While my mom and I were sitting on the bus during our group tour we got to talking about my blog. She mentioned about how every night before she went to bed she wrote down all the memories of the day. Given we did so much it was important to write everything down so she wouldn’t forget. I don’t remember which one of us said it, but a brilliant idea sprung up during that conversation — why doesn’t she become a ‘guest writer’ for my blog and retell our family adventure in Israel? So without further ado, here are the first three days of our tour in Jerusalem, written by my beautiful mother.
Ever since Lauren left for Israel on August 24, Rich, Mark and I have been looking forward to when we would be able to see her in person. That day arrived on December 21. After a 10 ½ hour flight from Newark, NJ, we finally landed in Israel at 9:40 a.m. We went through customs, we picked up our luggage, and we found the person from our tour company that was going to bring us to the hotel. Needless to say, all I cared about at that point was to see Lauren. At 10:30 a.m., we walked to the waiting area and I heard “Mom… Mom”, I looked up and there was Lauren looking as beautiful as ever. You can imagine that was the biggest hug EVER!!!! I can’t describe in words how great it felt once we had that reunion. We met one of Lauren’s Otzma friends who was also waiting at the airport for her parents – and were surprised when we found out they were on the same flight as us! It was one of several friends/parents we met while on this trip.
DAY 1 – Jerusalem
Our van driver took us to the David Citadel in Jerusalem.
The ride from the airport to Jerusalem is about 40 minutes so we were able to see the landscape of Israel while catching up with Lauren. We were fortunate when we got to the hotel our rooms were ready so we checked in, caught up some more, and then exchanged our Chanukah gifts. After taking a short nap, we called Grandma and Poppi and Megan to let them know we were safely on the ground. Then we were off to explore.
The week before we went to Israel, Rich and I were fortunate enough to have an Aaliyah at the synagogue wishing us a safe journey to the homeland. After services we had a long conversation with one of the congregants who has been to Israel 18 times! One of the things she said we should do was to go to the King David hotel for tea and dessert. What a great suggestion! The King David is an older hotel but very elegant. The tea really hit the spot as did our desserts. I was so happy to see fresh fruit on the menu – actually it said seasonal fruit and when the plate arrived Lauren had to tell me what some of the fruits were. I don’t recall exactly what was on the plate but everything was delicious. But more important, it was so great to just catch up as a family. My one regret from the King David was that we never took a picture there but I’ll always have the memory. On our way back to the hotel, we noticed a building across the street that said YMCA on top. It was a beautiful building so we didn’t think it was an actual Y – but it was. I’d say it was the nicest Y we’ve ever seen. An interesting perspective to compare a YMCA in Jerusalem versus a YMCA in Pittsfield.
On the way back to the hotel, we noticed a beautiful outdoor pedestrian mall that was in walking distance. We decided to go there and while we were walking through I thought I heard someone talking to Lauren – and sure enough she was! Three of her Otzma friends were at the mall, including Vanessa who we would meet the next night for dinner with her mother – who was also at the mall. It was a chance encounter and not one I would have expected being 6000 miles away. But it was one way of me seeing firsthand that Israel is not a huge country and how easy it is to have a chance encounter.
We decided to head to Ben Yehuda Street for dinner as it is one of Lauren’s favorite streets in Jerusalem. On our way there, I heard a noise that sounded like a gunshot, a car backfiring, or something else – I wasn’t sure. I heard it again and then, after the third time, I asked everyone else if they heard it. We all did – and realized there was an unattended bag on the side of the road so the police had to blow up the bag. It wasn’t what I expected to see our first night, but after time has passed since the trip I realize it was another way for me to see what Israeli’s may sometimes experience. People weren’t walking around in a panic when this happened, rather, they just walked in a different direction and went about their business. The reaction there is so much different then it would be in the U.S. After walking a little further we found Ben Yehuda Street in a different direction! We were all excited to be able to see for ourselves what Lauren had been talking about – there were cute shops, street vendors, musicians, it was just a festive atmosphere. The restaurant we picked to eat in was Zuni (we liked the name because it reminded us of Zink – haha) – and it turned out to be great. The food was hot, everything was tasty, and it was a very relaxed atmosphere. It was a great ending to a great day.
DAY 2 – Jerusalem
We had our first taste of an Israeli breakfast. Lauren said it was a little more American than usual since they had bagels at the buffet (which I did not eat since Lauren said bagels are an American food not an Israeli food!). The food was good but different – I’ve never seen salad food in the morning – but this is very common for Israel. I just couldn’t get myself to eat salad in the morning but had enough selections to keep me happy. While at breakfast, the waitress asked where we were from and then Lauren mentioned how she lives in Israel now. The waitress offered to give Lauren her phone number in case she ever needed anything. Lauren said this is very common in Israel – people just help each other out whether they know you or not. There is something comforting knowing everyone there wants to help their neighbor.
After breakfast, we waited in the lobby for our tour guide to pick us up – Hileek is his name and we could not have had a better tour guide – more to follow on him as I write. I didn’t know after walking on the bus that first time that we would have so many stories to tell about these people. Our bus was very diverse – with Jewish families, non Jewish families, a family from India, single people, even three men with canes which was very impressive as there is a LOT of walking and they were able to keep up with all of us.
Our first stop was the Mount of Olives. WOW – what an amazing site. You could not believe you were looking out where Abraham went to sacrifice his son Isaac, where Jesus walked to his death, where the Muslims believe in Abraham and Ishmael – all in the same location – CRAZY!!!! There was also a cemetery up on the hill where many believe if they are closer to this area the messiah will save them later – and according to our tour guide people sell their houses so they can be buried here.
Our next stop was to see Jesus’ tombstone and to go to the room of the last supper.
Next stop was the Western Wall. You could feel the holiness when you got there. It was much larger than I thought it would be and there were so many people. Rich and Mark went to the left and Lauren and I to the right (men and women cannot pray together at the wall) and it was amazing to “hear” how quiet it was and to see so many people immersed in their prayers.
I instantly said my thanks and said my prayers and then we moved on to our next stop – the “quarters”.
There are three sections of the “quarters” where you can shop – the Jewish quarter, the Christian quarter, and the Muslim quarter. It was interesting to say the least to see the merchandise and the salespeople at each section. I want to make a comment about the Muslim quarter. It seemed a little more rundown then the other sections which was more an observation than anything. But what really struck me was some of the things they were selling. I noticed t-shirts that said “free Palestine now” or “middle east peace process???” with pictures of cartoon characters laughing below that statement. It just struck me that here I am in Israel, which is the Jewish state, yet things like this can be sold – and it is because Israel is a democratic country.
Our last stop of the day was a museum which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is amazing when you look at the artifacts in all these buildings how old everything is. When you leave the museum you have an opportunity to see a model of Old Jerusalem which is hard to believe isn’t a picture of the real thing.
We got back to the hotel around 5:30. I really wanted a chai tea so Lauren and I walked down the street to get one. It was the first opportunity I had to see Lauren place an order in Hebrew – and I was impressed! This certainly came in handy as the week went on.
Later that night, we had plans to meet Lauren’s close friends from Otzma – Ariel and Vanessa – along with Vanessa’s mom Mandy (who we had met the night before at the mall). A restaurant called “Eucalyptus” was recommended to us which is in the artists colony section. It was so nice to have dinner with some of Lauren’s friends and family. I had the experience to help the chef, Moshe, say a prayer over the chicken meal – it was fun! After dinner we went back to the hotel for some rest before the next day’s adventures.
Day 3 – Jerusalem
This day started out with a trip to Hadassah Hospital to see the Chagall stained glass windows. While the windows were beautiful and the description of why each picture is on the window was interesting, I was more impressed with the hospital itself – its size, its history, its mission. I was also excited to see a plaque honoring Bonnie Lipton who was a past President of Hadassah and is a Pittsfield native!!!
Our next stop was Yad Vashem – the Holocaust Museum. This was an emotional visit to say the least. Our visit started with Hileek telling us his background and how the Holocaust had directly impacted his family. Then he brought us to all the outside venues of the museum and explained what each section meant. At one point we went into a room that had the names of all the concentration camps on the floor and one candle lit in a monument in memory of all who died. I got very emotional in that room thinking about our tour guide’s story, but also about a story we had heard at our synagogue about six weeks before from a Holocaust survivor.
Later on in the evening we reflected at dinner about how we were all feeling after our first few days in Israel. I have to say, being there gave me a newfound respect for how Israelis can live with such optimism when at times there is obvious tension surrounding them. At the same time, I see how happy Lauren is living in Israel and how much she has grown as a person and realize this is just part of her and our life learning experiences. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to Day 4 and leaving Jerusalem. It was a holy and emotional few days and we were ready to move on to the less serious parts of our tour!