Sachin Bali, 29, an associate vice-president at HSBC, travelled to Israel with his brother Neeraj for a friend’s wedding in November. In between the festivities, they hit the road with no fixed itinerary
It is, perhaps, one of the most underrated Mediterranean countries as far as tourism is concerned. Despite having great beaches, superb food, ski slopes, thriving cities, an amazing history and a unique mix of Eastern and Western cultures—not to mention the wacky Israeli sense of humour—few Indians visit Israel unless on pilgrimage. For us, the impetus came with a wedding invitation. My brother had visited Israel a few years earlier and his fascination for the country had rubbed off on me.
Your first stop?
Tel Aviv, which is to Israel what Mumbai is to India. Our friend Irit, the bride-to-be, lives in a suburb 40km from the city. Within minutes of reaching her place, we had made ourselves at home while Ofer, her fiancé, prepared the nargila (or sheesha, the complicated cousin of the humble hookah). Irit, a former aid worker in Africa and Sri Lanka, and Ofer, a businessman deeply involved in Israeli- Palestinian peace efforts, are secular Israelis—Jewish by religion and global in outlook. While cooking dinner, we made plans for the next day.
A tour of Tel Aviv?
Right. We had hired a Mazda 3— it is a good idea to rent a car as soon as one lands in Israel, as public transport is off the roads by 11pm—with a GPS navigator and a map that talks. Most of the time, it talks too much.
Anyway, we parked our car in a shopping mall and headed out. And who should we encounter but a group of Hassidic Jews, ultra-orthodox Jews who devote their lives to prayer and living by the Book. They do not usually mingle with outsiders, live in tight-knit communities and generally mind their own business. This lot, though, was the exception: They followed a 19th century rabbi whose basic message, as Irit explained, was “Don’t worry, be happy”. We had to wonder if Bobby McFerrin ever met them!
So, this group travels around in vans, parks on the side of the road or on top of a busy intersection, sets up their ghetto blasters, belts out foot-tapping music and starts dancing to express their joy in life. Passers-by are welcome to join in. In fact, Neeraj did—and was most embarrassed to find that I had actually caught him on camera and, thus, had evidence.
Seriously, we couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to Israel or to Tel Aviv, a city with the buzz of New York and the traditions of the Middle East (West Asia).
That’s very contemporary Tel Aviv. Did you touch base with history at all?
Actually, Tel Aviv is a modern city planned close to the ancient city of Jaffa. Archaeological discoveries indicate that Jaffa was a port city some 4,000 years ago. Like most of Israel and Palestine, everyone had come here, from the ancient Canaanites, Greeks, Romans and Christians to the followers of the newly founded religion of Islam, Turks, British—not to mention the two brothers who now sat exhausted on the stone benches overlooking the port after a whole day of walking and taking photos.
Jaffa has a Middle Eastern charm and it’s easy to imagine what it would have been like 500 years ago. The Jaffa market, especially, is a delight, with its roadside stalls and amazing Arab sweetmeats. From the walls of Jaffa to downtown Tel Aviv, with its clubs, malls and restaurants, is just a 20-minute walk… All across Israel, we would find disparate worlds existing together.
Did you have a fixed itinerary?
Nope; we largely went wherever we wanted to. On the way north to Acre or, as the Israelis call it, Akko—one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world—I thought we should stop at Caesarea, drive up to Haifa and then travel on.
From the highway, Caesarea—Herod dedicated the port to Augustus Caesar more than 2,000 years ago—looks like a vast, very affluent village. We directed our GPS to take us to the centre of the town, and it made us stop outside a plush villa, right on top of a speed breaker. Alongside the ruins are restaurants and even a scuba-diving facility. As the orange sun plunged into the sea—a magnificent sight—the locals headed out with their fishing rods, perched on stones once trodden by Roman legions. That was quite a thought.
Did you make it to Haifa?
Oh yes. Haifa has one of Israel’s five main universities but doesn’t normally figure on the tourist itinerary. We spent the evening at a restaurant called Barbarrosa—both my brother and I enjoy our food—and were joined by three young women from the Technical University’s water polo team. It was a splendid evening.
Akko—which we reached the following morning—like Haifa, has a very high number of non-Jewish residents, and both cities are quite peaceful, despite the troubles elsewhere in the region. We hired audio guides for our tour of the Akko fort and, with headphones on, walked through ancient buildings, local markets and people’s front yards. No one turned a hair; obviously, they’re quite used to such spectacles.
Did you travel further north? To Tsafet, maybe?
We wanted to, but stronger was the pull of the one city that enthrals Jews, Christians and Muslims alike—Jerusalem. So we headed south. Irit’s friend Azriel, a Hassidic Jew who opted for secularism and now uses his paintings to preach peace between Israelis and Palestinians, offered to show us his Jerusalem. His first stop, thoughtfully, was an Arab shop that serves,quite inarguably, the best hummus in Israel.
Azriel took us to Mea Sharim, home to the Hassidic Jews. On Shabbath, no one drives here, even secular Jews would not walk its streets while talking on the mobile. Azriel explained that for most of its residents, a trip to the Wall for prayers might be all the contact they had with the outside world. A notice in three languages outside one locality read: “This is a residential neighbourhood. Tourists and tour groups are not allowed. Please do not irritate our feelings. No entry.”
Walking in Mea Sharim is like walking on to the sets of a black and white movie. Hassidic Jews are always dressed traditionally, with black hats, in the belief that they are in the presence of god at all times. They’re the only Israelis to be exempt from the mandatory army service.
What was the rest of Jerusalem like?
Jerusalem has so much to offer that you could spend two weeks there and just scratch the surface. The Old City breathes history in every street, every cobblestone. Within a 20-minute walk, there’s the Western Wall, the holiest spot in Judaism; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified; and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, from where Prophet Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven.
The old city is divided into the Christian, Arab, Jewish and Armenian quarters. There are no signs saying where one ends and the other starts, but the entire feel changes as the labyrinthine streets snake from one quarter to the next. While the Arab quarter is a multitude of shops, voices, smells and colours, the Jewish section is serene and quiet. The Armenian quarter has a bit of an Eastern European feel to it. It is quite hard to put your finger on it, but the change is distinct.
Outside the old city, New Jerusalem offers all the conveniences of a modern, almost European, city. But on Friday evenings, the start of the Jewish Shabbath, almost every bar and café shuts down and remains that way till sundown on Saturday.
The best place in the world to celebrate the weekly welcoming of the day of rest is the Western Wall. It has two separate enclosures for men and women. If you are modestly dressed, and wear a Kippa—a small Jewish skullcap—you would be welcome to join in and then you’ll probably see Hassidic Jews in their black hats, shoulder to shoulder in prayer with young soldiers carrying their M16 rifles.
Then there’s Yad Vashem, the museum dedicated to the Holocaust. We spent 5 hours there… No matter how much you know about the Holocaust, Yad Vashem touches you deeply.
How could you ever leave Jerusalem?
We had to—the wedding beckoned! Like north Indian weddings, there was a lot of singing and dancing and eating. But, the ceremony itself is quite brief. The couple sign a marriage contract—quite like an Islamic nikaahnama—overseen by a rabbi. It was two days beforewe recovered.
We packed in a quick trip to Ein Gedi, the lowest spot in the world near the Dead Sea. The road that takes you there is almost 400m below the sea level—it boggles the mind and irritates the intestines if you aren’t careful. On the beach in Ein Gedi, you can gaze across the waters into Jordan. If you have a roaming mobile, you could pick up a Jordanian service provider in Israel at this spot!
Turkish Airlines connects Mumbai and Tel Aviv with a direct flight. Current round-trip fares start from around Rs26,000. Alternatively, fly one of the West Asian airlines and catch a connecting flight to Tel Aviv.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Share your last holiday with us at email@example.com