As I write this, I'm on a flight across the Atlantic Ocean back to the states. I'm returning from Israel, otherwise known as "The Holy Land", "The Land of Milk and Honey", "יִשְׂרָאֵל", or as the U.N. likes to call it, "Debated Territory".
I spent four days there, although I wish it would've been longer. The experience was undeniably unforgettable and one I am writing about for two and a half reasons.
The first and most important one is a remembrance. To remember the important events that shape one's life is, after all, the key to understanding the person themselves. In an age where its so terribly easy to lose sight of who you are, its especially important to keep track of your own past, as well as your future.
My second reason is to share the experiences I had in the ancient land of Israel so that others may grow from them as I have. It is this sharing of knowledge that takes a large part in us growing as people.
Now, I know I said I was there for only four short days, but that was just the four full days I was in Israel. I flew in at around 3 P.M. on Tuesday. It was then, on Nov. 6, 2018, that I received my first real-life view of the Holy Land. Flying in from the Mediterranean sea, I had the privilege of watching Tel Aviv's coast appear over the horizon. It's not like any American (or any other) coastline I've flown over before. This coastline is a completely and oddly straight transition from the sea onto the land as if someone drew a line through a piece of sparkling blue paper and colored a city onto one side.
As soon as I along with my travel mates had landed, we got a driver to take us all the way to the Dan Panorama hotel in Jerusalem where we were staying. It was a surprisingly quick ride from Tel Aviv to the hotel in Jerusalem (which was near the King David Hotel and Jerusalem's YMCA) which are two very important landmarks in the city.
The most immediately noticeable thing about the city, and one that I never expected, was that Jerusalem is built on top of mountains. It's not one that requires special vehicles or anything like that, but noticeable enough that no matter where one is walking in the city, its always either noticeably uphill or noticeably downhill. This can grow tiring but with all that extra exercise plus the fact that almost all the food there is healthier than it's U.S. counterpart, its no wonder that Israel is one of the healthiest countries in the world! And that's not even factoring in the energy that flows throughout every street. There's even a surprising amount of joggers all running at very good speeds. One night, on the last night, I ran from my hotel all the way to the old city and almost through to the West Wall all on a whim, but I'll get to that later.
Our first night in Israel was magical, to say the least. We went looking for some food and ended up walking up the hilly streets of Jerusalem to find a large shopping center. Before I even got into any stores, a group of schoolgirls walked up to me and began speaking Hebrew. Although I, at the time, had absolutely no knowledge of the language, it still felt very welcoming for someone to speak to me directly in the Hebrew tongue. Luckily they spoke English and were able to translate that they were looking for donations for a charity.
Walking around those streets that night, and interacting with the people as if I were one of them, was such an amazing feeling. I couldn't forget it even if I tried.
Day 1: The Old City and The Kotel
In the morning of my first day in Israel, I, along with those I traveled with, had a driver waiting for us outside of our hotel. We wanted a guide for the first day just so we'd know a little bit about how to get around.
The first location we journeyed to was a large lookout upon all of Jerusalem and some surrounding areas, as well as a view of the west bank desert on the other side. My view was amazing, although since I took it with my phone it's too small to attach to this article.
After that, the guide took us all to the Old City, where I walked through the ancient structures for the first time. It wasn't through the Jaffa Gate, but I can't quite remember where we came in at. We toured all of the city, starting by walking through the Jewish Quarter and then moving into the oddly overcrowded Church of the Holy Seplicur. Walking through the old city, over the old Jerusalem Stone roadways that have been smoothed by the millions of steps that were taken on them over the course of centuries felt truly amazing, like I was apart of the city's history just by being there. The bricks may not be as shiny as gold, but the sacred and gentle feeling I drew from each individual breath and each singular step made them feel just as valuable. It was on that day that I saw The Kotel (West Wall) in person for the first time. The wall that had been dreamed of by thousands if not millions from around the world, and the very same wall where so many lives had been undoubtedly been changed. Somehow, I got the privilege of standing before it and feeling its awe-inspiring power. While it was such a unique sight to behold, something about it felt almost familiar. It was sort of homey, a feeling of belonging.
While I absolutely fell in love with that sacred sight, there were a few things that felt offputting such as some tourists taking pictures there as if it were a private photoshoot. For those who don't know, the plaza where the West Wall resides is split up into three sections. The main section is right past the metal detectors where people can commune. The other two, the two that the wall is actually accessible through, are separated by gender. Male on the left side and female on the right side. I saw people posing for pictures on the lower sections in those male and female sides, and not just one or two pictures but an excessive amount. That just kind of rubbed me the wrong way, it felt like they were taking some sacredity out of the area.
Another thing I noticed was the fence on top of the wall. The wall has a few layers to it. The layer that civilians can touch is about the entire lower half of the wall, the ones made out of Solomon's temple. The other few layers on top were added for preservation or other reasons. However, on the male side of the wall, at the very top, a metal fence can be seen blocking off The Kotel from The Dome of the Rock above it. This was built because Palestinians and other Muslims who visited the dome and the mosque nearby it would throw rocks down from the temple mount onto the Jewish men that were praying. While I'm glad this precaution was taken, it's saddening to think it had to be taken in the first place. I suppose, looking back, what saddens me the most about not only the pictures but the need for the fence, are the individuals' lack of respect for the prayer going on at the wall.
Day 2: Judea and Samaria, the Jordan River, Masada, and the Dead Sea
My second day in the Holy Land was still with a guide. It was on this day that I first journeyed into Judea and Samira (the west bank). While I had seen it from the lookout over Jerusalem the day before, I still wasn't prepared for it at all. On the road descending from the high up city of Jerusalem into the west bank, you could feel your ears pop from the altitude change. Just like the trip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and unlike what I expected, the west bank was very mountainous. However, these mountains were almost entirely brown and dead with only a small desert bush every once-in-a-while growing on the mountainsides. Sometimes, on top of mountains, you could see the walls of Jerusalem Stone and a few green trees peaking out from within. The greenery is how you can tell where the Israeli Settlements are.
We traveled past many large Israeli date farms in the middle of the desert on our way to a tourist spot in the River Jordan. This was an interesting sight since on one side Israeli guards were positioned and Catholics sang while they got baptized. On the other, just across a rope barricade set in the middle of the river, a Jordanian guard stood in position. On each side, wooden stairs descended into the water so you wouldn't have to take a full body plunge immediately. What struck me as odd was the cold temperature the water held, although I suppose being in the desert it would cool down a considerable amount during the night. I walked through it nonetheless.
Next, we made our way to Masada: An ancient fortress built atop a mountain. King Herod built an escape palace on it and had it fortified for safety as an escape from the rest of the nation (since he wasn't a very welcomed king). Its main historical significance is of its Roman invasion. Since Masada is a fortress village on top of a very steep mountain, there was only one curvy trail to get up or down it which was known as "The Snake Path". The path made it easy when the Romans attempted to invade it since they could easily surround the mountain. The Jews living there were trapped for days looking at the Roman walls and army camps below them. At the end of the siege, before the Romans had officially attacked but were gearing up to do so the next day, the jews atop Masada chose to commit mass suicide rather than allow themselves to be abused and used as slaves. Their death toll was 960.
In the modern day of Masada, the walls of the once great city are crumbled halfway to the ground with only some structures remaining intact. On the far side of Masada are huts and even a synagogue who's structural integrity have barely even been pecked at by time's eroding beak. While I was exploring these huts, and looking upon the vast and empty mountains of Judea and Samaria, I heard my first "Am Yisrael Chai" chant. It was a beautiful song where, in this case, a group of Hasidic Jews visiting their home (The Holy Land) as what I can only assume is a rare privilege for them. They held shoulders and danced in sync while they sang the words, "Am Yisrael Chai!" Over and over again, the words meaning "Israel Lives Eternal!".
At some parts of Masada you can even see all the way into the dead sea, and further into Jordan. In some of their older religious buildings, you could still see some mosaic patterns left still intact on the flooring. On the furthest side of Masada (From the view of the main tourist building) Herod's palace hangs like a tower peeking out from the cliff's edge.
We moved on to the dead sea from there. While you could see it in Masada, the swimming area was all the way at the other end of the sea, close to Jerusalem. The dead sea water felt normal at first, but the ground I was entering the sea at was very rough and rocky. Meanwhile, every, few steps you might hit mud so loose you'd fall through to your knee.
Here's a warning for anyone trying to visit the dead sea that they don't usually tell you anywhere else: Watch out for salt boulders! In some parts of the accessible beach, it's easy to accidentally come across a giant boulder or even entire pillars of pure crystalized salt. While I was floating, I bumped into the very top of a boulder and scraped my lower back (and yes, it stung). I managed to actually pull off pieces of crystallized salt from the very same boulder and took home three pieces of it, but the boulder was so big I could stand on top of it and take multiple steps with even feeling an edge. As I left the dead sea, I noticed the water felt very oily on my skin when it dried. Luckily, there were showers on sight.
Day 3: The Temple Institute
This day, Friday, was a very easy day for us. We had a few things planned but didn't get to all of them due to Shabbat. (For those who don't know what Shabbat is, I'll explain it soon.) We were originally intending to attend a tour of The Temple Institute and then go to the Israel Musem, both of which were in Jerusalem.
The Temple Institute (which is located perfectly above the steps leading down to The Kotel) is the organization responsible for preparing the third temple's construction.
A brief history for reference: The First Temple was built by King Solomen, then later destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar II when the Babylonians sieged Jerusalem and enslaved the Jews. The Second Temple was built when King Cyrus of the Syrian Empire allowed the Jews to rebuild it. This temple was later destroyed when the Jews rebelled against the Roman Empire, who retaliated by destroying a large part of Jerusalem (again) with the temple included.
These two temples were located above The Kotel, what is now known as "The Temple Mount" where the dome of the rock stands. According to prophecy, the third temple is going to be built in that exact location. The Temple Institute is preparing for its construction by gathering required items such as special anointing oils, specially colored dyes, and specific sacrifices.
In the Temple Institute tours, there are multiple different rooms, each explaining their own unique part of the Temple's history, requirements, and future. The first room has images of past temples and historical items such as shofars or stone cups.
Now, for the sake of not giving too much away and allowing The Institue to regulate their own information, I'll skip to the final room of the tour. In this room was a video presentation added as final words from the institute to the audience. The presentation showed how yearning the Jewish people were for the Third Temple to be built. It wasn't lain on super sappy or thick, but somehow it still warmed my heart to see.
Next, we were planning on going to the Jerusalem Museum, but it was too late since Shabbat was going to start in just a few hours. Shabbat, in Israel, starts at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. During Shabbat (which is supposed to be a day of rest) no work is supposed to be done. This means that everybody (especially in Jerusalem) gets Saturdays off, as well as part of their Fridays in order to prepare.
As we walked back to the hotel from the institute, we crossed through an apartment complex and passed by a young Jewish couple taking pictures with their newborn baby. This wasn't a huge deal of an experience but it was a smaller thing that really made the city feel more real. By the time we got home, it was Shabbat.
Day 4: The Golan Heights
Day 4, my final day to walk the beautiful streets of Israel. Since everyone and everything in Jerusalem took an admirable day off for Shabbat, we all had to go somewhere outside of the city, or any city, to experience more of the country. The solution was to explore the Golan Heights.
The 'Golan Heights' is a mountainous northern region of Israel which was won from Syria in the Six Day War. Its one of the most spread out regions, populous wise, and is largely a farming area. Driving through it to the top of one of the mountains, we passed numerous cow pastures, orchards, and berry farms. Considering most of what I'd seen in Israel so far (apart from the ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem after I had gotten off of the plane) was city and west bank desert, this was a huge win over for someone like me whose main goal is settling down on a farm.
The mountaintop was beautiful, albeit cold, with sights that reached all the way into Syria. There were also two merchants peddling produce grown fresh from that very same area. As someone from the states, I can testify that an opportunity such as this is not a very common one. For that reason, I decided to buy a fresh pomegranate and a jar of Israeli honey.
I have a little bit of experience in the honey industry, and I can tell you that different types of local plants produce different types of honey. Almond trees, for example, produce a very bitter tasting honey whereas orange blossoms produce a very light and sweet honey. The honey I got from Israel was a very dark and fruity flavor, a flavor I have never tasted in honey before. I don't know what exactly caused it (perhaps the pomegranates) but I'm glad for it. The honey is absolutely magnificent!
The Golan Heights are definitely a place I can see myself eventually settling down, and perhaps starting a poultry farm to make the shawarma business cheaper.
We got back to Jerusalem just as the sun was going down over the mountain, meaning by the time I worked out and showered, Shabbat was over. Seeing how it was my last chance to walk around Israel, my travel mates and I decided to go into the old city one last time.
Sidenote: In the old city, near The Kotel, is a great food place called "Shishkebab" that I highly suggest. Great falafel and Schnitzel.
Anyway, while we were there one of my travel mates left a very important souvenir behind. This was the highlight of my trip for one simple reason: I was the one tasked with running all the way back through the streets of Jerusalem, both new and old, to locate it again. All the way from the Dan Panorama, back towards the King David Hotel, and left past the YMCA, then right to the Jaffa Gate. After that, it was a matter of navigating my way through the markets in the old city. All the way to The Kotel, and I found it! Running on my own, freely, through the streets of Jerusalem and the City of David is my favorite memory, even to the day, I'm editing this on.
The next day we had to wake up at 2 AM and reluctantly leave this amazing country behind. While the US is where I reside, Israel is where my heart will live forever.
I'm writing this, not as a cash grab or a simple half minded journal, but so my memory of this beautiful land can live on forever. Even now, as my distance grows further and further my heart grows heavier with a longing to go back.
Remember when I said I was writing this for two and a half reasons? Where there's the half, I want so badly to go back. Am Yisrael Chai.
Update: Customs stole my pomegranate, the honey's still good though.