By Stephen M. Tebid
As a frequent visitor to the Middle East, I thought my visit to Israel was going to be another trip to a region full of history. This trip had been postponed on several occasions because of the news from the region concerning violence and insecurity. Gladly, I was proven wrong on all fronts. I was in Israel for 3 weeks and during that entire time the total number of crimes of violence in Israel were less than those occurring in one New York borough in a single night.
My journey starts in New York, where at the end of November 2010, I caught a flight to Tel Aviv on the Israeli Airlines, El Al. I chose El Al because of its reputation as the world premier airline for security. But then I had the added bonus of flying on a large body aircraft 747 with lots of legroom, which is a good bonus for a 10-hour flight.
Tel Aviv is an excellent start for any Western visitor to Israel. Firstly, it is the most cosmopolitan and most westernized city of Israel. The restaurants are excellent and the menus represent all the regions of the United Nations. It is becoming an international fashion center, the hotels and nightlife are of world standards with attractive rates at all classes. Another alternative for a visitor is to rent an apartment, as the food markets in Tel Aviv are outstanding so you could cook at home if you so desired.
For my wife, who is a beach and sun worshipper nothing could have been better than laying on the Tel Aviv beach on the Mediterranean Sea, with the water sparkling clean, gentle waves that couldn't rock even a canoe, and the sand as smooth as baby powder.
Tel Aviv also holds many historical sites for the casual as well as erudite traveler. The museums are world class, even unique for their rich collections and special displays. The most educative are of course the military museums that bear witness to the history of the State of Israel. We visited the Etzel and IDF history museums. Tel Aviv also hosts the Diaspora Museum. Any prospective visitor to Israel should set aside a whole day for this museum. It is worth a college semester of Jewish history. Another attraction in Tel Aviv is Old Jaffa where you can visit St. Peter's Church.
A visit to the Yemeni market, just ten blocks from the U.S. Embassy is highly recommended for an array of less expensive goods, fruits, vegetables, nuts and cheeses. And for those who enjoy a good cigar with a glass of cognac or wine, a stop at Freddie's Cigars and Wine at the Hotel Dan two blocks north of the Embassy is highly recommended. Here you will find the largest collection of authentic and fresh Cuban cigars in Israel.
From Tel Aviv we took the train to Jerusalem, but we could just as well have taken a bus or hired a taxi. For the casual tourist, the religious zealot or the average history buff, entering Jerusalem is like a sweet tooth kid entering a candy store. The city is built on hills, which makes long walks difficult for the not so physically fit. There is an excellent bus system in Jerusalem which makes getting around easy and you can take the number 99 which will give you a tour of the entire city for one low price.
Visitors must be aware of the fact that Jerusalem is a very religious city and there are dress codes for some religious sites. Also like New York, Jerusalem is full of hustlers and you need to keep your wallet close to your heart. Take taxi's called by your hotel concierge or if out of the hotel, only ride taxi's with meters and make sure to ask the driver to put the meter on. This was completely different from Tel Aviv where the taxi drivers were not out to hustle higher fares and always used the meter.
The delights of Jerusalem are endless and so you must preferably arrive with a schedule of the places you would most want to visit. Otherwise you would need a few months just to go through all the historical sites in and around Jerusalem.
We started at the Old City, which is divided into the Muslim, Christian and Jewish sections. We decided to give a day to each section, and even then, there was still so much we didn't see. But a trip to the Western (or Wailing) Wall and to the Al Aqsa Mosque: Islam's third holiest site was a priority. We KAI visited Mary's grotto and Gethsemane.
Another important stop in Jerusalem is the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, which I thought was the most complete and instructional in the world. Even though I had visited the camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, I did not have the courage to go through the entire museum. It brings into reality the holocaust in a way that no movie, lecture or witness narration ever could.
From Jerusalem we took a day trip to Masada, the historic site where Jewish zealots resisted a Roman siege for years. Along the way to Masada, you will see the caves wherein were discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls (which are housed in a special wing of the Jerusalem museum and one should not miss this). You could also stop at various points and take a dip in the Dead Sea, which is shrinking every year by about 10 feet and may disappear entirely within the next two decades. The world famous Have factory is located at the Dead Sea as its products are made of Dead Sea minerals.
After a week in Jerusalem, we took a bus to Haifa. Haifa and its surrounding regions are Israel's industrial heartland with it highly developed chemical and computer technology industries. Our principal attraction in Haifa was a visit to the Bahai Gardens that are world famous. A surprise we found in Haifa, which is also known for excellent food, was, what we considered the best cheesecake either of us had ever eaten, at a cafe called Ego at the Panorama Center next to the Dan Haifa Hotel. The food in Haifa was less expensive and overall better than in Jerusalem.
We returned to Tel Aviv for a few days for my wife to enjoy the beach and for me to enjoy the cigars at Freddie's.
It is important to remember that from both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem there are guided and group tours to Amman, Jordan and Cairo, Egypt. There are also tours to such places as the Golan Heights, Bethlehem and Nazareth.
As I said earlier, you would need an entire year to visit all that is interesting to see in Israel and as you read this, my wife and I are planning our second visit. My bucket list now includes ten other visits to the cradle of monotheism and Western Civilization as we know it.
Stephen M. Tebid
Previously printed in Van Wyck Gazette, 2011 Summer Issue.