New rail line to connect high-tech Tel Aviv with holy Jerusalem


Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are only 60 km (40 miles) apart but they often feel like different planets, not just in terms of mentality but because the commute from the Mediterranean to the hills can sometimes take two hours.

That is set to change in the next 18 months with the completion of a $2 billion, high-speed rail line that will slash the time between the high-tech, business center and Jerusalem's Old City to just 30 minutes.

After more than a decade in the planning, the project, which has involved boring tunnels through mountains and spanning bridges over deep valleys, promises to transform Israel's two largest cities, or at least bring them a little closer.

“We are doing in Israel what was done 200 years ago in the United States, after World War II in Europe and in recent decades in Asia,” Transport Minister Yisrael Katz said on Tuesday, touting several new rail lines in the works. “The main aim is to connect Jerusalem to the rest of the country.”

There is already a train between Jerusalem and the coast — built during the Ottoman empire and added to by the French and the British — but it's a slow, scenic route that takes an hour and 40 minutes, not ideal for commuting. That said, around 7,500 people still ride it most days.

The new line takes a more direct route, cutting through the steep hills between the Mediterranean and Jerusalem, which sits 800 meters (2,640 feet) above sea level.

Working with 10 foreign companies, the line runs over 10 bridges and through five tunnels. Construction began in 2010 and is scheduled to end in March 2018.

Double-decker trains holding around 1,700 passengers will travel at 160 km/h. The plan is for four departures an hour, serving 50,000 commuters a day, or 10 million a year, said Boaz Zafrir, the chief executive of Israel Railways.

Katz believes the train will give a jolt to Jerusalem's economy, encouraging more people from the coast to open businesses in the city, which is more religious and conservative than Tel Aviv. Some Tel Avivians, fed up with high rental costs and high humidity, may also decide to move to Jerusalem.

The new line also promises to be a boon for foreign diplomats, Israeli government employees and parliament members, many of whom live on the coast but commute to Jerusalem almost daily and often lament the traffic jams.

A food tour of Israel’s cities


Mediterranean cuisine is consumed with gusto all over the world. While many dishes commonly enjoyed in Israel originate elsewhere, things like hummus, falafel, kibbeh, and shakshuka have been adopted into Israeli tradition with the recent advent of “foodie-ism” by chefs all over the country.

What’s more, every city in Israel has its own unique approach and local flavors. From the street food of Jerusalem to the haute cuisine of Tel Aviv, the options are endless and sure to offer a unique culinary experience for the discerning epicurean.

Jerusalem

The Holy City is best known for its hypnotic architecture, spiritual effect, and historic significance. Home to a uniquely diverse range of religions and ethnic groups, the city has birthed a composite food revolution marrying the city’s varied flavors and culinary traditions. Not surprisingly, the capital city is famous for having the best hummus in Israel, and possibly the world. Particularly lauded among the city’s hummus joints is Abu Shukri, a little hole-in-the-wall in the Muslim Quarter, for which the Wall Street Journal says: “If you are to consume only one plate of hummus in Jerusalem, this is the place to do it.”

Of course, you can’t do J-Town without visiting Mahane Yehuda, one of the busiest shuks in the country, where you’re guaranteed to get drunk on the scents of fresh bread and aromatic spices. This is your chance to marvel in freshly baked goods. Experience street food like never before with warm za’atar-coated flatbreads and potato and mushroom-stuffed bourekas. To finish on a sweet note, indulge in the dreamlike, chocolate-and-filo-dough morsels known as rugelach for dessert. Don’t forget to stop by the Halva Kingdom to sample the sweet sesame treat in over 100 different varieties, all homemade and ground by millstone.

Tel Aviv

While there’s no shortage of traditional Middle Eastern fare in Tel Aviv, this modern metropolis is home to incredibly diverse fine dining, ethnic, and experimental options. If you’re going international, The Brasserie on Kikar Rabin serves up its French delicacies 24 hours a day, while the atmosphere and Spanish tapas at Vicky Christina in Hatachana will take you to the other end of the Mediterranean. The food at Topolopompo is even more fun than its name. Enjoy an acclaimed, finely-honed menu of Asian fusion dishes. For some of the best Asian cuisine in Tel Aviv, try Taizu – that is, of course, if you can get a table.

Dizengoff has earned its reputation as a cultural mecca, so you can’t go wrong with exploring this central bustling street. The perfect balance of flavors at Sabich Frishman will make you redefine what ‘sandwich’ even means, while Keton will warm your heart with awesome traditional Ashkenazi dishes like chicken soup and chopped liver.

Then, for a sunset stroll on the Tel Aviv boardwalk, absolutely nothing in the world compares to frozen yogurt, Israeli style. Like all culinary feats, the key is to have a strong base. The secret lies in the fresh, creamy yogurt produced from the incredible dairy produced by Israeli cows. Pick from a variety of mouth-watering ingredients to create a mind-blowing frozen treat.

Eilat

If you’re doing the resort thing, Eilat is an absolute seaside gem for vacationers. And with the seaside comes incredibly fresh seafood! High among the heavy hitters is Rak Dagim, a fish joint serving fresh, locally caught treasures. Rak Dagim is also one of the oldest restaurants in Eilat and utilizes characteristic Israeli flavors on their extensive menu.

To juxtapose that, Pastori on Tarshish Street combines locally caught seafood with Italian flavors to showcase a different kind of Mediterranean food. Then, of course, there’s nothing better than ending a meal with seaside gelato.

Haifa

This northern city and cultural hub is set against the beach-lined backdrop of the Mediterranean and caters to foodies of every type and budget. Sitting adjacent to one of Haifa’s central mosques, Abu Marwan is known as the best hummus in town. Must-haves include their hummus with lamb, the mashwasha, and their spicy fries.

For a delightfully carnivorous meal, try Limousine, a famed steakhouse run by two “Israeli cowboys.” Locavores delight in the regionally raised, high-quality meat prepared in a variety of styles and accompanied by beers of both Israeli and European origins.

Go light and flavorful with breakfast the next morning at Café Louise on Mount Carmel. Serving a natural, culinary experience, the café offers both the traditional salad-and-spread ‘kibbutz-style’ breakfast as well as a ‘Western style’ brunch. Louise also boasts a variety of vegan and veggie options, as well as a whole menu of juices that are so fresh, you’ll instantly feel superhuman.

No matter where you go in Israel, the food is unforgettable. The downside? You’ll be craving that Abu Shukri hummus for months afterward.

For more information on traveling Israel, click here.

Jerusalem high on new skyline


Ten years ago, Jerusalem was just starting to emerge from the Second Intifada, which scared away local residents as well as investors. Many shops and restaurants closed during that period, leaving hundreds of storefronts with “for sale” signs. 

Fast-forward 10 years, and Jerusalem feels like a vastly different city. Many trendy stores, restaurants and hotels have opened in the city center; there is a world-class shopping district in Mamilla, as well as the adjoining Alrov residential complex, right next to the Old City; and the suddenly chic Mahane Yehuda open-air market is now a huge tourist attraction. 

 An equally important sign of Jerusalem’s rebirth is the number of luxury apartment projects being built downtown and elsewhere. Several luxury buildings, some of them high-rises, have gradually changed the skyline and brought a sense of stability and affluence to a city not known for either.  

The city has approved several of these high-rises, sometimes to the chagrin of local tenants accustomed to Jerusalem being a low-rise city. The impetus came in 2006, after former Mayor Uri Lupolianski acceded to environmentalists’ pressure to scuttle the Safdie Plan, which would have expanded Jerusalem westward and added 20,000 housing units. Unable to move outward, the city had nowhere to go but up. 

In truth, the new luxury homes haven’t made a dent in the city’s chronic housing shortage because the average Jerusalemite can’t afford to purchase one. But no one denies that the projects have created numerous jobs, brought hundreds of millions of dollars in investments and generally improved the city’s atmosphere. 

Shay Lipman, a real estate analyst at Excellence Nessuah Brokerage Services in Petach Tikvah, said the city “began to turn around” about five years ago. 

“Today, we’re seeing demand from many foreigners, including Russians, who also like Tel Aviv, [and] Americans and Europeans, especially from France and Belgium, partly due to rising anti-Semitism. Many are religious Jews.” 

Some Israelis invest as well.  

Lipman said buyers may be businesspeople who spend several weeks or months in Israel for work “and want a home base and the high standard they’re used to.” 

Others are empty-nesters, often in their 50s and 60s, who want a spanking-new apartment with condo-style services — no more mowing the lawn or repairing the roof — with an on-site maintenance team. 

Still others are families with young children who visit Israel regularly, or new immigrants who’ve decided to make their home in Jerusalem.  

While most purchase apartments as their second — or third or fourth — home, many eventually use them as their primary residence, Lipman said. 

In Jerusalem, the most sought-after properties tend to be within easy walking distance of the Old City and the center of town. 

One of the most luxurious projects is King David’s Crown, located across the street from the King David Hotel, directly adjacent to the landmark Jerusalem YMCA building. The apartments, with three, four and five bedrooms and large balconies, have direct underground access to the YMCA sports center and overlook a 1.25-acre park. The buildings feature 24-hour security, Shabbat elevators and a beautiful synagogue. 

The homes range from more than $1 million to several million dollars. 

Another luxurious property is the Saidoff Houses project, a 23-story residential building close to the Mahane Yehuda shuk on Jaffa Road. It offers 90 penthouses and duplexes (three to six rooms), a pool, spa, gym and synagogue. The views are stunning.  


Some of the penthouses in the africa-israel Residences at 7 rav Kook St. cost more than $5 million. Their spacious terraces offer fantastic views of Jerusalem.  Photo by Michele Chabin

For sheer location, nothing beats the Africa-Israel Residences at 7 Rav Kook St., a surprisingly quiet street perpendicular to Jaffa Road. The other side of the building adjoins the Ticho House, the famed restaurant, museum and former home of the artist Anna Ticho.  

The project, which was jointly initiated by Africa-Israel and Shainfeld Investments, has 131 apartments, including 112 “premium” apartments, eight penthouses and 11 “grand” apartments. The ground floor offers 11 hotel rooms and has 12 retail stores. All of the premium apartments, with one to four bedrooms, have been sold; marketing has begun for the grand ($1.28 million to $2 million) and penthouse homes ($3.4 million to $5.7 million), the latter boasting large terraces. 

Despite being in the heart of the city, the building has the feel of an inner sanctum. The apartments are sunny and quiet, and offer marvelous views. The property includes a hotel-standard exercise room, a large event room for tenants and many other amenities, said Dalia Azar Malimouka, a spokeswoman for the residences. 

During a tour, she showed two penthouses. The first was unfinished, to enable prospective owners to design the apartment to their taste and specifications. The second, a nearly 800-square-foot apartment with a 155-square-foot balcony, was completely furnished. The wood-decked terrace, which comes with a huge wooden pergola (or sukkah frame), provides a fantastic view of much of the city. 

In a phone interview, Oren Hod, CEO of Africa-Israel, recalled the intifada years, “when the city was neglected.” Today, he said, “people feel safe and confident, and you see [this] in the amount of investment” in infrastructure and real estate. 

Hod acknowledged the new luxury homes being built in Jerusalem aren’t for everyone: “All of us have a budget, and not everyone can live in the heart of Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem’s First Station: All aboard for fun


Jerusalem’s First Station may be more than 120 years old, but its smart new look, trendy shops and daily events have transformed it from an abandoned skeleton of a railway station into a place where young — and young-at-heart — locals as well as tourists, come to decompress.  

The First Station (HaTachana in Hebrew) and its wide plaza, once the city’s hub for rail traffic from all over the country and, until recently, just another example of urban neglect, have been refurbished and expanded. Now they’re one of the city’s newest attractions.

The building’s period architecture featuring Jerusalem stone and graceful curves has been carefully preserved, and so has a section of the station’s original railroad tracks. Following a campaign by local residents, another, much longer section of the tracks was recently turned into an ultra-popular walking/bicycle trail that originates at the Station.

The refurbished venue, where train service ended in 1998, is full of nostalgia for older Israelis, some of whom once traveled from the Station to points north and even Damascus.

“That used to be where we would buy tickets,” said Jerusalem-born Shlomo Levi, 59, pointing to the modern visitors center on the newly refinished wooden platform.

Visiting Jerusalem from Finland, where he now makes his home, Levi gazed at customers enjoying a late-night meal.

“There were benches there that I’d sit on with my parents and wait for the train to take us to Nahsholim, all the way up the coast just below Zichron Yaakov,” Levi said, referring to two beaches up north. “Look how busy it is.” 

The Station is located at the corner of Rehov David Remez, just across the street from the Liberty Bell Park (another great place to bring the kids). It’s close to the city’s major hotels, restaurants and theaters and just a 20-minute walk to the Old City. Parking is available at the First Station parking lot and the Liberty Bell Park parking lot.

Visitors can stroll into one of the boutique shops and restaurants, view the multimedia exhibitions and art installations or buy items at more than two dozen quaint stands selling Israeli-made crafts and ceramics, kids’ clothes, gifts, jewelry, books and fabrics. It’s especially crowded on Thursdays and Fridays, when visitors come to buy fresh produce, baked goods and wines directly from the growers and manufacturers.

“I like the open atmosphere here,” said Laurie Goldberg from St. Louis, on her third visit to the Station in a month during an extended vacation. “I especially loved coming here on Friday, to the musical Kabbalat Shabbat. It was beautiful,” she said of the lively musical performance that, in the summer, takes place a couple of hours before candlelighting,

Goldberg, who lived in Jerusalem until two-and-a-half years ago, said she appreciated seeing Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, all enjoying themselves.

“There are people from so many different walks of life. The atmosphere is nonjudgmental, and that’s something you don’t find everywhere in Jerusalem.”

The Station project is just one example of efforts by Jerusalem officials to create a more progressive, post-intifada Jerusalem. Other examples include the Mamilla shopping promenade, which transformed the abandoned buildings alongside the Old City into an upscale, open-air mall, and the forthcoming Cinema City, a 15-screen cinema complex that is under construction across from the Supreme Court. 

The Station’s management has made a great deal of effort to provide a street-fair environment seven days a week, with special events scheduled each month. In June, it played host to the city’s first international Formula 1 road show, and the following month featured a model train display for train enthusiasts. 

The Station offers a number of restaurants and cafés as well, including Italian-Mediterranean-style Landwer Café, open seven days a week, and Kitchen Station, a kosher dairy restaurant closed on Shabbat and holidays. Vaniglia sells ice cream while re:bar offers a wide variety of healthy drinks, shakes and yogurts.

One store that is always packed is Gaya, where young and old can test their mental dexterity against one of the store’s dozens of wooden puzzles (or buy one and take it home). 

There are many free events, including yoga classes, concerts and the child-friendly Kid Space, where kids can blow huge soap bubbles, play with wooden trains and oversized blocks or just run around and have fun.

Once you’ve experienced the Station, cycle or stroll down the well-lit, well-paved rail trail that winds through the German Colony, Baka and Beit Safafa and links Jerusalem’s original railway station to the city’s sports center at Teddy Stadium, the Jerusalem intercity rail station and the Malcha shopping mall.   

No bike? No problem. You can always rent one from Smart Tour at the visitors center, which offers regular, tandem or electronic bikes — helmet included. Or you can rent a Segway if that’s your speed.

Marilyn Behar, who was visiting the Station for the second time, said her two toddlers love the sense of freedom. 

“The kids can be free to run around here because there are no cars,” she noted.

But it isn’t just the safe space that brought her back. She and her husband, both secular Jerusalemites, said there aren’t enough places in Jerusalem that are open on Shabbat. 

“We want Jerusalem to keep its traditional identity, but we also want the city to promote equality,” she said.

For Goldberg, the Station is one example of how Jerusalem is much more alive than when she lived there. 

“There are more things to do now,” she said. “It’s a more interesting place to live.”

Iceland’s inner warmth


Iceland is a small place that is big on surprises. 

Scandinavian in its roots, the society has a reputation as being a homogenous, quaint and relatively uneventful place — Björk and her infamous swan dress aside. In the last several years, however, an influx of tourists, expatriates and an arts scene makes it more international — and Jewish — than ever.

It’s all relative, of course. There are only 50 to 100 Jews estimated to live in the small island country of 320,000, located northwest of the United Kingdom at the edge of the Arctic Circle. It remains best known for being home to glaciers, geysers, geothermal pools, volcanoes and a name meant to scare people away.

Still, there are small signs of a Judaic past and present. In the capital city of Reykjavik, just visit Kolaportið, the weekly Saturday and Sunday flea market by the town harbor. The former warehouse features a fresh fish market as well as a neatly organized collection of stalls stocked with vintage clothing, hand-knit sweaters and accessories, nicely crafted costume jewelry and antiques and, on at least one occasion, a menorah. The dealer explained that it was a remnant from the American military presence during World War II. 

While a small number of Israelis traveled to Iceland to work in the fishing industry a couple of decades back, newer Jewish arrivals from the United States, Canada, Australia, Israel and Europe are slowly but steadily growing the community. Most prominently, these include the country’s first lady, Dorrit Moussaieff, who was born in Jerusalem, and avant-garde Australian fashion designer Sruli Recht.

Mike Levin, a longtime resident and native Chicagoan whose career and desire for a life tied to nature led him to Iceland, is the president of Iceland’s Jewish community, which has Jews from various denominations and nationalities. He has worked tirelessly to organize events to give his children and other families a Jewish experience.

More recently, Chabad Rabbi Berel Pewzner first came to Reykjavik in 2011 to organize a Passover seder, High Holy Days services and the first minyan in Iceland since World War II. This year, he said, there were two seders attended by more than 70 people.

“I live in New York City and visit Iceland as often as the budget allows,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I do hold biweekly Torah lessons via Skype for members of the community in Iceland. There are small monthly meetings in which community members just gather and share some good times.”

Pewzner said his ultimate goal is to establish a synagogue and Jewish communal center in Iceland that would serve the locals and Jewish tourists.

Most Jewish residents ended up on the island as a result of marriage to native Icelanders or a career move. (Only a very small number of third-generation Icelandic Jews exist.)

Pewzner does not shy away from the fact that a Jewish life in Iceland can be challenging. For example, he noted that starting Shabbat services can be difficult during summer and winter solstice times, based on when the sun goes down near the top of the world. While keeping kosher is difficult, it is not impossible, as imported foods from the United States and United Kingdom can be found in local supermarkets, and Icelandic smoked salmon (complete with OU certification) abounds, as do root vegetables grown in the country’s rich volcanic soils.

While street art and music festivals are infusing energy and edge into the serene gingerbread-style Nordic architecture lining Reykjavik’s streets these days, several Jewish residents are making their mark in the expanding arts scene, too.

Among them is Glenn Barkan, a New York-bred graphic artist and former L.A. resident who owns Café Babalu. Below the restaurant, he oversees an art gallery that includes the jewelry of Israel-born Sigal Har-Meshi, which integrates Israeli jewelry-making techniques and symbols (hamsas, Magen Davids) with materials unique to Iceland, such as polished lava beads. Barkan, who lived in the Los Angeles area between 1999 and 2004, moved to Iceland to be with his partner, Thor.

“My experience as a non-Icelandic man, a Jewish man and American has only been positive,” he said. “If anything, there is a lot of curiosity about Jewish culture. When I got married and my family came in for the wedding at the time of the High Holidays, I was working my first job at a local kindergarten. My mom, a retired kindergarten teacher, visited me at work and talked with the kids about what it meant to be Jewish. The kids and their parents were genuinely interested and asked a lot of questions.”

Cafe Babalú in Reykjavik is owned by musician and former L.A. resident Glenn Barkan. Photo by Michelle Vink

Café Babalu, whose customers have included Björk and members of the internationally popular Icelandic pop band Sigur Rós, has played host to Sunday brunches and Chanukah parties where Barkan introduced foods and traditions from his childhood — matzah ball soup, dreidel, chocolate coins and latkes — to his non-Jewish friends. (Oh, and there’s his popular New York cheesecake, too.)

As for Har-Meshi, the cook-turned-jewelry designer first came to Iceland in 1986. While she and her Icelandic husband went on to live in Israel for 11 years, she feels that since her return to Iceland eight years ago, she has come into her own as an artist while the Jewish community is coming together, thanks in part to Pewzner’s efforts.

“I really like what Rabbi Pewzner is doing,” she said. “Although there has been a Jewish community for about 25 years where people gathered to celebrate holidays even without a synagogue, he came at the right time. This [reorganization of the community] taught us new things, especially as many Israelis are secular. Even at my age, I like learning something new. I think it would be nice if it evolved into something like Chabad.”

Three and a half hours north of Reykjavik, Andrea and Jacob Kasper, originally from Israel and Boston respectively, embraced the simple lifestyle of Skagaströnd, home to about 530 people, with a thriving fishing industry, superb hiking and an unusual bar — Kantry — that is a shrine to American country music. The Jewish couple moved to Iceland in 2008 so Jacob could complete a master’s degree program in coastal and marine management.

While in north Iceland — they recently moved to the United States — the Kaspers were the only Jewish family in their town. Still, they said they found their neighbors to be interested and supportive. Attending events and services, though, meant that they had to make several trips a year into Reykjavik to connect with other Jewish families.

But that wasn’t so bad either, said Andrea Kasper, an educator.

“We have forged some very special friendships because of the coalescing of the community. When Jacob went to sea for a couple of weeks to do research, my children and I spent time with another family we had met two weeks before during Rosh Hashanah at one of the rabbi’s services.”

‘Come back [to Israel] and bring a lot of people with you’


“No Shopping!” guide Nadav Kersh admonished his charges as they entered the crowded Old City of Jerusalem. “I mean it. No shopping! It’s just too easy to get lost here.”

Kersh was guiding a group of tour operators from the U.S., U.K. and South Africa on a whirlwind tour of the holy places in Jerusalem. Simultaneously, other tour groups were listening to guides speaking Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and German. They are part of a group of 160 tour operators invited by the Ministry of Tourism for a week-long trip to Israel.

The day began at the Israel Museum, and a visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls housed in a special building shaped like a giant white Hershey’s kiss.

“Scrolls are like money,” Kersh told them. “The more they get used, the more worn out they get. Anyone know which book of the Bible is the most popular?”

“Psalms?” asks Tony Lock from the UK.

“Right!” answers Kersh. “Even today, if you go on a bus in Israel you see old ladies reading Psalms. Here you’ll see one of the oldest versions of Psalms.”

After a quick circuit of the museum, the tour operators were given a preview of an upcoming exhibition on the Roman king of Judea, Herod the Great, who ruled the area from 40 BC to 4 BC and has been described both as a genius and a madman.

“It will be the first exhibition in the world about Herod,” David Mevorah, the museum’s archaeology curator, told the group. “It took us 40 years to find his tomb, but that convinced us to do the exhibit. Herod was a massive builder in stone and the [Second Jewish] Temple [in Jerusalem] was his greatest project.”

After a detailed PowerPoint presentation, the group headed off to the Old City of Jerusalem. At the fifth station of the Via Dolorosa, the path that Christians believe Jesus walked on the way to crucifixion, Kersh points out a stone handprint, which tradition says belonged to Jesus. Many in the group touch their hand to the stone.

“To me, this whole city has a special feeling,” Phyllis Brown told The Media Line about her first trip to Israel. “I’m really very impressed. Jerusalem is simply breathtaking. I expected it to be flatter and more desert-like, but it is so pretty.”

Brown, from Santa Barbara, California, has sent about 10 clients on trips to Israel each year, but now hopes to increase that.

“I definitely feel more capable now to organize a group,” she says.

The trip came just a few days after the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after eight days of heavy fighting. Brown says that while she was not afraid to visit Israel, her adult children were concerned and asked her to cancel her trip.

“There was about a week when I didn’t hear anything from the Tourism Ministry and I wasn’t sure if the trip was on,” Brown says. “But within 24 hours of the cease-fire they sent a barrage of emails making sure we were still coming.”

Another tour operator, Douglas Kostwoski from Travel People in Miami, Florida, agreed.

“As soon as I saw the cease-fire was holding, I started packing,” he told The Media Line. “I already send about 100 people each year to Israel, but my mind keeps racing with new things to add to the itinerary and what I’ll tell potential clients.”

Israeli tourism officials said the group’s visit became even more important after the fighting in Gaza.

“There is no doubt that Operation Pillar of Defense affected incoming tourism,” Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov said. “But we are already taking steps toward swift rehabilitation, minimizing damage and renewing the momentum of incoming tourism over the last three years.”

Tourism is a key economic sector in Israel. In 2010, some 3.45 million tourists visited Israel and 2012 was set to bring even more. Officials are also targeting previously untapped markets, including India and China. In 2009, according to the Ministry of Tourism, the sector brought $3.3 billion into Israel’s economy. More than half of the tourists visiting are Christian, while 40 percent are Jewish.

“There are some church groups coming from Mumbai,” Sarah ReSello, from Go Beyond Travels India, told The Media Line. “But we will be trying to get them to also go to the Red Sea resort of Eilat and the Dead Sea.”

It is impossible to visit Israel without some talk of politics. Tour guide Kersh told the visitors how the Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters – Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim – but how the residents of the quarters are also mixed.

“Take the Muslim Quarter, for example, which is the largest with 20,000 inhabitants,” he said. “You can have Christians living there, and even some Jews. If you see Israeli flags there, it means that a Jewish Israeli bought the house and he wants to annoy his neighbors.”

“Are all four quarters safe?” Kostowski asks.

“Yes,” replies Kersh. “The whole country is safe.”

A kiss of the grape — and other adult libations — in Jerusalem


Wine bars, a new twist on an old theme, are drawing huge numbers of clientele in most metropolitan cities. What about the Holy City? Although the selection in Jerusalem doesn’t quite compare to that of its American and European rivals, there are enough choices in the Jewish capital to erase the so-called vapid reputation of kosher wine forever. Kosher vintners have long been removing the stigma, but at these establishments, with fine wines available by the bottle and the glass, it is a much more distant memory. An evening exploring these wines, savory dishes (many of them finger foods) prepared by on-site, professional chefs de cuisine, and memorable desserts that pair equally well with certain vintages or spirits, are a definite recipe for relaxation. Check them out while you traverse the spiritual center of the universe at the New Year and all year. 

ADOM

In name and spirit, Adom, Hebrew for “Red,” embodies the pleasure of fine wines and fine dining. Tucked into the hip, bustling alleyway of bars called Rivlin Street, just off Jaffa Road, guests enter the picturesque gated patio. A quick peek at its retaining wall, studded with embedded wine bottles and corks, is a not-so-subtle introduction to what’s in store. An impressive list of 160 wines is paired with three seating areas, whose stone walls and curved arches warm up by candlelight. The rotating wine of the month enables guests to sample new varieties by the glass at a discount. And a menu of international bistro cuisine, including beautifully presented salads, meats, fish dishes and more gives way to a late-night menu of finger food after 11 p.m. Adom is clustered in the only area of Jerusalem where anything close to a wine bar exists, in the tight mix of restaurants between the light-rail tracks and the Mamilla and David Citadel hotels. This restaurant is not supervised kosher but it, of course, relies on Israeli products that are certified kosher and it does offer kosher wines on its extensive list, making it a great option for a stop on your tasting tour. It is admittedly a little tricky to find, but the search is worth it for its ambience and charm. Simplify your search for Adom by entering from Jaffa Road No. 31, near the light-rail stop. Head down an intriguing path lined with many other establishments that draw huge crowds on Thursday and Saturday nights. Pass through this maze of hopping joints and heavy foot traffic to the tranquil Feingold Courtyard. 

Adom, 31 Jaffa Road, Jerusalem. 972-2-624-6242. 

THE WINERY/MIRROR BAR

The gorgeous Mamilla Hotel is one big bite of eye candy. After you enter this modernist retreat, head upstairs to its long and inviting wine bar, simply called the Winery. Sure, there are many other lovely places to sneak away for a romantic gourmet experience in and around the uber-chic Mamilla part of town, but only here will you find a massive slab of beautiful green glass atop a long wooden bar. Behind the counter, the Winery is tricked out with state-of-the art chilled, nitrogen-equipped dispensaries. Request your wine on tap or from the enticing selection along the exposed cellar, facing you along the wall behind the bar. 

The Mamilla Hotel has staffed this unique bar with trained sommeliers who offer curated tasting experiences. About 80 Israeli wines, from larger houses as well as boutiques, are on the menu. If you’re hungry late at night, take note that the Winery serves only small, cold plates of meat and fish from 3 to 8 p.m. After the Winery closes, you’re in for a treat. The green glass functions as a mere navigational device of sorts. Continue past the bar to the inviting entry point of the chic Mirror Bar. After 8 p.m., it opens up to a large, dimly lit area with comfy seats, perfect for viewing the massive flat-screen TV. Or, along small bar tables and chairs, you can take in the sounds of a live DJ working his groove at the internally lit marble bar. Take your party outside on the balcony with a view of the stone-lined pedestrian mall below or slip inside the separately enclosed glass-walled cigar lounge for more indulgence. 

The short bar menu here is heavy on meat dishes — think scrumptious mini burgers on brioche buns. But it also features delicious ceviche with fresh citrus and avocado and focaccia with herbal aioli for vegetarians and those seeking lighter fare. Every option available from the Winery menu remains available here as well. So you’ll have your pick from the fabulous menu-within-a-menu “Cellar” selections. Our favorite was a Katzav’s Merlot, aged in French oak barrels and bursting with ripe, tart fruit. Ready to indulge more? The almond sachlav with coffee truffle is one cup of steaming, hot ambrosia worth every gram of its heavy caloric cost. Kosher. 

11 King Solomon St., Jerusalem. 972-2-548-2211. mamillahotel.com. 

SCALA 

Just in case you had any doubt, this tiny neighborhood is one of Jerusalem’s key centers of gastronomy, spirituality and hospitality. You’re only minutes from the Old City and a host of other fine dining — and drinking — establishments that have long hosted tourists, foodies, gourmands and more. 

As you exit the Mamilla Hotel, head up King David Street to the massive David Citadel. Take the elevator up to the Scala Restaurant for another celebration of the senses. This high-end establishment caters to a clientele made up mostly of non-hotel guests. One taste of its menu, and you’ll understand why. 

Scala boasts the romantic night out trifecta. Its extravagant combination of cocktail bar, restaurant and wine bar all in one leaves little wanting. A stunning glass wall-to-wall wine cellar boasts 60 select Israeli wines, yours for the choosing. The labels range widely in provenance, taste and price, with nearly every imaginable kosher option, including renowned wines from the distinguished label, the Cave, to suit whatever you order for dinner, and high-end spirits, such as top-ticket Johnnie Walker Blue Label, paired with decadent chocolate desserts. 

If you’re not sure which way to proceed, ask the wait staff or Scala’s talented resident chef for their advice on the best way to enjoy whatever libations you choose. Every dish on the menu, from the tapas to the entrees, has a drink-in-waiting. Our selections ran the full spectrum, and each dish, from salad and fish to chicken and beef, was worth a return visit. Ditto for the desserts. Swoon-worthy, surprising blends of flavors included a hazelnut and coffee cream. The Dark Chocolate Delight is an artful ensemble of hot chocolate lava cake with apricot sorbet, served with additional whipped hot chocolate pudding with brandy and rich dark chocolate garnishes. It all went down smoothly with a Yatir 2007 Merlot-Shiraz-Cabernet. Definitely an experience to be repeated. Kosher. 

Scala, David Citadel Hotel, 7 King David St., Jerusalem. 972-2-621-2030. scala-rest.com.

Lisa Alcalay Klug is the author of “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe.” Her new book, “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe,” debuts in October. She is online at lisaklug.com.

El Al dithers on honoring cheap fares


An El Al spokesperson said the airline had not decided whether or not to honor round-trip tickets to Israel that were offered erroneously for prices as low as $330.

On Wednesday afternoon, the airline issued the following statement via Twitter: “Thanks for your patience. Details/decisions re incorrect fares that were briefly sold on Monday are not finalized. We will update tomorrow.”

The announcement came two days after El Al codeshare flights from several U.S. cities to Israel went on sale for bargain-basement prices due to an error by a subcontractor handling El Al’s winter promotional fares. The round-trip tickets ranging from $330 to $460, including all taxes and fees, were for travel between November and March and included layovers in Europe.

On Monday, El Al said via Twitter that it would honor the tickets, which reportedly numbered in the thousands.

“An outside company posted incorrect fares on travel websites, so all tickets sold will indeed be honored,” the company wrote at around 6 p.m., once the inexpensive prices were no longer available.

But on Tuesday, the airline appeared to backtrack, suggesting in a comment to The New York Jewish Week and later in emails to JTA that El Al had not decided conclusively whether or not to honor the purchases.

Visitors centers offer a warm welcome


If you’ve already visited Israel, you know that the hospitality is legendary. Everyone, it seems, has a friend or cousin somewhere that you should look up. But they aren’t the only people who will welcome you. The entire country is host to “visitors centers” from north to south, from the Golan to Ashkelon, that invite you to learn, taste and explore the Holy Land’s resources. In fact, Israel boasts a wide range of these open houses, including spots of historical importance, as well as “foodie havens” for award-winning beer, wine and olive oil. While these sites are open to the public year-round, some of them offer special activities during holiday periods, so check their Web sites before your visit for the most up-to-date information. 

KIBBUTZ GESHUR – SOUTHERN GOLAN HEIGHTS
In the Bible, the land of Israel is blessed with seven species of botanicals, including wheat, barley, grape, figs, pomegranates, olives and honey (Deuteronomy 8:8). It’s obvious which headlines at the Eretz Geshur Olive Oil Visitors Center. Here, nine premium kosher olive oils, grown and pressed in Israel, range in taste and aroma. The mild, fruity and gentle oils include the Italian Leccino and Spanish Arbequina. The midrange, highly defined herbaceous Greek Koroneiki is neither pungent nor bitter. These contrast with the bold flavors of Picholine from the French Pyrenees and Coratina from Southern Italy. All are yours for free tasting, sip by tiny sip, during a complimentary tour with a short film screened in both English and Hebrew. Tours at this boutique cold press olive mill, whose products were cited as among “the world’s best extra virgin olive oils” at the prestigious Flos Olei competition in Italy, reveal the story of olive production, from seedling to bottle. The visitors center hours vary during the holidays. To see the olive mill in operation during the annual pressing, plan a visit in November or December. Consider a 15-minute drive from the center to see the picturesque olive orchard.
(0)4-676-4169. eretz-gshur.co.il

KIBBUTZ EYAL – NORTH OF TEL AVIV
The cool dry mountain air and the basalt soil of the Galilee — 800 meters above sea level — are ideal for cultivating choice wine grapes. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz and more grow at the organic Katidah Vineyards. At nearby Tzuriel, the Saslove Winery has been using this prized fruit to produce award-winning wines for the past decade under the direction of vintner Barry Saslove, a former computer engineer from Canada. Every visit to the winery’s visitors center at Kibbutz Eyal (near Kfar Saba) includes wine tasting (kosher and non-kosher) and explanations of the winemaking process. The visitors center hours vary. (0)9-749-2697. The Saslove Winery in Tzuriel is open by appointment only. Call in advance to schedule. (0)4-997-8304. saslove.com.

CITY OF DAVID VISITORS CENTER – JERUSALEM 
Step back in time — and underground — at the City of David Visitors Center. Located minutes away from the Kotel (the Western Wall) and the Dung Gate of the Old City, the City of David marks every holiday with a series of special attractions. A sound-and-light show is projected on above-ground antiquities. Group-sized bike rides and two-hour Segway tours explore other parts of the city. One of the most exciting offerings is the newly opened underground exploration of an ancient water drainage channel connecting the biblical Shiloach Pool in the lowest part of the City of David excavations to the Western Wall. Other attractions include the “Temple Mount Sifting Project,” in which visitors sort Old City rubble from recent excavations. City of David Visitors Center, Shiloach Village, Jerusalem. (0)2-626-8700. cityofdavid.org.

MIKVE ISRAEL VISITORS CENTER – HOLON
The metal workshop known as “Mechanika” is among the highlights of a visit to Mikve Israel Visitors Center. Israel’s first agricultural school has run continuously since its founding in 1870. It now boasts more than 1,000 students, both religious and non-religious. Its visitors’ center tells the story of the country’s early ideological platform supporting an agricultural-based economy. Founded by Karl Netter of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, this French Jewish organization acquired 750 acres of land from the region’s 19th century Ottoman Turkish rulers and implemented a progressive educational program that continues to the present day. So important was the school in Israel’s national identity, that when Theodore Herzl visited the country in 1898, he arranged to meet Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German emperor and king of Prussia, at the school’s main entrance. Today, an old palm tree-lined boulevard leads the way. Located south of Tel Aviv in the city of Holon, the school’s many special features include Mechanika, the workshop that produced early agricultural tools, as well as the Davidka mortar, a weapon critical to Israel’s success in the 1948 War of Independence. Other features include an underground sandstone wine cellar, a botanical garden, a historic synagogue, a short film for visitors and the national headquarters of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites. Groups of 15 are welcome to schedule tours in English by writing orly@shimur.org.il in advance. (0)3-503-0489. shimur.co.il.

CARLSBERG-ISRAEL VISITORS CENTER – SOUTH ASHKELON
Ancient beer jugs, barley from the Bronze Age and l’chaims of cold beer are all on tap at the on-site pub of the Carlsberg-Israel Visitors Center. Located in Ashkelon, 35 miles south of Tel Aviv, 90-minute tours for adults ($5.75) and kids ages 10 and up ($4.50) include the story of beer production in ancient times. On display are archaeological finds including ancient filters to remove barley grains from beer. Operated by Israel Beer Breweries Limited, the factory produces Tuborg, Stella Artois and Prigat fruit-flavored drinks in addition to Carlsberg, the Danish beer that entered the Israeli market 20 years ago. The center, at 5 Bar Lev Ave., is located 20 minutes from the Ashkelon train station. Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Call in advance to schedule a tour. (0)8-674-0727.

Journalist Lisa Alcalay Klug is the author of “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe,” a National Jewish Book Award Finalist. Her next book, “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe,” debuts October 2012. cooljewbook.com.

Jerusalem lodging boasts refined eatery, spa


JERUSALEM — It had been years since I’d ventured any farther than the lobby of the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, so when I received an invitation to tour its spa and one of its restaurants, it was hard to say no.

Built in the 1980s, the Inbal is one of the city’s top hotels and its facilities reflect this. Its staff is helpful and pleasant, and its health club and spa, which were refurbished two years ago, are top-notch.

One of the nicest things about the Inbal is its location in tony Talbieh. It’s within distance of the Old City and Western Wall, the many shops and restaurants on bustling Emek Refaim Street and the center of town. It adjoins Liberty Bell Park, which boasts a fantastic kids’ playground, outdoor exercise equipment, basketball courts and places to barbecue. In other words, a taste of the real Israel.

We began the tour at Sofia, the Inbal’s dairy restaurant. Adjoining the flower-filled terrace, the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows provide the feel of outdoor dining without having to sacrifice much-needed air-conditioning.

Sofia specializes in pasta and fish dishes that can be tailored to individual tastes. When I inquired whether some of the dishes could be prepared without dairy products — I’m lactose intolerant — the answer was a resounding “yes.” This was a welcome surprise; Jerusalem restaurants are rarely this flexible.

The menu includes champignon mushrooms filled with goat and parmesan cheeses, pine nuts and spinach stir-fried in butter and thyme; and melanzana: smoked eggplant, roasted peppers, pesto, diced tomatoes and mozzarella cheese in a baked phyllo shell in cream and white wine sauce. The fresh herb salad featured finely chopped herbs combined with breadsticks, with smoked mozzarella cheese shells, red onion, sliced olives and smoked salmon.

Fish courses include salmon filet cooked either in olive oil (on special request) or served with creamed peas, polenta, thyme sprouts, Parmesan and sautéed vegetables; and filet of trout marinated in fresh garlic, with diced potatoes, mushrooms, marinated in olive oil, capers, celery and red onions.

The apple pie, which was the only dairy-free choice, was creamy and delicious, but not as decadent as the Magic Meringue, a baked meringue filled with mascarpone cream, passion fruit, coconut sorbet and honey cream.

Satisfied and full, we headed to the health club, which includes a semi-Olympic pool that is covered and heated in the winter, a gym, a dry sauna and a spa.

The health club offers Pilates, aerobics, body sculpting and water exercise classes. The gym, which features all the equipment you would find in a well-equipped American fitness center, is large and modern. There are three personal trainers.

Health club director Dr. Ran Bibi, who holds a doctorate in sports management from the Wingate Institute, Israel’s National Centre for Physical Education and Sport, said the facility is “very successful because the staff is experienced and highly trained.”

Before receiving a massage, Rachel, the young immigrant from New Jersey who would be kneading the tension out of my body, asked me to fill out a medical disclosure/permission form. The room we entered was sleek, serene and spacious, with an exceptionally comfortable massage table, a bathtub-whirlpool and a separate shower.

Again, the staff responded well to special requests. When I asked Rachel whether she had some unscented oil (as opposed to aromatherapy oils), she searched high and low until she located a bottle of almond oil, whose scent is very subtle. When she learned that I had come straight from a big lunch, she started with reflexology to ease my digestion.

The Inbal’s spa offers a wide range of massages, including Swedish, deep tissue, Oriental, four-hand, hot stone and aromatherapy, as well as facials, body peeling and Dead Sea body wrapping. Prices for a massage range from $90 (Swedish, deep tissue) to $165 (four-hand). A hot-stone facial costs $130, and mud wrapping costs $115. 

Refreshed by the massage, I showered and headed to the pool, located right outside the health club. There I found a poolside café that prepares light meals, a sun-protected wading pool and the beautiful main pool, which is large enough for laps.

The few guests I saw that afternoon were seated on lounge chairs or doing laps. A swimming instructor was coaching a 7-year-old on her breast stroke.

Thoroughly relaxed, I entered the pool, where jets froth the water and massage the muscles. I knew I should go home and help the kids with their homework.

But I didn’t.

Inbal Hotel, 3 Jabotinsky St., Jerusalem, Israel, 92145. (972) 2-675-6666. For more information, visit inbalhotel.com.

Jerusalem through fresh eyes


Many of us who travel frequently to Israel risk becoming jaded. Obsessed by realpolitik, the peace process, internecine and ultimately unproductive Jewish political polemics, philanthropic hype or just plain business concerns, we lose sight of Israel’s true significance.

Last month, my friend Robert Fagenson asked me to accompany him on a four-day whirlwind trip to Jerusalem to participate in the Western Wall bar mitzvah ceremony of his partner’s grandson. Robert is a prominent Wall Street executive, a former vice chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, and a life-long member of New York City’s Temple Emanu-El. He had been to Israel twice before, the last time in 1968.

As our plane flew over the Israeli coast on a Wednesday afternoon, Robert was amazed at the urban Tel Aviv sprawl the rest of us have come to take for granted. He remembers a far less developed landscape, dominated by sand dunes rather than skyscrapers and industrial complexes.

That evening in Jerusalem, we walked through the pedestrian Mamilla Mall, from the foot of King David Street to the Jaffa Gate. The old and new cities, two separate universes for decades, are now intrinsically linked by a succession of stores, art galleries and cafes that put the spotlight on the exigencies of daily life.

The Thursday morning service at the Western Wall was simultaneously moving and more than a bit chaotic. The plaza was filled with different family groups, each calling a 13-year-old to the Torah for the first time. Ashkenazic and Sephardic melodies vied with one another to create a mostly atonal yet authentic blend. As Avi, the bar mitzvah, was wrapped in his tallit, there were tears in his grandfather’s eyes. Marty Vegh’s journey, from a Displaced Persons camp in Germany to Staten Island, New York, and now to Jerusalem, epitomized the globalization of the Jewish people in the aftermath of World War II. Robert received the first aliyah. He is now part of not so much a historical chain as an infinite tapestry.

A few hours later, we were welcomed at the Israel Museum by its director, James Snyder. Robert’s uncle and aunt, Joseph and Sylvia Slifka, donated some of the museum’s major works, including a magnificent Joan Miró and exquisite Jean Arp and Max Ernst sculptures. As we see them in the midst of an impressive, world-class collection of Impressionist and contemporary art, we could just as easily be in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan or the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Until, that is, we walk a few steps farther and find ourselves in synagogues that have been relocated from different countries in Europe, North Africa and elsewhere. Somehow, they put the Pissarros, Monets and Chagalls in perspective.

From left: Robert Fagenson and Menachem Z. Rosensaft at the Western Wall Plaza.

We were then shown a collection of works of art and craft created in Jerusalem at the Bezalel Academy between 1906 and 1929, which Robert’s cousin, Alan Slifka, had given to the Israel Museum. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Boris Schatz, a Lithuanian-born Jewish artist, undertook to implement in Palestine a new decorative craftsmanship, along the lines advocated by John Ruskin in England but rooted in Middle Eastern folk styles and infused with an often intangible, elusive Jewish spark. We were suddenly conscious of a time before the Holocaust, before the world went utterly mad, when the forging of a modern Jewish nation required not just Zionist ideology and political philosophy, not just building cities and kibbutzim in a hurry and training idealists to become soldiers, but the creation, indeed the invention, of a new Israeli, as opposed to simply Jewish, culture.

On Friday morning, we visited the museum at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. I watched Robert absorb the testimonies of both the dead and the survivors. Warsaw Ghetto cobblestones. A model of the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Reflections and echoes of murdered Jewish children whose ghosts haunt the galleries and, henceforth, our subconscious. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regularly threatens the State of Israel with genocidal annihilation. Perhaps every world leader, every United Nations diplomat, every journalist who covers Middle East political developments should walk through Yad Vashem to grasp why Ahmadinejad, Hamas and Hezbollah are little more than reincarnations of blind, implacable Nazi evil. Emerging into the sun-lit Judean hills, we have a new appreciation of Israel’s critical role as a haven for any Jew threatened by persecution anywhere in the world.

From Yad Vashem, we returned to the Western Wall, where Rabbi Jay Marcus, a Staten Island rabbi who settled in Israel a few years ago, guided us through the tunnels that have been excavated alongside what had been one of the retaining walls of the Temple Mount in Herodian times. We proceeded underground for more than 1,500 feet, all the while feeling stones that stand as silent witness to a Jewish presence here centuries before the birth of Muhammad ibn Abdullah.

Of course, Jerusalem is sacred to Christians and Muslims as well as to Jews. But the city is central only to Judaism. It is also far too often forgotten that during close to two decades of Jordanian rule, from 1948 until 1967, Jews were forbidden to set foot in the Old City of Jerusalem and much of the Jewish Quarter was destroyed and desecrated. Today, Muslims, Christians and Jews worship here freely.

Sometime soon, I hope to see Jerusalem through the eyes of our twin grandchildren, now almost 3 years old. In the meantime, as our plane lifted into the sky several hours after the end of Shabbat, I was grateful to Robert for enabling me to remember that both Israel and Jerusalem must be experienced, not just visited, to be absorbed and understood.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, lecturer in law at Columbia Law School, distinguished visiting lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.

For business or pleasure, hotels rolling out red carpets


The emergence of Israel on the global high-tech stage as a “start-up nation,” combined with the growing number of international business and Jewish organizational events held in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has spurred a slew of major hotels to invest in upgrading their various services to discerning executives who endeavor to mix business with pleasure.

“The growth of social media, which includes business- and travel-oriented forums, has allowed our staff to engage with people who are planning business trips to Jerusalem and other points in Israel, offering them the opportunity to take advantage of the hotel’s varied services, many of which are tailored to the business tourist,” said Ilan Brenner, the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel’s executive assistant manager of sales and marketing.

The five-star hotel has regularly played host to a variety of business and organizational conferences in its various halls, including El Al, Hadassah and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

“As there are several types of business travelers — ranging from the high-powered executive who seeks a luxurious WiFi-equipped suite with a terrace that overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem, to a salesperson who might want to conduct a private meeting with a colleague in our rooftop Executive Lounge — we can provide a variety of settings based on need and budget,” Brenner said.

In metro Tel Aviv, where the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and many of the nation’s top corporations are located, a number of the city’s finest hotels regularly cater to a business clientele. However, several hotels have tweaked their interior design concepts and external marketing agendas to discourage “family tourism” and focus almost exclusively on luring upscale business travelers.

The posh Crowne Plaza Tel Aviv City Center Hotel, which has been built into the prodigious Azrieli Towers business, shopping and entertainment complex, prides itself on being a concept facility.

“We like to think of ourselves as a leader in the development of the business tourist concept,” said Michael Plesz, general manager of the Crowne Plaza Tel Aviv City Center Hotel. “Nearly 60 percent of our customers are business people, 85 percent of whom come from overseas, including, of course, North America. The upbeat design of our public areas and rooms enhances the notion of a place where one can find the right atmosphere to do business and rest between meetings.”

In addition, metro Tel Aviv’s renowned beach, bar and restaurant scene is a magnet for business tourists. 

Want to know more about who offers the most enticing business and relaxation combination packages? We’ve compiled an abridged list of hotels that offer myriad business services and pampering perks:

JERUSALEM

Inbal Jerusalem Hotel

There are dozens of beautiful suites, executive or deluxe rooms to choose from in this venerable facility. The intimate Executive Lounge features a computer station, a variety of newspapers and magazines, light meals and snacks. In order to keep the lounge as an exclusive benefit, its use is restricted to guest staying in suites, executive or deluxe rooms. There is also a 24/7 business center featuring a variety of services upon request. There are special corporate rates available to companies that commit themselves to a minimal annual turnover.

Many local and foreign business people use the spa and health club in their after-hours down time to work off the daily stress and reinvigorate body and soul. The hotel also offers all guests free tickets to local cultural attractions.

For more information, visit inbalhotel.com.

David Citadel Hotel

The Executive Lounge, located high above the city, offers a majestic view of the Old City and provides a perfect setting for business people who wish to mingle, nosh or conduct one-on-one meetings. The hotel also offers a wide range of rooms that cater to the various needs of business travelers. Special arrangements can be made for private spa treatments in guest rooms or in the hotel’s new spa and health club downstairs. Private concierge service is also available for VIPs, which includes arranging special transportation to local events and cultural attractions. Private tour guides can also be arranged. The hotel plays host to a variety of business functions in its adjustable meeting rooms and halls. The David Citadel complex also boasts the critically acclaimed Scala Chef Kitchen & Bar as well as the rooftop Mamilla Café. For more information, visit thedavidcitadel.com.

Sheraton Tel Aviv Executive Lounge

TEL AVIV

Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel & Towers

The entire third floor has been reconfigured to meet the needs of business guests with a new business center, 12 newly designed guest rooms and meeting areas. The new guest rooms feature a work desk, ergonomic chair, WiFi and landline connectivity, flatscreen TVs, Nespresso machines, step-out balconies and soundproof windows that overlook the sea. In addition, all the new rooms feature a stall shower instead of a bathtub. “This is a new market trend, especially amongst the business travel community,” general manager Jean-Louis Ripoche said. “Most of our business guests are too busy to use a tub, or they are just not interested in it.”

The meeting rooms are complemented by a modular, multifunctional hall divisible by means of soundproof movable partitions, each with its own audiovisual equipment — LCD projectors, screens, bulletin boards — and coffee-break stations.

For more information, visit sheratontelaviv.com.

David InterContinental Tel Aviv Hotel

The David InterContinental Tel Aviv Hotel offers two new highly stylized business lounges — the Executive Lounge on the third floor and the Club InterContinental on the 24th floor. In addition, the redesigned Club InterContinental Lounge offers greater food diversity, improved décor and enhanced services. Both lounges offer WiFi and business services, including copier, printer and fax. The Club InterContinental Tel Aviv offers private check-in and check-out services as well as private concierge services with activities designed to match busy schedules, including the handling of itineraries and access to restaurants and shows at the last minute. The newly renovated Aubergine restaurant offers a business lunch specializing in Mediterranean delicacies infusing local cuisine with an international flair. The David InterContinental Tel Aviv offers a full-service spa and fitness center, as well as a ritzy sports and cigar bar called Inca.

For more information, visit intercontinental.com.

Briefs: UC ‘study in Israel’ program draws Sacramento attention; Gold officially the man at the Fede


UC’s Study in Israel Program Enters Legislature

The effort to reinstate the University of California’s study in Israel program entered the state Legislature last week.

Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) introduced a resolution on Jan. 17 that urges the UC to adopt a policy similar to those at other universities, which allow study in countries under U.S. State Department travel warnings. Since the UC suspended its program in Israel in April 2002, during the Second Intifada, countless students have had to officially drop out of school and enroll directly in an Israeli university or through a third-party provider.

The move cost some students their financial aid and had to be made without the guarantee that credits earned during their semester or year abroad would be recognized by their UC campus. The same has been true for those wanting to study in the Philippines.

“The UC EAP policy does a disservice to interested students by judging potential programs without weighing the potential academic benefits against the potential nominal risks of traveling in a country subject to a less severe travel warning,” Migden, who is Jewish, wrote in SR 18.

Such resolutions have already been passed by the student bodies at Berkeley, Davis, San Diego and Los Angeles. In the meantime, UC Provost Wyatt R. “Rory” Hume has asked campus chancellors to at least simplify the process of studying in Israel or the Philippines by providing counselors to explain which courses would count for credit, allowing students to keep their university e-mail and facilitating re-enrollment without reapplying.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

Riverside Jewish Family Service to Close

Jewish Family Services of the Inland Communities, the only Jewish agency in the city of Riverside not affiliated with a synagogue, is shutting its doors on Jan. 31.

“Because we don’t have a Jewish federation to fund us, we were unable to get that base amount of money,” said Ilene Stein, the group’s manager.

The office on 10th Street served nearly 100 clients from western Riverside and San Bernadino counties, offering services to Holocaust survivors, organizing grief and health workshops, visiting Jews in assisted-living facilities and nursing homes as well as providing gifts on Jewish holidays.

Stein said that the organization was dependent on grant money, and in the last two years its income dropped from $46,000 to $31,000.

“In the last four years, the grant cycles played against us,” she said.

Jewish Family Services of the Inland Communities was incorporated in 1995, and board president Margie Orland told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that some volunteers would continue to serve people on their own.

“There’s a lot of need in the community. We hope some of this continues, perhaps through the temples,” she said.

Jewish Family Service of the Desert, which receives steady funding of almost $1 million from the Jewish Federation of the Palm Springs/Desert Area, has yet to discuss the possibility of expanding into the area covered by JFS of the Inland Communities.

In the meantime, Stein says Riverside congregations are struggling, and she worries that unaffiliated and secular Jews in the area are losing a critical resource.

“Where the biggest hurt is going to be is looking for Jewish information,” Stein said. “It’s going to be hard for new people moving into the area.”

— Adam Wills, Senior Editor

New Federation Chair Shares Vision at Hebrew Union College

Stanley P. Gold took over lay leadership of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles on Jan. 1 with high hopes for a new future for the umbrella organization for L.A. Jewry.

“Have we made any progress?” he rhetorically asked about 30 students and faculty at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) last week. “A little bit. I’ve been on the job two weeks.”

Gold’s talk, which focused on his vision for The Federation, was the first in a series of dean’s lunches. He began by telling the students why he took the volunteer job even after his wife and rabbi and friends and children counseled him otherwise.

“The one thing I am good at,” said Gold, who serves on the board of governors for HUC-JIR and is president of the private-equity firm Shamrock Holdings, “is I am a change agent.”

And certainly that is something The Federation could use. Jewish umbrella organizations across the country are suffering from decreasing involvement from younger Jews who no longer see the central model as integral to Jewish life. Locally, annual campaign revenues have been practically flat since the early 1990s (not including the $20 million Los Angeles raised in 2006 for the Israel Emergency Campaign).

“The Federation finds itself — and this is not a disparagement of past lay leaders or communal leaders — but it finds itself with a model and culture that was probably terrific 50 years ago, but society has moved on. Jewish life has changed,” Gold said. “It needs to change in order to accommodate.”

He had reiterated the three areas on which he has said he wants to direct The Federation’s focus: making Federation headquarters at 6505 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles’ premiere Israel address; strengthening community relations, particularly with Latinos; and improving leadership and education programs. He also emphasized that The Federation needs to stop performing services “where we are sixth or seventh or eighth best. We don’t need to offer programs that other people in the community are doing better. We need to support them.”

Gold said he’s given himself six months to change The Federation’s culture and governance, and also said he expects to increase campaign revenues by at least 10 percent this year.

“Quite honestly, quietly we have an even bigger number in mind. But at least 10 percent,” Gold said. “And if we don’t achieve it, somebody ought to call us on the carpet about it. We ought to be held accountable.”

His first big test will be Feb. 10, when The Federation hosts its Super Sunday fundraiser.

Culinary and cultural riches await visitors to the Galilee


I have to admit, although I run the risk of being politically incorrect, whenever I’d drive through Galilean roads and pass Arab towns or villages, a slight fear sometimes gripped me. Since the level of distrust among Jews and Arabs has increased since the intifada, I suspect most Israelis would probably think twice before entering an unfamiliar Arab town to catch a bite or change a tire.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. A walking tour within non-Jewish towns and villages — with or without guides — can be an eye-opening, informative, tasty and heart-warming experience. On a recent tour in the Galilee focusing on different religions in the Western Galilee, I meandered through Muslim, Christian and Druze towns, as well as Baha’i landmarks, only to discover cultural richness, friendliness — and some surprises.

Olive Country

We began the tour at the visitors’ center of the only Jewish olive press in the lower Galilee, Avtalion, named after the tannaitic sage who migrated there after the destruction of the Second Temple. A quaint cafe serving olive oil-rich, Arab-style foods overlooks the never-ending groves of olive trees belonging to the Arab town of Arabe, which is part of the “axis of olives” that includes Sakhnin, Deir Hanna, Marah and Rama.

Avtalion offers year-round tours, tastings and lectures on the production and health benefits of olive oil. The olive season begins in October, and visitors are invited to witness the process.

Owner Peretz Elbaz assured me that visiting Arab towns and villages for food and shopping can be a safe and pleasant experience.

I felt only a mild, probably self-imposed tension as our bus passed through the commercial thoroughfare of Arabe, but even more than that, I felt a certain voyeurism. Arab towns always seemed impenetrable, not necessarily because of cultural tensions, but because they look like mazes from afar.

Our tour guide, Morris Zemach, author of “Traveling With Morris in the Galilee,” slammed the myth that Arabe residents are stingy and not friendly. But we didn’t stop to find out.

We continued to Dier Hana, a mixed Muslim-Christian town named after Yochanan’s (John’s) Monastery, which thrived during the Byzantine period. The town features some of the country’s oldest olive trees, and every home here used to have a working olive press, before industrialization made them obsolete.

“Many Jews don’t like to come here,” Zemach explained as we stood under an Ottoman stone gate where Muslim elders of the adjacent mosque often meet after prayers. “They’re afraid, but that comes from lack of knowledge. You can feel welcome to come on your own.”

Zemach, who is friendly with the locals, took us through a Muslim home whose backyard contains the remains of a Byzantine fortress built by Daher el Omar, Ottoman ruler of the Galilee in the 1700s. The residents, an elderly couple, didn’t seem to mind that we passed through, although when we left and wished them a good day, they didn’t exactly smile and wave back.

But gregariousness was not lacking with the Houris, a Christian family who have made their centuries-old olive press a tourist attraction.

Galilee

The father of the house, Mutlak, and his wife entertained us with a darbuka and violin; the music wasn’t exactly the most melodious, but it was endearing. The Houri family sells homemade olive oil and carob honey in the same room as their refurbished ancient oil press.

“The building is 1,500 years old, the press is 250 years old, and the donkey that pulls the press is 1,007 years old,” explained Mutlak with a joke he probably tells to all visitors.

Further northwest, in Kfar Yasif, Muslim, Christian and Druze communities open their mosques and churches to Jewish tourists. Jews lived here before the 19th century, and an ancient Jewish cemetery is hidden among dying weeds at the side of the main road, across the street from a Superpharm.

An ornate, medieval-style Greek Orthodox church is open to the non-Christian public, and nearby is an Evangelical church. The falafel and humus joints along the main road are said to be among the best in Israel.

Our tour guide, Amnon Gofer, encourages visitors to wander through the village, knock on doors, and have coffee or tea with the locals to find out more about the mutual respect between Christians and Muslims.

Lower Galilee

Avtalion Olive Press and Cafe: (04) 678-9521; www.avtalion-oil.net

The Houri Family: (050) 751-9597, (04) 678-4035

Kfar Yasif

Greek Orthodox Church: (054) 310-9023

Evangelical church: (04) 996-5461

The Great Mosque, Sheik Abbad: (050) 908-4020

Morris Zemach, the tour guide: (04) 693-6924, (052) 654-9191

Western Galilee Information Hotline: (700) 705-050

Druze Hospitality

The Chasidic man with payot walking around the Druze village of Sajur seems like an anomaly, but a Chasidic presence has existed in Sajur for the past five years — ever since Ibrahim Riad decided to make his family’s Druze restaurant kosher. The Riad’s eatery, The Sultan’s Feast, began in a handsome, Oriental living room. Ibrahim’s decision to go kosher was strictly a business decision, and a smart one at that — the place was filled with a religious tourist group.

Mrs. Riad and her children are the chefs, making fresh, authentic Druze dishes like majadra, a dish of chickpeas, lentils and bourgal; and “groom rice,” with meat and cinnamon, served to a Druze groom on his wedding night to give him “strength.”

Ibrahim, who served as an Israel Defense Forces army officer for 25 years, has three sons serving in the army, and his sweet, well-spoken daughters were on hand to provide us with some insight into the restaurant, the village, and the basics of the Druze faith.

Further west, in the Druze village of Julis, more insight into the Druze faith can be provided by Nabia Tarif, the grandson and personal assistant of Sheikh Amin Tarif, the “Lubavitcher rebbe” of the Druze community. Sheikh Tari was given the rare Druze privilege of a private burial place, which is now a Druze holy place.

“During his tenure as head of the community, there wasn’t any split within the Druze community,” Nabia Tareef explained, bearing a noble stature, Druze headdress, friendly smile and sparkling blue eyes.

First timer says: fly me to the Holy Land


Advice and Reality Face a Moment of Truth in Israel


“Just don’t take the bus.”

As I left on a trip to Israel a couple months ago, this was the advice I got from everyone. Even then, a time of relative peace, the
ersatz front-page pictures of terror-torn Israeli commuter buses surrounded by wounded people being moved to ambulances were still too fresh. Suicide bombers, not rockets, were foremost in our minds. And we all know that suicide bombers target buses and cafes — public places where innocent people gather.

So as I took off in late spring, leaving behind my young daughter and husband, I thought about this simple panacea — “Avoiding buses and cafes, how hard is that?” Did I expect to see buses blowing up all around me as I stayed safely on the sidewalks? Not really. But traveling to a land that has been beset by terrorists carries with it added anxieties, so why take chances?

Then I arrived in Jerusalem.

My first instinct in any new city is to mingle. I like to walk the streets, stop into ordinary shops — grocery stores and electronic shops, not just the Judaica stores or Dead Sea skin care outlets for tourists. I like to take public transportation.

My instincts set in. I wanted to see what it is like to live in Jerusalem. So first thing, instead of a taxi, I took a shared cab from the airport to my hotel — an amazing ride where everyone made friends during our 40 minutes together. A psychologist from San Diego was chatting with an ecologist who split her time among Israel, the United States and Latin America. The clearly religious were giving advice to the traveling bohemians. Lively chatter among complete strangers filled the minivan, and when I arrived at my hotel without the exact fare — upsetting the cab driver — someone I’d never met before paid my part without a question.

“Just being in Israel replenishes my soul,” the woman who’d just spent $10 on me told me as I took off gratefully with her card so I could send her money back.
It was dusk, and darkness was falling over the city. I asked at the hotel’s front desk whether it was all right to walk in the neighborhood to find a place to eat; the manager assured me it was. Out I went, jet-lagged but invigorated, into the heart of Jerusalem. And even at 9 p.m., many many people — young and old — were walking everywhere. I was especially struck by the women alone on the streets. I’m used to Los Angeles, where first, no one walks, and second, no one walks alone. At night, Jerusalem seemed so safe.

I saw buses drive by filled with commuters. I wondered.

A mini town square, Ben Yehuda lies at the heart of the tourist district and at the heart of where young Israelis hang out. In the course of the 10 days I was in Israel, I went there many times — for a falafel on my first night, to shop for souvenirs on another, for a late-night dinner after Shabbat. For several blocks the street is cordoned off from cars, like Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, so vendors and performers fill the public spaces.

It was an easy walk from my hotel.

The question of the bus came up really only on my third day in Israel. I’d made a commitment to meet a friend in Tel Aviv, and I was not about to pay $60 to $70 each way to take a taxi there. I rose early on Sunday morning, a regular workday in Israel, and set off for the bus station, where I’d been told I could catch a gesher — a shared cab or minivan available to all, much like the one I’d taken from the airport. I walked to the bus station, a longer hike than I’d expected, because I wanted to get a glimpse of a different part of Jerusalem, particularly the regular, working-class neighborhoods.

Getting where you want to go is easy, because everyone helps anyone asking directions, even when you speak only English. However, having misjudged the distance, I made my way to the bus station with little time to spare. And then I couldn’t find where the geshers were stationed. And no one knew enough English to know what I was asking about. I was really in Israel now. Suddenly, I was in line to go through the metal detectors to enter the terminal, and once inside, even with my limited Hebrew, I could easily see that a bus was leaving for Tel Aviv in just a few moments.

I stepped up to the ticket line. Flashes of my daughter went through my mind. I pushed away thoughts of the final blackout scene in the Oscar-nominated Palestinian film “Paradise Now.” I accused myself of being ridiculous and went up and bought my ticket — $3.50 for a ride from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on the bus. Door 15 the ticket seller told me.

I was taking the bus.

Not so easy, I soon saw. So was everyone else. The bus hadn’t arrived and dozens — maybe even a hundred — Israelis were pushing toward the doorway to be first in line. The danger now, I realized, was getting crushed. My New York bus instincts began to take over. My Los Angeles freeway driver gusto came into play, too. I was going to get on that bus.

As it turned out, I did. One of the last to get a seat, I sat next to a gun-toting soldier returning to his base who had two cellphones ringing constantly, which he could only answer after removing his iPod earphones, which were already projecting loud enough for me to share his music. In the aisle next to us, a mother with her two young girls sat on the floor. The bus was packed with what looked like workaday commuters. We arrived in Tel Aviv on time and without incident.

When I was returning to Jerusalem later that day, my friend escorted me to the gesher, and I sort of regretted getting the help. I e-mailed my husband that night that I’d done exactly what everyone told me not to do and was none the worse for wear. He was shocked. I was proud. It was such a simple thing.

Maybe, sometimes, overcoming your fears and joining in is an accomplishment. I say this as many of my friends are considering whether to travel to Israel right now. Maybe it’s important to go, now more than ever. To be with the Israelis who are continuing their daily lives there, despite the threats. Maybe sometimes taking the bus is the best way to go.

Negev + Galilee = Israel’s Future


“The Negev and the Galilee comprise 70 percent of the area of the State of Israel with 30 percent of its populace, but they guarantee 100 percent of the future of the state,” said Ron Pelmer, the director of Or National Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that helps to develop Israel’s periphery.

Pelmer spoke at November’s Sderot Conference for Social and Economic Policy, at a session devoted to developing the Negev and the Galilee. The phrase “Gedera to Hadera” — referring to the metropolitan sprawl where most of Israel’s populace lives — was oft heard in comparison with the Negev and the Galilee, considered Israel’s peripheries. Attracting people to the peripheries will take an overall strategy, he noted.

Jewish Agency Chairman Ze’ev Bielski, who chaired the session, described the agency’s role in bringing together Israeli philanthropists and their Diaspora counterparts to help the government implement its decision to develop the Negev. In June, the agency agreed to the multiyear funding of Daroma, a company comprising Israeli and Diaspora businesspeople and public officials who will devote time and resources to develop the Negev. Likewise, Tzafona will be established to help develop the Galilee.

“Real Zionism is to encourage all to move to the Negev and the Galilee,” said Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit, adding that the key to developing the peripheries lies in improving transportation to the center of the country. Efficient transportation, he said, will change the periphery into suburbia.

Sheetrit would like every citizen to be able to reach a large urban center within half an hour. Train lines have expanded in recent years, and further expansion is planned. A new train line will shorten travel time from the Negev to Tel Aviv, and another line will bring the Galilee closer to Haifa. Highway 6 (the Trans-Israel Highway) already connects Gedera to Hadera. By 2007, two new sections will extend the highway north and south.

Sheetrit rejected the government policy of offering tax incentives, since only 20 percent of the periphery’s residents reach tax brackets entitling them to such incentives. “It would be better to take the money and invest in a long school day, thus providing equal opportunities for each child. Education is the real answer for social change,” he said.

“The State of Israel will not advance without the Negev and the Galilee. We will have serious problems if we don’t develop these areas,” said Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick of the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, a private family fund dedicated to assisting the underprivileged in Israel’s geographic and social periphery. Although an interministerial government committee has been established, Brick stressed the role of nongovernment organizations, some voluntary, in filling the gap until the government becomes more involved.

The Or movement hopes to market homes in the Negev to 108,000 people by developing housing, services and employment opportunities. It has already helped establish six settlements — five in the Negev and one in the Galilee — and expand 25 moshavim and kibbutzim.

Pelmer moved with his family from Petah Tikva to Sansana in the northern Negev, providing an example for others. “In the Negev there are 200 professional job offers every month, and in the Galilee, 400,” Pelmer said. He wants to prevent people from leaving these areas and attract more young and young-at-heart residents. Since army bases dot the Negev, families of military personnel will live there if services are sufficiently developed, he said. Or is also trying to attract large companies to the area.

The Strauss-Elite food concern is an example of a large firm reaping the financial benefits of operating in the periphery. “It’s a win-win situation,” Director-General Giora Bar Deah said. “There are economic advantages in these areas, like tax breaks and benefits. There’s no shame in benefiting from them.”

Ofra Strauss, chairperson of the Strauss-Elite Group and a Jewish Agency board member, provides an example of industry’s positive involvement by volunteering as a driving force behind the agency’s Babayit Beyahad program that matches veteran Israelis with new immigrants.

Representing local government, Acre Mayor Shimon Lankri placed the blame for his city’s decline since 1982 on government policy, along with lack of local leadership and a master plan. At Acre’s helm since 2003, Lankri has improved infrastructure, developed tourism and stemmed the tide of residents leaving the city. Acre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“As a mayor, I have taken upon myself to improve a city with potential. We must not be alone in this. Without the government bringing strong populations and increasing grants, we are unable to do it alone,” he said.

Young people are seen as the key to development. Discharged IDF soldiers founded the Ayalim association with the aim of keeping students in the peripheries after they complete their studies. Today there are some 26,000 students at southern venues, including Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and Sapir College, where the Sderot Conference took place. There are some 47,000 students in northern colleges and universities. Most will later return to the center of the country to find employment.

The main crop of Kibbutz Ashbal in the Galilee is education. Founded a few years ago, its 60 members — all graduates of the Hano’ar Ha’oved Vehalomed youth movement — are involved in educational projects, some unconventional. They work with 4,000 local children and youths from all social sectors, including Jews, Arabs and Bedouin. The kibbutz has a dormitory for Ethiopian immigrant youths who might otherwise have dropped out of school, and has established five study centers in Arab villages.

Professor Alean Al-Krenawi, head of BGU’s Department of Social Work, feels that the Israeli Arab population is ignored. A Bedouin whose brother is mayor of Rahat, Al-Krenawi believes that the programs and initiatives for the Negev serve to weaken the Bedouin population and increase the gaps between them and their Jewish neighbors.

“One cannot ignore the 1.5 million Arabs in Israel. The Arab Bedouin population of the Negev is in a dire economic situation,” he said.

Eitan Broshi, head of the Jezreel Valley regional council, bemoaned the lack of government involvement but also noted the dearth of leaders from the periphery. “Since the days of Ben-Gurion there has been no national leadership from these areas,” he said.

Broshi argued that transportation options are not the solution for outlying areas. “Young people need a purpose and the means to live in these areas. Once people moved to these areas as a national mission. Today they look for self-fulfillment.”

Although the challenge of developing Israel’s peripheries is daunting, Bielski suggests to “look at what we’ve done in the past 57 years” and gain encouragement for the future.

 

Qumran Offers Look at Legacy of Scrolls


Descending eastward from the rolling hills on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the sapphire-colored Dead Sea appears like a jewel set in the dusty brown Judean Desert. As you breathe in the thundering stillness, it’s easy to imagine why the ancient Essenes chose this place for their spiritual refuge.

When they lived here some 2,000 years ago, the Essenes led a highly ritualized life along the sea’s northern shores, 40 miles east of Jerusalem.

You can learn more about them and the fascinating legacy they created — the Dead Sea Scrolls — at Qumran National Park. This well-kept archaeological site preserves the center of Essene activity.

An introductory audiovisual program describes the Essenes’ way of life, which the Romans destroyed in the year 68 C.E., during the great Jewish revolt. These Jews were mostly male ascetics, dedicated to spirituality, who fled Jerusalem.

They created a largely self-reliant, communal settlement amid picturesque limestone hillside cliffs. Their structures included stone assembly halls, a main dining room for ceremonial meals, a kitchen, laundry room, watchtower, stable and pottery workshop.

Archaeologists believe the Essenes were highly concerned with maintaining their ritual purity and bathed at least twice a day. An aqueduct system caught water from the hills above and channeled it into an elaborate series of mikvahs, or ritual baths.

In the 200 years they lived at Qumran, Essene scribes also dedicated themselves to copying biblical texts in a scriptorium, or writing room, with desks and inkstands.

The biblical texts were discovered by a young Bedouin shepherd in 1947. When an errant goat disappeared into a cave, the boy tossed a rock inside, and was surprised to hear the rock hit something. As he continued searching, he discovered clay pots that had protected seven ancient scrolls for centuries.

When the film concludes, the screen lifts and you are directed toward a darkened hallway, where replicas of the implements of the Essenes’ daily routine are displayed. From there, it’s a short walk to the ruins, where you can see remnants of the mikvahs, as well as the aqueduct and other finds, in addition to a view of the historic cave.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical documents ever found, often are described as the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century. They date to a time that spawned Christianity and laid the foundations for modern Judaism.

The scrolls include books from the Torah, the Apocrypha and the sect’s own works. Some of these are on permanent exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

They are stored in the iconic white domed Shrine of the Book, which resembles the lid of the type of clay jar in which the scrolls were found. As you walk into the exhibit, you enter a dark hallway that resembles a cave.

The parched climate of the Dead Sea helped preserve the scrolls and items rarely found by archaeologists: wooden combs, leather sandals, linen fabric and ropes made from palm leaves and rushes.

Most of the scrolls discovered at Qumran were made of a lightly tanned animal skin. A small percentage were written on papyrus. To prevent their further deterioration, the exhibit was specifically designed with low lighting and controlled humidity and temperature.

The scrolls are stored in darkened cases that are illuminated with the press of a button. The beautifully penned texts reflect portions from every book of the Bible, except the scroll of Esther, as well as the entire book of Isaiah. And some reveal the beliefs and customs of the Jews at Qumran, such as monogamy and prohibitions against divorce and celibacy.

The scrolls and thousands of fragments later discovered in the same area have been mired in controversy since 1954, when four scrolls were advertised for sale in The Wall Street Journal. They were subsequently purchased for Israel, but only a select group of European and American scholars were chosen to reconstruct and publish the texts. The 1984 publication of an article about one scroll discovered years earlier ignited a lengthy battle over long delays in publication and freedom of access for other scholars.

In 1991, independent scholars broke protocol and released computer-generated reconstructions of some fragments. The Huntington Library in San Marino later allowed access to its photographic copies. The Biblical Archaeological Review printed complete photographs of the unpublished fragments without disclosing the source.

You can view the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum (phone: 02 670-8811) and the ruins of the Essene settlement at Qumran National Park (02 994-2235). Call for updated hours and admission charges. For more information, contact the Dead Sea Information Center at

The Treasures on Top of the Mountain


By many accounts, it ranks just below Jerusalem as one of Israel’s most beloved treasures. It holds United Nations Education, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) status as a World Heritage Site. Conde Nast Traveler magazine even named it the “World’s Best Monument.”

Masada, which represents a stronghold of Jewish courage and defiance, is among Israel’s most visited sites. Located in the Judean Desert, adjacent to the Dead Sea, King Herod the Great built Masada 2,100 years ago as both his winter palace and a place where he would retreat in times of crisis.

Thanks to monumental excavations begun in 1964 under the direction of Yigal Yadin, visitors regularly come to this lone mountain. At a sharp peak of 1,200 feet, Herod fashioned this marvelous palace with three floors of elegant halls. Its many other wonders included heated bath houses decorated with still-visible mosaics, a remarkable plumbing system to gather runoff from nearby flash floods and even chambers for storing ice in the desert heat. Masada, it seemed, was unconquerable.

But after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, fate would eventually prove otherwise. Some 960 Jewish zealots took over the abandoned palace as the last independent Jewish holdout in the Land of Israel against conquering Roman armies. The refugees survived atop Masada for three years until a 36-month Roman siege, involving tens of thousands of Roman soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Jewish slaves, finally succeeded.

What the Romans found when they arrived was a community that had taken its own lives rather than become captive slaves. The Roman siege ramp on the western side of Masada that led to the end of the battle still offers easy walking access to the top of the fortress. From there, you can also see the outlines of several Roman camps below.

The World Heritage Committee recognized Masada under the auspices of UNESCO, describing it as “a symbol of the ancient Jewish kingdom of Israel, an example of the opulence and luxury of the early Roman Empire and a symbol of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.”

In advance of expected, heavy millennium year tourism, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, in conjunction with the National Park Authority, completed a $40 million conservation and renovation project at the site. A 90-minute drive southeast of Jerusalem or about 20 minutes from Ein Gedi, Masada now includes a state-of-the-art visitors center, as well as high-speed, high-capacity cable cars, which start at the eastern entrance, one mile from the Dead Sea. But hundreds of visitors each day choose to hike up Masada’s Snake Path.

The weather is accommodating year-round, though high summer temperatures suggest an early morning visit. If you’re up for an early morning arrival, it’s a magnificent place to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Plan on spending about three hours to tour the site.

Masada is reachable via regularly scheduled bus service from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Eilat. Use the western entrance for the nighttime sound-and-light show (fee required). For more information, sound-and-light show schedule and admission fees, visit

Jerusalem’s Old City Finds Twin in Girona


 

With their narrow passageways and cobblestone streets, picturesque Girona and Jerusalem’s Old City share more than just a certain outward appearance.

As early as the 12th century, artists from this Catalan city portrayed Jerusalem and its Jewish residents in a magnificent tapestry depicting the creation story. And Girona’s most illustrious Jewish resident, Moses ben Nachman, also known as the Ramban or Nachmanides, traveled to Jerusalem for his dying days. In letters to his kin, the Ramban describes his longing for his family and rich Jewish life in Girona in the face of a desolated, 13th century Jerusalem left in ruins.

These are just some of the many fascinating bits of information served up by the Centre Bonastruc ca Porta, a leading educational and cultural foundation named for the Ramban in Girona’s restored Jewish Quarter.

The Call, as the quarter is known in Catalan, dates back to the year 890 when 25 families from the surrounding region moved into former houses of clergy near the city’s large cathedral. Over time, the Jewish district expanded to include a larger area that once housed more than 300 Jews. In return for financial tribute, the Spanish kings protected the Call, as it did all other Jewish communities under the Crown of Catalonia and nearby Aragon. The quarter’s main thoroughfare was Carrer de la Forca, or La Forca Street, which is where the Centre Bonastruc ca Porta now stands.

The Centre represents recent efforts to reclaim the region’s Jewish heritage. Located about 40 minutes north of Barcelona, the Centre is also the headquarters for the Network of Spanish Jewish Sites-Roads of Sepharad. It coordinates a wide spectrum of activities, run almost entirely by and for non-Jews committed to furthering awareness of a lost community that left deep impressions on Spain’s culture and economy.

Until recently, Spain had preserved relatively few examples of architecture that testified to the presence of Jewish communities in Catalan cities throughout the Middle Ages. But in the 1970s, private investors began renovating some buildings within the Call. And by 1990, the Girona City Council had managed to purchase the various buildings that now make up the Centre Bonastruc ca Porta. It was another 10 years before part of its permanent exhibit opened to the public in July 2000.

Within its walls, you’ll find exhibits and cultural activities, concerts and theater productions. There are also lectures, round-table discussions, classes for tour guides, courses on medieval Spanish Jewry and kabbalah, relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims and modern Hebrew. You can also take guided tours through the Nachmanides Institute for Jewish Studies, which hosts visiting scholars, and the Museum of the History of the Jews. This relatively small museum depicts Girona’s Jewish history, including its tragic fate with the Spanish Inquisition in 1492.

Despite popular understanding, the terror actually began 100 years earlier with a pogrom on Tisha B’Av 1391. It led to innumerable conversions, seizure of property and the closing of synagogues throughout Spain well before final expulsion.

Although Girona was once home to two synagogues that were easily identified, its last synagogue’s location is disputed. It was positioned intum callum judaycum or within the Jewry, in a discrete spot inside the Call that was maintained until 1492. Some say it was based in the very building now occupied by the Bonastruc ca Porta Centre, where Nachmanides may have himself prayed and studied Kabbalah. A bill of sale signed by the Council of the Jewry in 1492 shows the building was a fairly large structure containing two batei midrash — one for men, another for women — as well as mikvahs and a hospital.

That is just one of the more than 1,200 documents pertaining to Girona Jewry that the Centre has identified in two city archives. Other papers include manuscripts written by the Catalan kabbalists, many of whom lived in Girona, commentaries of Ezra ben Solomon on the “Song of Songs” and treatises of Ariel of Girona on prayer.

The Centre also preserves archaeological remains from tombs and long-abandoned funeral stones that were left on the city’s Montjuic, or Jewish mountain, where the cemetery once stood. You’ll see such treasured remnants of Girona’s lost community within the museum. Some are poignantly exhibited on a dramatic latex floor displaying photos of green fields and yellow wildflowers — exactly how they were found.

For more information on Centre Bonastruc ca Porta, visit www.ajuntament.gi; for Spanish Jewry in general, visit www.redjuderias.org/index_en.php. The Centre Bonastruc ca Porta is affiliated with a nonprofit organization, the American Friends of the Girona Museum and Institute. For more information, contact the Friends at 501 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10017; (212) 583-3181; shihorn@aol.com.

Lisa Alcalay Klug, a former staff writer for the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times, writes for The Jerusalem Post, The New York Times and other publications.

 

This Year in Jerusalem


For the past decade, members of Shaare Shalom, a Persian synagogue in Great Neck, N.Y., have traveled en masse to Miami each Passover.

This year, however, many synagogue members are passing up the Fontainebleau Hilton for the Jewish state — where they’ll combine the springtime holiday with bar mitzvah celebrations at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for children in the community.

"It’s like a solidarity trip," said Robert Hakimi, a jeweler in Manhattan’s diamond district whose son, Kevin, is among those having a bar mitzvah.

The group hopes to make Passover in Israel a new tradition. Already, 200 of them have made reservations for the holiday at an Eilat resort, Hakimi said.

The Persian posse may be a dramatic example of a tourism revival in Israel this Passover, but they’re not alone.

Two years after what is known as the "Passover massacre" — when a suicide bomber killed 30 people at a seder at a Netanya hotel and changed the course of the intifada by prompting the return of Israel’s military to the West Bank — tourism officials report a serious upswing in travel to Israel for Passover.

In any case, Passover is considered among the "high seasons" of Israel travel, but officials say the holiday demand this year reflects a general trend of U.S. Jews returning to Israel in an act of solidarity.

"Tourism to Israel is up in a tremendous way," said Rami Levy, Israel’s tourism ambassador to North and South America.

In fact, 2003 broke an all-time record in American Jewish tourism to Israel, Levy said. Some 221,000 American Jews visited Israel last year, he said.

General tourism to Israel is down, however. Slightly more than 1 million people visited Israel in 2003. That’s up at least 25 percent from 2002 but down from its peak in 1999, when 2.7 million visited the Jewish state, Israel’s Tourism Ministry said.

The increase in U.S. Jewish travel comes from close coordination between Israel’s Tourism Ministry and American Jewish synagogues and groups, Levy said.

For example, the North American Jewish federation system held its annual General Assembly in Israel last year, drawing 4,300 North Americans. Synagogues also have distributed pledge cards and rabbis have delivered sermons encouraging Israel travel.

To sustain the trend, Israel’s Tourism Ministry has appointed a coordinator for 475 tourism committees within American synagogues.

The effort seems to be working.

Susan Blum, manager of the Israel Department of Gil Travel, a Philadelphia-based travel agency that specializes in Israel, partly attributes the increase to Israeli prodding.

"One of the ads that the Israel Ministry of Tourism had last year was ‘Make your pledge to go back to Israel next year for 2004,’" she said, referring to ads Israel placed in Jewish publications and synagogues across North America. "Well, it’s 2004 now, and it looks like people are living up to their pledges."

"We’re doing quotations left and right for synagogues," she said. "It’s really, really rejuvenating."

While Israel’s Tourism Ministry will not tally its records until the end of April, there are several signs that tourism this Passover will pass previous years. Continental Airlines has added seven flights to Israel each week in April, and El Al has added a host of new flights to accommodate demand, Levy said.

Blum figures that Passover travel will climb 30 percent to 40 percent this year but says those levels are still 30 percent below what they were before the intifada.

At TotallyJewishTravel.com, "What we have noticed is a major increase in people inquiring about Pesach in Israel, compared to last year," CEO Raphi Bloom said. "Hotels in Israel who advertise with us are selling out five to six weeks before Pesach, and even if a hotel has room left, flights are increasingly hard to find."

Bloom noted that 70 percent of his site’s users are North American.

Bloom ascribes the increased interest to a calmer security situation in Israel coupled with the end of major hostilities in Iraq. Others say people simply are getting used to the ongoing intifada or feel inspired to show solidarity with a Jewish state still under siege.

"More people want to get more involved in showing solidarity with Israel, and Passover’s a great time to come," said Rabbi Isroel Chanin, head of hospitality services for Chabad-Lubavitch in Jerusalem.

The number of e-mails and phone calls he receives inquiring about arrangements for Passover has doubled, Chanin said. This April, he has booked 15 bar mitzvahs at the Western Wall, triple his usual bookings for this time of year.

Hakimi and his Persian group are taking their cues from Israel.

The Israel consulate is "sending us signals," he said. "They’re telling us to go to Israel and visit."

Land of Milk, Honey and Seaweed Wraps


Halfway through my 20-hour flight from Los Angeles to Tel
Aviv, the man to my left said, “I wonder if I will be able to stop myself from
kissing the ground?” He was with a church group that organizes trips to Israel
about every 18 months or so, and this would be his first time in the Holy Land.
The group was smaller than usual this time. Only 12 instead of the usual 30 or
so.

“Do you feel brave for coming here?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “The media makes more out of it than there is,”
he said.

But I wasn’t so sure. While I’d jumped at the opportunity to
take part in the week-long “Women in Israel” press tour organized by the
Israeli Ministry of Tourism, I did feel brave. After all, as everyone kept
saying, this wasn’t the ideal time to be visiting the country.

But then again, I reasoned, when would be an ideal time to
visit Israel? Given the circumstances, this trip seemed like it: The theme of
the tour was “Women of the Bible,” but what the itinerary really offered was a
“women’s” tour of Israel. That meant getting to meet and interview top Israeli
women like Dr. Sharon Einav, an ICU physician at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem;
Reform Rabbi Na’amah Kelman of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of
Religion; and Capt. Sharon Feingold of the IDF press office. It meant day trips
to biblical sites like Dvoriya in the Lower Galilee. It also meant luxury
accommodations, gourmet cuisine and getting pampered at two Israeli spas.

Of course, there is a certain amount of guilt involved in
considering a trip of this sort, while terrorism and unemployment crippled the
country. But, on the other hand, Israelis need our support: The drop in tourism
has much to do with Israel’s suffering economy. So, while it may have seemed
somewhat perverse, we journalists would be on a solidarity mission of our own.
We would see all that Israel still has to offer and remind people that it is
more than the terror target you see on CNN — that it is still the Land of Milk
and Honey, delectable food, beautiful sites and peaceful retreats. And so,
while I did not kiss the ground like some members of the church group next to
me, I eagerly anticipated being spoiled, Israeli-style.

“Come back — and bring your friends,” the flight attendant
told the man from the church group as we deplaned. My own small group — five
female journalists (myself included) and a representative from the ministry’s
public relations firm — joined our tour guide, Ruth, and our driver, Nachshon.

First stop: Tel Aviv.

Aptly named, Tel Aviv’s Hotel Dan Panorama sits right on the
city’s promenade, offering a spectacular view from its many balconies. A box of
dates stuffed with nuts and a fruit basket (apples, oranges, bananas, kiwis and
persimmons) awaited me in my room, which had a balcony overlooking the
Mediterranean, the promenade and a minaret with a police car parked in front.  

That first night, after a brief exchange with the guard at
the entrance, we were ushered into Lilit, an elegant fish and dairy restaurant
where we met veteran Israeli actress Gila Almagor, who played Deborah in “A
Woman Called Golda” and wrote, produced and starred in “HaKayitz Shel Aviya”
(The Summer of Aviya). Between bites of her cheese soufflé, Almagor told us,
“The contradictions in this country, it’s unbelievable.” We nodded through our
own savory bites of green salad with roasted figs, brie and olives. The guard
was peripherally visible through the glass window.

The next morning, we gluttoned ourselves on the delicious
excess of the Israeli breakfast buffet, a matter of pride for most fine Israeli
hotels: think Vegas with more class, and choice dairy products, fresh produce
and exotic additions like various kinds of olives, as well as date, fig and
eggplant concoctions. (Israeli produce is far superior to much that we see
here: Red bell peppers that bleed when you cut into them, and pears that taste
like pears — instead of potatoes.) Indeed, the spreads continued all week, as
each hotel, from Mizpe Hayamim in the north to Jerusalem’s Sheraton Plaza
Hotel, worked to outdo the other and put its unique stamp on this cultural
tradition.

Our bellies full, we headed to Mizpe Hayamim, a Relais and
Chateaux rated resort hotel and spa complete with private organic farm and
vineyard. Paths wind through the small gardens and fountains that surround the
ivy-covered stone buildings. Scents of jasmine and lavender and a mysterious
something else in the air greeted us upon arrival. A man and woman sat
languidly in the courtyard, dressed in unofficial spa uniforms of white
terrycloth robes and slippers. Ironically, in this pristine, healthful
atmosphere, they both were smoking.

We’d arrived at tea time, in time to enjoy an herbal tea and
hot chocolate buffet in the lobby. Then it was back in the van again, to
descend toward Tiberias for dinner at Decks. Nestled on the shore of the Sea of
Galilee, the airy restaurant was draped in soft white billows of fabric and was
largely open to the water, thanks to its high ceiling and tall glass doors,
which opened onto a deck. Decks specialized in meat, cooked in biblical tradition
over bonfires of locally harvested olive, eucalyptus and citrus wood. A slushy
drink they called “The Nectar of the Gods” was worthy of the title, consisting
of lemon juice, mint, sugar and ice, all blended

together.

On Day Three birds sang outside my window as I dressed for
another decadent breakfast, and a road trip to Safed, considered one of the
four holy cities and the former center of Kabbalah.

Perched high on a mountain, the mystical city draws a
combination of artists and religious Jews. We toured the old city, with its
ancient synagogues, and the artists’ colony, where we met artist Lana Laor
(known as Laor). In the past year, she’d departed artistically from painting in
blues, her focus on love — like a blue-hued painting of two pears sitting side
by side on a ledge — and substituted vivid red pomegranates. “The red is very
violent,” she said. “If you look inside, you can find, like a heart beating.” 

From the heavy beauty of Safed, we returned to the haven of
Mizpe Hayamim for our spa treatments: you can choose from more than 20 kinds of
massage and treatments from acupuncture, to face and body mud and seaweed
masks, scrubs and peels, to manicures and pedicures.

On Friday, we headed south to Jerusalem, to arrive before
the start of Shabbat. The lobby of the Sheraton Plaza Hotel bustled with
black-hatted men, modestly (and smartly) dressed women and their children, a
severe change of pace from the placid north.

On Shabbat morning, we learned of the Shabbat attack on
security forces in Hebron, as they escorted settlers returning from the Tomb of
the Patriarchs. Other reality checks followed in the next few days, as we
toured the Old City and Jerusalem’s main hospital, Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem.
The upcoming Thursday, Nov. 21 (the 16th of Kislev), they told us, would be the
Hebrew calendar anniversary of the Ben Yehuda bombing, which killed 11 people.

Except for Jerusalem, we were largely insulated from current
events in Israel: We’d spent much of our time eating in gourmet restaurants
(sometimes empty and sometimes full), lounging in spas and sleeping in
five-star hotels. After three days in the country’s capital, I couldn’t help
but release a small sigh of relief. Heading for the Dead Sea and the Negev, I
was really ready for a mud-pack treatment. After a quick dip — or rather, float
— in the Dead Sea, we slathered up properly, covering ourselves completely in
the black sludge. My skin felt smoother, I noticed, as I relaxed in the steam
room of the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea.     

Leaning my back against the warm wood wall of the room,
watching the swirling steam, I realized my trip was nearly over. I recalled the
Christian tourist I’d met on the plane, and I wondered what he thought of his
first visit. I could have envied his fresh outlook in that moment; but instead,
I felt as lucky as he. Despite my many previous visits to Israel, it had again
found a way to teach me something I didn’t know, and to expose me to a world I
hadn’t before experienced. I couldn’t speak for my Christian friend, but I knew
I’d be coming again — and bringing friends.

For information on Mizpe Hayamim, visit

Give a Fig!


One of the most memorable dishes I enjoyed in Israel was chicken-stuffed figs in tamarind sauce, at chef Moshe Basson’s Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem. Tamarind concentrate is sold in blocks at Asian markets. To save time, you could use ground chicken or turkey.

Moshe Basson’s Chicken-Stuffed Figs

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped

  • 2 chicken breasts, finely chopped

  • 3/4 teaspoons freshly ground cardamom

  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice

  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

  • Salt to taste

  • 1-2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate

  • 2 cups water

  • 2-1/2 tablespoons brown sugar

  • 24 fresh or dried figs

In a wok, heat the onion in the oil until golden brown. Add the chopped chicken breast and half of each spice, stirring well and turning until white (about three minutes). Turn out into a bowl and cool.

In the same wok, without cleaning it, add the tamarind, sugar and the remaining spices in water, stir well and bring to boil. Lower the heat and stir until sauce is smooth and velvety. Set aside.

With fresh figs, make a small incision in the upper part, so it can be closed back after stuffing. With a very small spoon, dig out the flesh and stuff the fig with about 1 tablespoon of the chicken mixture.

Take dried figs and make a small indentation in each with a finger and push in a small amount of the chicken breast mixture.

Place the figs into the sauce in the wok, cover and bring to boil. Lower the heat and boil gently for 15 minutes. Serve with white rice or couscous. Serves four.

Shakshuka a la Dr. Shakshuka

The specialty of the well-known Dr. Shakshouka restaurant in Jaffa is the egg and tomato dish that gives the establishment its name. I enjoyed this dish on my last night in Israel, a perfect finale.

  • 2 pounds fresh tomatoes, unpeeled and cut in quarters, or 28-ounce of can tomatoes

  • 6 garlic cloves, roughly diced

  • 2 teaspoons salt or to taste

  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika

  • 2 teaspoons tomato paste

  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

  • 6 large eggs

Place all ingredients, except the eggs, in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered over low heat until thick, for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Ladle the tomato sauce into a greased 12-inch frying pan. Bring to a simmer and break the eggs over the tomatoes. Gently break the yolks with a fork.

Cover and continue to cook for about three to four minutes, until the eggs are set. Bring the frying pan directly to the table, set on a trivet and serve. Serves six.

These recipes and others are found at

Don’t Even Go There


The U.S. State Department travel advisory against Israel cannot be good for that country’s image, much less for its beleaguered tourism industry. Tourism is down by half compared to the period before "The Situation," or Intifada II, broke out in September. It’s hard to say how many people are staying away because of the advisory, but the issue was important enough for Israeli officials to raise it in meetings this week with their State Department counterparts.

The State Department issues an advisory when it believes that the lives or property of Americans are at risk in the country in question. Thus, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Bosnia make the list.

But when it comes to Israel, the advisory seems like a very blunt solution to what is a much more nuanced problem. As visitor after visitor to that country can attest, the vast majority of destinations within Israel are safe. No Americans have been injured visits to Tel Aviv, West Jerusalem, the Wall, Haifa, the Dead Sea, Safed or the Sea of Galilee, to name but a few sites and cities. In Eilat, the only warnings you need heed are written on the side of a sunscreen tube.

Of course, there are other places that should inspire more caution. I would think twice before visiting Ramallah, Jericho or Bethlehem, or of wandering, as I used to, the streets of East Jerusalem.

But even in these areas, the danger is not so much in being an American, but in being mistaken for an Israeli Jew or, in some cases, for an Arab. In the Palestinian-Israeli propaganda war, both sides court American public opinion. Both sides look to America to wag its collective finger at the other. In this sense, the first side responsible for an American casualty loses.

Undoubtedly, the Situation has created no-go zones for Israelis and Arabs. As Larry Derfner reports in this issue, former oases of understanding have become no man’s lands. Elsewhere, my friends in the West Bank town of Efrat don’t expect visitors from Tel Aviv.

But to mischaracterize travel throughout Israel as unsafe when in actuality the greatest dangers are found in areas in or near Palestinian control makes the advisory itself seem like a Palestinian propaganda tool, a way of damaging Israel’s image and economy. Of course, true to Yasser Arafat’s style, this strategy also harms the Palestinians themselves in tourist meccas like Bethlehem.

It might be wise to let the State Department know it’s time the advisory be lifted. Call the Bureau of Consular Affairs at (202) 647-5226 or write the bureau at U.S. Department of State, 2201 C St., ACS/OCS/NEA Room 4811, Washington, D.C., 20520. To read the advisory, visit travel.state.gov.

If the State Department wants to issue travel advisories, let them do so for places where at least a dozen innocent Americans have been killed or wounded in the past year alone, and where hundreds more have been traumatized and held hostage to bomb threats and gunfire. But then why should the State Department concern itself with our public schools?

Tourism in Israel


Ehud Barak has the hardest job in Israel these days, but Itai Eiges’ is no walk in the park, either. As director general of the ministry of tourism, Eiges is in charge of promoting an industry that has been crippled by the recent conflict. Tour operators are reporting a 50 percent cancellation rate, the U.S. State Department has instituted a travel warning on the Middle East, and Britain has levied one against Jerusalem. It is the worst drop-off in travel in decades.

For a country that relies heavily on tourist dollars, the impact has been immediate: massive layoffs of hospitality workers and millions of dollars in lost revenue.

But Israel, fighting its conflict with the Palestinians on the military, diplomatic and media fronts, is also waging a tourism war.

Eiges, along with government spokesman Nachman Shai, held an international press briefing by telephone with Jewish newspapers around the world on Oct. 29.

“We are here to try to convince you to come to Israel,” said Eiges. “This is a time to be together,” said Shai, “to share what we are going through.”

What potential tourists need to know, said Eiges, is that the battles they see raging on CNN are not the every day reality. “The people of Israel are leading normal lives,” he said. “My wife and daughters are having doughnuts in the mall right now.” A group of 1,500 Japanese tourists have been enjoying the country without incident, said Eiges. Jewish leadership groups have visited the Western Wall and East and West Jerusalem and report feeling very safe. At a Feast of the Tabernacles in Jerusalem, 5,000 Christian pilgrims attended ceremonies at the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. Only 7 percent canceled. “There are groups of pilgrims visiting Nazareth, Jerusalem and other places,” said Eiges.

What about Bethlehem, site of some fierce rioting? “There are groups of pilgrims visiting Nazareth, Jerusalem and other places,” Euges repeated obliquely.

The irony here is that until a few weeks ago, these were boom times in Israel travel. After suffering a sharp decline from 1996-1999 following bus bombings, the industry rebounded and set new records. There were 2.5 million visitors in 1999, with 3.1 million expected this year.

Christian pilgrims have always made up the hardiest and most dependable lot of Holy Land travelers. And hotels by the Dead Sea and in Eilat are at capacity with the annual pilgrimage of Northern Europeans seeking sunburns and cold drinks. But otherwise the number for 2000 is stuck at 2.7 million – a new record, to be sure – with no major upward movement expected. The trick is pulling in the others, especially American Jewish tourists and conference attendees.

Eiges said the large conferences have postponed, rather than canceled, their arrangements. But other tourists are a different problem.

One solution, he said, is to get foreign governments to discontinue their travel warnings on the country. Israel is working with the State Department to review its warning, which it claims is unjustified. “I think Manhattan is much more dangerous than Israel,” said Shai.

Public relations and outreach are the other weapons Eiges has. “Mega-missions” of concerned American and European Jews are in process and more are being planned, along with phone calls to media here and abroad. There are reports from England that some airlines are offering reduced fares on Israel flights, though Eiges didn’t confirm whether Intifada II will at least be good for bargain hunters.

The question people naturally want answered before purchasing any ticket: “Is it safe?” “I don’t think I can tell you when things are going to go back to normal,” said Eiges. “But they will.”

Shai, who has been a frequent, and refreshingly direct, presence on CNN these days, put it bluntly. “What I say to [tourists] is what I say to my wife and kids: they should be careful. And in the time being, nothing has happened.”

Approaching The Millennium


Melodic harmonies echo through Dominus Flevit, a small-but-quaint church on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, as a group of 30 Christian Bible scholars and pastors sing “Hallelujah to the Lord,” first in English, then Hebrew.

Built in 1955 on the ruins of an ancient church, the teardrop-shaped structure commands a breathtaking view of the eastern walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. According to Christian tradition, Jesus, knowing his prophetic message would be rejected, wept here as he viewed the illusion of a tranquil city that, in fact, was bitterly divided, its Jewish population suffering under a brutal Roman occupation.

Outside the church, tourists lower their heads in quiet prayer for peace in Jerusalem.

The scene contrasts sharply with images in the Israeli and international media that have regularly reported millennium celebrations with sensational stories about deranged Christian tourists or fringe groups who may carry out violent acts to hasten Jesus’ “second coming.”

Yet this group of Christians, who has come to Israel on a combined pilgrimage and study tour organized by the California-based Centre for the Study of Biblical Research, was surprisingly undeterred by Israel’s recent crackdown and deportation of some fringe Christian groups. Some even defended the government’s actions, but warned that Israel must be careful not to stereotype all 2.5 million Christian pilgrims expected next year as dangerous.

“This is a Jewish state, and we are guests in the Jewish state,” said Bill Bean, an ordained minister and director of the center. “Christians are invited to this land if they don’t break the law. If Christians are going to come here and break the law, then they shouldn’t be here.”

For many, the main concern about the way Israel is handling millennialist threats is that Israelis do not really understand the differences between Christian denominations.

“As you have Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewry, we have many, many denominations,” Bean said. “It would be nice if someone in the government or the Ministry of Religious Affairs would take time to talk to people who really are legitimate in this field to learn from them about the different groups.”

Although millennium observers and experts acknowledge that Israel must take threats of fanaticism seriously, some are concerned about the way Israel has handled the situation so far.

Earlier this month, Israel deported a group of 20 fundamentalist Christians led by Brother David, a colorful character who lived in Jerusalem for many years and whose followers were anticipating what they believed would be Jesus’ imminent second coming.

Brother David was in Israel illegally, having destroyed his passport several years ago. But despite his offbeat religious beliefs, he spent most of his time doing charitable work — and his peaceful followers showed no signs of violence.

Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League and an interfaith activist, said accusations by Israeli police that Brother David’s followers had planned a mass suicide demonstrated an “abysmal ignorance” of the differences between mainstream Christian believers, fringe nonviolent groups and radical cults.

“There may be a failure to distinguish violent from peaceful Christian millennial groups,” Rosen said. “Such confusion will prove to be a serious boomerang for Israel. Aside from the damage to Israel’s international image, such actions may have wider-range deleterious effects on potential pilgrimage to Israel, depriving the Jewish state not only of the benefits of tourism, but also of the enormous amount of goodwill that is offered by the pilgrimage of millions for the new millennium.”

Rosen says that since the expulsions, he has seen encouraging signs that the police may try harder not to generalize about Christian tourists. Indeed, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s public security minister said, through a spokesman, that Israel “wants to carry out a policy of keeping its gates open and encouraging tourists to come to Israel.”

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism insists the recent expulsions will not hurt tourism. Nitsan Ilan, a spokeswoman for the ministry, said it recognizes that policemen dealing with millennial threats need a better understanding of Christianity.

“The Tourism Ministry is working with the police to give seminars to policemen,” she said. “This month 700 Jerusalem-based policemen will be participating in lectures given by experts on Christianity.”

For his part, Steven Notley, a Christian scholar and licensed tour guide who has been in Israel for 14 years, is not worried about the crackdown.

“I do not think it will affect tourism one way or another,” he said. “But I would like the government to make sure that whoever they get rid of is clearly breaking the law. It should not be some sort of hysteria that you are getting rid of anybody who dares to suggest that they believe in the second coming.”

As Notley led the California group though the Old City, hordes of tourists in dozens of groups at the most famous Christian sites appeared to signal that little damage has been done so far.

One group carries a large wooden cross, walking in the footsteps of Jesus as they chant hymns in unison.

Jeanne Miterko, director of the New England branch of the center, said she has been to Israel four times and has never seen so many tourists.

“I don’t blame the Israelis for being concerned,” she said. “The big question is how they act on that. The best prophylactic measure is to know where these people are coming from before they board the plane.”

To do so, Israeli security services are cooperating with foreign secret services such as the FBI. However, the problem is how to finger potential threats without undermining the “open gates” policy and frightening away tourists.

“In America you just cannot tell people they cannot come in because they are associated with this or that group,” Miterko said. “That could really create a problem of public perception of Israel.”

Some say the media fuss over potential millennium madness is counterproductive. “If they talk about it in the news media it becomes a magnet for meshugenehs,” says Larry Hirsch, a “messianic Jew” from California. “The fact that some Americans were kicked out doesn’t bother me, but keep it low key.”

Hirsch — and veteran Christian tour guides — say the real threat to millennial tourism will be the fear that Israel will simply be too crowded. “People will be deterred from coming because there is no room at the inn,” Hirsch said.

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