Israel | Posted November 2004

The border town across from Taba, Egypt is Israel's southernmost point – the city of Eilat. It has a population of about 50,000, and is a popular destination for Israelis looking for a resort-like escape from Jerusalem & Tel Aviv. It also provides a stunning contrast to the chaos and grime of Egypt. Orderly traffic, clean public areas, sparkling-clean taxis less than 15 years old, calm and quiet streets … each one of us had some sort of comment on the stark difference between the countries.

We were settling into our guesthouse in Eilat and chatting with the hospitable owner about accommodation possibilities in Jerusalem when he asked, "You do know that Succot and the Festival of Tabernacles begins tomorrow at sundown, don't you? It's a high holiday for both Jews and Christians, so if you don't already have a room reserved, it will probably be impossible to find anything." And so began our inculcation into the Jewish holiday of Succot, and another change in our travel plans.

It’s virtually impossible to drown in the Dead Sea – the lowest place on earth and the saltiest sea anywhere.

Just a few feet away from the birthplace of Jesus is this little alcove where the son of man was laid in the manger.

"Succot is a Jewish festival that begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishri (approximately September and October). It lasts seven days. The festival is also called the Feast of Tabernacles. The ancient Hebrews celebrated Succot as a festival of thanksgiving and brought sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem. Jews still observe the holiday by making joyous parades in synagogues and carrying lulabs (palm branches), etrogs (citrons), and myrtle and willow branches. During Succot, traditional Jews live in a hut called a succah as a reminder of the temporary dwellings in which their ancestors lived during their wanderings in the wilderness in Biblical times. Following Succot is a supplementary two-day celebration called Shemini Atzeret, the second day of which is called Simhat Torah." (World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia)

Our original plans had been to base ourselves in Jerusalem for a week in Israel, day-tripping to other destinations in the country. After consulting the guidebook and maps, we decided to make our first stop Jaffa, just on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

So the next morning we rose, packed up and headed off to the bus station. Bram bought tickets on the first bus to Tel Aviv and told us to eat up our breakfast quickly, since it was leaving at 9:30 am, in 15 minutes. Ten minutes later, walking across the bus depot, Sharon noticed that the clock read 8:25. Puzzled, she asked Bram if the time had changed when we entered Israel. No, Bram replied, noting that we had stayed in the same time zone for Egypt, Jordan and Syria, all of which bordered Israel. At that point, we examined the bus tickets, only to realize that the time must have indeed changed, since the tickets showed the issuing time as 8:15, not 9:15! The time had changed at the border and we'd been in the country for a day before we realized it. Thus, an hour later we boarded the bus to Tel Aviv.

Our next hotel was the Old Jaffa Hostel, right in the midst of the 'old town.' Its location was great – within a few blocks' radius were wonderful bakeries, restaurants and the beach, as well as what must be one of the biggest flea markets in the world just outside our front door. Once settled for the night, we looked at our plans for the next week in Israel. One of the things that seemed a definite was to rent a car. Bus travel is expensive, and there were many places we wanted to see that weren't easily accessible by public transportation. And since Succat began the next evening at sundown, there wouldn't be a lot to do in either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, so we decided to head north and east to Lake Kinneret, otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee.

Elisha Roth with his sister Orli: Ben and Emma were so delighted to visit a family home with kids and toys they didn’t want to leave. The Roths kindly entertained us at their home in Jerusalem.

The next morning Bram headed off to the airport to pick up a car, the kids and Sharon packed up the clean laundry (there was actually a washing machine at the hotel, and lines to dry clothes … life is good in Jaffa!), and by noon we were driving off to Galilee. There was something delicious in heading off under our own power, at our own pace and in whatever direction we chose. Never did a little Hyundai (little definitely being the operative description) seem so good.

We arrived in Tiberias, the only town on the shore of Lake Kinneret, in the late afternoon. It almost had the aura of a ghost town, as most businesses were shut tight for the holiday that began in the next few hours. It was in Tiberias that we recognized that Israel was not going to be a budget destination. As we drove down to the waterfront, we passed by the youth hostel. It looked like a nice place – old stone building, just a short walk away from the lake, and certainly not overrun with travelers. "Yes, I have a very nice room that would work well for your family," said the genial young man at the reception. "It would be only 335 shekels for the night with your hostel membership discount." Sharon tried to keep her jaw from dropping as she confirmed the rate … which equals about $100 Cdn. The room was nice - for a hostel room – private space with air conditioning, toilet and shower, but it was a hostel, not even a budget hotel. We continued our quest, and found a budget hotel down the road for the same price, but breakfast included in the rate. We definitely weren't in the inexpensive corner of the Middle East anymore.

We spent the next day touring around the lake. Bram had been in Israel five years earlier, and he was our official tour guide as we visited many sites that he had seen on that earlier trip. Our first stop was at the Mount of the Beatitudes, the hill where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. It is a beautifully maintained site, with a gorgeous church. Sitting inside, we were joined by a tour group who began singing a capella hymns. As the music echoed round the sanctuary our hearts were lifted in gratitude, reflecting on the amazing experiences of the past months, which had at that point converged with the world in which Christ had walked, talked and preached. We continued on to other meaningful places: where Christ multiplied the loaves and fish; where he had found a few of his disciples; where he was baptized. Protestants often underestimate the power of the physical world. We don't fancy religious images, we're a bit leery of ritual and formality in our faith is something we try to chase away. But walking and sitting, pondering and experiencing the places where our faith was born is humbling. There is holy ground and there are reasons why people have gone on pilgrimages over the centuries.

The view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives is famous and full of history and current conflict.

After two nights in Tiberias we drove south, feeling the temperature rise with every kilometre we drove. Our destination was the Dead Sea – a 'must see' experience for every tourist to Israel. The Dead Sea is the saltiest body of water in the world, about nine times as salty as the ocean. Its shore is also the lowest dry place in the surface of the earth at 399 metres below sea level. At the resort area of Ein Gedi we found a public beach where we could see how buoyant the famous waters really were. The heat was scorching. Taking off our sandals at the water's edge, our feet were scalded by the sand. There was no real refreshment as we waded in, it was much more like a bathtub than a natural body of water. Feeling the sting of salt water on every nick and scrape on our bodies, we sat back and let the water do the work of keeping us afloat. It's an amazing experience to simply sit, moving no part of your body, and still have your head above water. And there is no question upon leaving the beach as to whether a shower is needed or not … you can feel the salt crystallize on your skin as you walk the few short metres to a shower of fresh water.

The blazing heat of the Dead Sea area made the 30-degree temperatures of Jaffa seem almost reasonable, and we headed back to the Old Jaffa Hostel that evening. It became our home base for the rest of our stay in Israel. Jerusalem was only a 40-minute drive away, making a visit there an easy day-trip. Israelis seemed to think us a little crazy, but by Canadian standards, everything in Israel is eminently accessible with a very short drive.

Our first trip into Jerusalem was on Sunday, and our first stop of the day was at St George's Cathedral, an Anglican church where we went to our first formal worship service of our trip. It was a wonderful experience, despite the fact that all save for two of the hymn tunes were unrecognizable. There was something quite magical about going to church in the city of Jerusalem.

Our laid-back hotel in Jaffa, Israel (centre of the photo) was located in the midst of a huge, daily flea market.

Over the next few days we visited places that are part of the fibre of people of the Christian faith. The Mount of Olives, across the valley from the old part of Jerusalem, has a famous view of the city. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is where it is reputed that Christ was crucified. The huge church is partially claimed by Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches and the decoration is ornate. We marched through the old city of Jerusalem and stopped at the western wall, a sight holy to Jews. We tried to visit the Dome of the Rock, an important mosque with a famous golden roof but we were not allowed onto the site. And we also went to Bethlehem. The town is owned by Palestinians and getting from Jerusalem to "David's City" meant crossing an impressive road block and skirting the controversial concrete wall being built to separate the Palestinians from the rest of Israel. For the kids this was all like a living Sunday School lesson. For Bram and Sharon it was an honour to see the birthplace of our faith and share the adventure as a family.

In the distance is the Sea of Galilee around which so much of Jesus’ earthly ministry took place. This shot is from the Church of the Beatitudes.

While in Jerusalem, we were fortunate enough to be able to meet one of Sharon's classmates in her ongoing masters studies. It's rather ironic that the only classmate she has met in person (all the courses have been online) is while overseas in the Middle East. Our evening at the home of David & Talya Roth ranks as one of the most pleasant evenings of our trip. Ben and Emma were thrilled to actually go into someone's house (and someone with kids and toys, to boot!), and Sharon and Bram enjoyed an evening of adult conversation and fellowship. We were honoured to eat in their Succah (outdoor house with a reed roof), and everyone appreciated a very North American meal of barbequed hamburgers and salad.

Our parting glance of Israel was through the lens of airport security at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. A 06:00 departure meant having to arrive at the airport at 03:00 to have enough time to be processed through security and airline check-in. Never again will we complain about North American check-in procedures! And the adventure continues … a whole new chapter in Greece.