higher, reddish mountains in Jordan.

But before we arrived at our Dead Sea hotel further south in Ein Boqeq, an ibex (a species of wild goat) marred our journey by smashing into the left front quarter of my new car! Out of nowhere, for only an instant, I saw the ibex crash into the car and careen out of my sight. With no place to stop or to turn around, I continued driving, luckily with no impediment to the car’s performance. Only when we stopped at the hotel a bit later did I see the considerable damage which the unfortunate ibex had wrought. 

Because of time constraints, we were only able to observe from the car the majestic sight of the famous Masada Palace, high on a tall, rocky mesa, where King Herod had constructed a summer palace. Ironically, within three generations Masada became the site of the (perhaps) legendary suicide of 960 Jewish Zealots (Sicarii see Note) in the face of the 8,000-man Roman army siege, just three years after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 CE. 

“According to Josephus Flavius’s account in The Wars of the Jews:

‘They had died in the belief that they had left not a soul of them alive to fall into Roman hands; The Romans advanced to the assault … seeing none of the enemy but on all sides the awful solitude, and flames within and silence, they were at a loss to conjecture what had happened here encountering the mass of slain, instead of exulting as over enemies, they admired the nobility of their resolve.’” Josephus Flavius is a remarkable historian, a Jewish general who famously became a Roman and preserved the history of the Jews for posterity. Today, many military events are held at Masada, as well as private events such as bar/bat mitzvahs in its ancient synagogue.

At our spa hotel, one of the Isrotel chain, we enjoyed a few hours in the Dead Sea-water pools in the spa. Jimmy didn’t miss the opportunity to go into the Dead Sea itself, just across the road from the hotel. It’s a unique experience to float (you can’t swim in this water because of its buoyancy and saltiness) or to just stand (which inevitably becomes some kind of floating) in the water. Skipping dinner in the buffet-style hotel dining room, we had a delicious dinner in the hotel’s Ranch House restaurant. But in the morning, Jimmy was amazed as most newcomers to Israel are, at the bounteous buffet breakfast which Israeli hotels are famous for.  

The next day, we set off after breakfast to hike the beautiful, moderate trail up to the Ein Gedi waterfall, which is a relatively short section of a much longer hike into the mountains, before dropping Jimmy off in Jerusalem. Ein Gedi, a very large oasis in the Judean desert, is a favorite site for Israelis because of its greenery, varied landscapes, and the proliferation of animals there. These include the ibex and hydrax (a small furry mammal).

Ein Gedi has a strong relationship to the Bible because it is where the young David fled from a jealous King Saul. “The Bible records that 3,000 years ago David hid from King Saul at Ein Gedi. When David surprised the King and spared his life after finding him unarmed, Saul said David would succeed him on the throne.” www.Jewishvirtuallibrary.org.

The relatively short walk to the foot of the waterfall was fairly crowded with families and school kids enjoying hikes combining nature and education. Upon our return, we ate our lunch at the entrance to the park and soon were on our way to Jerusalem. I didn’t imagine that dropping Jimmy off would be a problem. However, Jerusalem – like Tel Aviv – is in the midst of huge construction projects related to Israel’s burgeoning population, both apartment construction and massive subway-light rail-rail electrification projects which will continue for the next twenty years or more. Consequently we were held up in Jerusalem for quite a while before we finally dropped Jimmy near his hotel, not exactly in front of it, but close enough. He soon found his hole-in-the-wall hotel, which surprised him with nice accommodations.

An hour later Michal and I were at home, relaxing after the busy two days, but thinking about the next jaunt with Jimmy, up to the Sea of Galilee and the Golan.

Note: “The Sicarii – which may be translated as ‘daggermen’ from the Latin – were a group of Jewish zealots who lived during the 1st century AD. The Sicarii intended to expel the Romans and their collaborators from Judaea, and resisted their rule. One of the tools they employed in their effort to achieve this end was assassination, especially in crowded places, which was calculated to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies. The Sicarii are often considered to be one of the earliest groups of terrorists in human history.” https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-important-events/sicarii-jewish-daggermen-thirst-roman-blood-008179

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.
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