The first time I ever got on a plane, I flew to Israel. On the verge of my senior year at Cheltenham High School, I was excited to spend the summer in the land I knew only through Hebrew school.
Over the next seven weeks, while touring with a contingent from the National Jewish Welfare Board, I got a full sense of the country. We combined work — in a refugee day camp outside Jerusalem and on a kibbutz near Be’er Sheba — with the things tourists do. It was a memorable trip — one where I figured it would be only a matter of time before I made it again. Funny how time works.
Fifty years later, on assignment to cover the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight bringing 233 new citizens to Israel, I returned. It was never the game plan to have a 50-year interval between visits. That’s just how life is.
Now, as then, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I knew the Israel of 1966 would be nothing like the 2016 version. Would I recognize anything or would it all come back to me?
It turned out to be somewhere in between.
There’s no denying Israel has become a modern, progressive country. I don’t remember any traffic jams. I don’t remember being overwhelmed by the size of the city and the swarms of people. And I certainly don’t remember that special feeling when I stood in front of the Kotel to marvel at the Western Wall and the history of our people.
Oh wait. I couldn’t have done that then, because the Kotel and the entire Old City of Jerusalem was part of Jordan.
That’s how long ago it had been. The Six-Day War, which enabled Israel to reclaim the Old City, the Golan Heights and other disputed territories over the ensuing 49 years, came a year later.
Going to the Wall had to be first on my agenda.
Accompanied by a fellow journalist, we set out from our hotel a few hours after landing at Ben Gurion Airport. Upon arriving at the Old City, we decided to take the longer route through the Jewish quarter rather than the Arab quarter, figuring it would be safer.
After 10-15 minutes we finally reached the area surrounding the kotel. While I went on she chose to stay behind in protest of what she perceives as condescending attitudes and policies of the Orthodox officials who control the area towards women. It didn’t take long to understand her feelings.
While men and boys are permitted full access to the holy area, encouraged to pray—even to wear tefillin—they’re given access than a much larger area of the Wall than the women. From what I’ve since learned there’s also an area further removed from the main section where men and women can pray together.
For me the personal experience being at the Wall after so many years was a bit humbling. I’m not quite sure what I expected. Even now I don’t know if it was more of fulfilling something on my “bucket list” than a true religious experience.
But I can say for sure I glad I did it.
Following a nice evening in Jerusalem, I returned to the Kotel the following day for the “tunnel tour.” The tour is a march through history — in this case actually a march down to where that history was made. Over the past 40-plus years there’s been tremendous excavation where the original Temples were destroyed and the original walls of Jerusalem were built.
In the process, they’ve uncovered large segments of that ancient city previously buried by debris. Should I ever make it back by then, undoubtedly they’ll have uncovered more.
Before leaving Jerusalem, I felt it necessary to visit Mount Herzl, the final resting spot not only for all the great Jewish leaders, but also for a young man I had only recently written about: Michael Levin, the Bucks County native who gave his life to the cause as an IDF paratrooper in 2006.
Onto Tel Aviv, where on the ride leaving Jerusalem the memories came flooding back. Gazing out the window at the spectacular hills and valleys, I was transported back in time.
No, there weren’t tanks lurking by the roadside as in 1966 when, of course, there weren’t four-lane highways. But the overall beauty of the landscape hadn’t changed. This was the Israel I remembered!
As for Tel Aviv, it’s like any big city. It’s bustling and everybody seems to be in a hurry, even though it was really hot. Since it was late afternoon when I arrived at my hotel by the beach, the first stop was obvious. The Mediterranean was spectacular, the water refreshing and nearly as warm as a Jacuzzi.
But then there was that inadvertent moment while searching for what they call the “WC” in many foreign countries that I stumbled into forbidden territory. Horrified looks were followed by a security detail quickly ushering me to the other side. “Girls beach,” I was told.
I spent my day in Tel Aviv doing whatever I could. A bus tour of Jaffa and the city was followed by a trip to the famed Carmel Market for shopping and general observation. The market is a combination Italian Market/Times Square on New Year’s Eve, with people squashed together, maneuvering the narrow streets and staying in the shade. Around them, merchants were selling everything imaginable, though, contrary to what I’d heard, no one was willing to do much bargaining.
Still, it was a fascinating experience.
From there it was on to Rabin Square, followed by a walk to the Dizengoff Center, a snazzy indoor mall. While there, I ventured to a familiar oasis: McDonald’s. A women helped me order, since the signs, unlike in most places throughout Israel, weren’t in English. She asked where I was from. When I told her, she immediately replied, “My husband used to live in Philadelphia.”
Over the ensuing half hour, I traded stories and related with someone who knew my neighborhood. There’s a certain comfort, yet irony to that. After that, it was time to head for home.
Spending three days in Israel after 50 years may not have seemed worth the effort, but I’m glad I went.
I was caught off guard by a few things: the way women are considered second-class citizens in some places, the fact that not nearly as many people spoke English as I expected and the need for an adapter to charge my phone or use my computer.
The main thing was I had made it back to Israel. As I wrote on the note I placed inside a crack in the Wall, “I’m glad I finally made it here, because I never knew I would.”
And I certainly have no idea if I’ll ever make it back.
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