Editor’s Note: Airways Destinations is a new, occasional feature series highlighting unique travel destinations, often in connection with special flights. This feature is unpaid content unless otherwise noted.
Israel has always been at the top of my bucket list of places to visit. Here I am on the backside of my forties and a Jew. And yet for all the countries I have visited, I had never stepped foot in Israel.
There are countless excuses, none of them good. I certainly never had any fear from a security standpoint. But maybe I wasn’t ready for it. There would be just so much to take in on an emotional level that transcends any other trip.
When I, along with a small intrepid group of journalists, bloggers, and social media influencers, was invited to fly El Al’s inaugural Miami to Tel Aviv flight, I jumped at the opportunity. Scratch that! I pole-vaulted at the opportunity! Work and other airline commitments (even the final United 747 flight) be damned! This is one trip that I absolutely would not miss.
Besides, it would be great reconnaissance for when I bring my family to visit. The trip, designed by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism was a whirlwind, and I do mean whirlwind introduction to the Jewish State! A six-day supersonic excursion!
After a nearly twelve-hour flight on El Al’s inaugural flight from Tel Aviv to Miami, we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport. Within thirty minutes, we were whisked through immigration, baggage claim, customs, and we were on our way to Jerusalem. Our first impressions are paradoxically very western, familiar yet very exotic and a world away as well.
As a Jew, I felt home from the second I touched Israeli soil. With 43 percent of the world’s Jewish population living in Israel and 39 percent residing in the US, it’s no wonder both our nations enjoy a unique relationship.
Even in the airport, the energy is immediately palpable. We are introduced to our ambassador of passion and zest, our guide Amos Baron. Amos, who is in his early 70s is a human force of nature whose job it is to propel us from dawn to dusk and after-dark all over the Holy Land.
The man walked with a supersonic trailing boom. A former diplomatic and military officer, he has been a professional guide for thirty-two years through the good times and the bad. Amos speaks five languages, which serves his profession well. He even speaks Greek, not for his day job but because according to him, “I love Greek music and I wanted to understand the lyrics.”
His enthusiasm, pride in his country, and adherence to schedule would never let up. We barely keep up with his breakneck pace. I take to calling him “Amosopedia” because his knowledge about Israel and pretty much every subject seems to know no bounds!
He’s the right man for the job because our schedule was absolutely packed with sight after sight, experience after experience. Amos is determined we see, do, and understand everything.
This trip was constructed to be an all out assault on our senses and minds, not one for quiet contemplation. The Israeli MOT’s guide of choice, Amos would be the secret sauce for our sojourn. We began our expedition in the sacred city that Amos calls home.
This Year in Jerusalem!
Though they are in many ways worlds apart, Central Jerusalem is only 36 miles from Central Tel Aviv. We drove from one urban sprawl to another, where densely populated hills and Jerusalem stone-clad buildings were our first hints that we were entering the capital of Israel.
Jerusalem Stone is the dominant facade building material allowed by law. This law was instituted by a British Mayor of Jerusalem who declared Jerusalem the eternal city; so it should be built with eternal materials. This has continued to be enforced by the Israelis who don’t consider a building complete until it is applied.
Jerusalem is a holy city for the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While 72 percent of Israel is Jewish, Jerusalem is 62 percent Jewish.
Over 30 percent of Jews in Jerusalem are classified as religious orthodox versus 15-20 percent nationally. This minority is largely exempt from military service, and many don’t work as they spend most of their time praying and tending to religious observances.
The ultra-orthodox are a powerful and vocal minority, especially in Jerusalem that has become more religious. They live quite separately from secular society, tending to their large families. In fact, many aren’t required to serve in compulsory military service.
We checked in to the David Citadel Hotel, not to be confused with Israel’s most famous hotel, The King David. The Citadel was fit for a King nevertheless.
After a quick freshen up, we were given our first induction into Israeli society at the famous Mahane Yehuda Shuk: Jerusalem’s colorful and bustling fruit, vegetable, fish, and poultry market.
During the day, this is the main food market of the city, but after dark, it transforms into a nightlife hub of restaurants and bars. Think of this as Jerusalem’s version of Seattle’s Pikes Place market with a Middle Eastern twist.
Free samples, bargaining, and hawking abound as do fresh locally caught and grown ingredients. And don’t worry if food falls on the floor here, the “30-second rule” is fully in effect.
Among the “must eats,” is Levi Brothers – Home of the Flying Falafel. It’s like a food truck or the Wiener’s Circle in Chicago where the staff is as entertaining as the food is appetizing. And while our palette plundering is at it, we hit up a place where Middle East meets Latin Eats – Argento’s Kosher Empanadas.
Just outside the Shuk, The Cafe Culture of Jaffa Street belies Jerusalem’s stodgy, tense, and ultra-religious image. Of course, it is, but that’s an incomplete assessment.
With the city’s ultra-dense urban profile, the best way to glean a visual, social, and historic perspective is to venture up to the Haas Promenade and take in a panoramic view of Jerusalem.
All the city’s quarters and associated factions are on display here. A bike ride across the ridge’s bike path clearly shows Mount Olive, the Old City, the Palestinian areas, and even farther afield the Judean Desert, and Jordan.
When does a formerly disputed area become an undisputed fashion and high-end luxury goods mecca? Once a ghetto on the border between the Jordanian and Israeli controlled part of Jerusalem until The Six Day War in 1967, Mammilla is a now an open-air mall more synonymous with commerce than conflict.
Look ever so closely at the Jerusalem stone bricks. Why are there numbers on them? Mammilla’s buildings have significant historic value, so they had to be reassembled brick by brick and block and block by block so each brick and block is individually numbered. Got it?
The Mamila Hotel is further evidence that Jerusalem is not just holy, but hip! This newly built edifice boats the glamorous Mirror Bar, where we sampled labels and vintages from Israel’s burgeoning vineyards. Israel has over 400 wineries. Who knew? Perish the thought of much-maligned Manischewitz wine.
In less than 30 years, Israel has assumed its place with California, France, Italy, Chile, Australia and Argentina as a place of great grape. We have not so much a wine flight, as a multi-leg wine tasting. So many vintages beckoning us!
The Israel Museum
Take that Legoland! Located at the Israel Museum is a 1:50 scale original model of old city of Jerusalem in era of 1,000 BC to 1,000 AD. It is based on architectural research and digs.
There are multiple vantage points such as the view from Mount of Olives. The large structure in the photo is a model of the Second Temple, built by King Herrod, which was destroyed in 70 A.D.
Built-in 1960 as a memorial to a hotel developer’s son, it was relocated here ten years ago after being donated to museum. The model was built from same materials as the original city: stone, copper, and wood.
The Dome of the Rock is currently located where the tall structure in the middle is. The actual Temple was only open to the High Priest once a year on Yom Kippur.
The Dead Sea scrolls are located in a sombero shaped building. To preserve these precious artifacts, no photography is allowed. Some of the original pieces of the scrolls are on display here, of which a total of scrolls that have been recovered.
The centerpiece of this display is the scroll of Isaiah which is 734cm in length. Written around 100 BCE, it is the only biblical scroll that has been preserved in its entirety. The prominence of this particular book is consistent with the community’s messianic beliefs. One can get spend days in this museum. We only had a few hours to scratch the surface of the surface.
The Old City of Jerusalem
The Old City of Jerusalem only covers .35 square miles but is chock o block full of religious significance:
The Temple Mount and Western Wall – The most sacred places for Jews-more on this later.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre – The site where Christians believe Christ was crucified and buried).
The Dome of the Rock – Built on site on top of the Roman Temple Jupiter Capitolinus, which was built on site of the Second Jewish Temple after it was destroyed and Al-Aqsa Mosque which is the third holiest site in Islam where it’s believed The Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
The overall atmosphere of the Old City is very Holy, a bit tense, but also very touristy and kitschy (including an Alabama Crimson Tide stores) with bustling souks, stores, and bazaars. Its four quarters are divided into Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian.
Next, we encountered Via Dolorosa: The Way of the Cross Procession, every Friday at 3 pm, is led by the Franciscans. It begins at the Praetorium, the site where Jesus was whipped and condemned and reaches the site of the Calvary where Jesus was crucified and buried.
Pilgrims from all over take place in the Procession which has points along the way, designating Christ’s final journey.
It culminates at The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, controlled by 6 Christian denominations. This ultra holy and crowded place of worship is believed to be the location where Christ was crucified and buried and resurrected.
For me personally as a Jew, without a doubt, the most powerful part of this trip is a visit to the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall) and the Temple Mount. These are the most sacred spots in Judaism.
The Temple Mount is the location of The Second Jewish Temple that was destroyed by the Romans around 70 CE. The Western Wall itself was a retaining wall and only gained spiritual significance centuries later when it became a designated place of prayer because it was closest to the original walls of the Second Jewish Temple.
I am not an overly religious Jew by any stretch, but this pilgrimage is something I have looked forward for as long as I can recall. Religious or not, you can’t help but be swept up in the spirituality of deeply intense prayer, davening, and reflection – especially just a few hours before the beginning of Shabbat as we experienced.
As many worshipers are apt to do, I wrote a series of prayer for family and friends – alive and deceased, rolled them into scrolls and inserted each one by one into the wall.
Our guide Amos says the prayers “Have a 120 percent chance of coming true because the Wall is the ultimate wishing well.” Regardless of the outcome of the prayers, the spiritual power was immense.
Wearing Tefillin and praying at the Western Wall under the guidance of a Yeshiva Student from Milwaukee was another surreal experience. It had been years since this Mitzvah had been performed on me.
The Boy from Brew City knew exactly what he was doing guiding me through my rusty Baruch Atah’s. Enough amateur theology from me. Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!
A View to Die For… Literally
We woke up early on Saturday morning to a quiet Jerusalem under the spell of the Sabbath for a scenic bicycle tour. Our tour began at the original Jerusalem Railway Station that closed to rail service in 1998.
It reopened in 2013, converted to its current role as a hip mecca of restaurants, bars, and boutiques. In contrast to much of Jerusalem that is closed for Shabbat, this place absolutely buzzes with brunchers, bikers, and joggers.
It turns out Jerusalem has its own version of New York City’s Highline. The bike path, running on a converted rail grade, steadily rises to afford us breathtaking vistas of the city at Haas Promenade. These views give you a true sense as to the canyon and peak geography, history, and divisions that define Jerusalem.
Before Israel’s independence, The British took over Jerusalem over one hundred years ago. Until the late 1800s, the city was entirely located within the Old City Gates. Jaffa Gate was open.
Many of the buildings on right side of these photos aren’t considered completed as they don’t have Jerusalem stone facade. They are largely resided in by Arabs. From this panoramic spot, you can also identify the border area that separated the Jordanian and Israeli controlled areas before the 1967 War.
The real-life Walking Dead! In Judaic scripture, The Mount of Olives Cemetery is where the first resurrection of the dead will occur when the Messiah returns. If you want to be among the first to rise from the grave, better hurry & reserve your space.
With 3,000 years of burials here, there is precious little space left. All graves face toward where the Second Jewish Temple was located.
The Judean Desert: A (Dead) Sea of Living History in the Sand
The Judean Desert is in Israel and the West Bank that lies east of Jerusalem and descends to the Dead Sea – the lowest place on earth at 1,200 feet below sea level. It stretches from the northeastern Negev to the east of Beit El. It is vastly barren to the naked eye but is punctuated with places of historical significance.
On our journey, we find Jericho, an oasis and the oldest settlement in the world at 9,000 years old. After what seems like an endless drive, we encounter another oasis – one that seems like Primm Valley, Nevada.
In the middle of absolutely nowhere are a collection of hotels, restaurants (including a McDonald’s), and shops all catering to tourists visiting the Dead Sea. Our first order of business was a special Dead Sea Body Mud Wrap. Lucky for me, it was incredibly relaxing and therapeutic. Lucky for you, I didn’t take any photographs.
Our next order of business was the compulsory floating in, or rather on top of the Dead Sea. At fifteen times the salinity of an ocean, this body of water is devoid of all life except tourists.
We are all burning with amazement at being completely buoyant and because this water’s stinging sensation penetrates every cut, orifice, or body opening. Pro Tip: Don’t shave for two days before you come and don’t even taste the water. Battery acid is more refreshing.
The Dead Sea is an economic driver for Israel as minerals like bromide, potassium, salt, and magnesium are harvested from here. It is located in the lowest place on earth. At 1,412 feet below sea level, it out-dwells Death Valley.
The Dead Sea is not dying, but it’s not thriving either. Since the Jordan River that provides its water flow was dammed up, the Dead Sea is receding at 4 feet per year. It is thirty miles long, and the average depth ranges from 6 feet in the south to nine hundred feet in the north.
One of the crazier sites was seeing Israeli Air Force Jets flying at an altitude below sea level over the Dead Sea.
The next morning we venture up to one of the highest spots on the lowest place on earth: Mount Masada. From ground level (below sea level), the cliffs rise to about 1,426 feet tall, while Masada is only about 190 feet above sea level. The elevation is lower than Masada’s height because the base ground level is below sea level.
Rather than trek to the top on foot, our “intrepid” group traded steps for pulleys transiting to the top via cable car. Masada was an extravagant fortress built by King Herod the Great as a shelter of last resort and military outpost. It is unknown whether the King himself ever stepped foot on Masada.
Masada was the last vestige of the Jewish Resistance following the Roman conquering of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple. The Jewish rebels sought refuge here. But under seize and surrounded by the Romans; they were confronted with the choice of slavery or certain death. The leader of the zealots convinced the 960 Jews to chose mass suicide in 73 C.E.
Disclosure: The Israeli Ministry of Tourism provided lodging, transportation, food, and tours. All opinions, however, remain those of the author.
Special Thanks to Amos Baron, Dana Shemesh and Sheryl Stein for their invaluable assistance with this story. To contact Amos Baron, email Amostours@gmail.com.