Monday, 2 March 2015

Israel: Eat, Pray, Love

Not quite 40 days and 40 nights but rather 4 hours and 40 photos to tell the tale via the Blogger App and a smartphone!
Israel: Eat, Pray, Love


Put a Serbian anywhere in the world and I bet you the first place she will gravitate to is the Market. After all, I am my father's daughter - Belgrade's green market "Каленић" was the greatest passion of his. So no wonder that the first day in Tel Aviv-Yafo and Jerusalem and Tiberia and Akko, I found myself at the Market. 
My first mission, given I've been told Israel's dairy products are exceptionally good: find the cheese most similar to the one I grew up on. White, moist, just salty enough to find its place between the Bulgarian feta and bocconcini. Add sesame rich Jerusalem bagels sprinkled with za'atar spice, few kinds of olives followed by amazingly flavourful dried fruits and a cup of hot sahlab sprinkled with cinnamon and toasted coconut and by the time I leave the marketI have had one of the most delicious meals all while walking around, pushing a stroller and of course - bargaining. At the market, you buy nothing without the bargaining. It's the mandatory part of the shopping experience!


The best liked choices for our sit-down meal affairs came as a surprise - for the most part they were vegetarian! Hummus, tahini, falafel, pita breads and our new favourite egg dish, which now replaces the omelette as our savoury 'emergency' meal - eggplant and black olive shakshuka.

Lastly - the guilty pleasures. Beware of temptations, they are on every corner (for the taste of heaven, do travel to the Arab village of Abu Gosh) - it is well worth the climb and the calories!


One doesn't have to belong to an organized religion to feel 'elevated' in Jerusalem. The drive alone up from Tel Aviv with our ears popping as we were reaching an altitude of 2474 feet or 754 meters suggested there must be a reason why this city was founded in this exact location in the 4th millennium BCE. I will never forget that first sight of a high hill behind a hill behind a hill, deep green tall cypress trees and "Jerusalem stone" houses glowing on its tops. This city had me at 'shalom'!

Jerusalem's Arab quarter
One also doesn't have to know much of  ancient history to understand why every square millimetre of this sacred real estate matters so much. Blood still spills on its cobblestones just for wearing the Magen David symbol on a necklace. The insider's warning is to avoid the Arab quarter when the Mosques are finishing with one of the five daily prayers. Although the local Arab shop owners appeal for this location to be spared the occasional fanatic will still carry a knife. One such incident occurred just two days prior to our somewhat-rushed stroll through the Arab market on our way to the Kotel. Thankfully, both victims survived. For once it was beneficial to look like a stupid tourist (more specifically: a stupid tourist with a double espresso in hand to trick the 7h time difference!).

Jerusalem is an equivalent of 'all you can pray buffet' where every religion and every stream has its place. 

And then there is the Kotel. The Wailing Wall. For something as universal as tears and hope and something as powerful as the ask and the intention. I am a believer that one need not know how to pray in order to have a profound and meaningful experience at the only remaining wall of the twice-destroyed Jewish Temple.

The Wailing Wall
My first time at the Wall - I nervously clutched a piece of paper I had ripped from a journal and on which I wrote in Serbian Cyrillic my greatest wishes for each family member and close friend. I folded it many times, pressing the edges so they were neat and sharp and able to get into a crack in the wall in between thousands of other notes. Why in my original language? Firstly, I do believe that the great spirit understands everything. But to tell the truth, I also kind of felt that should some faithful soul were to  'clean up' after the last of us retires for the night and just so happens to read my plea a bit before God does, I wanted to trick her and protect my deeply intimate whisper to the divine and therefore earn the consideration for all my wishes to be fulfilled. 

I approached the feminine side of the wall with the jitters, yet that didn't surprise me. I've been waiting for this moment for the last 27 years (as described in my previous blog). What did surprise me is that when my forehead touched the cool, smooth surface of the wall for the first time, the flattened paper still in my hand, my eyes closed and my lips parted reciting slowly and with deep care every word of the Shehecheyanu prayer in Hebrew that my heart felt like it was on fire. Warm tears streamed down my cheeks. Just like the moment of giving birth to each of my children, this moment will stay extraordinarily vivid in my memory. There was something intensely clear in this experience. 

Just as I was falling asleep that night I had another goose-bump reaction - I had  forgotten to include myself - my own personal hopes and wishes for my life.  So the next day, feeling it might be a tad too late, I jotted it all down, this time in English because it's faster, and I rushed down to the wall. Not sure if God would even bother to consider it, partly because I was 'unreasonably greedy' in what I asked and partly because, being an ambitious beginner blogger, I figured my readers might appreciate a visual of the wall and notes and... hence the profile selfie. Judge me all you want - it won't be worse than how I have already judged myself!



Other than for politics and the politicians I neither understand nor care about regardless of the country I'm in (the elections are in only two weeks from today and Bibi Netanyahu is confidently smiling from billboards all over Israel) I pretty much loved everything else. 
Here is my top ten list:

1. I loved meeting my warm and welcoming and ginormous extended family. Hasson's and Hanan's - Thank you! I felt at home.

2. I loved seeing a glimpse of the complex map of the Middle East and sensing, going through the peaceful and prosperous Arab villages on our way to Tiberia with its unique architecture and tall minarets, that peace on this land is possible and in many cases already here. And not only peace in the geopolitical way but seeing Arab women living in Israel being protected from domestic abuse, equal and educated and having careers that matter. Girl power regardless of head-covering.
Mosque in Akko
3. I loved standing on the grounds of history's great yet often tragic tales. Being Serbian I understand the importance of defending the nation's historical and cultural cradle and the cost of failing to do so. This made me wonder: why do we know about the Las Vegas strip and not about Masada? This is Masada. Please Google it. Your breath will be taken away. I promise. 
4. I loved awakening my taste buds, unlearning the bland dangers of omnipresent North American GMO foods. 

I also loved seeing people shopping for Shabbat on foot, buying only how much they could carry and that could sustain them until things opened again on Sunday morning  (good luck trying to park anywhere near the Jerusalem Shuk - market, on a Friday!). Witnessing this made me feel ashamed of my atrociously large SUV/Costco runs - after all a lion kills only one antelope to feed his pride, not ten.

Jerusalem Shuk

5. I loved the blend of new and hip Tel Aviv (watch out Miami!) with the ancient and ethnic Yafo (think Scheherezade and 1001 nights) as one same city!
Tel Aviv


6. I loved standing in awe of natural wonders - 1300 feet below the Sea Level
Judean desert
and feeling the silky, almost oily feel of Dead Sea water on my skin.
Dead Sea and the view of Jordan

7. I loved being in the presence of true devotion...

An hour before beginning of Shabbat

Me'a She'arim - ultra-orthodox community

...and our family's lighter version of honouring our religious roots.

8. I loved getting messy with the Dead Sea mineral mud...

... and realizing I just publicly posted a photo of me in a bathing suit - a big No-No-PUHLEASE-No of the last decade!

9. I love Israeli music and I'm grateful for the serendipitous occasion of attending the "Eyal Golan & Sarit Hadad" concert in Yerushalaim - of all places!

10. I am choosing to end with the least romantic-looking of all my impressions of Israel - but likely the most important one. Wherever one looks, in whichever direction, whether in the city or the side of the road, on the beach or top of the hill, at any given hour of the day or night: cranes, diggers and front loaders are building a stronger and better Israel. Even more impressive - all of this is done with only 20% of the budget - the whopping remainder MUST be spent on defence. In only two generations the desert has been transformed into an oasis - shepherd villages into hi-tech genius hubs. Soon the serpentine highway connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv will be replaced by a flat and straight elevated highway; the fast railroad will bring the same two cities even closer through the mountain-tunnel speed rail. 

This is the dedication, the gift and the legacy the future generations need from us. Israel is already well ahead!

As I drifted off to sleep on our last night in Israel, it seemed to me that the last twelve days had been barely twelve minutes long - it had felt alive and meaningful and spontaneous and - surprisingly - safe.

So perhaps the next time you start contemplating that 'been there / done that' Caribbean vacation, you might decide instead to explore life from its very cradle and venture into the Holy Land. I quite certainly will!

From your blogging correspondent from the Middle-East: Laila Tov! Goodnight!

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