War of the Salads

This blog entry about the events of Friday, June 19, 2009 was originally posted on 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.

“I remember how it was,” Zvi, the 61-year-old-but-looking-late-40s man, said.  He had an Israeli accent and stammered on a few English words, but we didn’t care; he was an interesting guy.  “Here,” he pointed.  “Rockets, rockets, rockets,” referring to the 2006 assault on Haifa, where isolated missile fire destroyed isolated parts of the city while the rest of it was business as usual.  We drove near another mall he said had just been completed in 2006, only to have a missle land right in it.  With over twenty years experience in the army and army reserve, Zvi had seen a lot of action and had many stories.  “Small country, but big, big stories.”  His stories were only interrupted with a quick pitstop at a car dealer shop to see if his Check Engine light was serious (it wasn’t), and when a Jewish pamphleteer came by at a traffic light, ruining his storytelling flow.

“You see?” he told the guy with the yamaka on, motioning that he was busy.  “You want to kill? I kill you.”  He explained he was just joking.  “It’s hutzpah… you know hutzpah?  Brooklyn hutzpah.  I’m talking here…”

“What do you think of the Nettanyahu speech [in reaction to Obama’s Cairo speech]?” Lily asked Zvi.  Israel’s Prime Minister had recently reversed his stance on the Palestinian settlements.

“It’s diplomatic.  No problem,” he answered.  “It’s steps, not big steps, but there must be conditions.  He’s right… but an Arab state?  If it’s a state, an independent state, with an army, making deals with other countries, there will be tanks on the border.  Israel won’t exist.  There must be [disarmament] conditions.”

His personal Israeli stance on the two state idea was contrasted by rant I had heard on my first night in Tel Aviv, from Israeli Ofir:  “The Arab world, it’s huge.  Why do they want this land?  [The Arabs already have a lot of land.]  This is my land.  We only have a tiny piece, and it gets smaller all the time.”  Good argument there, but let’s continue with the road trip…

THE FIRST STOP ON OUR TOUR was the Old City of Acre, a former site of Arabs, Jews, traders, and most signficantly, the Templar crusaders who used it as a gateway into the Middle East.  With its rundown coastal decor, it reminded Lily and me of coastal Croatia.  The Old City today is now an Arab area with a maze of narrow streets with an Arab market, selling everything from stickers, spices, fish, cow heads, baked goods, orange juice (“Only five shekels!”), fruits, and savory treats made from the fish eggs of the buri fish, which a nice Arab guy let Lily and me sample.  Also inside the Old City was Humus Said, with a long line for its claims as the Best Hummus in Acre — too long for us to wait.  Instead we wandered the old fortification of the Templars, with its massive halls, and an underground secret tunnel that was discovered accidentally by a plumber in 1994.  (To get out, you must take the left tunnel.) 

Taking a breather, Lily and I sat on the steps of an alley while Zvi took a phone call.  A group of little kids, maybe no older than nine wanted to get by.  Zvi smiled and made a joke in Hebrew, but then his facial expression changed.  “I see him, the boy, and I make a joke,” he told us after the fact.  “I say, ‘Why don’t you fly up the stairs?  I will teach you.’  And he say, ‘No, I will teach you, so you can fly away and — how do you say — get out of here.’  A little boy,” he said, shaking his head at the boy’s attitude.  “It means he heard that from his mother and father.  Makes me not want to come back here.”  Acre’s businesses had taken a downturn in recent years, after a scuffle between Arabs and Jewish Israelis.  There is always some sort of tension despite the harmony I’d seen thus far.  Lily pointed out that everything is segregated; a town is either an Arab town or an Israeli town.  There is still segregation within the overall picture.

“WOW THIS IS THE SWANKIEST BORDER BAR I’ve ever been to,” I said as we took a lunch break at our next stop on the tour, Rosh HaNikra, a big white cliff on the Israeli/Lebanese border.  Despite the fact that there are armed guards right at the border gate (it’s inaccessible), and battleships of the Israeli navy on the near horizon, there were people lounging on the nearby beach or kayaking in the sea.  A whole tourist center was set up for this area, complete with a movie presentation with syncronized wind and water effects, built inside the former railway tunnel that the British made to connect Europe and the Middle East.  The grottos within the limestone base of the rock (accessible via cable car) were reminiscent of the blue grotto I’d seen in Italy.  All this, plus the restaurant with a view where we shared a big salad.

“I love the food here,” Lily said.  “So fresh and simple.  That’s my style.”

“That is Arab Salad,” Zvi said, referring to the simple salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and onions.

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“No difference,” he said.  (If A comes from C, and B comes from C, then A and B come from C.)

“Well, this is chopped small,” he added.  “If it was bigger, it would be Israeli salad.”

Seriously, is there conflict here because of the way two groups of people chop vegetables?  Are Muslims and Jews really that different?  Both of them don’t religiously eat pork, and they both have expectorant sounds in their pronunciation of words.  Can’t things be like in the video for “Rock the Casbah,” where Haredi Jews and Arab sheiks dance together?  Can’t we all just get along?

TAKING THE SCENIC ROUTE, through the mountains and little villages, we ended up in Nazareth (of Jesus fame), where Lily and I would check into the Sisters of Nazareth Convent, listed in the guidebook as one of the better accommodations to stay for weary backpackers and religious pilgrims.  (Zvi also knew the guy who ran the “hotel” end of business.)  It was situated in a small alley, just half a block away from the Basilica of the Annuciation, the Middle East’s largest Catholic Church, built over the grotto where the Angel Gabriel told Mary she was all preggo with the Son of God in Christian lore.  The place had a nice open courtyard, an elevator (take that Baha’i!), and in my room, shuttered windows with a view.  (When I opened the window and shutters, two pigeons almost flew in, so I closed it and turned on my holy A/C.)

The sun was going down, and this being Friday, the Jewish sabbath, it was well-known that most things shut down in the Jewish state with the religious (and therefore governmental) mandate of rest.  Traditionally, as Jews know, this is a sacred time for Shabbat dinner, where families get together for a prayer, challah (holla!), and other things.  Lily was fortunate enough to be invited to Shabbat dinner with Zvi’s family — I would have been too if there was room in the car — which was probably a big deal for her; thinking of converting to Judaism, Shabbat dinner in the land of Jews, could be a big part of her decision. 

And so, I was left to my own devices.  What should I do? I wondered.  WWJD: What Would Jesus Do?  Rather, WWED: What Would Erik Do? Would he stay in the convent, leech off the nearby wi-fi signal and surf for porn?

Alas, the wi-fi’s signal mysteriously faded as the sun went down (the Hebrew God has a Linksys), and so I went around to see whatever I could before the convent’s 10:30 curfew.  The basilica was open later than usual, so I went there, until a priest(?) asked me if I was a priest.

“Uh, no.”

“Then now is not the time for this,” he said in some weird accent.  I went the wrong way and he got a little curt with me.  “Where are you going? Now is not the time for this.”

I could have mentioned my years as an altar boy, but I don’t think it would have a difference.  He escorted me to the gate like an El Al agent.

Jews closed, Catholics closed. Which left me to the Muslims, which worked out because Nazareth, despite its significance in the Christian world, is a bustling modern Arab town, with a downtown shopping area, a soccer stadium, and even a KFC.  I walked around, grabbed a falafel from the stand that had a long line (pretty good), did some shopping, and checked out Mahroum’s Sweets, Nazareth’s institution for baklava and other honey-infused treats.  It was there I ran into an obvious Westerner with a Lucky Jeans brand t-shirt and a North Face bag.

“Where are you from?” I challenged him for sticking out like a sore thumb.

“The States.”

“Where in the States?”

“New Jersey.”

I smiled.  “Where in Jersey? I’m from Teaneck.”


“Ah, near the mall.”  (FYI you can say, “Ah, by the mall” to any town in Jersey and it will make sense.)

Rockaway Steve was just passing — and pissing — through on a road trip, but he had to get back to return his relatives car, so there went my one friend of the night.  I went back to the convent.

I hung out and typed up a blog entry in my room with the Virgin Mary on the wall.  I was in that room down the hall, far enough I’d hoped, from the nuns to hear my speakers play Red Hot Chili Peppers lyrics like, “What I got I got to get it put it in you.”  There was a knock on the door around 10:45. 

“You want some birthday cake?” Lily asked me.  She had admitted to me that it was her birthday earlier, but didn’t want to make a big deal of it in front of Zvi or the guests of the Shabbat dinner — until she fessed up at the end of the night.  They got her the cake.

“Happy Birthday!” I greeted her, surprising her with treats I got for her myself (baklava) which I put candles on top of for her official Make-A-Wish blowing.  For a gift, I got her a can opener, an inside joke of sorts, since we had struggled trying to open the can of tuna the night before. 

“Thank you!” she said with hugging arms around me. 

“How was Shabbat dinner?” I asked, wondering if it was an influential as it could have been.

“They had… pork,” she told me.  “It was a barbecue.”  She continued, “They’re the kind of Jews that sort of just say ‘Shabbat Shalom! Let’s eat!’  And then they offered me pork.  They were like, ‘Do you eat pork? Oh wait, but you’re not Jewish!’”  But Lily kept with her maybe-I’ll-be-kosher-one-day vow and opted for chicken.  The succulent pork tenderloin was consumed by the “real” Jews there. 

To eat pork, or not to eat pork… that is a question shared amongst Jews and Muslims at any level of religiousness.  It’s all a big mix of people in the end, but perhaps they can blend and taste well together.  As Zvi once said, “Israel. It’s a big salad!”

Next entry: The Candle

Previous entry: Embracing It All

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Comments for “War of the Salads”

  • youtube link is dead: this one works tho: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAkfHShATKY

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/21  at  03:38 AM

  • i’d also like to add that the best bbq ribs and pork i’ve had are made by a jew.  and yes, he eats cheese burgers, and loves him some lechon…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/21  at  03:42 AM

  • I have a friend who seriously keeps kashrut - I SO could not do that. What with pork and crab and oysters and alllll of that. But, to each their own. Whatevs. Looks like the trip is still great!
    Are you gonna dive the red sea?

    Posted by No-L  on  06/21  at  07:49 AM

  • I’m here to validate you!  Good stuff, as always.

    Ask 1 serious question while you’re over there, if you could please.  Why do Jewish people leave a stone on graves when they visit?  I’ve asked some Jewish folks I know, but either they don’t seem to know or I get different answers (maybe cause they’re too young).

    And I thought the traditional greeting for Jerseyites was “You from Jersey?  What exit?”

    Keep traveling!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/21  at  03:52 PM

  • @TW Hague - Visitors can bring live flowers although the Orthodox custom, which many other Jewish people also do, is to put stones on the grave instead. Putting a pebble on the grave is an expression of someone having visited to pay respect for the deceased person.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/21  at  05:27 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:
The Candle

Previous entry:
Embracing It All


Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

BFFN: acronym for "Best Friend For Now"; a friend made on the road, who will share travel experiences for the time being, only to part ways and lose touch with

The Big Trip: the original sixteen month around-the-world trip that started it all, spanning 37 countries in 5 continents over 503 days (October 2003–March 2005)

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1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.

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