Jewish National Fund - We Only Have ONE ISRAEL

Israel Is Life

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What I did feel in Israel was so completely healthy and neurosis free. I felt so normal and never once experienced any anxiety. I could have been in New York or Boston. I felt at home. If it weren't for the epic journey, I would go every day.

Israel is about relentless pursuit of normality. I felt perfectly safe the whole time, from the moment the plane took off until the moment I arrived safely home. At night, while in Jerusalem, I went shopping on Ben Yehuda Street with two or three experienced Israeli travelers from my tour group. For the next few months, they're having a street fair. This is not a New York style ode to capitalistic schlock - this was homage to the dynamism of an old English market fair. One's soul is elevated when watching three men manipulate a giant 30' Elvis marionette and gyrate it with their sticks, one of which goes squarely up its tuchis. There was enormous energy and vitality present all over, from the wares to the fares served in the open air bars. Later, some of us went to Fink's, a hole in the wall along Ha'histadruth which seats about 10 people. My week was definitely made as when I saw the bartender about to change the music CD, I coquettishly suggested he let me be in charge of the music. The bartender, a hottie named Guy, not only let me be in charge of the musical selections, but invited me behind the bar and I did. In New York, bartenders regard this space as one most sacred and profane, where the laity are not welcomed, let alone invited. Once I was in charge, Gershwin ruled the airwaves.

During my time in Jerusalem, the Israeli museum hosted the International Book Fair, with the presence of no less a luminary than the just published Harry Potter book. The museum grounds also presented magnificent sculpture gardens, alive with children crawling and climbing on the art. Inside were exhibits ranging from prehistoric hunting of elephants to Weegee, who literally never stiffed a photo-op, and never missed the photo-op of a stiff. I got to see so many photographs of corpses, some enhanced with red nail polish to delineate the bloody parts.

Being on tour and being cooped on the bus guarantees you lose track of the time did this happen in Haifa or Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Where were we Wednesday? Israel is such a beautiful country, all over. The wadis, the terraces, the landscapes, the olive trees, the frangipani, the bougainvillea, the olive, palm, jacaranda, and cypress trees.

In Tel Aviv, at night we walked along the promenade, which was crowded with young people, people having a glass of wine at the sidebars, people hanging out, people buying from street vendors. We went to Mike's Place, the bar where a terrorist attempted to explode a bomb several months ago. Mike's Place could have been any bar in Greenwich Village, from the casual way it was set up, the casual menu, the casual people and waitrons dressed in jeans and belly baring shirts. I don't know if the place is back to it's pre-bombing heights, but it was crowded. And if it doesn't attract the crowds it once was want, it's not for lack of our trying. They had an open mike the night we were there and as Glenn Rubel, a member of our tour plays guitar, he was all agog to go in and try his hand. He borrowed a guitar from a regular and played some Dylan and a few other folk/rock selections from the 1960's. He actually is quite good and enjoyed a nice reception from the crowd. He came to Israel a mere civilian tourist and left as an international music sensation.

Just as in New York, Israeli restaurants serve large portions of food. Maganda, a Yemenite restaurant in Tel Aviv, never stopped the food - appetizers non-stop until the meal, which was a whole grilled trout (delicious). El Gaucho, in Jerusalem was similar for Argentinean food. Going for home hospitality on Friday was a relief - at last, human portions. And a chance to talk with Israelis, whom, however upper middle class they may be, at least didn't have a preplanned, powerpoint message to deliver. Our hosts, Zvika Amital and his wife, Janet, talked candidly of what's going on. Both their sons are out of the army (I believe special forces) and can't find work, aside from waitering. Janet talked of the breakdown of the national health system - she sprained her ankle and had to pay a co-pay of 78 shekels for the diagnosis, 8O some shekels for the x-ray, and then 138 shekels for the special air bandage.

Speaking of the relentless pursuit of normality, everywhere you go in Israel, you see new construction and renovation. From Jerusalem to Jericho, everything is being built highways, toll road, separation fence, and planned communities. Everywhere, you see derricks, construction rigs, and scaffolding. They joke that the national bird of Israel is the crane. Outside Jerusalem is a beautiful planned community called Shoham. Not just houses and apartments, but schools, stores, cafes, cultural centers, gyms, etc. At Shoham, the major problem with Palestinians is car theft (they steal the cars, go to chop shops, and within 2 hours, sell the parts) . In Tel Aviv, they're taking a distressed commercial area and renovating it to attract yuppies. And yuppies find Tel Aviv attractive, due to the trains and buses and ease of getting about and are moving in - in Israel, it really is true, that if you build it they will come.

Two of the three hotels we stayed in were peerless. The Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem offered hospitality to the hilt. They offered the biggest pool, the hottest male pool attendants, the most modern fitness center, and, big fluffy terry robes in the rooms. The Dan Panorama in Haifa needs refurbishing and renovation. The carpeting was stained and old. The toilet was the noisiest. They gave the least goodies in the room. Their health club was old and unaesthetic, located in an out of-the way place in the basement, staffed with arrogant instructors and throbbing with loud, American techno music and hot Israeli bodies. I started fantasizing about having my navel pierced as well, and set with a glittering stone, like all the female hotties there, who rolled down their exercise clothes to expose their pelvi. Their pool was only open to 5:00pm, compared with the Inbal's 9:30pm. But, the Dan had the most cable stations. The Tel Aviv Canton was fantastic with its terraces overlooking the promenade and its rooftop pool, but they didn't offer VHI. ended up humming to myself the night we stayed there. And if Israeli's want more American tourists, they could make the process more user friendly - on the way back, I was with the Rubels and they found our being together somewhat suspicious - so they detained us for about 20 minutes, checking our passports, asking how do we know each other, why did we come to Israel, where did we go. Overall, Ben Gurion airport was comparable to Kennedy. The lines going back to New York were quite un-navigable and right and left, people were cutting lines, running over one's feet with their huge suitcases and blind desire to board.

Overall, I had a great time in Israel. I want to go again and soon. And I can personally testify to travel being a somewhat transformative experience. I may never be a Haifa hottie, but I can have a jewel in my navel. And if you come to my health club, I'll be happy to roll down the waistband of my leggings to show you mine.

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