How can a visitor experience the real Israel in seven days? If you’re my brother Charles, all you need do is hang out with us Kramers for a week. That just happened when my brother came to help Michal and me celebrate my birthday.
Charles arrived on a Friday, in time to join us and several friends for Shabbat dinner, always a special time of the week here. Whether hosting friends and family or being invited to dine at a friend’s home, there’s nothing like Israeli home hospitality. True, you can have the same type of Shabbat meal in the Diaspora, but here in Israel you get the full experience, with the majority of families sitting down to a family meal, regardless of their level of religious observance.
For Shabbat lunch, we went to Ra’anana to dine with friends at their beautiful home, a spacious penthouse. The weather was glorious and the company pleasant. After the abundant meal, we returned home to relax and prepare ourselves for the next part of the trip.
Sunday morning we headed towards Jerusalem. We interrupted the brief ride (an hour) to enjoy a short hike at a KKL-JNF park known for its agricultural terraces and pools. The Sataf site began around 6,000 years ago, in the Chalcolithic period, and terrace construction started around 4,500 years ago. Sataf attained its greatest size and splendor in the Second Temple and Byzantine periods. In more recent times, there was an Arab village which was abandoned during Israel’s War of Independence. Throughout the 1950s, the site was used as a training area by Israel Defense Forces’ paratroopers and Unit 101.” (www.kkl.org.il)
The park was quite crowded with school kids enjoying their spring excursions, as well as new army recruits being taken on cultural and historical tours to enhance their love of the land. Sataf’s agricultural terraces and pools, serving each of the two local springs, were rehabilitated by KKL-JNF starting in the 1980s, allowing visitors to observe hillside agriculture as it was practiced in Biblical times. There are various hikes throughout this area of the Judean hills, so we chose a relatively short one, to allow us plenty of time in Jerusalem.
Returning to the road, we soon reached the Mamilla Hotel, our home for the next few days. Located in the center of Jerusalem, this exclusive boutique hotel is ideally located between the Old City and the modern shopping and business district. In addition to great food and service, the hotel’s fitness facilities are terrific. The hotel is adjacent to the relatively new Mamilla Mall; both were built on what was briefly a “no man’s land” between 1948-1967, when Jordan occupied the older parts of the city. Those 19 years of occupation were the only time Jerusalem has been divided in its 3,000 year history.
After enjoying lunch at a Mamilla Mall cafe with a friend of Charles’ son, we rested before later exploring King David St. on the way to dinner. The main sites on our short walk were the iconic King David Hotel and, opposite it, the YMCA. The King David Hotel was built in 1931with locally quarried pink limestone (typical of all Jerusalem buildings) and was founded by Ezra Mosseri, a wealthy Egyptian Jewish banker. It has grand style, with public rooms which replicate differing architectural styles from the city’s long history.
Besides being the usual hotel frequented by heads of state and other dignitaries, the hotel was the headquarters for the British military around the time of WWII. As such, it was the target of an explosion by Jewish forces in 1946 by militant Zionist forces, with casualties of more than 100 (91 fatalities). It is a fact that three telephone calls were made prior to the attack alerting people to flee the building; these warnings were ignored by the British.
The YMCA, with its elegant arches, domes and tower, was designed by the architect of the Empire State Building. It opened in 1933 and was described in the world press as a center of cultural, athletic, social and intellectual life. The building contains the Three Arches Hotel and restaurant in addition to numerous public and educational spaces.
Our destination for dinner was the new First Station entertainment area, on the grounds of the Ottoman era train station utilized by the Jaffa-Jerusalem train. Today the renovated building and grounds host events, galleries, shops and many restaurants. (A high-speed train line is currently under construction.) We had an excellent “Asian Fusion” meal at one of the many restaurants and then returned to the hotel, not missing out on window shopping at the many art galleries near the King David.
The next morning we walked to the Old City via the Mamilla Mall, a distinctive pedestrian walkway lined with new shops and reconstructed old buildings. On our way to the Western Wall (the Kotel), we stopped at the Broad Wall, a remnant of the ramparts of Israelite Jerusalem of the First Temple period (1,000 BCE). The 7-meter wide wall is exposed for a length of 45 meters. “The western section of the wall passes through the remnants of a house that was probably part of a neighborhood previously built outside the walls. Apparently evacuated by royal decree, the king’s engineers used some of the stones to fortify the wall,” at the time of the prophet Isaiah and King Hezekiah. (www.jewish-quarter.org.il)
We were too late to join the English tour at the Temple Institute, which proclaims: “Our short-term goal is to rekindle the flame of the Holy Temple in the hearts of mankind through education. Our long-term goal is to do all in our limited power to bring about the building of the Holy Temple in our time.” The Institute has constructed many sacred vessels for the service of the Holy Temple, which are on display in the museum. “They are made according to the exact specifications of the Bible, and have been constructed from the original source materials, such as gold, copper, silver and wood. These are authentic, accurate vessels, not merely replicas or models. All of these items are fit and ready for use in the service of the Holy Temple.” While we were only able to enjoy the museum shop and book store, it was still fascinating. (www.templeinstitute.org)
Visiting the Kotel is always uplifting. Making our way through the throngs descending from the Jewish Quarter to the Western Wall Plaza, we entered the imposing space in front of the Kotel, where you can see people from around the world, Jews, Christians, and that day, even Muslims on a tour. Charles and I entered the men’s section on the left, while Michal visited the smaller women’s section. There, touching the ancient stones which were part of the ramparts of the Temple Mount, built by King Herod in the 1st century BCE, we connected to our ancient Jewish heritage.
On our way out of the Old City, we stopped at the Jewish Quarter’s most spectacular site, the Hurva Synagogue. Originally named the Beit Ya’akov Synagogue, this reconstructed house of prayer is a replica of what was the largest, most magnificent and important synagogue in the entire Land of Israel, the center of life in the Jewish Quarter. It was totally destroyed by the Jordanians in 1949, after they conquered the Old City and took the remaining Jews away to prisoner of war camps in Jordan (then called Transjordan). Hurva, meaning “ruin,” aptly describes the synagogue, which was originally built by Jews and then destroyed by Arabs in the early 18th century CE, then rebuilt in 1864 as a much larger edifice.
After the Six Day War of 1967, a ceremonial arch was built to remind Jews of the twice-destroyed synagogue with its huge dome. Finally, in 2010 the synagogue was rebuilt in all its grandeur. Tours in English are available with advance reservations. (www.jewish-quarter.org.il)
Famished by this time, we made our way back to the “new” city to the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall area. We satisfied our craving for street food with delicious falafel and shwarma, then wandered around the streets, especially Jaffa Road, a pedestrian-only street with the exception of the light rail system, a long term project which is in the process of being extended to more areas of Jerusalem. We stopped at one of the ubiquitous Israeli coffee shops on Jaffa Road before returning to the hotel.
That evening we met friends for a delicious fish dinner, accompanied by a myriad of freshly prepared salads. Like many eating places in Israel, the Ahavat Ha Yam restaurant is located above a gas station. It’s humble location was in no way an impediment to its popularity, as attested to by a crowd of secular and religious diners.
Before leaving Jerusalem the next morning we stopped at the renewed Israel Museum, which is celebrating its 50 anniversary this year. The museum, which is absolutely world-class, has wonderful archeological, Jewish heritage, and painting/photography sections, in addition to an outstanding sculpture garden and children’s museum. The renewal of the museum added much needed exhibition space as well as a better organized design, a more convenient entrance, and a large, excellent gift shop and numerous dining options. Charles and I enjoyed the Jewish heritage section, especially the reconstructed synagogues from around the world, while Michal toured several special exhibitions.
What was very special about Charles’ trip was the timing. As we entered Tel Aviv in the early afternoon, we were very aware of the fact that in a few hours a country-wide siren would sound and the country would literally come to a standstill for the beginning of the Memorial Day for Soldiers and Victims of Terror. Still, we had time to visit the Museum of the Jewish People (Beit Hatfutsot) on the University of Tel Aviv campus. First, there was a special showing on Amy Winehouse and her short life. Then Michal and I saw a special exhibition on Jewish tailors and designers (Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, etc.) while Charles visited a few of the regular museum galleries.
On Israel’s Memorial Day, which starts at 8.00 pm on the previous evening, all entertainment establishments are closed. There are no special sales, nor is it a day for picnics, just a work day with a heavy dose of remembrance and grief. We had arranged to have dinner at the Rothschild Hotel, which is the sister hotel to where we stayed, the Diaghilev Art Hotel, a few blocks away. Soon after we finished a delicious dinner, the 1-minute siren sounded.
We made our way to Rabin Square, a large plaza named in commemoration of Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated on that very spot in 1995. There were thousands of people thronging the square, watching and listening to speeches emanating from Mt Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. After the conclusion of the ceremony, nostalgic songs were sung and people reflected on those who had paid the awful price for our Jewish country.
In the morning, we left our well-located apartment-style hotel to visit the Yitzhak Rabin Center, which includes both a history of Rabin and a contemporaneous history of the State of Israel. Just before we entered the museum, we stood at attention for Memorial Day’s second siren. The museum pays attention to detail and presents the history of Israel in a unique way. As usual, there was not enough time to view all the exhibits.
Returning to the center of town at Dizengoff Circle, we met our guide for the afternoon, Yigal Gawze, an architecturally trained photographer, who guided us through the “White City,” a UNESCO World Heritage site. The name White City has been given to Tel Aviv because of the abundance of white, International Style buildings which grace the city. Our friend Steve, who runs the excellent israelseen.com blog, joined us.
Yigal explained that the concept for a new garden city, to be called Tel Aviv, was developed on the sand dunes outside Jaffa in 1909. “The Scottish urban planner Patrick Geddes, who had previously worked on town-planning in New Delhi, was commissioned by Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, to draw up a master plan for the new city. Geddes began work in 1925 on the plan, which was accepted in 1929.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/)
Yigal then told us how “Bauhaus” architecture (the local name given to the International Style) became so prevalent in the city and throughout Israel. This spare, modern style of design and building, epitomized by Le Corbusier and Mies Van de Rohe, developed mainly in Germany, Holland and France, during the 1920s, before it migrated to America. Perhaps its most influential center was the Bauhaus School at Dessau in Germany, which closed in 1933, in the early years of the Nazi era. Because many European architects and Palestinians (Jews living in pre-state Israel) studied there and either immigrated, or returned to Israel, “Bauhaus” became the name adopted by Israelis for this new style. This building boom of thousands of International Style buildings coincided with the need for increased building based on the Geddes plan.
Typical characteristics of International Style buildings include geometric forms devoid of ornamentation, open interior spaces, and the use of modern materials such as glass, steel and concrete. As we walked through the Dizengoff Circle neighborhood, Yigal pointed out the best examples of the Bauhaus style, including the uniformly Bauhaus buildings around the circumference of the circle. We learned how architects in the Yishuv (pre-state Israel) modified some of the features of the International Style to suit the conditions of a hot, Mediterranean climate. I.e.: the balconies included an open slit near the bottom of the exterior wall to enable air circulation, windows were made smaller to keep out the heat, and the buildings were often raised on pillars to allow for shaded areas underneath.
We saw numerous examples of beautifully restored Bauhaus buildings but just as many examples of buildings woefully in need of restoration. We also saw cooperative workers’ apartment blocks, whose aim was to provide residents with equality of living quarters, usually surrounding a courtyard with amenities. The latter part of the tour was in the Rothschild Boulevard neighborhood near our hotel. We were surprised to discover very bucolic neighborhoods just yards away from the busy thoroughfare. Yigal’s tour was a real treat and is highly recommended. (http://telavivbauhauswalk.com)
After enjoying coffee on the boulevard, we relaxed before returning to the hotel. As the evening approached, the somber mood of the day began to morph into a celebration of Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948. This mixture of grief and memorializing turning into joy at the emergence of the State of Israel is uniquely Israeli, combining the bitter and the sweet, symbolizing the reality that our independence is intrinsically linked with our sacrifice to achieve – and ability to maintain – our freedom.
That evening, to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), we drove to Netanya to attend the annual dinner dance of the Forgotten People Fund (FPF). This grass roots charity, for which Michal and I volunteer, exists to help the Ethiopian Israelis of Netanya to enter the mainstream of life in Israel. Starting years ago by giving out food coupons, FPF now concentrates on providing scholarships for professional studies, as well as subsidies for summer camp and urgent assistance for families referred to us by the city’s social workers, with problems such as broken appliances and cut-off of utilities. This year’s event contributed about $10,000 to FPF coffers, a considerable sum which will be TOTALLY distributed via FPF programs. (www.fpf.org.il)
Thursday, Independence Day, was Charles’ last in Israel. We spent the day with friends, exploring Tel Aviv. We first went to the David Ben-Gurion House, in which Israel’s first prime minister lived for most of his adult life before retirement. Located near the sea, the relatively large house (which may have been two apartments originally) was very simple, which was the style of Israel’s first leaders. It was dominated by Ben-Gurion’s huge library, which encompasses almost the entire second floor. There were many other visitors, including loads of children who had a special room set up for arts and crafts projects on the theme of independence Prime Minister Ben-Gurion.
We then went down to the beach to see the flyover by the Israel Air Force, which was fun and included some awesome displays. The show was somewhat hampered by the unusual, fierce wind which buffeted the spectators. Nonetheless, thousands along the beachfront stayed to the end.
We then drove to the other side of town to the Yemenite Quarter, also near the sea and adjacent to the Carmel Market, Tel Aviv’s shuk (outdoor market). For the rest of the afternoon, the weather alternated between warm sun and light rain. That didn’t stop many from picnicking in the parks or eating in the restaurants. We found two adjacent Yemenite eateries serving simple, delicious-looking food. We took the first table offered to us and had a great lunch. Afterwards, we wandered into the adjacent Neve Tzedek neighborhood. While both areas date back to Tel Aviv’s founding early in the 20th century, Neve Tzedek is in the process of massive gentrification, with many cultural centers, restaurants, designer shops, and beautiful, reconstructed houses. Particularly impressive is the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater, where the Bat Sheva and Inbal dance troupes are based.
We finished our day, of course, with coffee and great ice cream down an alley from Suzanne Dellal. We all had a fabulous time during this busy week, made all the more meaningful for Charles by the inclusion of Memorial Day and Independence Day. We hope more tourists will come to Israel soon to see the miracle that has been accomplished in just 67 years!