This trip was hosted by Visit Israel and the Israeli Tourism Ministry. All opinions are my own.
“Don’t miss the point…” she said, stressing as she waved her hands, gold rings gliding through her kitchen in a home with rooms dating from times of the crusades, Ottoman rule, and as new as several hundred years old… “it’s not about the food or the hotel or the tourist sites, it is about the people.”
Our tour guide, Arieh - an Israeli Public Radio journalist and former war correspondent - is hunting for the story in the background, while we're browsing trinkets or taking photos, posting on Instagram. “I love that story, it was perfect. There was a beginning, a middle, and an end.” If you look closely, when we’re in presentations from the groups we’re meeting with, he’s scribbling notes for future interviews he’d like to do. I try to take notes about which interviews of his I want to track down.
I think about this a lot as we drive through the north of Israel towards Tel Aviv, out the windows of streets I want to walk down for no particular reason, trees and pebbles I find myself photographing because the light hit them just right. Most shots won’t ever progress past forgotten pixels on an archived memory card in a messy pile in a drawer in a desk I keep at my studio, but I see clearer through my camera. I don’t think I’m a story person. My friends always say I have great stories, but they often don’t have a point - a beginning, a middle, an end. They just exist. I like the middle part. I’m the person who will rewind a song 15 times in the middle just to hear a line I like over and over.
In my twenties and early thirties, travel was a prize - an exclusive trophy to earn, experiences and places slowly ticking off a list, for no reason other than to say I’d been there, or to try to make myself feel something. Approaching ancient places this way is chaotic and dizzying - there is simply no way I can see even a fraction of some mythical checklist everyone “has to do” when visiting Israel in a mere five days and have any kind of real or lasting connection with this magical land.
Things come and go. Castles rise, and turn to rubble. My feet swell and knees ache a bit as I take a small rest to write down some of my reflections on our tour, and my mind races thinking of all that I’m missing. The bars I didn’t go to last night and food I didn’t eat yet. All the people I’m not speaking with, that I won’t be able to speak with tomorrow. I can never see it all and remind myself it’s okay, and settle. While I am technically here for my job and yes, that means making sure I have tons of content, I don’t enjoy working for an empty photograph, videos directing people how to have an empty vacation, a tick on an imaginary list of things that are must-see because it’s where everyone goes - completely missing the beauty just out of frame.
I want to take a moment to remember the feeling of absolute peace and quiet - despite being in a packed room - as I knelt at the Stone of Unction next to Golgotha, my hands pressed against it as I prayed - or the sudden burst of intense sorrow that jolted me as I neatly tucked my wish into the Western Wall, next to rows of weeping women slowly rocking in prayer, of course. I want to also remember the feeling in our van drive towards Tel Aviv, heart sinking, realizing the trip was ending soon and knowing I’d be crying saying goodbye. Not to the places, the things - but to the stories. I was technically asked to Israel to write and photograph an experience centered on food, but just a few minutes outside Ben Gurion I knew there was so much more magic I wanted to explore.
In a world that more often feels empty and produced, Israel feels raw - real and electric. It’s not about coffee shops loaded with Instagram-worthy signs and staging - the best we visited were in an unassuming building in the Ella Valley that has a water system changing the way producers grow - or a tiny roaster in a bustling Jerusalem market, across from the shop where a woman purchased bottles she filled with letters and let adrift at sea later to be discovered in the Bahamas, a story Arieh produced years ago, and told us as we walked past the shop in the bustling Mahane Yehuda.
When people ask me about this trek through the Holy Land, I likely won’t prattle on about ancient relics and monuments. I want to talk about the goat farm in the north, tucked into the side of Mount Hillel, that makes some of the most amazing goat cheese I’ve ever tasted. They had us ride in the back of a truck to a hill that could have easily been mistaken for Sonoma County to eat cheeses wrapped in grape leaves or infused with laurel, because his sister loves laurel. How one their shepherds, Hillel, who showed us Maleficent the goat, and ate with us under a tree as we looked out at the mountain bearing his name, was in the finals of Masterchef Israel - a title he would go on to later win that week, though he would give us not even a hint of an indication to his fate as we sampled cheese. I’ll want to talk about the Moroccan meal we made, and the woman who bought her home because of the view from the roof, without fully knowing if her family had the money to pay for it - knowing it would come and making it happen, by selling her jams, books of poetry, and hosting dinners like ours - part of this rise towards slow tourism in Israel. Hosts across the country, many women, but also plenty of men, welcoming tourists and other Israelis into their homes, their gardens, their patios for a drink, a meal, some fresh baked bread, and lots of fellowship.
I want to remember the defense contractor and mechanical engineer who I expect to soon be winning a Nobel Peace Prize for solar paint - and her love of entrepreneurialism, which led her to open a small chocolate shop, or as she said - “the next great International brand the world hasn’t heard of yet.” The winery at a kibbutz for people with special needs, a system born from a socialist worldview - whose goal is to empower people to be able to participate in capitalism who couldn’t fully otherwise, giving a normal life that is truly productive, rich, and full (and whose wine was truly exceptional.) The gluten free bakery in Tarshiha run by the woman who moved back to Israel from suburban Philadelphia whose passion is contagious... or the bakery in the beautiful garden in the Ella Valley of a former soldier who trained for some time at Fort Bliss, before he then learned to bake German and Belgian breads. The Muslim Ice Cream shop owner, whose business partner is a Jew (a rarity for equal partners), who proudly boasts that when he sees Israeli soldiers, he sees his employees. We try to swallow our tears with heaping spoonfuls of strawberry and pistachio as his story unwinds, there is little use.
The food is delicious - this is Israel after all. You can find food from any nationality here as Jews the world over have returned and brought with them a wide variety of traditions and culinary trends - but the conversations over the meals are far more a highlight. You can eat a good meal anywhere.
There is one place I can chat with the grandson of Polish immigrants, Holocaust survivors, whose love for spices led them to open an Organic Spice Market. We walk through the market looking at the exotic colors and taking in the seductive aromas coming from his family’s spicy za’atar, or the baked potato mixture he named for his wife because it’s her favorite. We took a moment to bond over our love for the magic the Poles can create from merely a potato, while sampling pinches of salts and herbs and spices. He’s careful to point out the mustard I’m allergic to.
Arieh gave us a quote about how Israel’s lack of natural resources is made up for by the richness of its people. I didn’t write it down, but its a common sentiment - my cursory search returned thousands of similar quotes from notable Israelis. It might sound cliche, or overly schmaltzy - but it’s true. From the restaurant fashioned from an old British seaplane airport in Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee, where one of the managers, an Israeli-American who grew up in Philadelphia, greeted me with a hug, and left me with an even bigger hug (and a bit of a raging hangover) to the home of a Druze family in Mghar who invited us to roll grape leaves and cook a Druze meal in their home, where we chatted and laughed and sipped tea and Arabic coffee for hours - and left feeling like we were part of their family.
The marketing tagline for Israel is "Land of Creation" - which is is often interpreted as the esoteric creation of the Abrahamic religions - but it's also the land of innovation, creativity, art, and entrepreneurialism.
We had a pub crawl tour through Tel Aviv at the end of our trip, and I was struggling to find the emotional connection we found earlier in the quieter corners of Israel. Our nightlife tour guide, Dror, tells me I'm missing it, and points out the street Tel Aviv sprang up from. "This is where it all started. This street is where Tel Aviv began. You know, when my mother came to Israel, her parents murdered in the holocaust, the first thing she did was kiss the ground. Israel was the beginning. This is the beginning. Right here."
Want to experience Israel's slow tourism yourself? I will be covering SO much more from my trip, so please sign up for my e-mail list here, or be sure to keep checking back in the coming weeks. In the meantime, locations mentioned in this piece:
Recreate your own culinary journey, following my footsteps:
- Arieh O’Sullivan, tour guide
- Shoshana's Moroccan dinner, infused with cooking demonstrations and poetry at the Oldest House in Ein Karem
- Mahane Yehuda Market
- Ella Valley Winery
- Bready's Bakery
- Agro Cafe Coffee
- Srigim Brewery
- Beit Lechem Haglilit (The Spice Way) Herb and Spice Farm
- Druse culinary visit with Galileat (our tour guide Orrin, an Australian-Israeli, met us for this experience, he was fabulous and is licensed for other tours around Israel)
- Ein Kamonim Goat Farm
- Kishor Winery - on the Kishorit Kibbutz
- Malka Brewery
- Tupolo Gluten-Free Bakery and Cafe
- Buza Ice Cream
- Deks Restaurant, Tiberius
- Yemenite bread (Halul) Safed
- Asalalnor Bee keeping
- Odette Chocolate
- Dror's Tel Aviv Nighlife tours
For more from my trip, and recipes inspired by Israel, please check out the following: