Thursday, December 31, 2009

12/30/2009 Jerusalem: See, you know how to TAKE the reservation

We started our last morning in Jerusalem by splitting into three groups: Israeli Museum folks (Olga, Phil, Karen, Mike), Yad Vashem person (me), and relaxers (Leonid, Maria, Konstantin). I have been on a genealogy kick lately, so I wanted primarily to look for any information about what happened to my mom's mom's mom's parents after the family left Hungary. Unfortunately their Hungary database had the same info that is available at the Holocaust museum we visited in Budapest earlier this year, so no news there -- but fortunately Yad Vashem's database is freely and completely available online at, so I'll be running more searches there when we get home. I had a few minutes to explore the exhibits and expansive grounds high on Mt. Hertzl.

Our main adventure of the day was completely unexpected, as all great adventures are.
JERRY: I don't understand, I made a reservation, do you have my reservation?
RENTAL CAR AGENT: Yes, we do, unfortunately we ran out of cars.
JERRY: But the reservation keeps the car here. That's why you have the reservation.
RENTAL CAR AGENT: I know why we have reservations.
JERRY: I don't think you do. If you did, I'd have a car. See, you know how to TAKE the reservation, you just don't know how to HOLD the reservation and that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.
With synchronized watches and triangulated maps, we converged on Sixt car rental to pick up our duly-confirmed reserved cars for our trip to Haifa, when we discovered that the couple in front of us in line got the last car. The couple behind us in line had made their reservation months prior and would need a car for several months -- they too were left in the lurch. Perhaps designed as a band-aid for this exact situation, there are 7 car rental agencies within a 2-block area of Melech David Street in Jerusalem. An agency called Smartcar had 1 sedan remaining (and no Smartcars). Avis and a local shop had nothing. Budget had cars they were holding for reserved customers (I think this is how it's supposed to be done?). Hertz was the only agency that could rent us the second car we needed to get to Haifa. After two hours of this, we headed back to the hotel to pick up the luggage.

About two hours into the drive (about 70% of the way to Haifa), we encountered a torrential downpour. Luckily some of us suddenly needed to use the restroom, otherwise we might have been washed off the road. The first exit we encountered was named Olga Interchange. Mike woke up just after we had exited the highway looking for a restroom, and seeing the weather he exclaimed "maybe we should get off the road?"

After a brief pit stop, the tropical storm subsided and we continued one more exit up the highway to ancient town of Caesaria. They had been almost impossible to find by GPS because they are spelled many ways, including but not limited to Caesaria, Qesaria, Caesarea, Cesaria, Qisarya. After an amazing dinner at the upscale Kosher Italian restaurant "Aresto", we explored the Roman
Empire ruins. They are surprisingly well-preserved for being directly on the Mediterranean Coast, with waves constantly crashing into them.

From there, we headed to Haifa, made a rough plan for the next day, and fell into a deep, deep sleep.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

12/29/2009: Meet me in the Garden of Gethsemane my dear

After our fourth abundant Israeli breakfast and what is now being referred to as "blogstorm", most of our group decided to visit the Mountain of Olives in East Jerusalem. Although we were in a hurry to avoid the coming rainstorm, we decided it was worth the time to try figuring out the Arab bus system on the east side. After some communication attempts and travel intuiting, we located the closest Arab bus station and were seated for our ride up the mountain. At the top, we found good-natured shopowners (Mike was teasing that I speak convoluted English with an accent when I'm traveling "This chocolate is good? What is price?" and the shopowner returned his jabs with a poignant blank stare) -- and fun friendly "souvenir" salesmen (when offering members of our group ancient coins, we offered to trade them 1:1 for modern American coins, out of which they seemed to get a good chuckle. Another time my mom replied to a roaming entrepreneur that she was waiting for my dad, but accidentally said she is waiting for her dad. The guy didn't let her hear that end of it, he was sure to tell my dad about the slip when he arrived.

In addition to its friendly salespeople, and being the most holy site for burial - this is the first place God is supposed to look for souls to save when the Messiah comes [again] - the views of Jerusalem are spectacular (see photo). We hiked down, through the area of the Garden of Gethsemane (where Jesus had his last supper), and on to the Wailing Wall for a second time so I could deposit Bubby's message. This time, the wall was not crowded at all; the traffic was so light that I was stopped by a kiosk of Chabad Rabbis coercing people into wearing Tefillin and saying a few prayers. It was an interesting experience, I definitely appreciated more my second visit to the wall this week. Not knowing I had been there earlier this week, the Chabad Rabbis welcomed me back to the wall, a nice gesture.

We headed on to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the items of Jesus' crucifixton were gathered during the Crusades 500 years ago. Not to oversimplify things, but for non Christians I will say that they have many treasures including Jesus' burial tomb, a chunk of cracked rock where Adam's skull was buried, and a basement quarry from the time of Emperor Constantin.

After some mild debate from hunger, we had lunch at a restaurant in the Christian quarter. We tried Israeli (Maccabee) and Palestinian (Taybeh) beer, and to paraphrase my brother Mike, we negotiated a peace process in our stomachs. The Palestinian beer beat the Maccabee beer hands down in aroma, taste, texture, and every other sense.

Although we wanted to visit numerous sites on our final night in Jerusalem, the lack of time and lack of consensus meant we'd be trinket shopping in the bazaars of Old Jerusalem. Noteworthy was the Dead Sea Mud Soap (oxymoron). If you don't have time to haggle, don't bother coming. But if you're not willing to accept their offer, don't start bargaining with them. Mike made some enemies and was even cursed by a Bedouin.

Back at the hotel, Mike checked his bank records to discover that he had accidentally bought 30 Peacoats from earlier in the day (the order process kept failing so he kept trying different combinations of his address, credit card number, different computers, internet connections/VPN, etc). I wonder what he'll do with an army of coats!

Leonid's cousins Steven and Galia took us to a fun dinner at Luigi's, a kosher dairy restaurant in town. Here we learned some interesting expressions. Apparently our hotel is in the "black part of town", referring to the Hassidim and their black hats/suits. Also we learned that many Jews consider it sacrilegious to celebrate the 12/31 - 1/1 New Year (called Silvester in Germany and Israel) -- and children born to North American ex-pats have the country of birth listed as "Jerusalem" in their passports as Jerusalem is not recognized as being part of Israel by Western Countries since the annexation of East Jerusalem. We had a lovely time getting to know them and their 3 cute Hebrish-speaking kids :)

Treat yourself to Olga's blog for more exciting adventures:

Monday, December 28, 2009

12/28/2009: Jerusalem day tripping

The morning started perfectly: woke early at 6:15, blogged quickly, and got ready for the day. The wake-up call came an hour later at 7:45, but no matter, we were up and running. I headed down to breakfast at 8:00, expecting to get chastised for setting a 7:45 breakfast meetup and being 15 mins late. I was shocked to see nobody there. Had I missed them already? Were they all running even later? The hotel restaurant host confirmed I was the first to arrive. How strange! So I picked us a nice large table in a quiet section and proceeded to mind my own business. After 5 mins, the host came over and asked when our party would be joining me because they need to close this section at 7:30. 7:30? 7:30!! Apparently the blogging was much faster than it felt, the wake-up call was on time, and I was at breakfast 45 mins early! I immediately ran back up to the room to stop Olga from coming down early, but she wasn't there. I brushed my teeth and finished getting ready, and when she didn't return in 5 mins, I headed down to breakfast. Please see Olga's blog for her hilarious take on having breakfast on our own:

One advantage of having breakfast early was the delicious chocolate and cinnamon kugel - it seemed to be gone at 7:45 when the rest of our party arrived. "Jewish" food and "Israeli" food have so little in common. Jewish food is Eastern European specialties such as chicken soup, stuffed cabbage, and rugulash. Israeli food is Middle Eastern and Mediterranean specialties such as hummus, falafel, shwarma, and lentils. It was a pure joy to have a tasty kugel.

To continue the theme of waiting around an hour, our tour bus arrived and left one hour later than promised. By 10am, we were off to see Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were located), Massada (mountain fortress commissioned by Roman King Herod and later the suicide pact site of Jewish rebel holdouts). For some reason, the tour company decided to drive right by Qumran and only making a passing reference to it (although it was listed in the tour brochure). But don't worry, they had to time spend a half hour at the Ahava dead sea cosmetics factory store moments later. At least the important things were attended to!

I was wondering why Qumran appeared to be on a mountainside town, and not in the Dead Sea itself. "Should they have been named Dead Sea Region Scrolls?" I wondered to myself. Apparently the Dead Sea has been losing 1 meter of depth every year, and that's why the location of their discovery is so high about the Dead Sea level. Sad story.

We hiked around Massada for an hour with an excellent guide. One highlight was the oldest active synagogue in the world (and probably the most majestic), where we witnessed a mountaintop Bar Mitzvah in progress (see photo). Our guide mentioned that the synagogue was shut down by the Romans in 67 AD. This is interesting as I believe this territory was re-acquired in 1967, making it a full 1900 years between Judean rule.

The highlight of the tour, by far, was the visit to a Dead Sea spa. We thoroughly enjoyed the ritual of the hot sulphur soak, mud pit bath dive, and Dead Sea wading. I almost got stuck in the mud pit, it's that deep and treacherous. More info on that in Olga's blog. The section of Dead Sea we were in is extremely shallow. We were floating, but in most parts we were only a few inches above the sea floor. There is an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian plan in the works to build a "Peace Tunnel" to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. We'll stay tuned for more on that!

For dinner, we decided to walk around the hotel area, with a map and pointers on where to eat. I'm not sure if we ever made it to the suggested area, but when after what felt like an hour of walking down the designated street, we found a questionable "Mister Toast" and an anonymous stand-up sub sandwich shop. Asking a local for advice, we were told to take taxicab out of this boring neighborhood immediately and head over to Sima. Two of our three cabs arrived, but the third - with Phil, Olga, and Mike in tow - arrived at a different location. Thanks to cell phones, we were able to retriangulate where we were and remedy the situation. The appetizer plates flowed, the dinner was delicious (most of us had Shish kabobs), and the local Golan Heights wine was outstanding. Other than a couple of taxicab scams (short changing, not running the meter, etc) we all made it back to the hotel in one piece.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

12/27/2009 East of Tel Aviv, West of Jerusalem

After our third Israeli breakfast - they seem to get better and better - and the rat race of checking everyone out of the hotel in Tel Aviv, we packed into the small car and continued our pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The highway passed along lots and lots of wooded areas - the region seems very fertile - I wonder if any of these forests are irrigated somehow?
We arrived in Jerusalem, but still had to drive around Jerusalem to find the hotel. We passed by our car rental company and had the sudden brainstorm of returning the car in order to not have to deal with it in the city. At the hotel, we were greeted by Leonid, Maria, and Kostya (two of whom were still awake from the previous day of travelling).

Olga, Kostya, and I returned the rental car at nearby dropoff. They have quite a system! We parked the car right in front of the office, and While we were in line to return the car for about 30 mins - we were standing just a meter in front of the car - a Jerusalem police officer walked over and I saw him eyeing the car I was trying to return.
Me: Shalom, is there a problem?
Him: No, but I'm giving you a parking ticket.
Me: Can I move the car? Is there anything I can do to avoid this ticket?
Him: You can do whatever you want, but you're getting the ticket no matter what.
...and so it went...

 We cabbed back to the hotel and were pleased to find the rest of our group had obtained a guide for a walking tour of old Jerusalem. The tour included such sites as the road Jesus walked with the crucafix (Via Dolorosa), the wailing wall and remains of the 2nd temple, the various quarters, and the best falafel in town, according to our tourguide. Spicy and yummy, for sho! The wailing wall was completely packed by Hassidics, which I assumed was completely typical. Our tour guide said there must be something special going on because it's never like that. They were packed in elbow-to-elbow and 8 people deep. They are continuously praying, mostly silently, and then someone will say something out loud and they will all chime in for a minute. It's interesting to see so many people praying the same prayer simultaneously. There's an inside section and an outside section of the wall. Inside, there's a distinct breeze, and we imagined it was coming from the continuously dovening Hassidim. One interesting note is that most excavations seemed to start in 1967, immediately following the war and annexation of territory. Israeli archaeologists don't waste any time!

In the seventh hour of our 4-hour tour, we were getting really drained - mentally, physically, emotionally - and started to rush our guide along. I was also afraid it was a scam - he would double the price because he doubled the timeframe. Thankfully, it was not a scam after all, just a very slow and long tour. All in all, it was good, but exhausting.

For more insight, please visit Olga's blog:

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tel Aviv 12/26/2009: in search of hummus!

Curious statue in front of a law office in Tel Aviv:

We had our first Israeli hotel breakfast: lots and lots of fresh veggies, yogurts, dips, tuna, cheeses, and super rich chocolate croissants. Walked around Tel Aviv during Shabbat, which is really the perfect time for people watching. I wasn't sure what to expect during the day of rest in The Holy Land. Friday night, people were sitting around the hotel lobby, drinking, eating cafe snacks, sharing stories, and generally having a good time. The sound of voices in the lobby was a loud roar - not what I imagined for this restful time. Kids were paying games, running like maniacs up and down the hotel staircases, crazy balls would bounce off the lobby walls/ceiling and whiz by the desk clerk. Saturday, we saw people walking, biking, sunbathing, playing beach sports, reading, hanging out at cafes. The locals love to promenade: strut their stuff down great walking paths through the city and along the coast. Many of the vendor stalls we passed through were closed (much to our delight).

Stopped by the famous Abu-Hassan Ali-Karavan hummus stand in old Yaffo for lunch at 12 noon, but apparently they had already run out of hummus. The conversation with a local went something like this:

Shalom. Where can I find Abu Assan?
Uhhh. what is it?
Ah - you must try Abu Hassan!
That's what I said :)
Yes but of course they are sold out already for the day
I guess the locals prefer their hummus for breakfast!

Picked up my parents and Mike at Tel Aviv airport and we proceeded to my cousin Ryan's house in Netanya. It's only 35 minutes away from our hotel, but we managed to do it in just over an hour and a half. I'm not sure exactly what happned - we followed the Google Maps directions to the letter, but none of the street names seemed to match the directions.

Had a wonderful time visiting Ryan, Rinat, and their two adorable little ones. They have a great sense of humor and we poked fun at everything from their crazy jumping dog to the "safe rooms" in each Israeli apartment (the concept of a column of apartment bunkers being the only thing standing after a nuclear attack - and no way to easily close the window during the blast or have a ladder to escape afterward - had me in stiches).They have a great sense of humor and we poked fun at everything from their crazy jumping dog to the "safe rooms" in each Israeli apartment (the concept of a column of apartment bunkers being the only thing standing after a nuclear attack - and no way to easily close the window during the blast or have a ladder to escape afterward - had me in stiches).

For Olga's take on the neighborhoods, sites, and smells:

Friday, December 25, 2009

Tel Aviv 12/25/2009

First look at Israel after a long flight over the Mediterranean...

...although not quite long enough as I was in the middle of (embarassingly) enjoying the movie Julie and Julia when we touched down.

We are spending a fair amount of time dealing with logistics of the trip. Two consecutive car rentals, several tour guides, 8 peoples' needs and desires, 11 hotel room bookings, meetings with 7 or so different family/friends groups. Everything constantly needs to be modified, negotiated, confirmed, reconfirmed. Haggling with a tour guide / driver to take our group around Israel did not go well (his price went UP about 20% until we gave up and parted ways). Maybe I should've used a travel agent this time.

I have recently become actively involved in genealogy, sparked by trips to the villages in Ukraine and Hungary where 3 of my great-grandparents were born, and exacerbated by how accessible information is through the computer -- and I DO spend an awful lot of time on the computer. I recently met online a man George who was born in the same village as my great-grandfather - and has the same last name as that great-grandfather's mother. We haven't been able to find a family connection, but we have become online penpals. Friday we had Shabbot dinner with George's sister and family, who live near Kiryat Malakhi, Israel. They live on a Pomegranate (they call it "grenade") farm about an hour south of Tel Aviv. Dinner was delicious - starting with a sweet potato soup and chicken noodle soup - and leading into several courses of chicken entrees. For dessert we had the last batch of pomegranites they had harvested in the fall - yum!!!

Olga's post about our first day in Israel: