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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do you know the way to… Jerusalem?

Sometimes it is the small, strange twists of fate that determine how history is written and let me tell you, my friends, this Land of Israel has to be the
queen of where quirky events that changed history happened…

Take for example, the road to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, spiritual and political capital of the Jewish people for over 3000 years, and a holy pilgrimage destination for Christians and Muslims for countless generations, is completely surrounded by mountains. Trekking up to Jerusalem from the coastal plain has always been somewhat of a challenge.

There were several ancient roads to the city traveled by Cannanites, Israelites, and Greeks. However, when the Romans, history’s champion road builders, conquered the land, they paved a main road from the city of Lydda (Lod) to Jerusalem. This Roman road was built along a mountain ridge line, thus maintaining a relatively stable grade up to the city.

Today’s Highway 443 follows this ancient Roman road, a comfortable, divided four-lane highway up the Beit Horon grade, past the city of Modi’in and into Jerusalem. Nice and easy. “What’s the problem?”, you ask.

The beautiful Ayalon Valley on the way to Jerusalem

Well, the problem is that even though Hwy 443 is easier, shorter and a more comfortable climb to the holy city, it is not the main thoroughfare, not the main entrance to Jerusalem. Huh? I know, I know.  Strange twists in history.

There was another ancient path on the southern border of the Ayalon Valley, through the narrow Bab al Wad mountain pass, up a mountain, down a valley, twisting and turning in gullies on its route from the coastal plain through the hills, up and down a few more times and into Jerusalem. It is a longer road, a very strenuous ride for donkeys, camels and the travelers who rode on them.

However, this longer, more challenging and perilous path was the road chosen by history to be THE one and probably not by coincidence is called Highway 1 even today.  (Click here to see Hwy 443 and Hwy 1)

And here is why.

It all has to do with a small, controversial detail in an important story from the Gospel of Luke, 24:13-35.  It tells of two men and their meeting with Jesus, exactly two days after his resurrection.

“That day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about a hundred and sixty stadia from Jerusalem…”.

Jesus joins them on their walk but does not reveal his identity, accompanies them to Emmaus, where they eat and break bread together, chat and then go their separate ways. It is only after Jesus’ departure that the two men realize the true identity of the stranger who ate with them.  They then go tell the disciples that they had seen Jesus in the flesh.  The disciples realize that rumors of Jesus’ resurrection had been confirmed and he had risen.  Very important story.

Jesus breaking bread with the two travelers at Emmaus.

However, where is Emmaus? Well, that’s complicated.

Some earlier versions of Luke say “160 stadia”, (a Roman stadium being about 600 ft), and therefore 160×600 ft is about 7.5 miles, putting the event right next to Bab el Wad, the aforementioned narrow passageway on the longer, more challenging route to Jerusalem.  Great! This site was chosen as the Emmaus of Luke.

As the Christian Byzantine Empire took control of the Holy Land (4th century ce), so began the tradition of Christian pilgrimage to Jesus’ homeland and the sites made holy by his actions and sermons.

Let me paint the scene for you:

Christian Pilgrim: Hello my friend, I’ve just arrived by boat from Anatolia. I need a donkey to get me to Jerusalem.

Donkey rental attendant: Sure, no problem. This fine donkey will do, he’s made the trip several times and knows it by heart.

Christian Pilgrim: Great! Will he take me by Emmaus, where my Lord Jesus appeared after his Resurrection?

Donkey rental attendant: Well, actually no, this donkey much prefers the easier route, less time, less hills, less problems.

Christian Pilgrim: What!? Are you kidding me? I have not come all this way to make it easy on myself or the donkey. How can I show my face back in the village if I don’t visit Emmaus? I’ll be taking the long and winding road, thank you very much!

Donkey rental attendant: (sigh) Suit yourself.

Why the long and winding road?!? Why?

There you go folks, that did it. The main thoroughfare to Jerusalem was therefore switched and Christian pilgrims made their way past the village of Emmaus (Hammat in Hebrew, becoming Emmaus in Greek, Neopolis in Latin and eventually Imhaus in Arabic). But wait, there is more…

In later versions of Luke 24:13, the distance from Jerusalem was changed to ’60 stadia’ (scholars don’t know why, misprint?) and latter pilgrims  placed the event at a different location altogether.  Just to be sure, the Crusaders built several citadels on this road to Jerusalem, at Latrun (from the French Le toron des Chevaliers), at Abu Gosh,  and at Aquabella (Ein Hemed).

Through the ages, Christian pilgrims also declared and visited the villages of  Motza and Kubebah as the “Emmaus” of the New Testament, all on this same road to Jerusalem.

So which is the real Emmaus?  It’s all a matter of faith, ladies and gentlemen.

First the Christian Byzantine pilgrims, then Arab Caliphates, Ottomans, British and even present-day Israelis still use this road as the main drag into town.

Today, the government of Israel tries to dissuade commuters from taking Hwy 1, it is often congested, more dangerous and causes great traffic jams at the entrance to the city.  Trucks are not allowed on it in the mornings anymore, big signs recommend switching to Hwy 443 or other newer roads, but many of us still prefer this winding road into the city.

Tradition!

p.s. There is, of course, more to this story, having to do with the Green Line, the Ottomans, the Palestinians, the paving of 1869, today’s political climate, etc.  Great conversation over a cup of coffee.