Learning, haggling, and very little chewing: my thoughts on ten days in Israel

Good morning, Monday. Back at it back at it back at it.

So let's get to it. I know you all are dying to hear about my trip to Israel so without delay, here's my take.

Israel is not a country of pleasantries. 

It is a homeland. A battleground. A sacred space. But it's rough, and for those more superficially inclined, a bit unpleasant.

I want to tell you that somehow my Judaism came running back to me with fervor and gusto and passion. I want to tell you that Israel feels like home because I'm a Jew. I want to tell you I listened in rapt attention to every last detail about the motherland and why it matters so much. But I can't. Because for all intents and purposes, that was not exactly my experience. My Jewish self loathing would not exactly allow for such epiphanies. Because I was too busy being hit across the bridge of my nose by an Orthodox man's hat just after takeoff from New York, a perfect metaphor fo the trip really, but more on the meaning of said hat thing later.

So back to the basics- we departed for Israel on Christmas Day and met my husband's father and his wife in Newark, along with the rest of our tour group. Yes, tour group. I said tour group. We greeted our group with bagels from New York City, in a bid to win over a bunch of Jews who wanted to get really, really Jewish. Think olive branch, but the Brooklyn version. It worked. 

After we boarded the plane, things got biblical.

Take the two Orthodox ladies, in full babushka'd regalia, running back and forth down the plane aisles because one of them lost their passport. Which, ps, you needed to board the plane so...really? This went on for what seemed like forever until they found them and collapsed into their seats. But then it turns out the Orthodox man in front of David could not sit next to a woman during the flight, so a game of Jewish musical chairs ensued, in which my father-in-law's wife had to give up her aisle seat in favor of a middle seat, just to take one for the team. Good on her. Noble.

And then our plane got evacuated. Because of a belligerent kid who didn't want to check his skateboard. I can't make this up. Oh and next to me was the Israeli Fran Lebowitz. Quipping and cracking with what appeared to be a much younger boyfriend, who seemed apt to laugh at every one of her snarkisms.  But I digress.

Because after the Israeli Tony Hawk got 86'd from the plane, we re-boarded and took off. And that's when the fun really started.

Over 10 hours of people pacing, shining big lights on prayer books and frantically discussing when to pray considering the 7 hour time difference, and an incident where yours truly got hit across the bridge of my nose by the hard edges of that aforementioned hat.  Crazy. And very much like Israel itself.

Israel is a place where your values are confronted with some very hard facts. Where everything is in your face, yet often difficult to see until you really see it. It's a place where you get bumped into  relentlessly, and your hummus is almost always slammed on the table instead of placed delicately in front of you. There is nothing delicate about Israel. Because there is no time for that. When you are surrounded by hostile borders and enemies, it seems irrelevant to say excuse me all the time, or worry that your table manners or waiter service are less than erudite.

 I couldn't help but wonder what all the Japanese tourists I saw were thinking- having been to Japan I'd say Israel is almost the opposite. Japan is quiet, considerate, delicate to a fault. Israel? Israel is loud, bustling, aggressive. Funny as a New Yorker I find any of that jarring, but I do. New York is not as abrasive or abrupt as people think. Israel on the other hand? Don't ever expect an excuse me. It ain't happening.

But it is also extraordinary in its richness of culture, character, and strength. Does it have the cleanest public bathrooms? No. It does not. But what it lacks in finesse it more than makes up for in importance. It's important to know that Israel, though a young country, has been through it time and time again. That its fighters on Masada thousands of years ago would rather commit mass suicide than be enslaved by the Romans. That three world religions- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have bled for Israel and will most likely do so again. Israelis are rough, tough, and completely wonderful. You just have to accept that they are not going to be polite or anything less than 100% real. 

Here's a few other thoughts I had while there:

If you are toothless, you will eat like a boss.  The food, though delicious, is often quite mushy. Think hummus, yogurt, and many other soft foods that require little more than a set of gums. I will admit this wore on me after a while. Plus it's hard to get past the presentation. As a visually motivated person, more often than not, the food in Israel looks largely regurgitated (David and I took to calling it much much (get that chhh sound at the end(. But like most things in Israel, get past the way things look and dig in. Because if you can ignore the visuals, you will enjoy some of the most magical food of your life. A favorite? The hummus at Abu Hassan, a joint in the truest of senses. If you don't know what you want, don't worry. There is no menu but the Arabic owned business will take care of you, as long as you don't mind your amazing bowl of chickpea'd goodness being slammed down on the table. Hard. Absolutely amazing food, and experience- full of local lunch time people and some in the know tourists. Good eating. Oh and- should you feel tired of all the dippy things, go for pizza in Israel. It's kind of great everywhere should you tire of the relentless mush. And coming from New York, you know I know my stuff.  Also so much garlic. Not great for romance.

Be prepared to go back to school. Listen I'm the last gal who ever thought I would be on a tour group, yet there I was, on a bus every day and I'm eternally grateful to my father-in-law for taking us on this incredible adventure. Again- I'm not much of a tour type. I'm rebellious and independent and require a great deal of personal space and free time when exploring a new place. But because Israel's history is fascinating, dense, and rich, it is nice to have someone tell you why, when, and what when it come to major historical importance. I admit my attention span ain't great, but I learned a ton. And there's a good chance I would never, ever go to an underground bullet factory or former refugee camp. Looking back, I'm happy we saw as much as we did. You truly can't avoid the touristy stuff in Israel, it's a big part of the experience. But be sure to build in some time to soak in the place. We bailed on the tour one day in Tel Aviv and found ourselves loving our walk through the Florentin neighborhood (Israel's answer to Bushwick) as well as a long jaunt through old Jaffa, my favorite place of the whole trip. Amazing old market and fabulous new designer boutiques. So so good.

Let push come to shove. This one's a doozy for Americans and most cultures. Israel is a place where you will most likely be bumped into repeatedly while perusing the halvah at the souk. It's going to happen. And you can't be mad at it. It's just part of the culture. Plus Israelis and Arabic people almost always sound like they're yelling, even when they're not. Takes some getting used to but then becomes a relief to not have to apologize all the time. And your elbows will come in incredibly handy when trying to navigate all the meshugas.

Haggle. A lot. One of my favorite things about Israel from the both times I've been there have been the amazing stalls in the markets of the Old City in Jerusalem as well as in Old Jaffa in Tel Aviv. Never, ever pay the price they quote you for that necklace, scarf, or trinket. They expect and want you to haggle with you. And don't be surprised if you get that leather satchel purse down to a quarter of the price you were originally quoted. I know. Because it happened to me. Also I found myself loving the game- the hustle is ancient and amazing in this part of the world and it's a lot fo fun to watch and participate in. You will more often than not end up in the back of a stall where something "special" awaits. The challenge is to get out of the stall with some shekels in your pocket. Good luck with that.

Enjoy the old, but embrace the new. Sure the old city in Jerusalem is magical, but don't forget about the amazing newness that Israel can offer. Two places that stood out for me were the amazing OCD in Tel Aviv, a tasting menu restaurant with two nightly seatings featuring the most amazing kitchen theater and food ( think eggplant ice cream and sublime fish). Then, I fell hard for Anny Jacobsen, a local designer whose store had me wanting absolutely everything in it.  And the amazing Neve Tzedek neighborhood is the oldest in Tel Aviv but home to shopping that can rival any fashion capital's, amidst old edifices and thousands of street cats.  I'm an old soul as you know so adore the mingling of old and new just about everywhere. Divide that by the mix of cultures and you've got the most special sauce around.

Oh and a quick style note- saw an excellent exhibit on Israeli style at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and it was great. In terms of style is it apparent in this land at all? Not exactly. It's not a place for flashy labels or fashion bloggers, a huge relief. It's truly the most casual country ever. One trend I noted was that everyone  (and I do mean everyone) was rocking Blundstones, the Tasmanian born shoe that's a cross between a Chelsea and a hiking boot.  I like 'em.

Don't expect a miracle. In terms of my Judaism, did I feel any more connected to it than I did before? Not necessarily. I'm not a religious person, but I know who I am and I am proud to be Jewish, but did not necessarily feel a pull towards being more observant. One highlight on the religious front happened in Jerusalem where David and I received an Aliyah (blessing) from the rabbi who bar mitzvah'd him. Incredible. It is hard to ignore the spiritual aspect and expectation of such a trip, but I'm not sure it made me want to be more observant. Though it did make me want to visit this magical land again and again. This time, heading south to Eilat and soaking in some sunshine. And I think that all of us on that tour bus, from all different mindsets, disciplines, and walks of life felt the same. And that's saying a lot. I did see a ton of kids doing birthright and to be honest, they could not have been more annoying (or more full of hickies). Bizarre.

Also funny- Israelis like to present things in questions. As in: "What would you do?", said with a shrug of the shoulders. I suppose this is because living in Israel is all about having to make very fast decisions, amidst a constant threat of attack or who knows what. I will say there was not a single second where I felt scared. Even when literally staring at some hostile borders or driving through some less than friendly places. And considering the actual national emergency of gun violence we have in this country, Israel felt safe. Very safe. Until it's not. And as many Israelis will tell you, it's not an if. It's a when.

And back to the Orthodox man and his weapon of choice (his hat), it's true the blow to my nose was not welcomed. But sometimes a blow to your comfort and quiet is a good thing, and truly, Israel will take you there. You will watch countless cheesy videos at tourist sites and wonder why someone like Spielberg can't do this country a solid when it comes to tourist films, but you will understand more about the complicated nature of this country, even when it feels blunt and painful and somewhat shocking. 

I suppose that's it for now. I've got to get my head in the game but part of me is still strolling around Jaffa in the sunshine, enjoying my daily bread amidst the most beautiful patina I've ever seen. If you like your patina with a side of hummus and a double dose of reality, go to Israel. It's quite an experience, religious or otherwise. I adored it and found it intriguing, frustrating, and absolutely delicious. And like many things worth unpacking, it's complicated. Cause that's what's up this first day back kind of Monday in the 718. Yours, in excellent adventures. XO