You can’t throw a stone in Goa, Gokarna, Manali or Rishikesh without hitting an Israeli tourist. India is popular with Israelis who decide to traipse across the world once they’ve finished their compulsory military service.
In contrast, an Indian going to Israel on holiday is a rare enough occurrence; my three weeks there were filled with warmth and curious questions.
My fascination with Israel started in my teens, when I read about the kibbutzim in Leon Uris’ Exodus. Founded on a mixture of socialist and Zionist principles, kibbutzim were farming settlements in the desert. The romanticism associated with people turning barren desert into fertile land, and reclaiming their right to exist and thrive in the face of post-World War II persecution, was enough to pique my interest in West Asian affairs.
A decade later, my romanticism tempered with pragmatism and a greater awareness of the complicated situation in the region, I finally made my way to Israel, first to Jerusalem, and then to Nazareth.
Hands on: (clockwise from left) You can hang out if you help out at the Kinneret courtyard; a peaceful Jerusalem street; and the view from Masada. Photographs by Shiran Ben Yacov
I was headed to an urban kibbutz in Nazareth Illit (upper Nazareth), a Jewish town set up shortly after the Israeli war of independence to offset the Arab majority there.
A mix of serendipity and technology had taken me this far. I had planned my travel on Aardvark (an online social search service), and some IMs, emails and Facebook event pages later, a couple called Naama and Rani had offered me a place to stay for three nights. I was new to CouchSurfing, the website that lets you stay with like-minded people abroad, and staying with strangers in an unknown land was helping make my holiday as offbeat as I’d hoped it would be.
My hosts welcomed me to their home, gave me a mattress to sleep on and told me to make myself comfortable. On my first evening there, they cooked dinner for me, and were nice enough to answer the many questions I had about their way of living.
Urban kibbutzim aren’t as common as the stand-alone settlement variety. A group of people rent houses close to each other—usually in the suburbs—to practise community living. All the families in this kibbutz lived in their own houses with their children, while the singles shared apartments. This kibbutz had about 80 people.
Each kibbutz member worked either within the kibbutz or outside to earn money that was placed in the collective kibbutz bank account. For instance, my hostess Naama managed a maternity centre, while Omer, another kibbutznik, taught at a school nearby.
There was a community store where residents picked up groceries and other supplies. A shared Google spreadsheet was used to book the 10 cars that the group owned. All the children went to the same school in a nearby kibbutz, and there seemed to be a strong cooperative bond between all members in this group.
I had arrived at the kibbutz with no fixed agenda beyond vague plans of visiting the old town of Nazareth, Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee and possibly Safed, all of which were nearby. Serendipity helped again.
Naama mentioned that her brother Avshalom, who was also a member of this kibbutz, worked at a restored moshava on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. A moshava is a rural farm-based community and this particular one was among the first to be created by the pioneers during the first wave of the aaliyah—the Jewish migration to Palestine—in the early 1920s. Referred to as the Kinneret courtyard and now a working museum, the volunteers I hung out with were in charge of its upkeep and maintenance, and provided guided tours to the numerous visitors that made their way to the Galilee.
Rather than visit the possibly crowded holy sites in Nazareth, I chose instead to head to the Kinneret courtyard, where you’re allowed to hang out if you help out. The courtyard gets a fair share of volunteers—either inspired by Zionism or, like me, making their way around the Sea of Galilee and stumbling upon the opportunity.
For the next two days, my duties were to help make breakfast and plant spinach in the kitchen garden just outside the office. While I worked in the garden under the warm sun, fighters of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) whizzed by on regular sorties, stopping just short of Syrian and Jordanian air space.
Gardening and history lessons about the pioneers and their perseverance in making this tract of land fertile done, I was taken up to the southern part of the Golan Heights. Here I had a chance to see the Jordanian and Syrian borders in close proximity. Ironically, I still haven’t seen any of India’s land borders.
Had it not been cloudy, I’d have had a chance to see Mount Hermon, Israel’s only ski resort.
I was shown bunkers on the western shores of the Galilee, where the Israeli army had dug in from 1948-67 to track the Syrian artillery that would shell Israeli farms. Later, I visited Yardenit (Little Jordan) on the banks of the Jordan, which people believe is the actual site where Jesus was baptized by John.
But more than the sightseeing, it was living and spending time with people who strongly subscribed to communitarian ideals that made this a vacation with a difference. They weren’t encumbered by worries of how big their next raise would be, but they were mindful about forsaking luxury for a relatively simpler lifestyle by choosing to stay out of the rat race. It’s not a bad trade-off, as the kibbutz has a rich social life. In addition to working for various initiatives, the members also gather regularly to have meetings and discussions on a variety of subjects—politics, literature, sports or music.
Around four sub-groups had been formed, with the division based mainly on the age of participants or their marital status. Most people within a sub-group knew each other because of some common connections. Some grew up in the same kibbutz, some were from the same school, while some others served in the same unit in the IDF.
The kibbutzniks didn’t celebrate the sabbath with the same religious zeal as the orthodox in Jerusalem. Instead, they partied in their own way and celebrated their day of rest and relaxation. The married couples met and hung out together, while the singles partied in settlements nearby.
My Israel travels would eventually include a crazy parting in Tel Aviv, and solemn soul-searching in Jerusalem. But the three days in Nazareth Illit refreshed both body and soul, and reminded me that there was more to life than the daily grind.
Turkish Airlines flies to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport via Istanbul from Delhi and Mumbai. Return economy fares start at Rs33,418. Apply for a visa through VFS (http://isr.vfs global.co.in). Charges for a B-1 tourist visa with a three-month entry are Rs1,100, plus a service charge of Rs670. An Israeli tourist visa can normally grant you access to Palestinian-occupied territories on the West Bank and in Gaza. However, exercise caution and seek advice from locals when you visit. If you’re staying for a reasonably long duration, volunteer at a kibbutz (http://www.kibbutzvolunteer.com/) and take up the ‘ulpan’, an adult learning course to learn Hebrew.
•‘How to Understand Israel in 60 Days’ by Sarah Glidden.
Set in present-day Israel, this graphic novel provides a take on the conflicting emotions that an American Jew faces on her first visit to Israel.
•‘The Innocents Abroad’ by Mark Twain
The book gives the reader a humorous picture of how the holy land used to be, in typical Mark Twain style.
•‘O Jerusalem!’ by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
It presents a largely unbiased view of what happened in Jerusalem during the first Arab–Israeli war in 1948 and can help a visitor understand and appreciate the city better.
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