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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Top 5 non-touristy things to do with your mother in Israel

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My mother left last week after a too-short 2-week visit before which she insisted that all she really wanted to do was “take the grandchildren to school.”  Fair enough.  It can’t have been easy coming back to Israel after the vacation of a lifetime she spent here with my father 9 years ago.  Basically, she didn’t want to do anything touristy… so we didn’t.

Instead, here are five of the activities I enjoyed most during her visit:

1. Haifa – why not?

I think this was the first full day my mother was here, and it was basically a “Why not?” inspiration.

My mother had spent about a week in Haifa on her trip with my father, so she was already familiar with the city, unlike 95% of tourists, and actually liked it… unlike me.  Okay, yes, I technically live in Haifa, but I’m kind of ambivalent about the city.  But we were sitting home one morning, it was a sunny day, and the shuk is literally one bus ride away.

So there was practically nothing to lose.

Oh, the other reason was that I’m crocheting a blanket and I needed a ball of yarn to match one I already had because otherwise I would have run out mid-project.  And there’s a yarn store I go to quite close to the shuk. So off we went, hopping on the bus and paying our 10 shekels or so for the pleasure.

The yarn store was actually a minor hit – nothing like the fancy stuff my mother buys, but it was mundanely familiar and she bought a little stitch-counter accessory for another 10 shekels.  Down the street was a store selling socks that actually go over the knee, which I desperately needed, and we each picked up a couple of pairs. 

(Though I confused my mother by asking the shop lady for “tights,” and she said they didn’t have “tights,” and my mother kept insisting they had tights right over there, until eventually I had to explain that “tights” in Hebrew isn’t the same as tights in English.  In Hebrew, it means leggings or bicycle shorts, depending on the length.)

While downtown, I also introduced her to Cofix and the pleasure of 5-shekel coffee, which we took with us to the shuk. 

And the shuk, as it turned out, was more charming than I’d remembered. 

I hadn’t been in over a year because I avoided it during shemittah – most of the vendors are Arab and I wasn’t sure about the produce there.  Also, all the citrus stuff was in season and every single vendor was offering samples.  I think my mother managed to eat the equivalent of about 5 oranges, just from samples.  I bought some small stuff, including local garlic, because more and more stores are just carrying the stuff in nets that comes from China, for no good reason that I can tell.

The best part was that with a short walk out of the shuk, we were back on the same bus, headed home, and inside of 25 minutes, we were here lounging on the sofa.

Or, perhaps the best part for you reading this, is that there are NO pictures.  I brought my phone, but it remained a phone for the entire time.  In Haifa, I guess, I’m not really a tourist at all.

2. Get your mother lost in Akko

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This one was another “why not?”

Definitely not for everybody, but it’s super-close to here, so I figured it would be nice for a sunny-day wander through the Old City.  Unlike Jerusalem’s Old City, it’s easy to get to and on a weekday morning, there was plenty of parking (don’t try that on Shabbat, as I understand that Israelis from all over the country travel up there for hummus and more). 

She’d already been to Akko on a women’s mission twelve years ago or so, so it was pretty familiar and we didn’t feel a need to do the crusader tunnels or any of the touristy bits you pay extra for. 

We wandered through the shuk, letting Google get us a little bit lost (okay, I was in charge of the GPS, so maybe she didn’t realize we were getting lost – but I did warn her going in that I always get lost in the shuk!). 

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Walked past a billion places to buy a hookah (in Hebrew, and maybe Arabic?, nargila), but oddly, she didn’t buy one.  In the end, I bought some ground coffee and we found a place selling fresh sugar-cane juice that I figured couldn’t be trayfe because it was made on a dedicated machine.  The guy selling it insisted the sugar cane was grown here in Israel, which I’d never heard of. 

Once we finally found the car, we made our way to Alto Dairy, a goat-dairy restaurant on a kibbutz just outside of Akko, where we had a lovely lunch in their “visitors’ centre” (really just a little restaurant), and then made it home by 2:30 pm.

3. Day in the Golan

As it turned out, neither of us had ever been to the Golan.  And my attitude towards Israel is basically, “Use it or lose it.”  That is, we need to get out and see and experience all the incredible places this land has to offer, because if we don’t – lots of other people would be happy to take it away from us.

I picked Katzrin, a place I’ve heard lots of great things about, and decided we’d trudge around some archaeological places there, despite the children generally hating archaeological places.  There’s a combined museum-archaeological park pass that you buy in town that also includes two kind of strange educational movies, one in each spot.

The drive out was long (2.5 hours) but gorgeous, with awesome views of the Hermon, Israel’s highest mountain, along with the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).  My mother took a ton of pictures, in all of which, the Hermon looks like a puffy white cloud just over the horizon.  “It’s not a cloud!” we called out about a dozen times, showing off the pictures later on at home.

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It’s not a cloud!

Ancient Katzrin park includes a really good reconstruction of a house and some excavations / partial reconstructions of a village from the times of the Mishna, while the museum itself offers artifacts from the city of Gamla, nearby in the Golan, site of a Masada-esque battle against the Romans. (The movie ended with the slogan “Gamla will not fall again,” which I figured they ought to pay royalties to the Masada people for using, but then I heard it used in a couple of other places over the following week.)

After the historical part of the day – in which we actually lost my mother for a while because she got stuck in the second level of the Mishna-era house while I was fighting with Naomi Rivka who had stormed off to my mother’s shrieks in the background – ah, the joys of the sandwich generation – we were all reunited, went back to the car, and went in search of the Cafe Cafe kosher dairy restaurant that Google had assured me was nearby.

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Putting Bubby to work, ancient-olive-press style!

Naomi Rivka, it turned out, had seen a sign for it, so we made our way to a “Katzrin Visitors Centre” which looked like a ghost town but which did indeed feature a large sign pointing to Cafe Cafe.  Yay!  I parked, the kids got out, everyone ran up to the restaurant… and it was locked.  Drat. 

Okay, Plan B, a meat restaurant I’d heard good things about.  Find it nearby, park, everyone runs out of the car, walk in, ask to see the hechsher.  Nope, not kosher.

Drat.  Time for Plan C, because Google was still insisting there was a Cafe Cafe around here someplace.  Back in the car, we followed Google’s directions and ended up at an iffy-looking mall that didn’t have any signage for Cafe Cafe, so not very promising.  Fortunately… there was pizza.  With ice cream.  Sure, it was a cool day, in the Golan, one of the most northerly bits of Israel, but still.  Ice cream is ice cream.

We rambled a bit with the ice cream, but sort of sensed that the best part of the day was behind us.  There is an olive oil place with a visitors’ centre not too far off, however (actually, right beside where Cafe Cafe was supposed to be), so we drove back out there to see if we could find a) olive oil soap, b) cute Israeli olive oil my mother could take back with her, c) anything else cute or fun or touristy or interesting.

But nope.  Just nope.

While the building of the olive centre was interesting, the whole place was a bit of a letdown.  They gave us samples of some flavours of a liqueur they make up there which was exciting until I tasted it – watery and bland.  Not at all the sort of thing I enjoy, even though I would have brought a bottle back for my husband in a heartbeat.  The place was full of staff, all ignoring us, and we figured out why when, as we were driving off, a tour bus pulled up with dozens of captive visitors to fill the centre and drop their bucks on overpriced olive oil products.

The drive home was uneventful except for getting lost (thanks, Google!), getting turned around and almost ending up back in the Golan again.  Eventually, we made it home in time for supper, which is the nice thing about going anywhere – even somewhere far – in a tiny country like Israel.

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4.  Haifa again – the Foreign Media way

On one of the days of my mother’s visit, the City of Haifa was offering a tour for Foreign Media (that’s me!) to show rebuilding efforts after the fires there last month, as well as efforts at coexistence.  Well, I leapt at the opportunity, disguising my mother as my “camera person” through the clever trick of strapping my husband’s camera around her neck.  (It’s a point-n-shoot digital camera but it actually looks like a decent photographer thing if you don’t look too closely.)

It was a GREAT tour!

First we learned about coexistence, as Haifa geared up to celebrate its annual Festival of Festivals…

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Here’s the director of the Beit Hagefen centre for coexistence with two staff members, both Arab Muslims.

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Then we saw some of the devastating damage left by the fire:

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It wasn’t still smoking, but you could smell “burnt” from all around.  Absolutely horrifying in a country where every tree is precious.  It also drove home how close the fire was to the areas where people live.  City Engineer Ariel Waterman, who came to speak to us Foreign Media, said “This is a unique city, one where nature strongly penetrates the urban fabric.”  You can see what he means here, where the valley and the trees keep going in and through the surrounding neighbourhoods.  He also talked about lessons learned and the plan for rebuilding.

We also got to meet with mayor Yona Yahav, but when I asked him my ONE question, about what kind of aid the city had received from North American organizations like JNF, he got really really angry, grabbing my arm at one point and switching into Hebrew to let me know basically that they don’t know anything about anything north of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and don’t care about him and his city.

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Anyway, if you’re interested, here’s my full article – and notice they gave my mother her very first-ever (to my knowledge) professional photo credit.  So now she really does count as Foreign Media!

5. Visit old and new friends in Jerusalem

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Jerusalem is probably where my mother has spent the most time, and she wasn’t interested in repeating many of the things she’d done before. 

Nevertheless, I did insist on doing the “free” Old City tour that leaves from Jaffa Gate every day.  I think it’s a fabulous (re-)introduction to the city, and if I can tolerate taking the SAME tour four times in the span of 3 years (once by myself, once with my sister Abigail, once with Naomi Rivka, once with my mother), then certainly she can handle it once.  And she did admit that on previous tours they hadn’t gone through the Muslim quarter in quite the same way.

(I don’t know why more religious Jews don’t do this tour – it’s “pay what you can” and you get a great intro to the city – but mostly it seems popular with non-Jews, for some reason.  Maybe more knowledgeable Jews have their own guides, or come with a group / mission?  Haven’t figured this one out yet.)

This was my second time with the guide Yoni (maybe third), and I think he’s very good.  He sounds very practiced in his pitch, because he is, but he is always very kind and patient with questions.  Heaven have mercy on the guide who wouldn’t take my mother’s questions seriously, but thank goodness, he did.  He’s also very good about customizing bits of the tour based on the group’s interests, which is awesome considering he probably does this a few times a week at least.

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Beyond the tour, there wasn’t really an agenda.  I split off for one morning to go watch the new Canadian ambassador to Israel being inaugurated, but this wasn’t something I could bring my mother to, even if she is officially Foreign Media now.

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(I am official Foreign Media, including an official Government Press Office Press Pass, which you need to get into any of these security places.)

My mother’s next-door neighbour lives in Israel about half the year now, and my mother had mentioned that we might drop by or meet her for lunch.  At first, we were going to meet her in a cafe in Mamilla, an upscale shopping area that I really don’t like – too snooty.  When she suggested lunch at her place instead, we decided that sounded just right for the pace we were moving at.

My mother wasn’t feeling well and was actually not 100% sure she wanted to visit, but I totally believe that there is something amazing about seeing people you know – even people you only slightly know – when you’re far away from home.  You just open up more.  So I promised my mother it would be wonderful… and it was.  Lunch was simple and delicious, and we were joined by her super-smart 20-something daughter, which is scary because she was WAY older than my kids and now, well, they’re all kind of, sort of, the same age… ish.

I was worried that my standard hotel, the Jerusalem Hostel, would be too cheesy for her tastes – this is an international world traveller we’re talking about here.  But I think the room was okay.  It was in their Little Hotel, right around the corner.  She actually stayed there with my father when they were here nine years ago, but at the time, it faced right onto Jaffa Street, where there was traffic and noise all night long.  Now, with the Light Rail Trains, Jaffa is much, much quieter and a heck of a lot more fun.

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On one of the evenings, we had a lovely time going out for supper to a new place Elisheva Chaya and I discovered – I keep blanking on the name, but it’s Asiany-fusiony on Emek Refaim, kind of near her house if by “near” you mean a 20-minute walk, not including the stairs.

After supper, we hung out with Elisheva Chaya and a couple of her friends before catching a quick bus back to the ho(s)tel.

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Of course, we also worked in a visit to the Kosel while we were in the city, but other than that, we didn’t make any of the mandatory tourist stops.  Okay, except for Big Apple Pizza:

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All in all, it was a light, mellow 3 days, and a nice way to spend quality time together.  It’s certainly not how I believe you should spend your FIRST trip to Jerusalem, but if you’ve been there before and you just want to hang around like the locals do, it was great.  Usually, when I hit a place, I like to go, go, go, so it helped that I have spent so much time in Yerushalayim and I know I’ll be back, so there’s no urgency about any of it.

And here we are back at home!

Out of the entire two-week visit, I think this must be the most iconic picture.  It was Friday, and it was sunny and nice outside, and the neighbours had been running around tossing their junk into our yard as usual. 

So my mother grabbed Gavriel Zev and the rake – our landlord gave it to us (our lease states that the entire front yard is ours, both for using and maintaining, even though various neighbours do both on an ad hoc kind of random basis) – and headed out to turn Kiryat Shmuel into Toronto… or at least, to turn one sandy, decrepit slice of it into a slightly tidier slice of it.

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Yes, the yard was messy again the very next day.  That’s not the point.

All joking aside, for just a few moments, my mother got to till the soil of this holy land.  She has planted her share of trees over the years from back home in Canada, but this may be the very first time that she’s actually pulled the weeds of this holy land, smoothing the ground and making it lovely. 

Even in Kiryat Shmuel, every 4 amos you walk is holy, and every act of cultivation is an act of reclaiming, of inheriting, of taking ownership and pride in a country where she may never live but where her grandchildren live and walk to school every single morning. 

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


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