In the spring of 2019, I led a small, informal tour of Israel. It included my parents and another couple. My parents had been to Israel, but the other couple had not. A few days before they departed, I flew to London on American Airlines, and then to Larnaca, Cyprus, with British Airways. I had heard stories of Cyprus from friends and family, and I was eager to visit. I arrived in Larnaca on Easter Sunday, two days after Passover began in Israel. Passover celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. In Larnaca, I hailed a taxi to the Radisson Blu. After checking in, I sat on my balcony, with a view of Larnaca Bay, and the Mediterranean.
Cyprus is an island nation 160 miles northwest of Israel. The first known settlement on Cyprus occurred during the 10th Millennium BC. The island was renowned for its copper mines, and its name in Greek is the same word for copper. Mycenaean Greeks began arriving around 1200 BC. Over time, it was occupied by Phoenicians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Alexander the Great, Egypt again, Romans, and Arabs. In 1191, the English king, Richard the Lionheart, conquered the island, en route to the Holy Land, during the 3rd Crusade. He sold it to the Knights Templar, who transferred it to the former French king of Jerusalem, Guy of Lusignan. Venetians occupied the island next, followed by the Ottoman Empire, and then Great Britain, until 1960, when Cyprus finally gained independence. At that time, the population was just over a half million. 77% were Greek, and 18% were Turkish. By 1963, violence between the two groups had broken out, resulting in hundreds of deaths on each side. In the summer of 1974, the Greek military staged a coup, attempting to unite the island with Greece. Five days later, the Turkish army invaded. By the time a ceasefire had been agreed upon that fall, 36% of the island had been taken over by the Turks, in the north, and both sides suffered displacements en masse. The island has been split since, though it was admitted to the EU in 2004, as a whole. Until the dispute is settled, EU legislation is suspended in Northern Cyprus.
I awoke with the sun, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes on my balcony. Afterward, I walked to the Church of St. Lazarus, snapping photos. St. Lazarus, a man miraculously risen from the dead by Jesus, was forced to flee to Cyprus after Jesus’ death. There, according to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Paul appointed him bishop of Larnaca. Though the location of his tomb was lost, in 890, a tomb was discovered in Larnaca, with the inscription, “Lazarus, four days dead, friend of Jesus.” The church was built soon thereafter, over the tomb. The intricate archways and ornate bell tower revealed premier craftmanship. Next, I walked to the 14th-Century, Medieval Castle of Larnaca, a fortification skirting the water’s edge. It was used as a prison, and converted into a museum after independence. I wandered along backroads, imbibing neighborhoods, smelling flowers. I sat on the beach, but the temps were too cool to swim. I meandered through the city, and eventually retreated to my hotel.
The next morning, I rode one hour, five minutes, aboard an Aegean plane, from Larnaca to Tel Aviv. Thereabouts, I caught a cab to Ditsa Street, where my brother-in-law Jon, and I, were staying. Jon was visiting his son Guy, who was in the midst of a tour-of-duty with the Israeli Army. Guy and Jon were in Jerusalem when I arrived, so I sauntered along some side-streets until dialing in on the Airbnb. Upstairs, I organized my bags, and my thoughts. Arriving in Israel is always a momentous experience. It takes a bit of adjusting.
I walked south and west, toward Jaffa, the next morning. I passed by Jaffa Clocktower, built in 1901, by the Ottoman Empire. I traipsed through Jaffa Flea Market, and then stopped at Abu Hassan, for a falafel. I strolled along the waterfront, capturing photos of Tel Aviv, the Mediterranean, and Jaffa Port. I passed by St. Peter’s Church, and verified mass times at St. Anthony’s Church. My clients were Christian, and planned to attend mass. About 2% of Israelis are Christian, 74% are Jewish, and 18% are Muslim. Up to 2% of Palestinians are Christian. Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Israeli Arabs live in Israel, not Palestinian territory. Jaffa is in Israel, and contains thousands of Arabs, both Christian and Muslim. Jaffa, an old Canaanite city, was established by at least 1800 BC. Jaffa Port was written about in the Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament. It was the port where the cedars of Lebanon arrived, for Solomon’s Temple. It’s also where Jonah set forth in the biblical tale of Jonah and the whale. It was ruled by Israel, but then by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Alexander the Great, and the Seleucid Empire. Finally, the Jewish Hasmonean Dynasty took possession, before it was burnt by Romans during the First Jewish-Roman War, in the 1st Century. Josephus tells us that 8,400 inhabitants lost their lives. Arabs conquered Jaffa, and the Holy Land, in the 7th Century. Crusaders took Jaffa in the 10th Century, though by 1268, it was in Egyptian hands. The Ottoman Empire ruled for several hundred years. Jaffa’s city walls were torn down to allow the city to expand in the 1870’s. In 1909, a group of Jews left Jaffa and started the now-teeming metropolis of Tel Aviv, in the sand dunes north of Jaffa. The British seized Jaffa in 1917, and by 1945, it contained 51,000 Muslims, 28,000 Jews, and 15,000 Christians. Intense fighting took place in the city during Israel’s war for independence, but by May of 1948, the city was, once again, in Israel’s hands.
After coffee with Guy, Jon, and Miri the next morning, I grabbed a Gett taxi to the Crowne Plaza. Though it was closed, I walked down to Carmel Market, the colorful, outdoor fruit and vegetable market started in the 1920’s. I shuffled past HaKovShim, where the group would dine, and the Savoy, near the Mediterranean, where we would stay. I returned toward the hotel, stopping at a corner store for cheese, chocolate, and juice. I sat on a bench outside the store, watching passersby, listening to music. Back at the hotel, I ordered in.
On Friday, a national holiday, at the end of Passover, the city was shut down, so I spent much of the day at the hotel, connecting the final dots. Jon and Miri assured me that Israel sells itself. The next morning, I taxied to the Savoy, checking in, and surveying the rooms, which were petite, though pleasant, and convenient, a half-block from the Mediterranean, a 10-minute walk from Carmel Market. Our driver picked me up at the hotel, and we sailed through Tel Aviv to Ben Gurion Airport, 30 minutes southeast. The driver inquired if I was musician. Inside the airport, we met up with Mom, Dad, and Holland’s in the Arrivals Hall. They seemed unsettled. Mom confessed that she got sick on the trip over the pond, from Denver to Frankfurt, on Lufthansa. Our driver smiled, patiently, and delivered us to the Savoy, offering stories about Israel, and its state of affairs. That evening, we walked to HaKovShim, dining inside the quaint bistro, under dim lights.
On Sunday, I sent the group in a taxi to 10:30 am mass at St. Anthony’s, in Jaffa. The church was named in honor of St. Anthony of Padua, a Franciscan priest. The structure was completed in 1932, in gothic-revival style. I met up with them outside the church, and we walked to Abu Hassan, a lively café a few blocks east. We dined outside, munching on hummus and pitas, falafels, and salads. After lunch, we walked 10 minutes north to Jaffa Flea Market, called Shuk HaPishpushim in Hebrew, passing through the eccentric neighborhood of streets, alleys, covered walkways, and verandas, selling antiques, second-hand goods, and refurbished furniture. Bars and eateries are interspersed throughout. Afterward, we angled north two blocks to Jaffa Clocktower. We walked to the beach just north of Jaffa Port. Tom and Margaret waded into the Mediterranean. We moseyed south, along the water, and then up several sets of steps, to reach St. Peter’s, a Spanish Baroque church on the hill overlooking Jaffa Port. An earlier church existed, though the current church was built in the late 19th Century. Its bell tower is an iconic element of the Jaffa skyline. We passed by Jaffa Port, and then hoofed it uphill back to the Flea Market. We dined outdoors at Onza, a Turkish restaurant in the market. The various dishes, served communally, tickled the tastebuds. We ordered several meze, or Turkish-style starters, the sea bass fillet, a doner kebab plate, and a taboon, or flatbread topped with cheese and grilled vegetables. After dinner, we walked north, next to the sea, a half hour, to the Savoy.
After breakfast at the hotel, I sat in the rooftop bar area, overlooking the Mediterranean. The pool was also situated on top of the hotel. Next, we walked 10 minutes southeast to Carmel Market, or Shuk HaCarmel, in Hebrew. We passed through the market, haggling for dried and fresh fruits, and nuts. Back at the hotel, we prepared for departure. Our driver met us at the hotel, and we traveled an hour southeast, to Jerusalem. The entrance never disappoints. Glimpsing the city is exhilarating. Jerusalem stone, the signature stone reflecting the sun’s rays, is mandated on all construction projects. The rolling hills are covered in a city of gold, a city of stone, a city of hope, a city of peace, the city of peace, Yerushalayim, Hebrew for city of peace, though little of that has reigned here, in this, the most coveted location on the planet. Billions look to Jerusalem to solve our collective spiritual misunderstanding. Muslims, Jews, and Christians keep it at the center of their faith. Fighting within branches of each faith is pronounced in this city. So too, animosity toward other faiths is evident in Jerusalem.
At the Bezalel Hotel, just off Betsal-el Street, in the heart of West Jerusalem, outside the city walls of the Old City, we checked in, and found our rooms. We walked to Mehane Yehuda Market, a 7-minute walk, north on Shomron Street, and west along Agripas. We ate lunch at Manou Bashouk, a Lebanese café in the market that serves falafels and hummus, but also soups, Lebanese pizzas, taboons with sesame cream, eggplant, minced beef, or mushrooms, as well as Lebanese Khidre, a bean, meat, and rice dish. Mehane Yehuda Market started as an Arab market in the late 1800’s, outside the Old City, next to the Jewish neighborhood of Mehane Yehuda. It was rebuilt by the British in the 1920’s, and officially called Mehane Yehuda Market. Most Israelis now simply call it the Shuk, or Market. After wandering through, bartering a bit, we walked east, along Agripas, north up to Ha’Nevi’im, and east over to Ethiopia Street. We moseyed up Ethiopia, to my nephew’s old apartment, where I spent a month in 2009, and a week in 2011. We made our way into the Ethiopian complex, where the Ethiopian Church and Monasteries are located. We removed our shoes and entered the circular building, with inner chambers, monks and priests praying, meditating, but not discussing – only silence.
Kidane Mehret Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox faith’s central church, is part of the Debre Genet Monastery, whose name equates to, “Monastery of Paradise.” This complex belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV bought the land in this area, outside the Old City, in 1888. He died in battle the next year, and Emperor Menelik II oversaw its inauguration in 1893. Before then, their central church was inside the Old City, a series of buildings and courtyards next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Socrates of Constantinople tells us that Matthew the Apostle preached in Ethiopia. By the 4th Century, Christianity had become the official religion of the Axumite Kingdom. They were administratively part of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, in Egypt, until 1959, when the first Patriarch of Ethiopia was appointed.
The reason Rastafarians believe Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, who sat on the throne from 1930 to 1974, was Jesus Christ returned to Earth, is because he was descended, according to the Kebra Negast, the Ethiopian Bible, from wise King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, or Ethiopia. The Kebra Negast says Solomon and the Queen had a child, named Menelik, who later stole off with, or received as a gift, the Ark of the Covenant, after visiting his father in Jerusalem. Ethiopian tradition maintains that the Ark is still located in Ethiopia, kept under the watchful eye of one priest, and one priest only, for his lifetime. Since Haile Selassie was the final king of the Solomonic dynasty, Ethiopian royalty dating back to Menelik, Rastafarians say, “Praise be to His Imperial Majesty (H.I.M.), Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion from the Tribe of Judah.”
There are also Ethiopian Jews in Israel, called Beta Israel. They too trace their roots to Solomon and Menelik, who was raised as a Jew. Their traditions are derived from Haymanot as opposed to Rabbinic Judaism. They had likely been separated from mainstream Judaism for over 2000 years. Ethiopian Jews follow no Talmudic laws, but observe the Sabbath, practice circumcision, follow Judaic dietary laws, and have synagogue services. The vast majority were airlifted to Israel in the late 20th Century. There are now about 125,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and 5,000 Ethiopian Christians, located primarily in Jerusalem and Nazareth.
The apartment where Eliezer Ben Yehuda fortified modern Hebrew is across the lane. We stopped there too, where a plaque tells the story. Ben Yehuda moved from Belarus to Jerusalem in 1881, founding a Hebrew newspaper. Spoken Hebrew had been lost for nearly 2000 years, and Ben Yehuda pulled from the roots of Aramaic, Canaanite, Egyptian, and especially Arabic, to form the new language. Of using Arabic roots, Ben Yehuda maintained, perhaps correctly, that Arabic had originally been born from Hebrew, so what was lost, had now been found. Next, we walked two blocks south, down the hill, into the heart of West Jerusalem, Jaffa Street, and the Ben Yehuda District. We sat down at an outdoor café along Jaffa, now a light-rail route, munching on salads and sandwiches, sipping iced coffees. Back at the hotel, I recommended they eat across the street, at Menza. It was closed, so they ate nearby.
Breakfast at the hotel dazzled the eye and palate. The spread included bread from Mehane Yehuda Market, fresh and hard cheeses, smoked salmon, pickled herring, capers, olives, olive tapenades, hummus and baba ghanoush, pastries, hot dishes like shakshuka, fresh and dried fruits, fresh veggies with dips, salads such as the Israeli version with cucumbers and tomatoes, a large honeycomb for bread and rolls, fresh-squeezed juices, and delicious coffee. Afterward, we walked to the Old City, a 20-minute stride. We met up with our local guide, and began the tour, entering the Old City through Jaffa Gate. We stopped at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was crucified and laid to rest, and along the route that he carried his cross, called the via Dolorosa. We visited the Muslim Quarter, the Western Wall, a rooftop with panoramic views over the Old City, and the Jewish market, known as the Cardo, dating to the Roman era. Our guide bought halva, a sweet Middle Eastern dessert, as a gift for the group. After the tour, I gave my clients time to explore the Old City on their own. That evening, we walked to Chakra for a welcome dinner, marveling at the menu, presentation, and execution.
Our tour of Bethlehem, birthplace of King David, and where he was crowned king of Israel, began at 8 am the next morning. Our guide, an ex-Israeli Army special forces agent, who spent a stint in New York City, and has special access to the area of the West Bank where Bethlehem is located, ushered us through the border and into Bethlehem, a city of 25,000, just 11 kilometers south of our hotel, but a world away in many respects. The West Bank is much poorer and destitute than its neighbors. We stopped on the other side of the border wall, where the graffiti artist, Banksy, painted several murals. We visited the Nativity Church, built over a grotto where legend says Jesus was born. Our guide, unbeknownst to us, paid someone so we could cut the lengthy line. And then he waited outside, while Russian matriarchs irritably shoved and funneled us out of their way, to the Ethiopian matriarchs, who allowed us to cautiously descend the steps to the grotto. Orthodox Christians follow the Julian as opposed to Gregorian calendar, and were celebrating Easter, throughout the city. Outside, we met up with our guide. We toured the Chapel of the Milk Grotto, where tradition says a drop of Mary’s milk fell to the cave floor, turning it white. We browsed in shops with olive tree carvings, and then stopped at the Shepard’s Fields, on the edge, but well within the city. Returning to our hotel, we queried our guide on the Israeli elections. At the hotel, we dined and sipped drinks at the free social hour.
After breakfast the next morning, we grabbed the light-rail to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. It was Holocaust Remembrance Day, and we met a survivor on the ride out. A memorial was taking place outside the museum, and security was tight. Inside, the tour was a solemn affair, trying to comprehend what Jews endured during history’s most reprehensible period. The museum was busy with tour groups. Afterward, we took the light-rail back to the hotel. With a few free hours, Mom, Dad, and I returned to Mehane Yehuda Market. We ate at Azura, and picked up towels for the Dead Sea.
On Friday morning, Dad and I went to pick up our rental van at Hertz, on King David Street. We parked near the hotel, checked out, and began our drive to the Dead Sea. Highway 1 snakes east down the Judean hills, past Bedouin camps, until meeting Highway 90, just north of the Dead Sea. The route travels through an Israeli-controlled portion of the West Bank. After heading south on Highway 90, along the western edge of the Dead Sea, the lowest place on the planet, at 1380 feet below sea level, we passed Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Qumran was an Essene community – a Jewish monastic sect. When Romans approached Qumran, the scrolls were taken high above the village to caves overlooking the sea. They were stored in clay jars, and the dry air and high oxygen content next to the Dead Sea is what preserved them. Crossing the 1949-Armistice-Agreement-Line, back into Israel, we stopped at Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. We followed Wadi David, or the David Stream Trail, up into the mountains, reaching several waterfalls. The trail offered a lush oasis, in stark contrast to the arid desert outside the canyon. Afterward, we ate lunch at Baobar, in the nearby Ein Gedi Hotel. We drove a half hour south to Ein Bokek Beach. My clients floated in the Dead Sea, while I snapped photos. We returned 15 minutes north, on the west side of the highway, where we would tour Masada the next morning. We checked into our hostel, in a section with private, though stark rooms. When we booked, this place was the only option. We ate dinner in the cafeteria, with countless kids and their parents.
After breakfast, we checked out, and drove to the Masada parking lot. We bought tickets, rode the aerial tram up the mountain, and began touring the UNESCO World Heritage site. Herod the Great built two palaces atop this mountain, fortifying Masada between 37 to 31 BC. A century later, in 66 CE, Jewish rebels overtook the site. When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed four years later, additional Jews sought refuge atop Masada. In 73 CE, Romans breached the fortress, after building a ramp to reach it. Once inside, the Romans discovered 960 men, women, and children had committed suicide en masse, instead of surrendering. We spent several hours touring the magnificent site, with unsurpassed views of the Dead Sea and surrounding terrain.
We rode the tram back down the mountain, and began the two-and-a-half-hour drive north to the Kinneret, or Sea of Galilee. The route follows the Jordan River Valley. This is Israeli-controlled West Bank territory. Jericho, one of Earth’s oldest settlements, established around 9000 BC, is located just north of the Dead Sea, on the west side of the highway, in a section of the West Bank where rental cars and Israelis may not tread. We stopped for pizza at an outdoor mall on the southern edge of the Kinneret. Next, we drove to Yardenit, where the Jordan River leaves the Sea of Galilee. Christians from around the world get baptized here, in commemoration of the baptism of Christ, though that event likely took place south of here, perhaps near Jericho. After watching a handful of baptisms, and dipping our hands in the river, we proceeded a few miles north to Kinneret Village, a collection of one-room units, with sliding glass doors, and flower-adorned patios, at each entrance. That evening, we ate dinner at 1910 Restaurant and Bar, on a local kibbutz. The extensive menu included beef carpaccio, Israeli gnocchi, chicken liver pappardelle, pizza, gyros, shrimp risotto, ravioli, and salads.
On Sunday, we checked out and drove north to Tiberias, a village on the west side of the Kinneret, founded around 20 CE. When Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE, the center of Jewish life gravitated to the Galilee. By the 4th Century, the Sanhedrin, or Jewish High Court, had settled in Tiberias. Maimonides, or Moses ben Maimon, or Rambam, a renowned Sephardic Jewish scholar of the 12th Century, was buried here. My clients went to mass at St. Peter’s Church, while I wandered along the promenade at the lake’s edge. Afterward, we drove a half hour north, to the Mount of Beatitudes, overlooking the northern shores of the Kinneret. It was here where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount. Though the actual location is unknown, this spot has been commemorated for 1600 years. The current church, commissioned by Mussolini, was completed in 1938, three years after Italy invaded Ethiopia. We toured the grounds, and then drove to Capernaum, known as the town of Jesus, where he lived, and taught at a synagogue for some time. We stopped at the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, along the lakeshore. Next door is the Church of the Multiplication of Fishes and Loaves. Inside, in front of the altar, is a 5th-Century mosaic of fishes and loaves. We drove to St. Peter’s Restaurant, next to the lake. After perusing the menu, we retreated north to Restaurant Abu Salah. The waiter correctly guessed that we desired a spread with a little of everything in the restaurant. We started with falafels, pitas, hummus, baba ghanoush, salads, pickled vegetables, olives, grilled meats, and French fries. Dad had a plate of chicken livers and onions, garnished with lemons and sweet peppers. Mom tried the lamb kebabs.
After lunch, we drove an hour southwest, to Nazareth, an Arab town, within Israel, not Palestinian territory. It’s the largest Arab town in Israel. About 30% of the 77,000 residents are Christian, while the rest are Muslim. The streets and city layout are a bit chaotic, especially near the Old City, where Michel House, our place of abode for the evening, was located. Michel House was built by the first mayor of Nazareth, in the 19th Century, as a residential building on the top floor, and a guest house on the ground floor. Once we found parking, and got checked in, the owner, Michel, a Christian Arab, took us to the rooftop overlooking the charming city, built into the hills, with numerous church bells tolling, birds swooping, and cats sunning themselves, or dashing madly across rooftops in search of a meal. We walked two blocks to Tishreen that evening for a tasty farewell dinner.
After an impressive Arab breakfast at Michel House, our local guide met us at the hotel, leading us to the rooftop for a detailed description of the city’s monuments. Outside, we toured the Old City, its markets and churches, including the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, and Mary’s Well, which is next door, as well as a bakery, a fascinating spice shop, and a coffee shop called Abu Salem Café. The café has been in existence since 1914, offering a place for people to congregate, sip coffee, and play games such as backgammon. The 3rd-generation owner, Wissam Abu Salem, served us his signature health drink, a cinnamon tea with walnuts. We ate lunch at a small café, and then began the two-hour drive south to Ben Gurion Airport, for my clients’ return flight. We stopped for iced coffees and milkshakes next to the airport, and returned our van. At the airport, my clients got checked in, and we said our farewells. After parting ways, I grabbed a Gett to my hotel, the Intercontinental David Tel Aviv. In my room, I emptied my bags, organizing myself. The next afternoon I flew to Athens, and then back to the US aboard Swiss Air. Looking back, the adventure was remarkable, touring Cyprus and Israel, offering tips, history, and advice, discovering and absorbing all the while. Contracting with local guides to provide the best Israel tour possible, a tour through the land of milk and honey, offering no particular perspective, only a historical background, to allow each participant to draw his own conclusions, was a dream come true. In Hebrew they’d say, “shalom,” which is not only hello, but also goodbye, as well as peace out.
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