Hailing from Jewish enclaves Teaneck, New Jersey and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Erik travels for two weeks in the Holy Land of Israel, with jaunts into Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian West Bank. Raised Catholic but deemed “J.B.A.” by his peers, he encounters many personalities along the way, resulting in a multi-perspective view of the state of affairs in the Middle East, including: a woman raised Catholic who is seriously considering conversion to Judaism; an American Jewish girl with Israeli citizenship who is anti-Zionist and pro-Palestine; a Christian fanatic who couldn’t believe the locals built their country “without believing in the Messiah”; a Palestinian cab driver who would still live in Israel even if there was a two-state solution; a Catholic priest-turned-fire marshal; a Jewish family who serves pork during Shabbat dinner; some friendly Bedouins; a Jewish-American ex-pat who made a living in Israel by providing “American service” since “Israeli service is no service”; a Jordanian tour guide that was desperate to shake off the stigma of his country in hopes for more tourism; and a Scottish woman who was completely oblivious to any political or religious tension in the region. These encounters (and many more) are all intertwined with desert trekking, surfing, horseback riding, and cycling, and collectively comprise one of Erik’s most interesting and thought-provoking blogged trips to date.
Posted: June 15, 2009
DAY 1: “Tickets and passport,” requested Shir, the cute Israeli woman with a welcoming smile at the Israeli airline El Al line at JFK’s Terminal 4. Little did I know that she was the first line of defense in a long-drawn-out Israeli security ordeal before departure from New York.
Posted: June 16, 2009
DAY 2: “It’s funny seeing you here, seeing that we never see you in New Jersey,” said a familiar face. It was my friend Maya, an Israeli-American on vacation with her Filipino-American husband Mienri — also my friend, brother to Elaine (Nicaragua and “I’m jealous” fame), and cousin to Terence (Rio, Munich). True, while they lived an hour drive away from me back home, I barely got to see them — different schedules or something, particularly with them having a kid: an uber-cute, two-year-old daughter named Olivia, the spawn of not-such-an-unlikely pairing of marriage; Maya and Min‘s matrimonial union was just one of a number of Jewish/Filipino couples I knew. Their two-week vacation to sightsee and visit Maya’s Israel-residing mother was coming to an end, but their last day overlapped with my first.
Posted: June 18, 2009
DAY 3: “What is your purpose in Israel?” asked the female Israeli officer at the security bag check and metal detector at the Tel Aviv central train station.
My new friend and fellow Brooklynite Lily could have had a loaded answer, about how she was in Israel to see what it’s all about since she was in the middle of a serious contemplation on converting to Judaism from years of a Catholic upbringing. Surrounded by many Jewish friends in her life from her undergrad days at Brown to her current life as a medical student at SUNY, she had seriously been intrigued with the Jewish faith and lifestyle, attending Hillel events and other Jewish festivities. In her exploration, she had been trying to keep kosher since the beginning of the year, observed all the Passover rules in April, and was starting to learn Hebrew.
But like me before her, she simply answered the Israeli guard, “Just traveling.”
Posted: June 19, 2009
DAY 4: “So what are you doing in Israel?” asked Sarit, a young Jewish American from Albany, NY I met that morning outside the not-yet-open gates for the famous Baha’i Gardens atop Mount Carmel (of Elijah and Carmelites fame). She had recently graduated from her undergrad years and was avoiding the “real world” by wandering around Israel for nine months thus far, a couple of those working in a kibbutz.
“I’m here to uh, do stuff,” I answered.
“So where are you from?”
“Teaneck,” I told her (after telling her my current whereabouts in Brooklyn).
“Oh, I have cousins there!” the Jew replied with a tad of excitement.
“Of course you do.”
Posted: June 21, 2009
DAY 5: “In Israel, shopping is a sport,” said Zvi, the Israeli native who was my new friend and tour guide, as he drove by a mall on the outskirts of Haifa, on the northern coast. “Shopping, shopping, shopping.”
Lily had shotgun in his four-door sedan while I spread out in the backseat for the day-long road trip ahead. Some might find it strange that I was with a girl I’d known for two days and now a man I’d only known for a few hours from the night before — both relatively strangers — but stranger things have happened. Besides, I got the insiders view of what life has been like living in Israel for decades.
Posted: June 21, 2009
DAY 6 (PART 1): There is a scene from 30 Rock where Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan) decides to convert to Catholicism and has a discussion about it with his boss, Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin). Ultimately, Jack tells him, “Even though there is the whole confession thing, that’s no free pass, because there is a crushing guilt that comes with being a Catholic. Whether things are good or bad or you’re simply… eating tacos in the park, there is always the crushing guilt.”
Posted: June 22, 2009
DAY 6 (PART 2): It’s a shame that the teachings of Jesus Christ have become so convoluted with the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican, over centuries, has taken a good thing and turned it into a big, stuffy (and candle-extinguishing) machine of imperial faith and worship. But whether you are religious or not, you can’t argue that Jesus Christ’s optimistic message has inspired people around the globe for millenia — inspired both good and bad things.
Most of the stories of the life of Jesus took place around the Sea of Galilee, surrounded by the regions known as The Golan and The Galilee, where J.C. spent most of his time preaching his message in a synagogue at Capernaum (picture above) — let us not forget that Jesus, messiah of the Christians, was actually a Jew, arguably in the Top Three Known Jews of all time. (Steven Spielburg is like No. 4 or something.)
Posted: June 24, 2009
DAYS 7-8: “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” said a middle-aged South African tourist admiring the scenery as we waited under the shade at a bus stop rest area midway between Jerusalem and Eilat. “It’s amazing that they built all this in such a short period of time. How did they do it? It’s amazing.”
I stated the obvious. “Well, foreign support.”
But he was on a rant. “How can they do all this, and not believe in the Messiah? That’s the amazing thing…”
Oy yoy yoy. Here we go, I thought. Another preachy Christian South African fanatic. I hadn’t encountered one since that South African Creationist I shared a room and boat tour with, ironically in the Galapagos, birthplace of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
He continued, “That they can still be blessed by His grace and build all this in a short period of time…”
Fortunately we were on different buses to Eilat, and we had already started to reboard.
Posted: June 29, 2009
DAY 9: “Why are you here?” asked the armed Jordanian border patrol guard at the Yitzhak Rabin Israeli/Jordanian border crossing, about a five-minute drive from Eilat’s city center.
Because I’m looking for the Holy Grail, I thought to myself.
If you are a child of the 80s, or just an Indiana Jones fan of any age (as I am), you undoubtedly know that Petra — Jordan’s main archaeological tourist attraction — was the site at the ending of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, where Indiana Jones and his father end up finding the Holy Grail after running away from Nazis via boat, motorcycle, horses, camels, and tanks. (You’re welcome.) That movie was released in 1989, when it was to be the last installment of the Indiana Jones trilogy — this was of course, before Spielburg and Lucas raped Indiana Jones (South Park fans will get that) and decided to make an entertaining, but much inferior fourth movie in 2008, making the 1989 movie Indy’s second to the last crusade.
Posted: June 29, 2009
DAY 10: “This is going to sound weird,” I started to say to the unknown uniformed girl next to me on the public Egged bus, “but do you mind if I take a photo of you, holding your gun, and your purse? I just think it’s funny.” Noa (that was her name) happily obliged.
When traveling around Israel, it is common — very common — to see youths in uniform, walking around everywhere with semi-automatic rifles strapped to their torsos. Service in the Israeli army is compulsory to all kids out of high school, and all of them in uniform are required to carry their weapons to be on call in case of an emergency attack. Girls don’t normally walk around with weapons unless they are stationed at a border, which is why it was such a novelty to sit next to one; Noa worked on the border with Egypt, but was on the bus on her way home for some time off. Despite what I had thought, she did not work at the military base that was visible from the road out of Eilat, with missile launchers in plain sight pointed towards Egypt to ensure their “peace.”
Posted: June 30, 2009
DAY 11: “Do you have anything in your bag that might look like a knife or a weapon?” asked Yael, the super-friendly, super-knowledgeable tour guide from the Sandeman’s tour company, which ran the Old City’s twice-daily free tour from the Jaffa Gate. (I opted to pay 75 shekels for a more comprehensive tour that would bring us inside most of the holy sites instead of discussing them from afar.)
“I might have a can opener that might be construed as a weapon, but I’ll check and get rid of it,” I told her. “I’m just staying over there.”
“Anything like a knife or a Bible, and they won’t let you up Temple Mount.”
I emptied my bag of any sharp or holy objects.
Posted: July 01, 2009
DAY 12 (PART 1): “What did he say?” I asked my new friend and traveling companion Sarit, who was fluent enough in Hebrew to understand what the bus driver was telling us. She had asked him where we should be dropped off on the side of the road in order to hike the Wadi Qelt trek between Jerusalem and Jericho, through the untamed desert of the Palestinian West Bank.
“He said that he’ll drop us off at the [Jewish] settlement and that it’s a far walk and it’s unsafe and that we shouldn’t be heroes for doing it,” Sarit informed me. “But he’ll take us.”
Posted: July 03, 2009
DAY 12 (PART 2): (The following entry was written to the best of my memory, since taking photos or jotting down notes was forbidden after sundown, in respect of the Jewish Sabbath. [Seriously, there was a guard there working at the Western Wall Plaza, yelling at anyone who did — he was the Token Sabbath Goy and was allowed to do so.])
“I can’t believe I’m here for Shabbat!” raved Michelle, a young Canadian Jewish girl that had recently decided to consider herself “from Cananda” instead of “from Argentina” where she was born and raised for fifteen years.
“Well, Canadians are so nice,” I told her.
I had just been introduced to her by Sarit, who had just freshened up to meet me for Shabbat dinner after our long day trekking in the Palestinian West Bank — Michelle was from her hostel’s women-only dorm room and was invited to join us. However, we weren’t exactly sure where we would find a proper Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem, but we had a pretty good idea where we might find an invitation to one: the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest place on earth.
Posted: July 11, 2009
DAY 13: “I guess we should get a group photo?” suggested the curious Howard, who was probably testing the waters of the dynamics of our newly-formed tour group; we had only been riding together in a mini-van for less than an hour with not much conversation. But our smiling willingness for a group photo at our quick early morning pitstop — the Sea Level roadside marker — was the telling that we had lucked out with a fun crew.
“Can you take a picture with my camera too?!” asked another to our driver who was taking the photo.
Soon, there were multiple photos of our six smiles — it was the first of several group photos that day.
Posted: August 01, 2009
DAY 14: “We should go to services in Bethlehem on Sunday, since we went to Shabbat dinner on Friday,” suggested Miriam, the quirky, chain-smoking Scottish lass I’d met on the way to Shabbat dinner at a rabbi’s house two days prior. With that said, I had made plans to head back into the Palestinian West Bank to O Tourist Town of Bethlehem — birthplace of baby Jew, Jesus Christ — with her, and two others I’d met (Willa and Maurice) when were all out drinking the night before. Gathering the crew together that morning was a small ordeal, with cell phone alarms that didn’t go off and having to backtrack to get passports — not to mention the inevitable hangovers that ensued.
Posted: August 02, 2009
DAY 15: I had met Adrian and Andrea the night before, a young traveling couple from the UK who had just arrived in Israel for their holiday around the country. Fresh from the airport and into the Old City of Jerusalem, they asked me, Maurice and Willa for travel tips and advice on what to see and where to go, and for me, my transfer of knowledge acquired from the past two weeks was evidence that I had truly come full circle. My “cycle” had been complete, which meant it was time to say goodbye.
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