What to Pack for Israel?

My good friend Wilma visited me in Israel recently and one of the first questions she asked as we emailed back and forth as she was preparing for the journey was “What do I pack?”

I told her not to worry and to wait until a week or so before the trip to see what the weather forecast will be and then we’d talk. It was only later, on our many conversations as we traveled around the country, that it dawned on me that for those who have never been to Israel,  “What do I pack?” means much more than questions about a warm sweater or a pair of shorts.

“You should write a blog post about that” Wilma said, “Tell everyone what to pack!”.

Ok, she is right. So from the more general to the more specific, from the climate and the weather to the different religious sites’ attire requirements, and about the security, here goes:

  • We in Israel have what is called a Mediterranean climate, very similar to California’s Central and Southern coasts. We have four seasons: Spring (March- May) is warm and sometimes a little rainy in March/April, Summer (June – August) is HOT and dry, Fall (September – November) is warm with cooler nights and hopefully some rain towards October/November, and Winter (December – February) is cold and hopefully rainy. You may have noticed, we WANT rain. We pray for rain in these parts of the world. So if its raining, HALLELUJAH!
  • That being said, we do have several micro-climates in tiny Israel and they vary in temperature and precipitation.
    • The coast (Tel Aviv, Haifa, Akko, etc) is very humid and usually warmer than other parts of the country, hot in the summer and mild in the winters.
    • The Sea of Galilee area (Tiberias, the Christian sites around the Sea of Galilee) are 200 meters (600 ft) below sea level, creating what is called a tropical climate. Its always hotter there than most other places in Israel, making it wonderful in the winter but at times oppressively hot in the summer.
    • The Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights are high in altitude, therefore in the summer the weather is very warm and in the winter is quite cold with an occasional snow. It snows every winter on the northern part of the Golan Heights and respectable accumulations of up to a meter (3 feet) are common.
    • The Judean Desert (Masada, Dead Sea) is about 400 meter (1200 feet) below sea level and is the hottest place in Israel. The winters are mild (making is totally fine to bathe in and float on the Dead Sea) but in the summer the temperatures can easily reach over 40 degrees Celsius (+110 F). But, as they say in Phoenix, AZ, “It’s a dry heat.” 🙂
    • The Negev Desert is a wonderful place to to visit, especially in the spring and fall when the temperatures are warm and the nights are cool. The summers are HOT and the winters are actually cold, especially at night.
    • Eilat is a seaside resort city on the southern tip of Israel, on the Red Sea coast. It has temperate weather in the winter and is hot in the summer.
    • And Jerusalem. Many tourists do not realize that Jerusalem (and Bethlehem) are located in the Judean Mountains. Therefore, in the summer its not as hot as the coast but still pretty warm, certainly not humid, and the winters are cold. Yes, there is an occasional snowdrift in Jerusalem, but it usually doesn’t stay for long.
  • What is the main reason tourists end up in the hospital in Israel?? Dehydration! If you have a favorite water bottle, by all means bring it. A good tour guide will be a real nudge about drinking water, and plenty of it. As I tell my tourists: When I was in Tour Guide School years ago, we frantically took notes on all subjects and were freaking out because we had no idea how we would remember all those facts and figures. Our course coordinator told us that for the facts and figures we could always consult Rabbi Google, but the MOST important thing we needed to memorize was the answer to “Where are the bathrooms?” and let me tell you, she was RIGHT. So please drink lots of water. We know where the bathrooms are!
  • Oh, and bring a hat. Don’t worry about your hair-do, its more important to protect your head than to end up in the hospital from sunstroke.
hat

Always wear a hat! And wicking fabric travel clothes are awesome

  • And speaking of hospitals, always, but always get yourself Travel Health Insurance. Cause you never know.
  • What else should you do before you travel? Let your bank/credit card company know you’re traveling. You don’t want them to block your card because they suspect someone stole it and is using it in Israel.
  • And what about cash? Don’t worry about it. There are many ATMs all over the country so I recommend bringing your debit card or whatever card you can use to pull out cash from an ATM. And for goodness sake, if you have to pay a $3 fee for pulling out a few hundred dollars, just do it. Its so much easier to pay the fee than to waste time looking for a better place or a better deal. There are also many Change places, where they will exchange dollars/euros for the local currency.
  • Oh, and from years of experience, the most convenient thing to do is to exchange just a couple hundred dollars (or pull out of the ATM) at the airport when you arrive. Saves you stress the next day and you’ll be ready to hit the markets with some cash in your pockets.
  • Just so you know, and this is very important. Dress in Israel is very casual. And that means that people go to business meetings or even the synagogue in shorts and sandals when its warm, suits and ties are NOT easily found, and attire for the best restaurants in the country is leisurely. Absolutely no need to overdress or be fancy.
  • And now, what about appropriate attire for religious places? So here is the lowdown.
    • Women: As long as your shoulders are covered (short sleeve is just fine), your neckline is not low and you wear something below your knees, you are good to enter all Jewish and Christian religious sites. No, you don’t need a long skirt (I don’t even own one!) or to cover your head with a shawl. As long as your pants/skirt are below the knees, you’re fine.
    • Men: As long as your shoulders are covered (short sleeve is just fine) and your pants go below your knees, you are good to enter all Jewish and Christian religious sites. When you enter a church, you’ll need to remove your hat. When you approach the Western Wall, as per Jewish custom, you’ll need to cover your head. A baseball cap or hat works well or you can pick up a disposable ‘kippah’ head covering in the bin at the entrance and keep it as a souvenir 🙂
kotel attire

Short sleeves and pants are perfectly appropriate at the Western Wall. Whether you cover your head or not is completely up to you.

  • HOWEVER, there are two exceptions to the above rules. If you will be visiting the Temple Mount (Dome of the Rock/Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem), then if you are a woman, you will need to wear long sleeves and long pants, not tights, or skirt. Also, if you will be walking around Mea Shearim or any other Ultra Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, then long sleeves and covering your legs with long pants or skirt are appropriate. Check your itinerary.
  • When coming to Israel, don’t forget your swim suit! You have flown all the way to Israel so you better dip in the miraculous waters of the lowest place on Earth. Seriously. Don’t even think about not trying it out. Its a UNIQUE experience. And also don’t miss swimming in the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee and the Red Sea. Oh, and bring flip-flops or water shoes as well, as the salt crystals on the shore of the Dead Sea can be sharp and pokey and uncomfortable to walk on as you enter the water.
  • Speaking of water shoes, if you’ll be entering Hezekiah’s Tunnel in the City of David (and you totally should, its amazing!) bring water shoes or sandals as you’ll be walking in ankle deep water, in complete darkness for about 20 minutes. If you don’t bring the shoes with you, you can conveniently purchase them at the store.
  • So in summary about clothes. Dress in layers if in the spring or fall and wicking fabric travel clothes are magnificent.
  • And finally, what about the security? You will be surprised at the level of comfort and relaxed atmosphere here in Israel. Many tourists are wary and hesitant about traveling to Israel because other people, upon hearing of their travel plans have probably commented “What? Are you crazy? Its so dangerous!”. Well, its not. And the only way for you to believe me it is to see for yourself. So c’mon over. You’ll love it.

That about covers it. What else should you pack? Lots of patience because drivers in Israel can be a bit crazy, a good sense of humor and a positive attitude because that’s just the way you should always live, and great questions for your tour guide because this place is very, but very complicated.

If you have any other questions about what to pack, please do let me know.

See you in Israel!

The Circuitous Journey of An Extraordinary American Family

Boy, do I love it when seemingly unrelated events come together and fit into the puzzle that is my life. And, when they do, it gives me goosebumps and I re-think my stance on a Higher Power.

For those who do not know of my previous life in California, I lived in Salinas for eight years. Capital of Monterey County, Salinas is the largest city in the Salinas Valley, home of wonderful, hard-working people (especially teachers) and lots of lettuce and strawberries. I loved living and teaching there and one of my favorite things was teaching about homeboy Noble Prize winning author John Steinbeck, who was born and raised on Center Street in downtown Salinas. As part of my 4th grade curriculum, my students read some of Steinbeck’s stories and visited his home. We also headed out to the Monterey Bay and followed his adventures on Cannery Row.

So imagine my surprise, when as part of my Israel Studies Master’s Program at Haifa University here in Israel, I learned that John Steinbeck had some interesting Israel family connections!

Turns out that John Steinbeck’s great grandfather moved his family from Massachusetts to the Holy Land around 1850, settled in Jerusalem, then on a farm near Jaffa. At the same time, and following the same deep religious beliefs about the return of Jesus Christ, Steinbeck’s paternal grandfather left Germany for that same Holy Land, settled on that same small farm outside of Jaffa, met the Massachusetts fella’s daughter, married her, and the rest is history. However, somewhere in that family saga is a terrible tragedy of violence, murder and rape, international scandal and the intervention of the United States and Turkish governments, the rebuilding of lives and changing of names, the American Civil War, disguise as a dead man, a farm in Hollister, the Hamiltons of King City and voila… John E. Steinbeck III is born in Salinas in 1902.

It is a fascinating story and you can read it here by clicking The Circuitous Journey of an Extraordinary American Family

BUT WAIT!!! There is MORE!!! Once you’ve read the above research paper, you may remember that Johann Grossteinbeck, John’s grandfather, was a carpenter and joiner (a skill necessary to seamlessly join pieces together to make beautiful wood carvings).

Well, as I was researching for the above paper, my good friend Baruch Velleman called. He told me that he had begun working at the Kibbutz Gennosar souvenir shop and was selling his friend Lenny’s antique coins and carved wood pieces.

Baruch had previously told me the story of how Lenny Wolfe, one of Israel’s foremost ancient coins and antiquities dealers, had come by a cache of 19th century olive-wood carved pieces and was now ready to sell them.

“You know, the olive-wood pieces I told you about” he said, “The ones that are 150 years old from Christ Church in Jerusalem”.

Suddenly, the hairs on the back of my hand stood up.

I called Lenny.

I told him about Johann Grossteinbeck. I told him about my research. I asked him, “Could it be? Could it really be that one of those pieces may have been carved by John Steinbeck’s grandfather?”

Olive-wood paperweight and sewing kit

Olive-wood paperweight and sewing kit (c.1850-1920)

Olive-wood candlesticks and letter opener

Olive-wood candlesticks and letter opener (c.1850-1920)

And the truth is, that Lenny knows these pieces were made starting in 1850 by skilled woodworkers at the carpentry shop at Chris Church in Jerusalem, but that is where the certainty ends.

Several of the pieces have the stamp of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews (abbreviated to London’s Jews Society or LJS), but the actual woodcarvers’ initials or signatures are not present. In 1849, the LSJ helped found Christ Church, the oldest Protestant Church in the Middle East.

Olive-wood Flowers of Palestine book (it still has the dried, pressed flowers in it)

Book of dried flowers and photographs (covers made from olive-wood) with Bethlehem on front; House of Industry, Christchurch, Jaffa Gate (1850 – 1920)

It is quite tantalizing to think that Johann Grossteinbeck could have carved some of these 19th century olive-wood pieces. And that years and years ago, some unknown buyer bought these pieces at the Christ Church wood shop and took them back to England. And that Lenny Wolfe found them in England and purchased them. And that my friend Baruch helped Lenny bring the pieces from England to Israel. And that Baruch called me and told me about his exciting new job, just as I was researching the Steinbeck family’s connection to Israel. How cool is that!

This is certainly The Circuitous Journey of an Extraordinary American Family.