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!

Would YOU throw your children down the precipice?

Yes, I know, its quite a bombastic title, and yes, sometimes we do want to throw our children down the precipice… however, kidding aside, would you be able to, under certain unimaginable circumstances,  kill your children?

There have been such times in Jewish history, during times of oppression, violence, pogroms and most recently the Holocaust, when parents have had to take desperate measures, sometimes throwing children from moving trains destined to slaughter, handing over their children to strangers with no assurance of ever seeing them again, suffocating crying babies in order to save Jews in hiding from detection, or killing children to avoid their being raped, enslaved or killed by approaching enemy soldiers…

I cannot imagine being in such circumstances, however, to stand on the hallowed ground where parents took such measures is deeply moving.  Let me take you to one such place…

We are in northern Israel, on the Golan Heights and this amazing site is Gamla.  The year is 67 c.e. and the Jewish revolt against the Romans is in full swing.  Since not all the towns in the Galilee and the Golan are rebelling, Gamla has filled with refugees from other battles and towns, and with zealots who in their blind rage against the Romans  have decided to take on the most powerful army in the world.  Rebel towns are falling one by one, but Gamla refuses to surrender.

Flavius Josephus, who originally led the Jewish rebel forces in the North and fortified the town, describes Gamla in his book The Jewish War:

Sloping down from a towering peak is a spur like a long shaggy neck, behind which rides a symmetrical hump, so that the outline resembles that of a camel; hence the name, the exact form of the word being obscured by the local pronunciation. On the face and both sides it is cut off by impassable ravines. Near the tail it is  rather more accessible, where it is detached from the hill; but here too, by digging a trench across, the inhabitants made access very difficult.  Built against the almost vertical flank the houses were piled on top of one another, and the town seemed to be hung in air and on the point of tumbling on top of itself from its very steepness. It faced south and its southern crest, which rose to an immense height, served as citadel, resting on an unwalled precipice that went straight down into the deepest ravine…

It is clear how Gamla, from the Hebrew ‘gamal’ (camel), received its name

Agrippa II, the local governor,  lays siege on the town for seven months with no luck; the town is still holding out, hunger and desperation prevail.

Vespasian, the Roman general, and his son Titus arrive from Rome to quell the rebellion and make their way to the Golan.  After several attempts at breaching the walls of Gamla, the Roman soldiers break through and the killing begins… rebels, soldiers, women, children, all hell breaks loose in the tight confines of an overcrowded, walled  hilltop town.

Josephus describes the scene:

Despairing of escape and hemmed in every way, they (the Jews) flung their wives and children and themselves too into the immensely deep artificial ravine that yawned under the citadel.  In fact the fury of the victors seemed less destructive than the suicidal frenzy of the trapped men; 4,000 fell by Roman swords, but those who plunged to destruction proved to be over 5,000.

gamla 01

The precipice into which children were flung to their death

Never fails to take my breath away.

A walk around Ancient Gamla is a fascinating study of the lives of Jews during Second Temple times.  It includes one of the few Second Temple era synagogues ever found and several mikvehs (ritual baths).  Archaeological digs here also uncovered a treasure trove of Roman arrowheads, Judean coins, armor pieces, pottery, Roman sandals, ballistic projectiles, battering ram pieces, etc.  Some of these finds are beautifully exhibited in the Hecht Museum in Haifa and are certainly worth the visit.

gamla 03

The ancient synagogue at Gamla, one of the oldest in the world.

Today Gamla is a Nature Reserve which combines  history and archaeology, great hikes, gorgeous ravines, waterfalls, gorges and a walk through a cluster of Neolithic dolmens.

It is also home to dozens of pairs of Griffon vultures who nest in Gamla’s cliffs, and can be viewed from the cliff-edge observation point and visitors’ center.