This was my first trip to Israel. “You’ll love it,” people said. “It’s an amazing country.” But I still didn’t know what to expect.
I was travelling in December and they were calling for possible snow in the Golan Heights. On my first night in Tel Aviv, I crossed Kaufmann Street to get closer to the Mediterranean and to see the stars. A group of people were gathered in a circle playing drums. All of them were older, and this was my first surprise.
In Toronto, it is more often young people out in public on the streets. The worn faces told tales that young people could not. The drummers seemed deep in their own thoughts. I came to learn that, in Israel, everyone has a story.
One of the great highlights of my trip was the Western Wall. I never really imagined I’d ever see this holy site. It was smaller and more intimate than I expected. My small pieces of paper with prayers for friends and family were too big to wedge into the tiny cracks in the wall and the ground was layered with paper. I had heard the messages are put into boxes and buried.
Men and women were separated, and the men’s side had a big menorah. On our side, women pressed their heads against the wall and some sat on plastic garden chairs, reading scripture. It was chaotic and uplifting, all at the same time. I’d love to go again to touch this ancient Temple remnant, built in the first century BCE. The wall didn’t seem that old, since most of Jerusalem is built in the same stone, but it did feel eternal.
On Christmas Day, my tour took us to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We were there to see the possible place where Jesus had been born. It took us an hour and a half to reach a small door that opened into a tiny grotto. Once inside, the priests allowed us to kneel in a space under an altar where we could touch the spot that marked this Christian holy place.
On the way from Eilat to Jerusalem, our bus stopped in the Negev for refreshments. Shimon Raymond owned a small restaurant, a petting zoo and some rooms to let in the middle of the desert. Raymond, nicknamed Koshi, was a war hero and sergeant, one of the original men in Unit 101, an IDF special forces unit formed in 1953 by Ariel Sharon on orders from David Ben-Gurion. Our guide told me that, after his service, Koshi had struggled with personal demons, but eventually found his way by opening this wayside stop. The instant I saw him, sitting in his worn leather chair by the fence near the parking lot, I knew he was someone important.
On the last day, one more must-do could not escape me. I had to have shawarma. My sister, Marthe, had spoken of it years ago when she worked in Israel on an archeological dig. I had to taste it. In Tel Aviv, I headed for Yashka Shawarma and, like the final bow on the gift that was Israel, I had an unforgettable meal.
At home, I saw fellow travellers’ Facebook pictures. What I had experienced and seen was different from each of them. There are so many ways to experience Israel. My trip was as unique as the country itself.
Joan Yolleck’s trip to Israel will not be her last. She is the author of the children’s book Paris in the Spring With Picasso. She lives in Toronto.