By Judie Jacobson
I visited Israel for the first time in the summer of 1971.
Ben Gurion International Airport was called Lod. Its lone arrivals/departures building – one mammoth, slightly ramshackle warehouse, plopped down almost randomly at the edge of the airfield.
The plane landed, the passengers sang Hatikvah, the door opened, and one by one we stepped down a metal staircase. When finally we planted our feet onto the Land of Israel, several people knelt and kissed the ground.
I looked over to see a middle-aged man, with sun-dappled skin and sun-swept hair, a fat mustache and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, leaning nonchalantly against the building, scanning the crowd. Catching sight of me, he tossed down his cigarette, smiled broadly, and strode purposefully across the tarmac in my direction. When he was just a few feet away, Moshe Ben-Nachum – my father’s first cousin, a remnant of the Holocaust who arrived on the shores of Palestine with not much more than the barely glowing embers of his once fiery spirit, then joined in the 1948 fight for Israel’s independence – threw open his arms. “B’rucha Haba’ah la’aretz!” he shouted, welcoming me to “The Land” in Hebrew. Then he threw back his head, his arms still stretched wide as if to take in the world around him, and boomed triumphantly, “It’s beautiful, no?”
I looked past him. There wasn’t much to see in the distance except for a smattering of palm trees and the promise of something green. Then I looked back at the man my family called Ben-Nachum. Still smiling. Radiating pride and confidence, energy and vitality. Looking exuberant and audacious.
Looking like Israel.
Well then, yes, I thought, if you look at it that way, I guess it is beautiful.
Of course, that was then. In the decades since, it would be a monumental understatement to say that much has changed.
As for me, I’ve been back to Israel a dozen times – most recently in July, as a guest of El Al Airlines and the Israel Ministry of Tourism – spending a total of almost two years in the Jewish state.
Each time I visit I am invigorated by the discovery of another vibrant splash of color on the Israeli canvas. Another something bold and beautiful that I had not experienced before or something I am inspired by anew. Each time I find that – like Ben-Nachum, who survived the Holocaust to thrive in his new country – Israel, both the land and her people, have survived and thrived. Still smiling. Arms outstretched. Radiating pride and confidence and energy and vitality.
Whether you’ve been to Israel many times before or are planning your first visit, there’s always something more to see or something to see in a new light. Steering clear of the more obvious and popular sites, here are just a few sometimes overlooked attractions. Needless to say, there are many, many more.
For more information on most of these sites, visit www.goisrael.com.
IN THE NEGEV
“It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested.” – David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister.
Israel’s southern desert region – the Negev – covers almost 60 percent of Israel’s land area. It is a treasure trove of ancient historical sites, family-run farms, wineries, a leading university and even a seaside resort.
The Ramon Crater. Called “Makhtesh Ramon” in Hebrew, the Ramon Crater is not really a crater at all. “’Makhtesh’ doesn’t mean crater; it doesn’t mean canyon,” says Gilad, one of several guides who takes visitors on tours of the world’s largest “makhtesh” in his circa World War II jeep. Well then, what does it mean? “Makhtesh means makhtesh. It’s a geological phenomenon unlike any other. Is a ‘tsunami’ a tidal wave? No, it’s a ‘tsunami.’ There is no other way to describe it,” says Gilad.
Indeed, Makhtesh Ramon, located just north of the small town of Mitzpe Ramon, is a geological landform exclusive to the Negev that scientists believe was created through erosion. Twenty-five miles long and six miles wide at its widest point, and nearly 2,000 feet deep, it can take hours or even days to explore, and features hiking paths, sites of historical interest, red and yellow clay hills, dry river beds, black prismatic rocks and many other geological wonders. The makhtesh is also believed to be rich in minerals – including uranium – “the purest uranium ever found in nature,” says Gilad.
The makhtesh also offers excellent views of other sites – including Har Karkom, which some believe to be the biblical Mount Sinai. More commonly known to Israelis as “the unit mountain,” Har Karkom is the small mountain that members of Sayeret Matcal – the IDF’s elite special forces – trek 140 kilometers (approx. 87 miles) to get to (without benefit of map) after they complete basic training, inscribing their names at the top. Among those names: Yoni Netanyahu, who died during the Entebbe rescue mission, and his brother, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
And, oh yes, while you’re touring the makhtesh don’t be frightened by the sudden deafening ‘whoosh’ and ‘boom’ of fighter jets as they race by at two times the speed of sound, thereby breaking the sound barrier. They’re just practicing.
In fact, one of those young pilots was Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first and only astronaut, who was killed aboard the Columbia space shuttle in 2003. Born Ilan Wolfman, he was so taken with the makhtesh that he changed his name to Ramon. In 2013, a museum dedicated to his memory opened at the visitors’ center, which sits on the precipice of the makhtesh.
You can tour Makhtesh Ramon on your own, but a knowledgeable jeep tour guide – and is there any other kind of guide in Israel? – enhances the experience immeasurably. Just remember to fasten your seat belt. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
The Wineries. The ancient Nabataens planted vines and built wine presses in the Negev some 3, 500 years ago. Now, in recent years, vineyards have once again been established in the Negev, using innovative computerized watering methods for irrigation and often following the Nabataens’ ancient wine making techniques. Most of these wineries offer wine-tastings – or, you can take a full- or half-day wine tasting tour. NOTE: not all wineries are kosher or kosher supervised – though many still do grow their vineyards according to halachic guidelines.
One such family-owned winery is Carmey Avdat, Israel’s first solar-powered winery, located not far from Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev highlands. A boutique winery producing just about 6,000 bottles per year, you won’t find Carmey Avdat’s wines on the shelf of your local liquor store, or throughout Israel for that matter. But they are sold on the premises, in local restaurants, and online (they ship to the U.S.). Built on terraces that are part of a 1,500-year-old agricultural settlement, the winery utilizes an ancient irrigation system and harvest its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes by hand. Tastings are conducted amidst wine barrels, and their farm store offers a range of Negev products. They’ve even got several secluded guest cabins offering a panorama of the desert for those who want to stay.
For more info: www.carmeyavdat.com.
The Goat Cheese Farms. Today, there are many family-owned goat cheese farms in the Negev where, depending on the farm, you can purchase a variety of homemade cheeses, witness the animals being milked and fed, and bed down for a night (or more). Two visitor favorites: Kornmehl and Naot (the farm, not the shoe). Both are south of Beersheva and north of Sde Boker.
Owned by the Nachimov family, Naot Goat Cheese Farm is an active bed-and-breakfast farm with a herd of 150 goats. Along with its own cheeses and yogurts, it sells a number of other local Negev products, like olive oil, beer, wine, and honey. Tours are available; and the farm has four cabins with breathtaking views to accommodate couples and families. Kornmehl Farm & Restaurant is an organic cheese farm with an onsite eatery (but be sure to check for times.) Established by Anat and Daniel Kornmehl, the couple create cheeses that are interpretations of famous French varieties.
For more info: www.naotfarm.co.il; www.kornmehl.co.it.
IN THE GALILEE
The natural beauty of the mountainous Galilee region includes ranges of hills with high peaks, a river, many streams, dozens of brooks, evergreen forests, dense natural groves, valleys and lakes. A mecca for hikers, campers, beachgoers – and just plain old tourists.
The Sea of Galilee Boat. You don’t have to be Christian to be awed by the Sea of Galilee Boat – also known as “The Jesus Boat.” The short of it: In January 1986, two brothers who were local fishermen spied a mysterious object poking up out of the mud on the Sea of Galilee. Twelve days later, an ancient vessel that sank nearly 2,000 years ago was unearthed. While no one knows exactly who rode in the boat or what its purpose was, for Christians it serves as a reminder of the Gospel stories of Jesus and his disciples, many of whom were fishermen. But most fascinating is how the boat was salvaged and restored. Today, the boat sits on display at the Yigal Alon Center at Kibbutz Ginosar on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where visitors learn the history of the boat and the story behind its complex restoration.
The Crusader City of Akko. The Crusader city of Akko, situated in the north along the Mediterranean, is one of the few cities along the shores of the Mediterranean whose surrounding foritifed walls – walls that once successfully thwarted Napoleon – remain intact. Built in layers that have been almost perfectly preserved, the people of four religions have left their mark here: Jews, Muslims, Christians and Bahai. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Akko’s multitude of sites to see include remnants of the Hellenistic-Roman period, structures from the Crusader and Ottoman periods: the underground Crusader city, Khan al-Umdan, the Turkish Baths, the Bahai Temple, the Ramchal Synagogue, and more.
In the pre-1948 years of the British Mandate, the British government in Palestine attempted to extinguish the Jewish underground resistance movement by imprisoning hundreds of its members in the Citadel of Akko, the 12th-century Crusader fortress. The first and most famous of these prisoners was Zeev Jabotinsky, commander of the Jewish Defense of Jerusalem. Jabotinsky survived and became a famous writer and political activist. Several other prisoners were not so fortunate, and were hung on gallows that can still be seen today, as can the cells where the prisoners were held. The most famous story of the Akko Prison occurred on May 4, 1947 when members of Etzel broke into the prison and freed a total of 41 prisoners.
Note: When you’re ready to take a break from all that history, stop by Akko’s cacophony of colorful Oriental bazaars, the fishermen’s port, and the beaches.
The Grottoes of Rosh Hanikra. The grottoes of Rosh Hanikra, a town lying at the farthest northern reaches of Israel’s Mediterranean coastline in the Western Galilee, situated on Israel’s border with Lebanon, are cavernous caves formed over the course of thousands of years by the powerful rhythm of the sea as it pounds the jagged rocks. The myriad shades of the water and the dramatic play of light and shadow are nothing short of exhilarating. It’s no wonder that some refer to the grottoes as a love story between the sea and the mountain. A cable car ride down the 210-foot cliff face takes visitors to see the grottoes. Best time to visit: winter, when stormy weather lets you see for yourself the intensity of waves crashing explosively against the rock – while, within the grottoes, there is a delightful warmth. But don’t forget your rain boots!
So much to see. Here are a few stops that may not be as obvious.
The Bloomfield Garden. Lots of visitors to Jerusalem go to the Yemin Moshe neighborhood and admire the view from the windmill towards the Old City and Mt. Zion. Not many visitors, however, continue to walk down through to the Bloomfield Garden, which goes parallel to King David Street, and connects this spot with the German Colony. A lovely stroll on a stone path amidst trees, bushes and cacti, the garden incorporates the family tomb of King Herod and remains of an ancient aqueduct. The park features lawns, play areas, a fountain, benches, flower beds, and several works of art, including Four Cubes Cut in Identical Halves Which Make Eight Elements – a stone sculpture by the late Swiss painter and sculptor Max Bill that consists of eight geometric forms of precise proportions that are placed in relation to one another and visually can be stacked in pairs to form four identical cubes; and the Fountain of the Lions, a cast bronze water sculpture erected in 1989, that was donated by then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl to then-Mayor Teddy Kollek as a mark of the commitment of the Federal Republic of Germany to the City of Jerusalem.
Shrine of the Book & the Model of Second Temple-era Jerusalem. The model of ancient Jerusalem from the Second Temple period recently was moved from its previous home at Jerusalem’s Holyland Hotel to a spectacular new home next to the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum – itself recently refurbished. As a result, both sites have been enhanced greatly. Home of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered at Qumran, the Shrine of the Book is considered a landmark of 21st-century museum architecture. Thus, it seemed natural to reinstall the Second Temple model – depicting Jerusalem at the height of its architectural glory – next to the Shrine. A corridor links the two sites, emphasizing that together they have much to teach visitors about the period that witnessed both the building and destruction of the Second Temple. The 1:50 model’s new setting gives visitors excellent new perspectives that grant a true idea of the city’s ancient grandeur. Stop to watch the short film, screened in the new 80-seat Dorot Center auditorium.
Off The Wall Comedy Basement. Admittedly, this is not a tourist site – at least not in the strict and straight-laced sense of the word. Still, Jerusalem’s first and only comedy club is worthy of a spot on your itinerary. Launched in 2004 by American-born comedian David Kilimnick and Jeremy Man Saltan, the club is housed down a flight of stairs at 34 Ben Yehuda Street, at the corner of King George Street, in a space about the size of a midtown Manhattan pothole. Besides Kilimick himself, the club has a line up of English-speaking comedians who deliver family-friendly laughs on Sunday and Thursday nights (Wednesday shows are in Hebrew), and anyone is invited to take the stage on Tuesday’s open mic night. Of special hilarious note is the club’s women-only karaoke night, unleashed on Monday nights. Off the Wall is also available for private parties.
For more info: www.israelcomedy.com.
Two vibrant side-by-side gems, packed solid with with beautiful beaches, elegant restaurants and sidewalk cafes, fine museums, concert halls and theaters, chic boutiques, pulsating night life, a picturesque port and an open air market.
Abu Hassan in Jaffa. There is hummus…and then there is Abu Hassan – Hummus in a class all by itself. Opened by the family patriarch in 1966, the menu at this uber popular Jaffa eatery consists of four dishes: Hummus with/without fava beans, hummus with/without massabha, hummus with/without chick peas, or the “triplet” – a dish with all three. No baklava for dessert. No napkins (that’s right, no napkins). Just hummus, with pita bread, slices of onion and lemon juice. It takes seconds for the plate to hit the table and minutes till the meal is finished. The ambience is loud and friendly. But don’t dawdle, lest you get the evil eye – after all, there are almost always others waiting to take your seat. So finish up and go hit the Jaffa art galleries and/or flea market – a bargain hunter’s delight. TIP: Make sure you arrive for breakfast or an early lunch, because the place opens at 7:45 a.m., Monday through Friday, and closes around 2:45…or when the hummus runs out. There are three locations, all in Jaffa: 1 Dolphin St., 14 Shivtai Israel St., and 18 Shivtai Israel (which is open all day.) For information: (03) 682-0387, (03) 682-8355.
Neve Tzedek. Located in the southwestern corner of Tel Aviv, Neve Tzedek was the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of the port of Jaffa. At the beginning of the 20th century, Neve Tzedek was the home of many artists and writers including Nobel Prize-winning author S.A. Agnon. But then the area suffered from neglect, with its beautiful old houses and streets falling into disrepair. The neighborhood was ‘gentrified’ in the 1980s, and is today a stylish, upscale haven, replete with plenty of restaurants, galleries and designer shops – mostly located on Shabazi St., its main drag.
Of special note: The Suzzane Dellal Center – Tel Aviv’s official dance center and home of the famous Bat-Sheva dance troupe. Besides offering excellent dance and theatre performances, there is a beautiful piazza and small gardens around the building. The Center is located at 6 Yehieli St. For a schedule of performances: www.suzannedellal.org.il.
Sarona. Sarona has quickly gained a reputation as one of Tel Aviv’s hottest spots…and its star promises to keep on rising. Originally settled in the late 1800s as a German Templar colony, it was one of the earliest modern neighborhoods established in Palestine. Located in the heart of Tel Aviv’s central business district, the complex was recently renovated. Opened in 2014, it is today a beautifully landscaped open area, surrounded by offices and apartments. Thirty-three of the original Templar buildings, dating up to more than 140 years, have been painstakingly restored, and house boutique stores, artist galleries, cafes, and some of the city’s hottest restaurants and bars.
WHERE TO EAT IN ISRAEL
Israel is not just for falafel anymore. Today, the Jewish state is recognized around the world as an up-and-coming culinary destination, with eateries featuring diverse cuisines. In addition to Abu Hassan – possibly the best hummus in the world – which is listed among our sites to see, here are just a few dining recommendations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
41 King George St.,
Chakra is kind of like an A-list celebrity – a fan favorite, trying to maintain a modicum of anonymity by wearing oversized sunglasses and a big, floppy hat. Like that, the name of this eatery in the center of Jerusalem is nowhere in sight. Still the place is packed both inside and out with a lively crowd of hip Jerusalemites. If the weather is warm, you might want to take a seat on the lovely patio overlooking the park. Not certified kosher.
12 Shmuel HaNagid,
Sure, the food is good (with some dishes borderline to-die-for) – but the ambience is what puts Mona’s over the top. Nestled into a stonewalled garden that was, in bygone days, the headquarters of the renowned Bezalel Academy of Design, Mona’s warm, rustic feel comes from its beautiful working fireplace and the tree growing right up through the floor. But don’t let all that hominess fool you – the menu is diverse and decidedly modern. Not certified kosher.
31 Gazza St.; Rabbi Akiva St.; 48 Emek Refaim,
Japanese cuisine has made it to Israel’s capital city – and this is sushi (kosher sushi, no less) at its finest. This popular sushi restaurant has three Jerusalem locations, but we like the one on Emek Refaim St. best – just because it’s in the heart of the German Colony, a hip neighborhood that’s always good for a pre- or post-dinner stroll. And they deliver, too. Kosher.
12 Ibn Gabirol,
Ha’achim is Hebrew for “the brothers”– which, predictably, describes the relationship between the owners of this authentic Israeli restaurant. The ambience is laid back, upbeat and unpretentious. A local favorite, with good reason – it’s the kind of place you stumble upon once then keep on coming back. Order lots of little dishes to share, and maybe a couple of larger meals. All that and reasonable prices, too! Not certified kosher.
6 Koifman St, Tel Aviv
Reef 4, The Ritz – Carlton, Herzliya
Herbert Samuel is the signature restaurant of Israel’s top celebrity chef, Yonatan Roshfeld, with two locations: the original restaurant on the Tel Aviv promenade that is not kosher; and a second, newer restaurant located in the Ritz Carlton in Herzliya, that is kosher. Both dining rooms offer guests picturesque views of the Mediterranean. The cuisine is creative and contemporary.
3 Beit Eshel, Jaffa,
Israelis are practically weaned on shakshuka – a traditional Israeli dish of poached eggs and spicy tomato sauce with various Mediterranean vegetables mixed in that Israelis each for breakfast, lunch and dinner. So, if you’ve never given it a taste, you may not be allowed to board a plane home. Dr. Shakshuka is the perfect place to sample this delectable dish (and there’s a lot more on the menu). Patrons sit around long tables and eat their shakshuka straight out of the so-hot-it’s-hissing pan – with an assortment of salads, sauches and pita on the side.