Random reflections on Israel

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I know I talked about having more to say about Turkey, but that seems like a lifetime ago. Instead, let’s have a go at some thoughts on Israel, while I warm myself in Africa and get ready to tell you about that.


Language has been a bit of a struggle for me since I left France, but never more so than in Israel. Spanish and Italian were different but manageable. Russian and Greek came with the added bonus of a slightly quirky alphabet, but they were puzzles I could crack. Turkish was largely meaningless, but at least had letters I could recognize and sound out. In Israel official signs are in Hebrew and Arabic and both of them are completely impenetrable. Not only do the letters look more like art than language, they’re both read from right to left. It’s really really good that the other language most signs are in is English, and almost everybody speaks it too.

At least I knew what this said.


Steve’s Weird Food for Israel: This one was a bit tricky. Since I really embraced the SWF project, I’ve taken to asking friendly locals what kind of weird thing they’d suggest I try, and in Israel nothing really popped up. The Jewish kosher and Muslim halal dietary laws means that a lot of the usual suspects - innards and such – just aren’t very common in Israel. So what did I find? Only the second sweet offering of the trip, and the first beverage: shlab (pronounced sort of like sah-huh-lab).

Here’s the guy making up my cup.

I don’t have a good picture of my shlab, because I grabbed it from a street vendor while I was on the move with that first walking tour on the day I was struck down by the plague. But that doesn’t really matter because it’s not much to look at anyways – just a thick white concoction with sprinkles on top. It’s a winter drink, served warm, and tastes basically like runny rice pudding without the rice. Milky and sweet and vanilla, and thick enough that it comes with a spoon. The main thing that makes shlab different, and qualifies it as a weird food, is that one of its ingredients is flour made from grinding dried orchid tubers. Other ingredients include milk, gum arabic, starch and vanilla. It came in a standard-issue styrofoam cup, poured out of a big samovar-like container. After dispensing it into the cup, the shlab man dropped in a spoonful of sultanas and topped it with shredded coconut, ground almonds and sugar (At least I think that’s what it was. Whatever it was, though, was tasty.) All in all, it was a nice break from the innards.


Naturally, you see a lot of men wearing yarmulkes in Israel, but here they’re called kippot (that’s the plural, the singular is kippa.) And where do they buy them? Possibly from a shop called “Kippa Man” that I saw. Here’s just a sample of what the Kippa Man had on offer.

Spot the Rolling Stones, Maple Leafs, South Park and Pringles kippot!


The security at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv was… well I was going to say it was unbelievable, but in fact is was entirely believable and understandable. It was actually a lot like I wish airport security would be, though it means you have to arrive three hours before your scheduled departure time. It started before I even entered the airport – I was stopped just outside the doors and pulled over to a screening station with a metal detector and a security officer who had many questions. (I’m not sure why I got picked, but the same thing happened on my way in to the country. Right after landing, almost at the end of the jetway, I got pulled aside by a woman doing security and asked a lot of questions about where I was going and where I’d been and how long I was staying and what my next destination was. Once I got past her, passport control was a breeze.)

After I was allowed into the building, there was another long lineup where all baggage – checked and carry-on – was x-rayed, and I got quizzed again. After that all baggage was inspected by hand – and I don’t just mean all my baggage. I mean all baggage. It was opened up so the inspector could compare the contents to the previously recorded x-ray image of each bag she had on her big flatscreen monitor. Many many things were swabbed with the little explosives-detecting wand. And lots and lots of repacking was being done all around me.

Then it was on to the check-in desk, which took a bizarrely long amount of time. When I finally got through with that I still had to go through the regular security that’s like every other airport in the world. Except here again my entire carry-on bag was swabbed – inside every pocket and compartment, the covers of books, my computer, my camera, and my cell phone. They get a lot of mileage out of one of those little square bits of gauze in Israel, let me tell you. Finally I was allowed to proceed to the land of duty free, but the three hour wait I’d been expecting had turned into about 30 minutes to wolf down a food court salad and head straight to the gate. It was time-consuming and a bit frustrating, but at the same time I’ve never felt so safe getting on a flight in my life. (And no pictures, because I didn’t feel like missing my connection in Addis Ababa due to the fact that a guard with a machine gun was standing on my neck.)


The clash of cultures in Jerusalem is everywhere, especially in the old city. It’s probably exacerbated there because it’s such a small area – a mere square kilometer that’s home to about 35,000 people. This was brought home to me on my last afternoon when I did a tour of the tunnels along the Western Wall, which was quite neat. The tunnels run at the original level of the street from the time of the Second Temple, underneath 14th century vaults. It was cool to get up close to the original stones that were laid by Herod in 19 B.C.. Well, actually I don’t think Herod laid any of them himself, but that’s just nit-picking. The tour ran along the entire length of the Western Wall and ended up letting out at the far northern end. So just as I was emerging from being deeply immersed (heh… literally deeply immersed) in Jewish history for over an hour, I came up into daylight right across the street from the first two stations of the cross. And then I turned down the Via Dolorosa and straight into the Muslim souk marketplace. It all happened in about two minutes and two blocks. It’s no wonder they get on each other’s nerves, they’re right on top of each other.

An uncharacteristically wide and uncrowded section of the souk


I told you a bit about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and though I intended to go back I never did. One thing I liked though, is the story about the keys to the church. As I mentioned, it’s a contested site – argued over by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenians, and even the Coptics and Ethiopians. (Is it any wonder Jerusalem has such issues when Christians can’t even agree among themselves about things, let alone with Jews and Muslims?) In fact, the arguments go back so far that long ago Caliph Omar decided to give the keys to the church to a Muslim family for safekeeping. Since that time, more than 900 years ago, the same family has unlocked the church doors every morning and locked them every evening, passing the tradition down from father to son for almost a millennium. (This is another one of those mandatory tour guide stories, like the ladder on the window ledge.)

Greek Orthodox priests in the square outside the church.


Saran-wrapped luggage. I first encountered it in Russia, so it’s not just an Israel thing. And it took me a long time to figure it out. There are stations in a lot of airports where you can, for a fee, have your luggage completely swaddled in that stretchy plastic stuff. At first I thought it might be because the luggage in question was so dodgey that the owner wanted to make sure that it didn’t explode its contents all over the arrivals area. Then I realized that it must be a low-cost security measure. Either that, or lots of people are traveling with very, very large sandwiches.

King-sized ham ‘n’ cheese arriving in Tel Aviv.


You can buy actual, genuine antiquities in the souk in the old city of Jerusalem. There’s a short stretch along the Via Dolorosa where they’re congregated, and my tour guide said that they’re licensed by the government for this kind of thing. I guess the whole country is so completely crammed with archeological sites that the museums really can’t use another 750 small, chipped oil lamps or cracked jugs. Naturally there were no prices marked on anything in the display windows, and I was too chicken to go in and start asking. But imagine – you can just walk in with a wad of shekels and walk out with some genuine Biblical-age bit of antiquity.

Need a nice bowl for some chips ‘n’ dip?


And in closing, another non-Israel-related note: On my last night in the country I slept well, and I dreamt. When I woke up in the morning I didn’t remember much of the dream, but I remember this: prominent in one scene was a large dresser, filled with all my normal clothes from home, and finding it gave me with great joy. Later that night, mere minutes before the shuttle arrived to take me to the airport, the zipper on one of my two pairs of pants self-destructed and I had just enough time to pull out the other pair, which were sadly in need of a wash but at least functional. Sometimes I really miss having a normal wardrobe, and obviously my subconscious does too.


Unknown said...

Dreams: I have noticed for years now that I dream like crazy when I am on holiday. At home, maybe once a month, but when away, it is a festival of adventures every night. I think it is because one's brain is so stimulated by new things all day that it goes crazy at night.

Have you had the same experience on your trip?

Rob H.

Mitch said...

You didn't snap up all the habs tee-sirts?!?!?!?!?

Lisa said...

Love the luggage!!

Anonymous said...

I noticed I had odd dreams when travelling for a couple of months Down Under. My dreams are usually problem-solving, concise to the point of being lapidary, but I couldn't make sense of these - they felt like somebody else's dreams. Eventually, I figured the problem was I was in the wrong hemisphere.

Anonymous said...

My friend, Jacob belongs to a Jewish family. He called to invite me to his son's Bar Mitzvah in Israel, next year. I've been doing my research about Israel's customs and traditions and its interesting places, particularly, the religious sites.

This is going to be the first time ever that I'll be traveling to another country. You can just imagine my excitement. I hope to visit new places and learn new things during my Israel Bar Mitzvah tours.

Thanks a lot for this incredible post about Israel. I sure did learn a lot.

Post a Comment