At the excavation site of the 3000 year old City of David.

I have had a lot of trouble drafting a blog post about our trip to Israel. We were so glad to have made our first trip there and learned so much from the travel. But by the end of the visit, I found Israel to be very challenging. . . Here is my perspective on our first few days. . .

Christmas in Rome is festive and, happily, much less commercial than in the United States. Our goal was to head someplace even warmer than Rome for the school holiday. But our trip to Israel was especially well-timed because Nell had a very difficult time with the degree to which christianity is secular here and school activities and decorations are all oriented around christmas (and only christmas). Nell and Eli had to bring their own christmas stockings into school and Nell had to write a letter to Santa in Italian. Because she doesn’t even know any other jewish children in Rome, Nell ended up feeling very marginalized by these activities. This did give us a great opportunity to talk together about the value of living in other places, seeing what schools are like in other countries, and why public schools in the US try to adhere to a separation of church and state. Although the Italian curriculum was one hundred percent christmas, Nell’s English curriculum was comparative religion, which she really enjoyed and it perfectly prepared her for the trip to Jerusalem. During the trip, she shared with us a lot of information about Muslim traditions that she learned in school.

Along the rampart near the Dome on the Rock

Despite having heard awful things about the food and service on El Al, the Israeli airline, our experience was delightful. The kids were a little taken aback by the security interviews that El Al conducts before flights. We were subjected to an extensive interview before our flight home- probably because we had left Israel for a few days to visit Jordan. Two interviewers conducted the interview. One, the “bad cop,” framed it as peculiar that we had wanted to go to Jordan, found it odd that we said we were jewish but couldn’t answer any questions in Hebrew, and was surprised that as adults Jenny and I had never been to Israel before. He had many questions for us, including wanting to know what jewish holidays we celebrated at home, how we celebrated them, and whom we invited to our holiday dinners. The “good cop” kept apologizing for the length of the interview, explained the goal of the interview techniques, and told us that he was worried that a bomb may have been put in our luggage without our awareness while we were in Jordan. He asked us detailed questions about every aspect of our trip, repeating the same questions two to three times at different points in the interview, while being quite friendly and cordial. We understood, sadly, the need for these procedures—and hey, they make a lot more sense than having to remove shoes! Once past security everything was great. After the christmas-dominated month in school, Nell really enjoyed being greeted with “happy chanukah” by the flight attendants and the children enjoyed the traditional chanukah jelly doughnuts served during the flight.

Listening to a discussion about Hezekiah's Tunnel. . .Eli wants to actually walk through the water next time (we walked through the dry part).

An unexpected treat for us was Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, which is truly stunning! Eli said that in terms of architecture, it was his favorite of all the airports we have seen. We had not thought ahead to what kind of design might go into an airport in a nation surrounded by unfriendly neighbors, where security would have to be intense, but where millions of visitors make emotionally meaningful journeys. At Ben-Gurion the architects avoided the generic appearance of most large international airports- and it was noticeable the moment we emerged from the aircraft. The space gave us an immediate feeling of landing in a different sort of place that was both modern and ancient. The building is both calming and welcoming (ironically, neither of these features characterize a day in Jerusalem, but that’s another story). We found it very poignant that the departure and arrival areas were so extremely pleasant, given Israel’s violence-soaked history.

Walking through an underground tunnel from the City of David to the Temple Mount. The tunnel is currently being excavted and we could walk through because there was no digging the day we visited.

Our best decision was hiring an archeologist to guide us through Jerusalem. He had worked on a number of the big digs in the City of David and Masada and was well versed in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim biblical traditions. We had a truly intense two days in which we first learned about what people of these different faiths believed as we visited key locations in the city that are symbolically important. But then we dug down—so to speak—to evaluate the degree to which there is archeological evidence that is at least somewhat consistent with these biblical stories. It was truly fascinating and afterwards, we could better understand the sources of conflict in the region. After a day in which we walked and climbed and walked and maneuvered ourselves through underground caverns and pushed through throngs of people for nearly eight hours, the children said it was one of the best things they had ever done. They had stayed engaged the entire day and couldn’t stop raving about the guide and the experience.

Traditionally when pilgrims walk the Stations of the Cross, they are lead by a Turk. . .that tradition still continues.

We learned a Hebrew word that I believe is “בלגן,” which means “mess.” And Jerusalem  is indeed a huge mess. We saw mosques built atop holy jewish synagogues; the place of Jesus’ condemnation is now a muslim elementary school and tourists have to wait until the children leave at 3pm to visit the site, arab apartment buildings sitting atop the probable site of the City of David, armed guards and security checkpoints everywhere. . . it was dizzying seeing so many religions and so much history converging in such a tight space, and so many incendiary actions over time from all sides. Although we obviously knew about tensions between jews and muslims, we had not appreciated the tension between the various christian faiths—for example, there is so much political acrimony over the site of Jesus’ crucifiction (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), that the various christian factions cannot agree on management of the site and have had to entrust a Muslim family to hold the keys to lock and unlock the site every day.

It was fascinating to actually see sites that we had read so much about. Between Rome and Jerusalem, we feel like we are getting a crash course in Western Civilization. I was especially eager to see the Western Wall. I’m not so keen on most religion, so I thought maybe a visit to the city’s holiest place would give me a little nudge in a spiritual direction. It is said in Israel that one can pray to god from anywhere in the world, but when you stand at the Western Wall, it is a local call! It is also said that prayers offered at the Western Wall have a “better than average” chance of being answered. While it was a culturally interesting thing to see, it didn’t do much for me. In fact, quite the opposite: seeing the ultra-religious so deeply absorbed in prayer made me uncomfortable and not sanguine about peace in this region of the world. But Eli and Nell were intrigued and Nell followed through on her plan to offer a prayer at the wall for the grandmother of one of her dear friends, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. So whatever else, we all hope her prayer gets some attention.

The market in the Old City.

As with any good travel experience, I had a chance to become more aware of my own biases. When we saw the Israeli settlements on the West Bank, I realized that I had envisioned them in a way that was consistent with American history of the settling of the wild west. It was such a surprise to see that the West Bank “settlements” look like suburban, planned communities in Paramus, New Jersey and Fitchburg, Wisconsin (except for the snipers posted at the gates). In Israel, Sunday is a regular weekday— the first day of school each week, university classes in session, businesses open. . .that made us realize the extent to which our seemingly secular lives are indeed dominated by the christian calendar.

Dinner with the Knafos. Nell so enjoyed Sigal's paintings, that she drew some pictures inspired by the Sigal's art. Here we all enjoyed some fresh mint tea and jelly doughnuts.

A real highlight of our visit was a dinner invitation from Ariel Knafo, a colleague from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. We had a lovely evening and the best meal of our trip at his home with his wife Sigal, and their children Noam, Gil, and Orri.

Here are the things that I did not enjoy:

We all loved Israeli chopped salads (small squares of cucumber, tomato, green pepper, mint), falafel, and hummus, but overall the food was disappointing. Tel Aviv may offer better options, but we can’t rave about any restaurant meal that we had.

Taxis are a challenge everywhere, but Jerusalem tested even my well-traveled experience. The drivers just aggressively lie (“I can’t use my meter, it is broken” “You are going too far for me to use the meter”) and then when we threatened to get out of the cab simply turn on the meter. Every trip was an exhausting negotiation.

There was a very different sense of physical and auditory space in Jerusalem. We are used to crowding in Italy, but people surge and push much more aggressively in Israel. On our bus ride from Jerusalem to Eilat, people around us were watching different movies on laptops without headphones but with the volumes blasting, children were playing loud video games, and adults were literally screaming into their cell phones for the entire trip. There did not seem to be a shared notion of trying not to disturb people sitting nearby.

We noticed that families in Israel tended to have a lot of children. The smallest family we ever saw had three children, but many non-secular families had seven, eight, or more. The mothers all seemed to look chronically exhausted. I would describe the parenting style as either indulgent or extremely permissive. I love children but after a few days found myself overwhelmed by the uncontrolled way parents allowed their children to behave in public places.  But I guess that is what makes cultural differences so interesting: locals seemed unbothered by this and viewed the behavior as normative. . .which there, it is.

What weighed most heavily on me was seeing all of the young people carrying weapons. Eighteen year olds have to do mandatory military service (2 years for women, 3 years for men). At the bus station, we saw these kids with their duffle bags and diet cokes and cell phones heading off on their deployments. They were just the ages and looked just like the students in the freshman honors seminar that Jenny and I taught last year in Madison— except they all had machine guns slung over their shoulders. And seeing them made my chest hurt.

I left Israel feeling very tired and frazzled. Although I learned a lot and am glad to have made the trip, I don’t feel very keen to return. A friend observed that my reaction may reflect the fact that I thought I had a lot in common with Israeli jews. . .but American and Israeli cultures are quite distinct, and the similarities somehow made the differences feel more irritating. Nell learned, for the first time, about how many ultra-orthodox jewish women and arab women are treated and she wants to learn more about the situation, which she found (understandably) shocking. She also came home a bit disappointed because she looked forward to visiting a jewish state but didn’t find the people there to be as friendly as she had hoped. But Jenny and Eli seemed to enjoy the trip a lot more. Eli loved the archeology and the history of the city. He told us that he’d really like to go back and spend a semester or a year living in Jerusalem, maybe when he is in college.

My favorite image of Jerusalem is the city’s decision to require that every building be covered in the same Jerusalem stone. The entire city in white stone was a sight to behold.

But there is more to say about the trip. My fellow bloggers in the family are going to follow with their own perspectives on different aspects of our journey in the next few days.

– Seth