Israel For The First Time - My Family Travels

Join this mother and 14-year-old son as they explore Israel's historic culture, examine their Jewish heritage, and discover another homeland.

It’s barely light as my son, Roni, and I emerge from the terminal at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, glad to be breathing the fresh early morning air after 11 hours on the plane from New York. The airport seems more modern and more hectic than when I was last here — in 1987, three years before Roni was born — yet it has a familiar feel. We find the taxi stand, and within a few moments we are settled in the back of a white Peugeot, speeding along the main highway that leads to Jerusalem.

The sky behind the bare brown hills begins to lighten; we pass a few scattered settlements, catching glimpses of dusty streets with tile-roofed houses, low trees and scrub vegetation, the colors soft and glowing in the sunrise. Gazing out the window, Roni keeps up an excited commentary: how the scenery compares with what he expected (even more beautiful); how much the view resembles New Mexico (one of our favorite places).

He seems awed by the simple fact of finally being here, something we’ve been hoping and planning for since his Bar Mitzvah, seven months ago. I’ve had many internal doubts and anxieties about making this trip, feeling slightly guilty for allowing the terrible pictures of the Intifada to enter into my decision-making, while at the same time, feeling the weight of responsibility for my son’s safety and security. These first moments in the taxi, however, make me realize how glad I am to have followed my instinct: I feel in my heart that this is absolutely the right time for Roni’s first visit to Israel.

I had also worried that the Israel I would find would be totally different from the Israel I remembered, when I lived and worked in Tel Aviv in the early 1970s. Both the country and I were both much younger then; more idealistic, more naïve. Certainly the world seemed — at least to me — much less complicated. I was fortunate enough to learn Hebrew with relative ease. The job I found, as a psychotherapist in Israel’s first community mental health center, deepened my identification with the country and the culture. From the moment I arrived in Israel, I always felt at home. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that my parents had fled from Europe just before World War II, and I grew up surrounded by their foreign accents and their strong sense of Zionism.

But will my son — whose life experience has been, in many ways, very different from mine and whose sense of himself as a quintessential American teenager is so clearly apparent — will he feel the same sense of connection and comfort in this place?

We return to Jerusalem in time to eat dinner by candlelight in the grapevine-covered garden of a restaurant near the hotel.


Jerusalem – The Beginning

Our 12-day trip fell into three parts: first, a chance to spend a few days touring with my brother, who is here for a scientific conference; then, an opportunity to join a Temple tour group whose itinerary, serendipitously, coincides with ours; and finally, an invitation to spend some time with old friends in Tel Aviv.

The first morning, we are to join my brother at the beautiful Inbal Hotel (972/2-675-6666) in the center of Jerusalem. Roni and I are accustomed to much more modest accommodations when we travel and we are impressed and delighted to find the hotel’s atmosphere welcoming and the location superb.

After a brief nap and a snack at a nearby kiosk, Roni and I decide to explore the neighborhood — a bustling combination of businesses, restaurants, hotels, and attractive apartment buildings. We peek into the dark wood-paneled lobby of the famous King David Hotel before hailing a cab to the pedestrian mall at Ben Yehuda Street, to sample one of the many restaurants there.

Ceasarea & Mediterranean Coast

The next morning, when the conference is over, my brother rents a car, and the three of us set out to visit the excavations at Caesarea, about two hours’ distant. We clamber up the steep stone steps of a spectacular Roman amphitheater that faces the Mediterranean, and watch in delight as the past literally meets the present: a group of stagehands are preparing for a skateboarding exhibition to be held in the 2,000-year-old amphitheater that evening.

We stay that night and the next in a modest hotel in the tiny hillside town of Zichron Yaakov, looking out over the fishponds of Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael to the sea beyond. This hillside is a favorite venue for hang-gliding enthusiasts—a fact we discover when several drift by just outside our windows. At dinner, we enjoy a spectacular sunset from the patio of a restaurant in Caesarea, laughing at the toddlers playing in the gentle waves on the beach below us.

The next morning, we wander slowly through the streets of a picturesque artists’ colony, Ein Hod, ever alert for more photo opportunities. We also try without success to find the grave of a distant cousin who is reportedly buried in Zichron; he came to Israel with the First Aliyah in 1915, and was killed guarding an early settlement in this area.

Exploring The Negev & Jerusalem

My brother must return to the States the next morning, and Roni and I have arranged to join the Temple Shalom synagogue tour group, led by our rabbi. They are, by coincidence, also staying at the Inbal Hotel (whose pool is pictured at left).

This is Roni’s first experience with a guided tour—he and I are used to traveling on our own, learning what we can about our surroundings from reading guidebooks.

I’m pleased that Aryeh, our Israeli guide, takes immediate charge. He’s very knowledgeable and passionate about his country, and I feel as if we’re being personally escorted by a professor of history and archaeology. Although he tries not to let it show, Roni pays very close attention, from the first moment, to all of Aryeh’s anecdotes and explanations.

We travel south that morning to the Negev desert, where we stop to bathe in the Dead Sea, then ride the cable car to the top of Masada. The brilliant sunshine and cloudless blue skies form a perfect backdrop for the stone walls and graceful arches of the ancient fortress.

Later in the afternoon, we arrive at a small, modest kibbutz founded by American Jews from the Reform movement, where we are to spend the night. As Roni and I stroll around the kibbutz grounds, the setting sun turns the nearby hills in Jordan to gold and red and purple. Roni and Scott, the other teenager in the group, go off to play basketball with some boys from the kibbutz, while the grown-ups revel in the dry, fragrant air, the star-filled sky, and the sounds of the desert night.

En route to Jerusalem the next morning, we stop to visit Mitzpe Ramon, a huge and impressive crater that reminds us (well, a little) of the Grand Canyon; we make another stop to explore Avdat, a lesser-known site encompassing the extensive and beautiful ruins of a Nabatean city.

The next morning, before we begin our activities, Aryeh insists upon giving us an hour-long orientation to the history and the layout of ancient Jerusalem. He is determined that we understand and appreciate what we are seeing, and that we share his passion for these places and their meaning.

Over the next few days, we tour several archeological parks and museums. At a small exhibit in the Old City, Roni listens with rapt attention to the story of a family who lived through the destruction of the Second Temple.

The next day, at the Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv, a compelling re-enactment teaches us about the lives of young men and women soldiers, not much older than Roni, who fought for Israel’s independence.

In addition to Aryeh’s commentary, I am impressed with the interactive exhibits in the museums we visit; they are visually and technically sophisticated, designed with skill and intelligence. But it’s not just technology that captures my son’s interest: in the auditorium of Dizengoff House, where David Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel’s independence in 1948, I see from the corner of my eye that Roni shares my emotional response to our young Israeli museum guide’s impassioned description of the events that took place here.

We wander slowly through the Arab market in the Old City, which is just as exotic as I remembered. For Roni, the smells of spices and the sight of the narrow, cluttered alleyways, hung with colorful fabrics and goods, are a new and fascinating experience. This is one place I had particularly worried about, wondering whether we would feel unsafe or uncomfortable here, and whether, indeed, we’d be able to visit at all. I am relieved to find that there are many other tourists and visitors. Though there is clearly some sense of tension, we are able to walk freely and we generally feel safe, though I admit that I find the presence of Israeli soldiers reassuring.

Also on our itinerary is Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust memorial museum. It’s been greatly expanded since I was last here, and we have time to see only a small part of it. Aryeh takes us through the children’s memorial; although we are given an explanation before we enter, we are nevertheless unprepared for its impact. It is a circular structure, totally dark within. As we are instructed, we grip the metal handrail and follow it along the wall until we are facing a huge glass cylinder, several stories high. The only light comes from a small candle inside the cylinder; this single flame is reflected in thousands of tiny mirrors. We stand, transfixed, staring at the disembodied, flickering flames, while a recorded voice in the darkness quietly speaks the names of children who died in the Holocaust.

We spend our final morning with the group visiting the extensive tunnels and excavations under the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, a place that I had heard much about but had not visited, since it had been developed in the years since I had lived here. As with the other sites we have seen on this tour, I am impressed with the skill and sensitivity with which the entire area has been preserved. Slowly following Aryeh through this amazing place, carefully and reverently touching the huge stone blocks in the ancient walls, I am very glad that this will be our parting impression of Jerusalem.

From “Home” in Tel Aviv Back Home

We’ve been invited to spend last few days of our trip at the home of friends in Tel Aviv whom I have known since I lived here, 30 years ago. This is Roni’s chance to see day-to-day family life in Israel, and I am glad that he can experience it: a brief visit by the family’s 20-year-old solider son, home for the Sabbath from his army base near Lebanon; a tour of the newly-developed area of outdoor cafes at the Port of Tel Aviv; several peaceful, relaxing afternoons spent watching soccer on TV (Roni) and reminiscing in Hebrew (me).

Saturday evening, our friends take us to visit Mini Israel, a silly yet charming outdoor ‘theme park’ that depicts each of Israel’s regions and cities in miniature. But it is the hours we spend just sitting in the dappled sunlight under the vine-covered patio, feeling the sea breeze and sharing stories and memories and jokes, that I enjoy the most.

The flight back home passes quickly, and too soon, we are back in Maryland, ready to plunge back into work and soccer tournaments and the rest of our summer activities.

Though he and I have little time to share our thoughts and our reflections, I can clearly see what our trip has given Roni: a real sense of connectedness to Israel, an appreciation for the history and beauty and uniqueness of the county, and a new perspective on his identity as Jew. Whether watching the news or participating in a discussion about Israel at religious school, I know that now he carries the sights, the sounds, and the experience in his heart as well as in his mind.

There is much we didn’t see on this trip that I would have liked to show him—the Galilee, Eilat, the Golan Heights—but these are merely reasons to come back soon again. And I have no doubt that we will.

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