During Israel’s actions in Gaza in 2014, Israeli photographer Udi Goren felt frustrated by Israel and Gaza going into another round of violence and how it seemed public opinion was encouraging it, rather than denouncing it.
And when Goren feels frustrated, he travels.
“As a traveler, my first instinct is to pack my bag and go,” he said. “This time, I did the opposite. I decided that instead of packing a bag and leaving, I packed a bag and stayed.”
Specifically, he set off on the Israel National Trail with a friend. Together, over the course of two-and-a-half months, they traveled along the 683-mile path from the Dan Kibbutz near the Lebanese border to Eilat on the Red Sea. They passed through forests, sea and desert, along with cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and other small towns. Along the way, Goren took thousands of photos of the various places and people he saw.
The A Walk of the Land exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art at Congregation Rodeph Shalom displays 29 of these photos. The exhibit will run through mid-April.
Janeane Sloane, chair of the museum, said Goren reached out to her about hosting the exhibit, and she was drawn to the story behind the photos. She said the exhibit was particularly timely as it relates to the country’s 70th birthday.
“He felt as though there was a lot more to his homeland than what was being portrayed in the news, and we certainly were empathetic to that viewpoint,” Sloane said. “He wanted to show, not only is there a diversity of populations culturally and religiously, but geographically. We were all drawn to that, that this needed to be expressed. People needed to see Israel, not as this country that was constantly at war, but as a country that really embraced many different cultures, religions [and] ethnicities in a wide array of conditions.”
She said the diversity of Israel’s landscapes, revealed in the photos, has left an impression on those who’ve viewed it, even unintentionally. For example, the woman who framed the photos — a Catholic nun — was struck by the images. She showed them to other customers and ended up coming to the exhibit opening.
“I’ve been to Israel. I went to Jerusalem, to Tel Aviv. We even went up to Haifa, to different locations in the north on the northern border with Lebanon,” Sloane said. “We saw many of the common tourist sites, but I had never seen these rich, magnificent valleys, the mountains, the deserts. It was all new. It was something I had never seen, and I was captivated. The photographs are just saturated with color and beauty and tranquility.”
Despite his familiarity with Israel, Goren was surprised by the diversity of landscapes he encountered.
In a way, the diversity of the landscapes is symbolic of the ethnic and cultural diversity of Israel’s people, Sloane said.
“If you only read about them in the papers, then you read about the huge gap between the secular and the Orthodox, or the huge divide between Israeli Arabs and Jewish Israelis,” Goren said. “When you meet them, the experience is completely different.”
Meeting people from a variety of different backgrounds was one of the most memorable aspects of his experience on the Israel National Trail. He met religious and secular Jews, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, Arab Israelis, Druze and bedouins.
“We found hospitality within all these people,” he said. “It didn’t matter who they were; they wanted to help, wanted to give us a place to sleep. We had bedouins pull over their pickup trucks. … We had settlers make sure we had a place to sleep and food to eat.”
He selected the photos for A Walk of the Land to show a scope of Israel’s diversity along the trail. He chose them around a few themes, such as locations, people and times of day.
Though the exhibit contains only a handful of Goren’s original 12,000 photos, he has published a book of 200 of these photos called A Photographic Journey on the Israel Trail.
The book, Goren said, is only available in Hebrew, although it will soon be translated to English.
He has spent the past three years since he took the photos on the trail, traveling and speaking about his journey, and encouraging others to explore Israel for themselves.
“Everyone knows Jerusalem and Tel Aviv,” Goren said. “Everyone knows Haifa. Everyone knows there is a desert — they think about Masada or the Dead Sea. The Israeli desert is amazing. It has landscapes people don’t even imagine. … People have this notion of Israel as the Holy Land. But Israel has a ton to offer in terms of traveling and different landscapes.”