Four Ladies and a Holy Land (Israel)

May 2013

When my daughter was invited, last year, to speak at a conference in Haifa this month, I realized that, given my current work schedule, I could go with her.   We were joined by my sister-in-law Mary Jo (whose son Jeff is currently living in Jerusalem) and her cousin Carol.  So then we were four.

It was only a short trip (10 days, including a full day of travel on either end) so we didn’t try to cover too much territory.

Some photos of our trip can be found here.

Tel Aviv/Jaffa

We spent a couple of days in Tel Aviv, a modern city that, despite its location, feels like it is in Europe.  I’m not crazy about the Bauhaus architecture that predominates, but the beach is nice and the city seems very livable.  It was also a good place to recover from the 18-hour journey from California.  We spent an afternoon with a friend of Mary Jo’s in Herzlia, a pleasant suburb, and explored this historic port of Jaffa, now beautifully restored.


If Tel Aviv was still Europe, Jerusalem is definitely someplace else.   Hearing it described as “a city on a hill,” I imagined the rolling hills of San Francisco, not Chavez Ravine.  It’s remarkable that a city with such ancient roots could have been built in such a mountainous site, but it does have access to water.

Jerusalem is the spiritual capital of both Judaism and Christianity, and is an important holy site for Muslims too.  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall, and the Dome of the Rock are all located a few minutes’ walk from each other, and you could potentially visit them all in the same day (we didn’t).

Jerusalem is full of religious pilgrims of all types.  In addition to Christian clergy of all denomination including many in the unfamiliar garb of Eastern rites, there are Hasidic Jews in black coats and variety of hats, Arab Muslim and orthodox Jewish women in headscarves; and the occasional fellow dressed like Jesus.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which dates to the 4th C and encompasses the site where Christ was crucified as well the tomb of the Resurrection, is unlike any Christian church I have ever visited.  Ownership of the church is divided among the six oldest Christian sects:  Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox.  Each sect jealously guards its particular chapel, and holds its own services – often there are several going on at once.   In the 12th C, Saladin appointed a Muslim family to act as the Church’s official custodian, and unofficial referee; a descendant of the same family retains that position to this day.

The religious pilgrims who come here are unusually enthusiastic – kneeling, knocking their heads on the ground and kissing the edges of the various holy sites located within the church.  Some of the most demonstrative pilgrims were Russians – particularly notable since religious observance was officially banned in that country for some 75 years.  Even if you’re not a believer, you cannot help but be moved by their fervor.

Similarly, at the Western Wall, the sight of believers kissing the Wall or putting small written prayers in it, and walking backwards away from the Wall to avoid turning their backs to it, is spiritually overwhelming.

Visiting the Temple Mount, site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque, is more austere, since non-Muslims are not allowed to go visit the interiors of these mosques.  The buildings are impressive, however, and the site offers fine views of the Mount of Olives and the surrounding area.

One morning, I took the light rail out to the western edge of the modern city to see the Mark Chagall stained glass windows at Hadassah Hospital.  The 12 windows, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, are in a synagogue, so there are no human figures.  However, Chagall’s trademark animals make their appearance, as well as disembodied hands with Spock-like fingers.  (As Star Trek geeks know, Leonard Nimoy, an orthodox Jew, based his “live long and prosper” salute on the praying rabbis of his youth.)  Four of the windows were badly damaged during the 1967 war; Chagall repaired them, incorporating a piece of shrapnel into one of the new windows.

Not far away is Yad Vashem, a place of commemoration for the victims of the Holocaust.  The Holocaust museum on the site is probably the most comprehensive such museum in the world.  It makes two simple points very well:  (1)  the whole world was watching, and did nothing;  and (2)  we’re never going to let that happen again.


We spent an afternoon in Ramallah, in Palestinian territory.  The hardest part about going to Ramallah is getting there.  Ordinary taxis can’t cross the border, but my nephew Jeff, who teaches at Al-Quds University east of Jerusalem, knew of a taxi service whose drivers had the right kind of visas.

As we approached the border, a sign reminded Israelis that they were forbidden to travel to Ramallah without special permission.  This was followed by a second sign which, somewhat oddly, said it was strictly forbidden for Israelis to bring their cars across the border for repairs.  Sure enough, as soon as we crossed, we saw half a dozen auto repair shops, on an otherwise empty stretch of road, obviously doing a brisk business from clients on both sides of the border.

There’s not much to see in Ramallah.  In some ways, what’s most surprising is how normal it is.  There’s a lot of building going on, the shops are busy, and the merchandise is not much different from what you’d see on the Israeli side.  After a while, you begin to notice some oddities.  There are a lot of garbage bags on the street waiting for pickup, indicating suboptimal public garbage service.  There are an inordinate number of taxis – no public transportation.  And, although bathrooms are clean and modern, when you turn on the water in some places, only a tiny trickle comes out.  Water politics are a huge part of the story here, although rarely reported.


After Jerusalem, our party separated.  Tory and I went to Haifa for her conference, while Mary Jo and Carol headed for the Dead Sea and Tiberias.

Although Tory’s conference was notionally located in Haifa, our hotel was actually in nearby Akko – which was just as well for me, since Akko is more historically interesting.

Haifa’s main tourist site is the Baha’i Shrine and Gardens.  The Baha’i, perhaps the world’s first “New Age” religion, split off from Islam in what is now Iran in the 19th C.  They aren’t very popular in most of the Muslim world, which regards them as heretics.  But they have found a comfortable home in Haifa, which has good interfaith relations.  I’m not sure how many Baha’i actually live in Haifa, but Baha’i pilgrims come here from all over the world to visit the Shrine and admire the magnificent hanging gardens, which offer dramatic views of the sea.

Haifa is relatively young, by the standards of the area, but Akko has been continuously occupied for some 4,000 years.  St. Paul was here, and so was Richard the Lionheart.  Napoleon was defeated here, which ended his attempt to conquer Jerusalem.

Akko was an important Crusader site.  After the battle of Hattin, which led to the Crusaders’ loss of Jerusalem, their kingdom was based in Akko, which was then known as Acre.  Some of the Crusader sites have recently been excavated, including a magnificent staircase which was meant to be used by knights mounted on horseback.  The Templars once had a large castle here, of which nothing now remains.  However, you can visit the Templar Tunnels, whose purpose remains obscure – were they designed for clandestine communication, or were they an ingenious engineering project designed to remove silt from the harbor?

Akko also has a nice 18th C mosque, which is open to visitors of all faiths.  From 1948 to 1967, when the Temple Mount was part of Jordan, the Akko mosque was actually the largest mosque in Israel.

I was able to join a conference “field trip” to the Mt. Carmel archeological site, a system of cliff caves where it is believed Homo sapiens and Neanderthals may have lived side-by-side, some 50,000 years ago

Nazareth / Galilee

On our last day, we hired a guide who took us to Nazareth, a little over an hour’s  drive from Akko, and the Sea o Galilee.

Nazareth is far from the tiny village it was in Jesus’ time – today, it is a bustling town of 80,000.  It is a majority Arab town, but it has a large Arab Catholic population.  The Church of the Annunciation, built over the legendary site where Gabriel appeared to Mary, features mosaics of the Madonna in the costumes of Catholic communities all over the world (including a kimono-clad Mary with a tiny samurai baby Jesus).  Since it was Sunday, we caught a little bit of Mass in the local language – Arabic.

At the Sea of Galilee, we visited Capernaum (where Jesus preached, and where the apostles Peter and Andrew lived) and Mount Beatitude (site of the Sermon on the Mount).    At a Greek Orthodox church near Capernaum, we had a picnic lunch at a small pier that jutted out into the water – an uncrowded spot that made it possible to imagine what the place must have looked like in Jesus’ day (although I’m pretty sure there were no bananas or avocados growing there in the 1st Century).

We also visited the site on the Jordan River where, according to tradition, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.  Religious pilgrims come from all over the world to be baptized in the river.  The gift shop will even rent you white smocks – this is full immersion baptism, including a head-dunking.  Despite the apparent hokiness, it was obvious that the people being baptized regarded it as the high point of their journey.

On the way back, our guide pointed out the Horns of Hattin, the site of the momentous battle in which Saladin defeated the Crusader army in 1187, allowing him to retake Jerusalem.

Food and Drink

I found Israeli food to be quite enjoyable.  It basically followed a Mediterranean pattern (fish, olives, lots of vegetables) with the addition of Middle Eastern favorites (falafel, hummus) and some Eastern European imports (cottage cheese, dill pickles and beets).   Quality standards were high, although I found some of the local combinations (falafel with beets) a little strange.

Israeli wines were surprisingly good too, although it was odd to see names on the wine labels – Galilee, Bethlehem, Golan Heights – that you usually see in other, more political, contexts.

Tel Aviv is reputed to have the best food in Israel, but the best meal we had was at Uri Burri restaurant on the waterfront in Akko. We ate there our first night in Akko, and it was so good we came back for the last night too.  The restaurant prepared the superlative local fish and other local ingredients using techniques of fish cookery from all over the world, with remarkably felicitous results (e.g., fish “cured” in balsamic vinegar and beets tasted remarkably like miso-cured fish, while shrimp “ceviche” was enlivened with local lemons and cilantro).  On our second visit, we met Uri, a rotund fellow with twinkling eyes, merry dimples, and a long white beard – sort of a Levantine Santa Claus.  (On reconsideration, maybe I don’t need the adjective, since the original St. Nicholas, who was born in southern Italy and spent most of his life on the coast of what is now Turkey, was a Man of the Med.)