As the country celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2008, we have a new Israel, a surprising Israel, an Israel that was not part of the Zionist dreams of our sturdy, malaria-fighting, kibbutz-building, vision-seeing, life-risking forefathers.
Today’s Israel is a sophisticated place, a thrilling mix of east and west, low and hi tech, modern and ancient; intensely secular, intensely religious. For travelers looking for the unusual and willing to be a bit adventurous, Israel today will reward and surprise you. Let’s see what’s new in culture, sports and lifestyles.
Israeli Culture & History
Would our solid forebears be amazed — would Golda grin or Ben Gurion laugh? — to encounter such contemporary Israeli curiosities as:
Red Sea Jazz Festival
Cool jazz under the hot sun, at the end of every August. Hang out in the port city of Eilat under star-strewn skies and hear musicians who have gathered from all over the world to jam and riff in all-night sessions that spill out onto the beach and continue ’til dawn, and on . . . Annually one of the world’s biggest, greatest jazz festivals outside the U.S.
And tons of it in the brand new, big, bold and beautiful Opera House, the core of the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center in the heart of the city. See and hear internationally acclaimed stars sing Aida, Carmen, and Falstaff in their original languages with subtitles in Hebrew!
An Indian synagogue in the desert! Moshav Nevatim, not far from Beersheba, is inhabited by 120 Bene Israel families, Indian Jews who claim to be descendants of one of the Ten Lost Tribes. Immigrating in 1955, the villagers did their part to help fulfill Ben Gurion’s vision of making the desert bloom by planting and tending roses in the sandy land. And bloom they did. Twenty years later, with great pride, the community built a replica of their old and beloved synagogue, the centerpiece of which, the bima ,was imported from India. To visit this surprising and charming site, phone 07-623-8299. And, for small groups, Rima and Nehemia will prepare a fine Indian meal, Cochin style, in their home. Phone 07-623-3928.
Digs are Us
Archaeological digs, once the esoteric provenance of university scholars and archaeologists, have been spiffed up by academic marketeers to attract both financial support as well as “volunteers” (formerly known as slave laborers!!). There are many major ongoing digs throughout the country, details of which are available on the Internet at Archaelogical Sites. Now wildly popular, digs are a clever way to spend an exciting month or so at minimal vacation cost. Many satisfied “slaves” consider these digs the ultimate one-stop for study, sun, shards … you never know.
Explore The Old
Just to the left of the Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate is an immense cave with honeycombed chambers, niches, dark passageways, massive pillars, all overpoweringly strange and silent. For over 2,000 years, Zedekiah’s Cave has been a great place to hide from the noonday sun. This huge former stone quarry and/or burial cave is now well lit and marked. So you can see, won’t get lost, and can explore an incredible ancient site right under the hustle and bustle of the Old City.
Relive the Past!
The “Great King Herod Murder Mystery” is performed on Saturday nights at 10 pm in Jerusalem’s ancient (2700 year old) Citadel at the Tower of David Museum. In English and wittily interactive: four suspects protest their innocence and the audience gets to decide who murdered Aristobulus III, the 17-year- old high priest. Follow the actors through dimly lit courtyards, up stone stair wells. Outcome: you’re usually wrong. But the true culprit will step forward defiantly. [Hint: the butler didn’t do it.]
Sports & Recreation
By land, sea and air, Israelis pursue many sports. Why not join them?
Israel Tennis Center
Ben Gurion would be right proud to see our youngsters playing world-champ tennis in classy, up-to-snuff tennis and sport centers all over the country — Haifa, Tiberias, to Ramat Hasharon, Arad, Jerusalem and more. There are now excellent courts, too, in every good hotel.
Caesarea Golf Club
Israel’s one and only golf course was built right on King Herod’s own personal playground in Caesarea – it was a fabulous ancient port about 2,000 years ago. The club, 25 miles north of Tel Aviv, and hidden behind a banana grove, is open every day, has equipment to rent, temporary memberships for tourists, and a very pleasant restaurant-club house.
Israel Diving Federation
Located in Tel Aviv, you’ll get the scoop on scuba and snorkel news at this diving center.
This sport is a cross between parasailing and hang-gliding: you sail in a seat held aloft by a huge parachute way out over the deep blue sea. No leaping off cliffs, no need for reckless courage, just the desire to float as the wind lifts you to airborne serenity.
The derring-do urban sport of the decade has arrived in Israel full speed ahead. The most intrepid choose to blade around the obstacles in city streets. Less intrepid stick to the numerous Rollerblading rinks that have opened all over the country, like Crazy Roller in Herzlyia, Park West in Ra’anana, and/or the eponymous SK8 in Haifa. For downhill, high-speed enthusiasts, there are always the Jerusalem hills.
Ice-skating and Skiing
Real winter sports in hot and sunny Israel — brought to you by the folks who cleverly figured out how to enjoy whatever is winter in the Eastern Mediterranean. Canada Center (06-695-0370), is right up there in the village of Metulla, Israel’s north pole, and its indoor ice-skating rink is open 10 am – 10 pm daily. There’s a hot tub and sauna also on premises. A perfectly proper setting to meet highspeed former Muscovite champs who teach and twirl so well.
Or try the Israeli Alps! Mount Hermon is Israel’s highest peak (over 9,000 feet) and home to Israel’s one ski center, Neve Ativ (04/698-1333), located on the lower slopes. The hot season for the best snow is January through March.
Visiting Israel to celebrate a family bar or bat mitzvah? Introduce the family to one of the world’s most fascinating countries and take your teens off the beaten path, intellectually, physically and sensually.
Florentin, The Soho of Tel Aviv
A rusted, junked-up, industrial neighborhood, Florentin is still mostly rundown, but gentrifying on a daily basis. Quickly sprouting very late-night discos, fashion-forward furniture workshops, good food and drink joints, the changes here are swift and dramatic, so keep close watch.
Admire the View
Right near the old No-Man’s Land, a hop, skip and a jump from one of the formerly worst-sounding addresses on earth (The Hill of Evil Counsel), the “Tayelet,” in Jerusalem is a long meandering stone promenade built to maximize one of the world’s most beloved urban panoramas. Jerusalem, all of the new and old city, from the Tayelet, is still miraculously, monochromatically gold!
Israel’s MIT is the beaming heart and soul of the country’s extraordinarily successful hi-tech international export industry. After a major renovation, the Coler Visitor Center (04/829-3863), on the campus in Haifa has recently reopened. Stop here and you will leave feeling awed and inspired. A tremendous three-screen video dramatizes the most astounding innovations in Israeli science and industry: Nano tech! Molecular genetics! “Killer” neutron stars! Micro satellites! Step right in, ladies and gentlemen, for this, the greatest science show on earth!
How non-pioneer can you get? Sybaritic spas are cropping up in unlikely places. For example: the Regency Jerusalem (02/533-1234), built on the rim of the Dead Sea is very Vogue. A much more Spartan spa, and possibly the first ever, is the Ein Gedi Spa (07/659-4222), where you can bubble around in the pools fed by ancient sulfur springs. Mitzpe Hayamim (04/699-4555), in the Galilee, is an intimate vegetarian refuge, cozy and herbal, with a New Age attitude towards health and beauty. Or try the Carmel Forest Spa Resort (04/830-7888), conveniently located in the pines between Tel Aviv and Haifa, this spa’s clean-cut philosophy extends to no smoking, no cell phones, and tailor-made diets.
Hang Out and rub shoulders with macho types deep in the biblical Wilderness of Zin at the Negev Desert Research Guest House. Operated for educators visiting Ben Gurion University, they offer very basic accommodations on the edge of a magnificent canyon. The atmosphere echoes Raiders of the Lost Ark: short shorts, dark glasses, brimmed hats, heat and dust; plus aommunal kitchen to boot. 07-656-5079, Fax 07-655-5058.
Not spacey enough for you in Jerusalem, the ultra-ancient and now moderately modern city? “Strudel,” the Cyber Cafe is where it’s @ on Monbaz Street, Jerusalem’s only Internet bar. Your spot to surf the net, chat in ether, check out your incoming e-mail or e-out your photos anywhere in the world while sipping an espresso and munching homemade pastries. Phone 02-623-2101. Or e-mail the Cyber Cafe at: email@example.com
Ancient wine presses all over Israel prove that our forebears enjoyed a frequent l’chaim, and today we’re all proud of the great modern wineries of Golan and Carmel. In the last few years, off in the quiet countryside, small wineries have also sprung up, and each one makes a great destination for a pastoral excursion such as Castel at Moshav Ramat Raziel in the Judean Hills (02/534-2249), Baron Wine Cellars near Zikron Ya’acov (06-638-0434), and the tiny Mt. Meron winery in Mitzpe Harashim (04-980-2138) in Upper Galilee.
Even more surprising, a lovely wine bar has recently opened in Beersheba’s Artists’ Quarter serving good tapas, and wine by the glass, of course, in its own cozy little courtyard: “Hatzer HaYain.” 07-623-8135.
Chill out at Dr. Lek’s. Not the oddest name for the wildly popular ice cream parlor next door to Tel Aviv in Jaffa with its 30 flavors (including fanciful favorites such as poppy seed, date and kumquat) and long lines. . Another major ice cream energy center is American import, Ben & Jerry’s, boasting black-and-white cows “moo-ing” in clever Hebrew calligraphy.
Another way to beat the heat: Drink cold fresh-squeezed orange juice, anywhere in Israel, anytime night or day, and in any place, from humble to haute. For a more exotic chilly treat – sip some cold pommela juice. A pommela looks like a pre-historic grapefruit (not cute), yet tastes like citrus-to-the-max (divine).
Check out The Super (Duper) Sol, an ever-growing chain of marvelously modern supermarkets. The store displays an Incredibly rich source of pop culture information as reflected in what they sell and how they do it: herbal soaps, Dead Sea cosmetics, mixes for everything from felafel to matzo balls, and excellent source of gifts: local wines, olive paste, sun-dried tomato spread, chocolates, candies, organic honey, Holy Land nuts, dates and figs. Many now have sandwich and coffee bars. Most have on-site bakeries and many are open until midnight on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Many are also popular venues for singles’ shopping…
For further information and updates, call the Israel Ministry of Tourism InfoCenter at 1-888-77-ISRAEL or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tourism information on Israel is also available by visiting the Ministry of Tourism’s North American Web-Site: www.goisrael.com
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.