Monday, January 14, 2008

My Israel

On his trip to Israel last week, President Bush made the obligatory stop at Yad Vashem, the country's memorial to victims of the Holocaust. His visit reminded me of two things.

The first was something I heard from my tour guide during my first trip to Israel, in 1995. At the time, an official from some country, I've forgotten which one, had balked at visiting Yad Vashem, and it caused an uproar. Our guide told my tour group, "Why should we force anyone to see our tears?"

The second is something I read years ago in New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's excellent book on the Middle East, From Beirut to Jerusalem. Friedman was lamenting that while all foreign dignitaries visit Yad Vashem, no one visits Degania, Israel's first kibbutz.

I realize that no one forced President Bush to go to Yad Vashem. I'm glad he went. I've been there twice, so I know it's a very moving experience. It's a vital reminder of the need to confront evil and bigotry everywhere, and of the need for a strong and secure Jewish state.

Standing on the grounds of Yad Vashem, you get a commanding view of Jerusalem. I remember looking down at the city and thinking about what Israel has accomplished. In spite of war and terrorism, it remains a vibrant, thriving, modern country. At times it's noisy, quarrelsome and far from perfect, but it's a democracy. It's the Israel I wish more Americans could see. For a great collection of blog postings about everyday life in Israel, check out Israelity.

These are some of my favorite places to see and things to do:

In Jerusalem, I like to stroll through Machane Yehuda, a bustling open-air marketplace, where you can rub shoulders with people of all backgrounds and get all kinds of food, the Ben Yehuda Street midrechov, the city's downtown pedestrian mall, with its mix of ethnic restaurants, outdoor cafes and American fast-food chains, and the maze-like streets of the Old City. While both Machane Yehuda and the midrechov have been the site of terrorist attacks, they are living proof of the resiliency of Israeli life.

In Tel Aviv, where I lived for a year, I liked walking on the Tayelet, a promenade along the Mediterranean, Dizengoff Street, the main shopping area, trendy Sheinkin Street, sometimes referred to as the city's Greenwich Village, and HaYarkon Park, the city's answer to Central Park. My first evening in Israel, our tour group ate at a seafood restaurant overlooking the port of Jaffa, and from that vantage point, Israel seemed like the most beautiful, peaceful place on earth. Plus, you get a breathtaking view of the Tel Aviv skyline, pictured above.

There is much, much more that I could mention.

I loved visiting the national park at Ein Gedi, near the Dead Sea, and climbing up to the waterfall at Nahal David. According to Jewish tradition, it's the place where David hid from the wrath of King Saul. In northern Israel, I've walked through Safed, a center for the study of Jewish mysticism that's also become an artists colony.

I've been as far north as Kibbutz Hanita, near the border with Lebanon, and as far south as Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, named for a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and which was the scene of bitter fighting during the 1948 War of Independence. I've stood on the Golan Heights and dipped my toes in the Red Sea during a visit to Eilat, on Israel's southernmost tip.

I admit that my list isn't what comes to mind when you think of visiting Israel - it's a little low on religion. I've been to all the Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Via Dolorosa. I've taken an evening cruise on the Sea of Galilee, known in Hebrew as Lake Kinneret.

But for me, the truly spiritual experiences were the everyday ones: shopping, sitting in restaurants, visiting museums, celebrating holidays, walking everywhere, going to work, studying Hebrew at an ulpan with students from all over the world. It was getting to know a country that had been born in the wake of unspeakable evil and against all odds, had flourished.

To me, there are at least three Israels - the Holy Land of Christian pilgrims; Eretz Yisrael, the biblical Land of Israel of religious Jews; and Medinat Yisrael, the modern, secular State of Israel in which most Israelis live. My Israel may not be everyone's, but it's mine.

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