Conversations of Conversion

This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, June 17, 2009 was originally posted on 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.”

LILY AND I WERE ON OUR WAY out of Israel’s capital city to the northern city of Haifa.  On the map in the guidebook, it looks like a long ways, but in reality, Israel is only about the size of New Jersey and it was only forty minutes up the coast.

“So where are you from?” she asked me.  We had only met in the hostel the night before and were still on the usual getting-to-know-you traveler talk.  It was easier for me to talk to someone from the New York area (she was originally from Pelham, Bronx (of The Taking of Pelham 123 fame), so I didn’t have to explain things.

“Teaneck,” I answered her.

“Ah, Teaneck,” she said recognizing it.  “That’s very Jewish, huh?”


“Is that where you got the inspiration for this trip?”

“Sort of.  I’ve been surrounded by Jews all my life.  I grew up in Teaneck, lived on the Upper East Side, and now I live in Williamsburg,” I answered, citing all very Jewish areas.  (Williamsburg, Brooklyn may be known for its hipsters in the northern area, but south of the Williamsburg Bridge lies one of New York City’s largest Hasidic communities.  In fact, a sign on the Williamsburg Bridge going towards Manhattan reads, “Leaving Brooklyn: Oy Vey!”)

We rode the train (after a brief moment of confusion if we were actually on the correct one) amidst the local civilians and young gun-toting Israeli army guys and girls.  The landscape out the window ceased to be the metropolis of Tel Aviv and transformed to a montage of suburbia, farmland, desert, industry, and repeat.  “I look around and think to myself, all of this wouldn’t exist without the United States,” Lily told me.  True, billions of U.S. dollars went into the creation and continued support of Israel — almost three billion of it per year to support the military — and she could have gone into a whole conversation about diplomacy and economic sanctions, but she was too busy admiring the scenery.  “Look, an Ikea!” Lily pointed out.

On route to Haifa, we planned to stop two-thirds of the way at Caesarea, a national park and historic site, along the shore.  Once a Phoenician settlement, it grew under order of King Herod, who dedicated it to Augustus Caesar in 22 B.C.  It was here that the Romans set up shop as a major port capital in the region, where Pontius Pilate (of Apostles’ Creed fame) lived, where the Jews revolted and failed in an uprising against the Romans in 69 A.D.  Caesarea changed hands to the Arabs, then the Crusaders, then Arabs again, then Crusaders again, Arabs, Crusaders, Arabs, then Crusaders again, until it was seized by the French, King Louis IX in the 13th century. 

Long story short, it eventually became ruins that stood there for centuries until it found value as a tourist attraction, complete with a developed beach, sushi restaurant, kosher restaurant, jewelry store, renovated amphitheater, etc.  It also had an “English multimedia” called “Time Trek,” this short film with dramatic music and motion graphics, explaining the history of the site.  More impressive than that was the interactive pre-show, where Lily and I got to “talk” to a hologram of an actor playing Rabbi Akiva who held his belly while idle and had an accent like Jackie Mason. 

We wandered the ruins: the aqueduct, the vaults, the mosaic tilework, the new amphitheater (there’s a good view from my favorite seat in the house) and the nearby fishermen who inspired us to grab some mullet and other tafas at one of the cafes.  It was here we continued to bond as new travel buddies even though the conversations weren’t typical of backpackers (or flashpackers).

“So how long have you been thinking of converting?” I asked her.

“It’s been a while actually. [It’s only been this year that I’ve really started to try it],” she answered.  “I grew up in a really strong Catholic family.  My uncle was a deacon of the Archdiocese of Boston, my grandmother prayed the rosary everyday.  But I never really felt enchanted with Catholicism.”  She seemed sincere, and was doing it for no one but herself.  (She didn’t seem to be, as my friend Lilit said once, “one of those shiksas on JDate willing to convert so they can marry a rich Jewish guy.”)  She continued her story, about how her family is actually supportive of her.  “My mom’s a very spiritual person, and she’d rather me have some sort of spirituality than none at all.”

AFTER A CRAZY CAB RIDE to the train station at nearby Benyamina — crazy because our driver managed to have three conversations on three cell phones at the same time while driving — Lily and I continued up the coast on by rail.  In no time we saw the beach and then the port of Haifa, where we got off to find the Port Inn Guesthouse, one of the better hostels I’ve ever been too, with an extremely friendly family-run staff.  Great backyard, plenty of plants and decor, and a great private room for me to base myself to do freelance work during any “downtime from my vacation.”  We quickly learned that the area by the port was very sleepy in the evenings, like the Financial District in New York where everything shuts down as soon as the office day ends.  Fortunately for us, the one place we had a mission to visit that day was nearby and still open.

“Where’s the best hummus in Haifa?” I had asked the guy at the hostel desk earlier that morning in Tel Aviv.

“Abu Shaker,” he answered with much enthusiasm.  He had even called his buddy to confirm the name since it had slipped his mind.  “It’s the best in Haifa, the best in all of Israel.”

“I like Abu Shaker,” said the guy at the desk at the Port Inn in Haifa, despite someone else recommending another.  That made two recommendations.  We ventured out to find it, wary that we might not since the signs were only in Hebrew.  Lo and behold, two hummus places, both in Hebrew, were at the same area we had been directed to.

“Which one of these is Abu Shaker?” I asked a stranger on the street. 

“How do you know about Abu Shaker?” he wondered.  The place wasn’t in the guidebook, and we obviously weren’t locals.  We told him about the recommendations.  “Out of all the best hummus places in Haifa, this is one of them.”  Third time’s the charm; he directed us to the store on the left, with a I HEART HUMUS tag on the wall (picture above), and staffed by people wearing “Humus Junky” t-shirts.  The hummus was pretty good — we had it with chicken — and it fulfilled our hunger and curiosity for the rest of the day.  But the debate would continue on, perhaps for the rest of this trip, on Who has the best hummus in Israel?

A leisurely stroll through town passed residential buildings which reminded me of Zona Rosa in Bogota, Colombia, the teens smoking hookah in the street, the kids playing on a playground, and the Disney-character-inspired shrubs, we found ourselves on the beach just in time for sunset.  The sunset gave way to an evening bus ride back to our hostel, and a night at the only lively place open in that area, Eli’s Pub, an Irish Pub (yes they are everywhere), with a house band that played covers in Hebrew and English.  We had only intended to “go for one beer” but as anyone who knows me in New York will know, “go for one” usually ends up being “another,” and “one more,” and “Yeah, one more for the road,” followed by “Let’s do shots!”

And that’s exactly how it went.  That first sip converts me every time.

Next entry: Embracing It All

Previous entry: You Don’t Mess With The Zohar

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Comments for “Conversations of Conversion”

  • You should go to the Bahai! Its really nice!
    Bring back some hummus too

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/18  at  04:30 AM

  • best seat in the house indeed.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/18  at  04:42 AM

  • @ElZee: B’Hai, obviously; it’s the biggest thing here… that was yesterday, in the next entry (the entries are 1.5 days postdated with the time change)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/18  at  07:33 AM

  • Now I want Israeli food.
    And aren’t there a ton of those seats in that house? That’s just one, right?? wink

    Posted by No-L  on  06/18  at  05:55 PM

  • Did you visit the lupinarium in Caesarea?! I didn’t see it when I was there but I’m sure there is one grin And that amphitheater seems like perfect place to sing that Jesus song! Did you sing it? Did you?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/21  at  07:45 AM

  • @steph Sadly no… but we’ll always have Pompeii… grin

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/21  at  07:39 PM

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This blog post is one of sixteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Holla! In The Holy Land," which chronicled a two-week journey through Israel, with jaunts into Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian West Bank.

Next entry:
Embracing It All

Previous entry:
You Don’t Mess With The Zohar


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