The International Writers Magazine: Israel Vacation
Isra - Eli
David Russell in Israel
Tel Aviv, just before Christmas in 1981. We were a group of four, two women from San Francisco, my wife Claryce and I. Greeting us at the airport was our driver-guide ELI, who had booked us into a beach hotel were an Israeli Sabra hostess greeted us with a warm “Shalom”.
C & I were raring to go, but our new friends preferred a walk on the beach. So, Eli drove us to Tel Aviv’s magnificent Museum of Art with it’s spectacular Henry Moore “Leaning Woman” and modern Torah Scroll sculpture out front. Eli double parked his Mercedes Station Wagon in front of the museum. “Go” he said, I’ll be here when get back.
After an inspired but exhausting couple of hours loving the amazing collection of abstract and surrealist art Peggy Guggenheim donated including Jackson Pollack, William Baziotes, Richard Poussette-Part, Yves Tanguy, Roberto Matta and Andre Mallon, when we left, Eli was surrounded by four police officers.
Motioning us to get into the wagon, Eli shouted he could park his tourist car anyplace he liked. parked. As we drove away, Eli smilingly asked, “Isn’t that a great museum? Did you enjoy it?”. No mention of the police.
Our Eli was one of a kind. But, his unbounded chutzpah get to places we’d never find on our own. On an early drive, he brought us to the banks of the river Jordan and to the exact spot in the reeds where baby Moses was found. How did Eli know? He knew.
Returning, stopping was at the Chaim Weizmann Memorial to read Weizmann’s
commemorating words for the country of Israel was a must. Emblazoned on the wall they were “I feel sure that science will bring to this land both peace and a renewal of its youth; creating here the springs of a new spiritual and material life. And here, I speak of science for it’s own sake and of applied science”. When leaving, we agreed, Weizmann’s dream in many ways had come true. We were glad we had stopped.
When he wasn’t within earshot, our two SF women often referred to Eli as “Crazy” Eli, though Claryce and I thought him more crazy like a Fox, in the way he made our tour easier and certainly uniquely interesting.
What he was also good at was talking himself into more than a few “free” meals, because Eli always knew the best, exact restaurant for us, often becoming the fifth at the table. For our first lunch, he took us to Batia, a restaurant which served traditional Jewish foods like Chopped Liver, Schnitzel and Chulnt.
Since our two S.F. ladies were not Jewish, having come mainly to spend Christmas night in Bethlehem, for them most of where we visited was more out of curiosity than interest. Taking Eli aside, I suggested he please limit his Jewish-ness. With that ground rule established, we noshed our lunch. The Chopped Liver was delicious, not too Onion-y. Unbelievably, we washed it down with Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic. Then came a Corned Beef Sandwich every
bite as good as if we were eating in Brooklyn. Our SF friends loved it all.
Score 1 for Eli.
When he set his mind to it, Eli was a force to be reckoned with, usually in our favor. We wanted to see a specific Church altar that had no convenient nearby parking. Eli parked his station wagon right out in front even though a policeman waved at him shouting, “You can’t park there. Eli quietly told us, “Go see what you want to see.”
Having seen Eli dealing with the police earlier, I had no doubt of the outcome. So, we saw our lovely church with its beautifully wood beamed ceiling and outstanding hand crafted altar. When we returned, Eli was still in hot verbal battle until we were safely in the wagon. Starting the motor, Eli let loose one final Hebraic blasphemy before we moved on.
So, it went, as Eli verbally “battled” us across Israel. Why did we drive in a heavy fog to the top of the Golan Heights? Eli believed that we should look down on Syria. Then, Eli thought it was definitely important that we see what life was like on the Lebanon Border, where he talked us past both Israeli and Lebanese check points to personally see the two embattled border
area. We drew glares from both sides.
Back in Israeli, Eli took a bumpy short cut, a path I believe only he knew leading to a border Kibbutz so we could see and personally come into contact with Israel’s concept of 24 hour child-care. The village elders who all seemed to know Eli, invited us in for “Ein Bisel” tea and cake. The only comparison I could make was visiting my grandmother as a kid. Out came a
Honey Cake, Strudel, a quickly sliced Challah (Egg Bread) with Jam and Butter.
Large glasses of Hot Tea, too hot to hold were thrust into our hands which we instantly put on the table though the torrid tea was no problem for the Kibbutzim, who showed us how to put a cube of sugar between our front teeth through which to “better enjoy” the tea. “Have more. Take another! More, more.”
Finally the feast ended and we were taken to the bunkers to meet the kids and their caretakers. From that we all came away impressed with how lively and bright the kids were and how much into each, likely friends for life. When we left all four left a donation to “buy something for the kids”.
One morning Eli drove us South to the Dead Sea so we could wallow and muck about in the supposedly health-giving, body-healing mud, which we all did but not with the enthusiasm of the Israelis around us.
Then, Eli hiked us up a long dusty path to the mountain top city of Masada, the Israeli fortress which overlooked the Dead Sea. At the top, we spotted a tramway bringing up other visitors. Asking why we had walked up, Eli assured us that was the best way to gain a sense of the hardship and pain of those Jews who defending Masada to the death. Perhaps he had a point, but we went down by tramway.
After Tel Aviv, Jerusalem was our next home base, where our hotel offered 3-Star comfort, while Eli stayed with friends who “loved him”.
|The following day we visited Safed or Safad, Zefat or Tzfat, home of Kabala or Sephardic Mysticism. Established at the time of the Jewish exile from Spain and Portugal, Sephardim, as they were called, lived apart from a world they did not trust, practicing their “Oriental” concept of Judaism while waiting the Final Redemption.
Inside the main temple, streaking through a synagogue window, a beam of sunlight drew me to an overloaded wall shelf filled with ancient books; their leather bindings glowing as if pointing a finger at themselves. It was a photo no photographer would have missed.
From there it was a short drive to Ein Gev on the Sea of Galilee, where Eli just happened to know a restaurant better than all the rest, coincidentally owned by his aunt. There in the Jesus tale, one fish fed many. For us it took three, a meal that ended with plates piled with tiny fish bones. Since the surrounding area was good farmland, our table was also filled with raw
shredded Carrot slaw, Peas in pods sweet Squash and large skinned Potatoes. By the meals end, we agreed, we had eaten well, all five of us. enjoying Maccabi, one of Israel’s major beer brands.
On Christmas eve we attended High Midnight Mass in Bethlehem. It was a ceremonial production with all the expected high notes. And we were glad we had come, staying the night. Next morning Eli insisted before leaving Bethlehem he had take us to a different, lesser known Bethlehem Church, which he assured us had better “hard evidence” as being the real, true, actual spot of Christ’s birth. That lesser Church had been built over a stream which still flowed through it. In the lobby marble floor noticed was an hole encircled by a Gold Jewish Star. Two nuns on their knees were looking down into the hole while praying and crossing themselves, further proof of Eli’s “evidence”. But when it came our turn to peer down what we saw in the grotto below was a wood doll’s bed in which lay a bare rubber doll. “Hard” evidence indeed!
Yet, that’s the way it was throughout Israel, beliefs of this and beliefs of that, depending on whichever God you worshiped.
Another must stop was Ashkelon, a site revered through centuries by Jews, Christians and Muslims. But that wasn’t its claim to fame. Nor were its crystal white sand beaches. Nor being the birthplace of King Herod. No, Ashkelon claimed it’s place in history because it was there that, supposedly, Delilah sapped Samson’s strength by cutting off his hair.
Jericho was another stop, not the new city, but the hole in the ground with stone fragment walls were the only remaints, after “Gabriel blew his horn and the walls came tumbling down”. Since there were no walls, Gabriel must have blown good.
In the port city of Haifi, Israel’s best Deep Water port, Claryce and I took two days away from the others to visit relatives who lived just above the dome of the Bahai Temple. On Claryce’s mother’s side our hosts were a distant Uncle and Aunt who owned a successful butcher shop. In no time steaks were on the grill, later served in our honor, with French Fries,
Carrots and Peas. Pink grapefruit halves finished dinner, during which Johnny Walker Red appeared along with Maccabi. Claryce’s second cousin, their son, an Israeli Engineer, assured us they didn’t eat like that every night, saying that his father was showing off to send a message back to the family in the States telling them how well he was doing. After that dinner
we happily delivered it.
We returned to the group in time to catch the Beersheba Sunday market. Like many Asian markets, a bit of everything was sold even livestock. Arab women in Burkhas had blankets piled high with goods immediately next to Jewish women in bright colored blouses offering their goods. The men, Arabs and Muslims in robes and Jews wearing skullcaps strolled freely, watching that the women were getting good prices. The mix was of people interacting with
out fear or prejudice.
||My favorite photo shows turbaned Arabs in flowing robes loading two grown sheep into the trunk of a Mercedes Taxi with the name on the door, Israeli Cab. Hey, why not?
Back in Jerusalem, on the way to our hotel, the SF women spotted the Chinese restaurant Kurosin. Being San Francisco Chinatown devotees, they suggested dinner there might be a nice change. But, not Eli. He protested that we wouldn’t like the food, it wasn’t really Chinese. Finally, in exasperation, we told Eli we’d take a cab back to the hotel; he needn’t wait for us.
Sulking, he drove away.
Eli was in a way right, it was Chinese food with a Jewish flavor. No Pork was used, replaced by Smoked Beef. Shrimp was replaced by smoked fish. But, Noodles were Noodles and the stir-fry Veggies were Stir-Fry Veggies. Ditto the Lo Mein, Pan fried Noodles, Chow Mein and Chop Suey. We did fine.
Next day Eli greeted us with a smiling “Good Morning. Did you sleep well?”
No restaurant mention ever came up.
About Jerusalem, It’s located on a ridge of the Judean Mountains, an unbroken range whch makes the city a defendable fortress, protected by it’s superior army whose soldiers guarded all hotel entrances and whose Air Force was always over-head. King David called the city “Jebus” for his conquering Jebusites, from which the name “Zion” is derived.. Jerusalem has been called the “Stronghold of Zion”, “David’s City”, “God’s City”, “The Holy City”,
“The City of Justice”, “The Faithful City”, “The City of Peace” and “The
Above the “Holy Rock” is the Umayyad Caliph Abd-Al-Malik built superb Cupola, “Qubbat al-Sakhra” (The Dome Of The Rock). Construction had been completed in 69l; an inscription dates it.
Muslims believe that during his “Night Journey”, Muhammad placed his feet on the rock, so it is holy. Medieval and modern Scholars believed the shrine’s main purpose was to divert people from a pilgrimage to Mecca, where a second, counter-Caliph lived. However, it’s safe to acknowledge that all the Western religions have their own Jerusalem identification. Entrance to it’s interior can be made through six obviously named gates: Damascus, Zion, Dung, Eastern, Golden and Jaffa.
It was Herod who transformed the old Baris Fortress into the large structure with its high towers that dominates the temple area. He called it Antonia, honoring Marc Anthony. Today, it’s original trapezoid shape remains. The wall surrounding the Temple Mount is made of huge stone blocks. Familiarly, now called either the “Western” or “Wailing” Wall, my connection with it was to place a rolled up paper into the rocks on which I had written “Baruch Atau Adoney” and signed my father’s name honoring a wish he in his lifetime was never able to accomplish.
A most inspiring sights were the Marc Chagall windows created to help celebrate Hadassah University’s Medical Center Golden Anniversary. Designed to depict Jacob’s blessing to his sons and the 12 Tribes of Israel, the handsome facings are entitled Napthtali, Joseph, Rueben, Simeon, Levi, Asher, Gad, Dan, Judah, Zebalon. Issachar and Benjamin. Too beautiful to
describe, they must be seen
Jerusalem ended our tour and on our last night our farewell dinner was at the restaurant Arcadia, with a menu listing Octopus, Shrimp and Blue Crab, plus their specialty, Lamb. Arcadia also was known for its delicious bread.
After dinner, we presented Eli envelopes with tip money. I never saw him at such a loss for words. But as we began to rise, he said, “please, please sit”, motioning a waiter over, saying “Bring a bottle of Sabra, 5 glasses and a plateful of those macaroon cookies I like so much”. Many toasts followed sipping the sinfully sweet Chocolate and Orange liquer. At the
hotel later, hugs and kisses.
Next day Eli took our 2 San Francisco friends to the airport International Terminal after dropping us at the teeming domestic terminal, from where we were flying to the vacation seaport of Eilat on the Red Sea.
The Eilat beach front hotel we picked blind turned out a good choice, putting us near a boardwalk, where licking ice cream cones we strolled into Saudi Arabia and back without seeing one border guard.
After the beaches, an Eilat must attraction is the aquarium where steps take you “underwater” to walk along a reef among amazing colorful tropical fish or an occasional shark all just on the other side of the glass window panels.
Guess who showed up just as we were about to board our home bound trans-Atlantic flight? There was Eli holding an orange corded bag of Jaffa Oranges. How he found out what flight we were on, I’ll never know. But, the oranges were thrust into my hands just as it became our turn to board drawing surrounding passenger giggles. Eli leaned in with a quick kiss on
Claryce’s cheek, a pat on my back and the invite to “Come back again to Israel to see Eli” and he was gone.
It’s no wonder why for the past 55 years we’ve traveled the world hoping to find another Eli. No one exactly has fit his mold, but we keep looking.
© David Russell March 2010
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