Last time we were in Israel (about five years ago), we had a car and saw the country from top to bottom. This time, it’s all about family. This was pretty evident when my Mom and Gidon (her husband) drove 90 minutes to pick us up from the airport at 3:30 in the morning.
My mom lives in Zichron Ya’akov, which is in the Northern part of Israel, near Haifa, and smack in the middle of Israel’s wine country. If you’re a visiting tourist there isn’t a huge list of things to do in town, but that’s OK because, as I said, it’s all about family. No worries, we had lots of trip-planning to do.
First, we needed to procure a visa to visit India, which we ran out of time to do in the States. All we have to do is waltz into the embassy in Tel Aviv, pay a few shekels and get a stamp, right? Wrong! The Indian embassy in Israel has outsourced its visa services to a travel agency – the nearest of which was half an hour away in Haifa. Gidon offered not only to drive us to Haifa, but, since he grew up there, he threw a sightseeing tour into the bargain as well. This also gave my mom her Friday morning to get ready for dinner.
Shabbat comes every week in Judaism. This Shabbat, my mom had as guests the two of us as well as my Uncle Roger and Aunt Rose who were visiting from Toronto. It had been a very long time since I was with my mother on Shabbat, but it was nice to re-experience it all. Of course, the fact that she insisted on spoiling me with some of my favorite recipes of hers didn’t hurt either. After some more local sightseeing on Sunday we went to see a very entertaining production of Much Ado About Nothing. Not only was it in English, it was in slightly updated English so it was not impossible to follow. It was almost weird after being in Israel for five days to be surrounded by English speaking ex-pats.
On Monday, we headed into Jerusalem to see my sister and her family. My sister, Rochelle, upped her level of Judasim about 12 years ago. She now practices at a level way above what we grew up with, and a distant speck on the horizon compared with my current level of practice. Where she lives is like zooming in from one of those giant satellite photos of the earth… To zoom in on the most “Jewish” place on earth, one would probably start with Israel. Within Israel, the city of Jerusalem. Within Jerusalem, the Old City. This is the original, biblical city of Jerusalem which still has many buildings (and ruins) that were here thousands of years ago. The Old City is divided into four quarters – Armenian, Christian, Arab and Jewish. Where might we find Rochelle? To the Jewish Quarter we go! In the center of the Jewish Quarter – called the Rova Yehudi in Hebrew – there is a plaza where you can find the Hurva (Chorva) Synagogue, as well as a place that serves some of the best Shwarma around. (Shwarma is similar to a Greek Gyro. Meat is roasted on a vertical skewer for hours, and then shaved off and stuffed into a pita with humus and salad. Delicious!) Overlooking this plaza, next to the Chorva is Rochelle & family’s place. She is located in (as I call it) the nexus of all things Jewish. There is a link here to a photo of the Chorva, and that trellis next door to the right is actually Rochelle’s balcony.
But enough about where she lives. There was a more important reason for visiting. As I said, it’s all about family, and Rochelle and her husband, Danny, have five wonderful kids – one of whom I hadn’t even met yet, and another whom I saw when she was only three weeks old. So let me introduce Rochelle’s family:
Danny – My brother-in-law who will be a full-fledged rabbi in about two months.
Yisrael-David – 7 years old, smart as a whip, quiet, thoughtful. He asked several times if he could come with us when we “drive” back to America. VERDICT: Adorable
Elana – 6 years old, speaks quickly with a grown-up Israeli accent, eyes that make you do anything for her, full of emotion. VERDICT: Adorable
Aharon-Shaul (pronounced Sha-ool) – 4 years old, a bundle of mischievous energy and fun, generous when it comes to holding hands and giving out hugs. VERDICT: Adorable
Rivka-Shira – 3 years old, shy and sweet, unswayed by those around her, with my sister’s sense of drama. VERDICT: Adorable
Yaakov – almost 2, can tell you he loves you, likes to bonk his head into yours, and is not only the namesake but the uncanny image of my late father. VERDICT: Adorable
We had actually meant to do some sightseeing in the Old City, but we spent most of our three days there just playing with the kids, and having a ball. We did actually get out and about a little. We made it back to the Kotel (aka the Western Wall), and we wandered around the tiny alleyways of the city a bit. We also went on an excursion to Meah She’arim (where Stephanie had to wear a long skirt), which can be regarded as the most Orthodox neighborhood in the world.
On our last day, we split up for a bit, and while Rochelle and Stephanie walked the Northern ramparts of the Old City, I went with Danny to see where he spends his time all day. He studies at a yeshiva which is basically a school that focuses on the study of Torah. Now, I am hardly the most religious Jew in the world, and let’s just say that the ultra Othodox follow some observances that I don’t exactly relate to. I *did* want to see where Danny spends his time, so I figured I’d put in a 30-minute appearance and leave. I sat down with a very learned rabbi, and ended up spending over two and a half hours with him. I haven’t exactly changed my ways, but I do have to say that he really tried to address my questions rather than simply getting defensive. I found it to be a surprisingly enjoyable time, and I wouldn’t mind doing it again if I get the opportunity.
After soaking up as much Judaism (and shwarma) as we could, we hopped a bus back to Zichron Yaakov and my mom because, as I said, it’s all about family. We spent Shabbat #2 with Mom and Gidon, and it was a much more home-y affair this time being just the four of us. Although (as I may have mentioned), it’s all about family, I am starting to feel like we should maybe do more in Israel while we have the opportunity. Our time here is not over, so anything is possible. Stay tuned, dear reader…