Perhaps some of you noticed that I’ve been MIA the past couple of weeks. No, I didn’t go into a sugar-induced food coma from all the ice cream I was churning out. Nor did I spontaneously apparate to France sans computer (although in my heart of hearts, I wish I could jump in a chimney and re-appear in Orléans, Harry-Potter style).
Instead, I boarded a double-decker El Al plane and traveled to Israel. I was lucky enough to get on a Birthright trip, available to Jewish young adults between the ages of 18-26. Because the trip is free (you only pay for one meal a day, plus souvenirs), it’s extremely hard to get on, and you have to go through a lengthy application process. I was already wait-listed once, and so I was ecstatic when I learned that I was accepted for a summer trip.
Admittedly, I was a little nervous to travel so far on my own. Sure, there were forty other people in my group, but the the “Real World” premise ran through my head as I met up with everyone at the airport…Forty strangers, picked to live together and travel throughout Israel, have their lives (thankfully not) taped. Luckily, I immediately bonded with people in my group, and beyond the fact that we were all Jewish, we also shared common interests. I had an entire conversation about Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream at the baggage claim in Tel Aviv.
But back to Israel. We landed in Tel Aviv at 3 A.M., and were on the coach bus by 6 A.M. I have to preface the rest of this post by saying that unfortunately, my camera broke after Day 3 of the trip. I think it had to do with extreme heat, as I left it on the bus during a two-hour rafting trip down the Jordan River. I was disappointed, but I still managed to get good pictures from the beginning of my trip.
Our first stop was a beach by the Mediterranean Sea with ancient Roman ruins. I’m still not exactly sure what those stone and wood structures are near the waterfront, but I’m guessing that they serve the same purpose as a beach umbrella…
Next, we travelled to the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa. The Baha’i Faith emphasizes the spiritual unity of humankind, and the gardens seemed to reflect this commitment to peace and tranquility. I have never seen gardens sculpted into a cliff, and I was impressed by how symmetrical and well-tended these gardens were.
Later that afternoon, we traveled to a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, footsteps away from Lebanon. A kibbutz is essentially a group of Israeli citizens who live together in a small, close-knit community. For more history or information on kibbutzes in Israel, click here. Our kibbutz had a swimming pool, dining hall, and basketball court, and for the four days we stayed there, it felt a little like being at sleep-away camp. Except no sleep-away camp I’ve ever been to has these views:
One of the first days of the trip we went on a hike through the Golan Heights. We were supposed to go through a mostly dry path in the mountains, but because there was a heat advisory we ended up hiking through streams.
Also on one of the first days of the trip, we visited the Syrian Bunkers, where the Syrians attacked Israelis in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War. The views were amazing, and it was interesting to note the peacefulness of our surroundings, contrasted with the region’s history of war. Looking out at the farmland and mountains, it was difficult to picture the land as a backdrop for conflict.
I wish I had my camera for the entirety of the trip, because I ate so many delicious things…But unfortunately, one of the only pictures I have of food is of the falafel I tried in a mall in northern Israel (named “the best in town”…although I’m not sure what town we were in).
For the record, it was delicious…The fried chickpea balls were crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside, and the pita was stuffed with red cabbage, hummus, tahini, and “salad” (a mixture of fresh tomatoes and shredded lettuce). I probably averaged around one “pita falafel” a day, and especially enjoyed the one I ate at the famous Levy Brothers Falafel in Jerusalem.
Unsurprisingly, I also ate alot of hummus. Before the trip, I heard that Israelis ate hummus for breakfast. But I didn’t realize that they also serve it with almost every meal. The plate of hummus I ordered for lunch came with marinated chickpeas in the middle, and was served with a side plate of vegetables…Including half an onion, beets, mysterious peppers that I tried (and followed up with a generous helping of water), and spicy olives.
One of my best food finds (no picture yet, but perhaps one forthcoming) was the chocolate rugelach I tried in Jerusalem. Rugelach are shaped like croissants, and are essentially rolled pastries made with cream and cheese. Traditionally, they’re stuffed with raisins and spices, but you can fill them with anything you want. Our tour guide told us that the chocolate rugelach at Marzipan Bakery in Jerusalem would change our lives. After one bite, I knew he wasn’t joking. But you have to try them fresh out of the oven for the full experience. They were warm, gooey, chocolately, and rich…The first one seemed to melt in my mouth. I needed to follow it up quickly with a second, just to remind myself that I had, in fact, eaten one.
If I had to pick a “best moment” from my trip, it would probably be the night my group went on a hike through the desert. My tour guide spread us out, so each member of our group was sitting a few yards away from one another. We were all completely silent throughout this whole process, and after we were all placed, we looked up at the stars. Slowly, I could see more and more stars. I saw the Milky Way for the first time in my life, and I also saw three shooting stars…something I’d only read about, and never thought I’d actually see. The whole experience was as emotional as it was spiritual, and for the few minutes that we were all silent, looking up at the sky, I felt completely at peace.
I enjoyed my time in Israel, and like any journey, it was somewhat hard to return home afterward. I tried new foods, hiked up mountains, explored ancient cities, and gained a new appreciation for a country I had only dreamed about. I couldn’t have asked for a better trip, and I’m sure I’ll be sharing more stories with you (food-related or not) in the future.