Israel The Second Time Around


A return trip to Israel yields some timeless pleasures.

Standing on a rise deep inside the Ramon Crater, wind-whipped dust shading my shoes a light dun color, watching the sun plummet across the Negev as fast as the dropping temperature, I wish I could say that I was thinking something more profound than, “Oh wow — this is just amazing!”

But, as happened so often on a recent trip to Israel, I found myself reduced to a state of childlike wonder. Ironic, considering that this was the first time I had been back since a post-Bar Mitzvah trip in 1981.

It turned out that a three-plus decade gap was just what the Israel Ministry of Tourism was looking for when they invited me on a trip designed to reintroduce the country to people who hadn’t been there in 10 years or more.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have memories from my first trip: sweating up Masada; wishing my dad would buy me a Coca-Cola T-shirt with the Hebrew script; worrying about getting lost in the Old City. While this trip did include plenty of Israel’s greatest hits — including a much, much easier ride up the Masada funicular and a guided tour through the Old City, it was the places I discovered that I never would have found even as an adult first-timer — the kinds of experiences that, when incorporated into an itinerary alongside the de rigueur destinations — that made for a transcendent trip.

Enjoying Some Rocky Road

We reached the Ramon Crater after a day that included stops at Masada and Kaser El Yehud — the traditional fording point on the River Jordan where the Israelites crossed into Canaan. The crater — Mitzpe Ramon in Hebrew, so named by the Israelites for the Roman conquerors — feels like a slice of the Grand Canyon dropped into the Negev — an austere, silent riot of striation, crags, drops and formations. After millions of years’ worth of erosion, the crater is an almost-lunar landscape that takes on luminous shadings as the sun sets behind it. To stand here is to behold a whole new perspective on history in a country that is defined by its past.

One caveat: Getting to the best vantage points requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle — and an experienced driver. Even our guide for the trip, Adam Sela Tours, wound up getting a flat tire on the unforgiving terrain. Try to set aside time to take part in a tour of the night sky with Astronomy Israel — the lack of light pollution makes for some of the most impressive stargazing around.

Wine Through Time

With more than 200 wineries spread across the Galilee, Shomron, Samson, Judean Hills and the Negev, the industry has become an increasingly important part of Israel’s economy, with roughly 36 million bottles produced in 2014. But as a visit to Avdat National Park demonstrates, winemaking has been a crucial part of commerce here for millennia.

The park, incongruously located on the hilltop behind a rest stop, is a World Heritage Site that contains the remains of a Nabatean city that served, coincidentally, as a rest stop on the Incense Route that ran from Petra to Gaza and dates from the first century B.C.E. The Nabateans, who were of Arab origin, created a city that expanded under Roman and Byzantine rule, the results of which can still be seen today. A bathhouse, a Roman burial cave, Nabatean temples and an amazingly well-preserved wine press and storage system are some of the monuments to a lost civilization that we — as the only visitors to the site while we were there — were able to examine in detail and at leisure.

For a more modern take on oenology, take a short drive north to Sde Boker Kibbutz, best known as the longtime home of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. In addition to an endearing sculpture of Ben-Gurion practicing a headstand — he was a lifelong yoga devotee — as part of a museum devoted to the man, the kibbutz is home to an eponymous winery specializing in unfiltered, certified kosher wines. Sde Boker Winery, which began in 1995, now produces almost 3,000 cases a year of well-reviewed varietals. If you want to take a taste drive, samples are available in the winery’s retail store, located in a nook of the kibbutz’s old communal showers, where it shares space with a coffee kiosk and a boutique selling high-end Israeli cosmetics.

Getting to the Art of the Matter

The breadth and depth of Israeli museums can be so overwhelming that a kind of cultural triage may be necessary to ensure you don’t bite off more than you can see. Whatever you put on that list, be sure to include two Jerusalem institutions: The Museum on the Seam and the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art.

The Museum on the Seam derives its name from its location — right on the Green Line, Mea Shearim on one side, Palestinians on the other, hard beside the light rail line that has been attacked twice in the past six months. It’s no surprise then, that the museum — named one of the 29 leading art venues in the world by The New York Times — features politically charged artworks from around the world in its historic space, which once served as an Israel Defense Forces base.

The Museum for Islamic Art is a striking anomaly — an institution founded, supported and run by Jews, dedicated to the expressions of beauty produced over the centuries by a religion so often bent on producing the opposite of that beauty. In addition to showcasing Islamic art from all eras and cultures, including rare representations of animals and people, the museum has an absolutely staggering collection of timepieces. Collected by Sir David Salomons, the father of museum founder Vera Bryce Salomons, the collection runs from the 17th to the 20th centuries and includes an impossibly intricate, Rube Goldberg-like piece designed by Breguet for Marie Antoinette.

Nourished by the Classics

There are numerous examples of Israel’s world-class restaurants to indulge in — a memorable meal at Yonatan Roshfeld’s Herbert Samuel in Tel Aviv stands out for imbuing local bounty with an unforced élan that would be welcome anywhere in Philadelphia. But there are few things more satisfying than going to a central market like Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem. I would have been content to wander, eat and repeat among the dozens of vendors proffering everything from pickles to tahini to Georgian cheese bread until the market closed, but for those with other places to be and in need of guidance on where and what to eat, the market now offers the Machane Yehuda Bites Card. This is essentially a self-guided tour through the market with vouchers for tastes, nibbles and quaffs from 10 different market vendors.

For a meal that has only slightly fewer choices than the market, all enjoyed from your seat at the table, hie yourself to the Arab village of Abu-Ghosh, just outside Jerusalem, for a dinner at Naurah that can only be described as epic. Disregard the tour buses in the parking lot — unlike in the United States, their presence does not indicate a lowest-common-denominator meal. Instead, gird yourself for a dizzying array of salatim before being inundated with entrees, all served family-style, that includes the best lamb chops I have ever had. They were so good, in fact, that I had to ask about them. The restaurant’s owners raise the lamb themselves — bigger than anything you’ve been served in the United States, with just a hint of the gaminess so much more prevalent in the lamb neck braised with couscous.

There is plenty of hummus to be had in Israel, but there is, still, only one Abu Hassan. Located on a side street in Jaffa, this hummusiya — perhaps the most prolific purveyor of chickpeas in the world — serves a never-ending stream of pedestrians, cyclists, cab drivers — and tourists who continually badger their guide until he relents to a five-minute stop to pick up some just-mashed hummus and still-warm pita. Even though it was being consumed while being jounced around the back of a van, there could be only one response to having that first scoop hit my palate: “Oh wow — this is just amazing!”

Greg Salisbury is still cooking with spices from Machane Yehuda. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.


Avdat National Park (above) includes an elaborate wine press; a yoga-practicing David Ben-Gurion graces the grounds of Sde Boker kibbutz.

A guillotine sculpture stands watch on the roof of The Museum on the Seam; a press at Machane Yehuda turns sesame seeds into tahini to bring a smile to almost anyone’s face.



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