A recent request on a Facebook group I belong to asked what the 5 best things to do in Israel are, specifically not tourist sites, but rather things that would connect her to the culture of the place. Because the culture of Israel is so tied up with our history and religion, which are in turn tied up with the sites frequented by tourists, the question at first seemed to me like a non-starter. A trip to Israel is different from a trip to anywhere else in the world, or at least, if your guide is any good it should be. A vacation to Israel for ‘sun and fun’ tourism is a wasted opportunity, the night life is a distraction, and even the beautiful vistas and historical sites can be under-whelming if you lack a good story to go with them. Travel in Israel is about the story of a people, their land, and their God, woven together in the deep mist of the distant past, forged through fire into an unbreakable bond, and then separated and finally united after nearly two thousand years. To travel in Israel is to partake with one’s feet, in the greatest and longest story ever told, a story of pain and redemption, of belief and passion held through unimaginable trials and finally realized.
But, with all that said, there are some off the beaten path experiences that can help make the connection deeper than ‘merely’ visiting ‘tourist sites.’ Here are my top 5.
- Shabbat of a lifetime: Writers in the ancient world were astonished at the odd behavior of the Jews, who refrained from work every seventh day. The Sabbath, Shabbat in Hebrew, is one of the Jewish people’s great gifts to humanity, the forerunner of the modern ‘weekend.’ Today, the Sabbath is a cultural touchstone of Israeli life, honored in different ways from the beaches of Tel Aviv to the synagogues of Jerusalem. Shabbat of a lifetime allows visitors to experience a traditional Friday night meal with a local family in Jerusalem, in their home, in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.
- Druze hospitality in the Golan. The Druze are one of Israel’s small minorities, little known outside the region. They follow their own secret religion, the Druze faith, which claims the biblical Jethro as their prophet, is monotheistic, believes strongly in reincarnation, and does not accept converts under any circumstance. But don’t let that give you the wrong impression, they’re extremely warm, hospitable and friendly. When you are welcomed into a Druze home you are invariably offered tea and coffee and something to eat. My favorite person to visit is Fauzia in the village of Majdal Shams whose warm personality, delicious food (warning: not kosher), and fascinating life story make it hard to leave. She is best reached by phone, which I’m not sure she wants me listing here, so be in touch with me if you’d like to have her number.
- Shuk Walk: “The Shuk,” as referred to by locals, Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehudamarket, is a fun, safe, Middle Eastern shuk in the heart of the Jewish neighborhoods of West Jerusalem. The colors, smells and tastes are inspiring, the atmosphere fun and energetic. A number of folks offer shuk-walk tours for an hour or two, and I often do them as part of longer tours in Jerusalem. My friend Chana Mason leads a tour of the shuk, which ends with cooking up the ingredients you found into something delicious at her nearby kitchen! Check out Chana’s website for more information.
- Did all 3 of the previous suggestions include food? Well, it is a Jewish country, and what could better introduce you to our local culture than cuisine? Well, there’s a soap factory I think you should check out. In the Jewish village of Kochav Hashachar, a half an hour North of Jerusalem, is an all natural soap factory that was created with the express intent of providing employment to severely mentally and physically handicapped people from the local communities, so as to both provide an income and an activity for them, thus allowing many to stay at home with their families and not be transferred to special homes in far away cities. The fragrances are enchanting, the soap pure, organic are gentle on the skin. And the story can’t be beat. I often include a stop there on day trips from Jerusalem to the Benjamin/Samaria region, including biblical Shilo, Beit El, and Mt. Grizim (the mountain of blessings).
- Take a hike! No, really. Israelis love to hike. Our small country is crisscrossed with more miles of hiking trail per area than any other. Israeli school kids take hikes as part of the curriculum and master the difference between a poppy and an anemone (flower) before they can read and write. There are a number of great websites with content in English that can help you out, including the site for the Nature and Parks Authority. But if you want a fun day (or part of a day) hike that will really give you the full Israeli experience, you need a real live Israeli to come along, help find a path that suits your ability and interests, and bring along the kit to fix a cup of hot turkish coffee for everybody when you stop mid-trail. For that, drop me a line.