The best way to visit Israel is with a fluent Hebrew speaker. That’s why I brought my thirteen-year-old son along, since he goes to a Jewish Day School and spends half each day speaking only Hebrew. Unfortunately, I had over-estimated his capabilities, so taxi rides often consisted of pointing and repeating English words with Israeli accents. If my son hadn’t thought that saying “Iz olright, Iz olright” with an Israel accent and considering that good Hebrew, I have a feeling we would have been better off.
Never mind that, Israel is a spectacular and diverse country. The beaches at Tel Aviv didn’t do a lot form – wide stretches of sand backed by a main road with a few coffee shops and restaurants and many mega-hotels on the other side, and the view from our hotel window wasn’t that great, so we decided instead to spend time at the Tel Aviv Art Museum. Due to the generosity of Jewish benefactors donating their impressive art collections to the museum, the collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art is quite spectacular. Everything from Kandinsy to Jawelensky, Monet to van Gogh, and not just one but several of each overly-famous artist. But what really impressed me was the collection of Israeli artists, none of whom I had ever heard of – but based on the quality of the art and my strong belief in my own knowledge of art history, I certainly should have. The metal round plates of Kadishman, clinking as they lay in front of one’s feet, large wheels with faces with small wheels with faces on top, truly brought out the horror of the holocaust with just a simple design. Reuven Rubin’s elongated people seemed to be influenced by Modigliani, and yet a very Israeli take in their clothing and background. The abstract work of Yehezkel Streichmann also made me pause, disappointed that they were too big to steal and hang in our house back home. Aside from that, you can take Tel Aviv, as far as I am concerned.
Jerusalem is a much more extraordinary place. The Wailing Wall seems so tiny from the outside – with the women’s section only about a third the size of the men’s, I had to almost push forward to insert my little paper prayer into a slot in the wall, which didn’t make me feel too holy. However, The Western Wall Foundation runs amazing guided tours within the walls themselves, called “Western Wall Tunnels”. This was one of the highlights of our trip. We trekked long distances inside the wall foundations, learning about the massive stones that were cut outside of town and somehow (no one seems quite sure how) hauled into place on the wall. This is why in the storming of Jerusalem, the Romans just could not destroy the wall when they so capably (and disappointingly) destroyed the Second Temple. We couldn’t get to the Dome of the Rock as non-Muslims are only allowed from 10.45-10.50am on every third Wednesday, or something equally limiting, I can’t remember exactly what.
We did however get to the Knesset for their group tours through the Israeli senate. Not only did we see the senate in session (not sure what they were debating but I don’t think it was Land for Peace – although the entire proceedings of the senate and every single sub-committee, except the one for Defence, are streamed live on the internet. How’s that for open government? The Knesset also has a beautiful large Chagall wall-hanging of the past, present and future (a triptych), which Chagall designed especially for that particular large wall space. There’s also a glorious Chagall tapestry hanging on another wall nearby. Certainly, it must create nice options for meditative pauses during heated and complicated political discussions.
In contrast to open government, Ammunition Hill needs a lot of work. This is where the British first built all their bunkers to house ammunition should the Palestinians ever get to rowdy in the pre-Second-World-War days. However, it then became a station point for the Syrians (?) that was over-run by Israel during the Six-Day-War, leading to the permanent capture of Jerusalem by the Israeli Defence Forces. The young outdoor guide struggled with her English as she lead us around the bunkers. The movie explaining the situation, complete with three-dimensional topographic floor map that lit up showing what battles took place where was rather more helpful. Plans are afoot for major redevelopment of the onsite museum and tour process are underway for the fifty-year celebrations of 2017.
The Israel Museum in Jerusalem has a rather nice gift shop. Sure, it has terrific art and also the most important items in recent Israeli historical discovery – the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are shown in a very limited fashion since firstly, they are mostly tiny fragments, and secondly, they are just too fragile to have on display for long periods of time without decaying. The visitor must be content with clearly-manufactured reproductions, with stains and smudges as per the originals to give a feeling of authenticity. Anish Kappor, Clas Oldenburg and many other luminaries can be seen in the sculpture garden. However, the real outdoor attraction is the replica model of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple. You can walk around it, look over it, and see the suburbs with the shiny red roofs of the very wealthy, and the hovels of their minions and the poor. Nothing much has changed nowadays really, except there is better heating, lighting and plumbing. But back to the gift shop: a small but interesting collection of works by various Israeli artists, but no longer including a carved ceramic pot by Shamai Gibsh because that is now in the Matricciani Collection in Clifton VA.
For a day trip out of town, Massada and the Dead Sea make a solid winning double-combination. You can drive across one side of Israel to the other in six hours, so there isn’t much excuse for missing this. Even in February, the Dead Sea is (just) warm enough to get in. Taste the salty water and realize quite how much salt it takes to float a human. Make sure you have a lot of water on hand for the after-effect on your tongue. The only real way to get to Massada is via the snake path, winding your way up and down the mountain to the most famous table top in Israel, where the brave Jews decided on mass suicide rather than becoming slaves to the Romans besieging their city. Sure there is a cable car, which takes about three minutes, as opposed to the forty minute walk, but then you won’t feel like a real wanderer arriving at an ancient town. Be sure to take the audio guide so it looks like more than piles of stones, and don’t forget to go down the mountainside stairs to the corner where Herod had his painted palace rooms. Some traces of the vivid colours still remain. Needless to say the boundless views over the Dead Sea into Jordan, and across the sandy dry lands of this desert country are most impressive.
Forget shopping in Israel (aside from the afore-mentioned Israel Museum). Unless you want kitschy souvenirs, such menorot or mezzusahs from any number of stalls in the old market area of Jerusalem, all the shopping malls are filled with the usual US chains (The Gap, LaCoste…) and at higher prices. Actually, there is one nice road where all the galleries are, opposite a large mall. Unfortunately, at the moment, I don’t have the $15,000 required for a Gothically dark painting by Dvora Shalev. Note in the diary to revisit in ten – no, let’s go for five – years’ time. Oh Israel, wishing you an eternity of peace and great art.