The first few days in Israel were action-packed and we got to see a lot of the northern part of the country: places like Tiberias and Tsfat.
Here is the video of the jeep ride, in stunning 4K!
Jeeps, Geography, and “Magical” Olive oil:
I got a good night’s sleep, relatively speaking. Except for being woken up by some howling noise outside. That was annoying, but we got to see a beautiful sunrise outside. That made waking up early worth it.
Breakfast was at the hotel and it was an all you can eat buffet. Our group got a special vegan buffet with hummus, bread, vegan nutella, halva, rice, potatoes, and salad. Sadly the buffet was not consistent and we didn’t always have bread or vegan nutella. There were a few mix-ups with the hotel, but it was okay.
Today was our first taste of how hectic the rest of the trip would be. Even writing this now I feel exhausted.
Each day on the trip they teach us new Hebrew words and phrases. The two phrases we learnt were “Boker tov”, which means good morning and “teevonee”, which means vegan. If only I knew the Hebrew alphabet better so I could tell what was vegan in the shops. During my trip, I went grocery shopping and I was basically like this (except I asked if something was vegan):
I bet I annoyed a lot of people.
Our first activity was a jeep ride near the Lebanese border. I was the only person in the group who did not have a driving licence so I felt a bit weird for that, but it was enjoyable riding shotgun in a jeep. I took some good videos of it, which you can see embedded above at the top of the post. People were impressed my videos were steady. I can say my communications and journalism degrees came in handy.
Pictures taken from the jeep
The area where we rode around in jeeps was called, and I kid you not, Hula Valley. We didn’t suddenly arrive in Hawaii, although I wish we did because that is on my travel bucket list.
A panorama of Hula Valley
We drove to this place with a very nice view and we got a geography lesson. They asked one person to put their left hand on their head and their right foot on their shin. I thought this was some sort of yoga pose, but that’s the approximate shape of Israel.
You can fit 499 Israels in the US, that’s how small a country it is. Israel borders Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt (note that there is no mention of Palestine). Israel borders four bodies of water: Dead Sea, Red Sea, Sea of Galilee, and the Mediterranean Sea. The country is 263 miles long from North to South and it takes about 6 hours (depending on traffic) to drive from the North to Eilat. Theoretically, you can do skiing and the beach all in one day.
Israel truly does have so many different landscapes in such a tiny space. Farms, forests, beaches, deserts, and mountains.
Next stop was a hike through the Tel Dan Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights. This hike reminded me a bit of walking around Killarney National Park, in my husband’s hometown. What especially brought me back to my husband’s hometown was the rain, a rarity in Israel, but super common in Ireland. While we were walking through the park we saw streams with clear water, lots of trees, rocks, ruins, and Winnie the Pooh’s Tree. We stopped a couple of times to listen to our tour guide tell Bible stories about the area and how we are supposedly walking through the Garden of Eden. I felt a bit awkward as an atheist hearing all these bible stories. My favourite story of the bunch was about poop purification plants.
Pictures from the nature reserve
Israel looks a lot like California, and like California, Israel has droughts and water shortages. This means reducing water waste and reusing wastewater. Israel is #1 at wastewater recycling with 90% of wastewater recycled. This wastewater is used primarily for watering crops and it’s cheaper for the farmers to use recycled wastewater. The tour guide was talking about how this entrepreneur took wastewater and filtered it and sold it to farmers for cheap while making a decent profit. You also will notice that the toilets use less water with each flush.
The next activity was lunch and a olive oil factory “tour”.
Lunch was pizza, salad, and bread with zaatar. Delicious!
The olive oil factory tour, while interesting, was really just a real life advertisement. We watched a video about the business’s story and then the guy talked about how he is vegan and how there’s an “animal holocaust” going on. It was strange hearing a Jewish person referring to slaughterhouses that way. Back in the states, Jews and Gentiles alike were pretty offended by that comparison.
Some people in the group who had visited Israel before said that Israelis generally don’t get as offended as easily as Americans.
Aren’t all factory tours sales pitches? When I went to Vermont, I went to the Ben & Jerry’s factory and the Vermont Teddy Bear factory and those tours led you to a gift shop at the end where you can buy the products, kind of like how the major rides at Disney World lead you to a gift shop. At least you get free samples. At the olive oil factory we got to try different flavours of olive oil and we tried some skincare products. In all fairness, the skincare products felt nice, but how am I going to take this home? Plus, there will be many other opportunities to buy things.
Our last activity of the day was touring bunkers near the Syrian border. My biggest regret was not bringing my coat. I thought “Oh it will be fine. Israel doesn’t get cold,” but that thought changed to “oh crap” as the tour bus went up the mountain and the windows started getting colder and you couldn’t see anything because of the fog.
This excursion was described to us as seeing what we see on the news firsthand. I don’t know why I was expecting to be like a Vice News documentary, but it was relatively calm and I didn’t hear anything scary. Conan O’Brien’s video series about Israel was mentioned a lot. You can find them on YouTube. I’ll link one below:
Well, we couldn’t see anything, but that’s not Birthright’s fault. That’s just bad luck and timing with the weather. When we were inside a cafe because it was cold and windy outside, I saw the clouds breaking momentarily and got a glimpse of the other side of the border.
Statues and Bunkers
So we walked into bunkers and our tour guide told us stories about the Yom Kippur War and how the soldiers nearly died and it was a miracle they lived and they were “heroes”. I can’t remember much because the next 10 days were crazy.
Tsfat/Tzfat/Safed/Zefat… or transliterating Hebrew is confusing
Our words of the day were “yakar midai”, which means too expensive and “ba sa” (well not really a word, more like an onomatopoeia) which means not good or bummer. I guess our equivalent in English is “womp womp”.
The first phrase is really important when you go to markets because people will see you’re a tourist with money and they will want to try to get away with charging you more money.
Israel is a bit like Mexico or the Caribbean because haggling is a must at markets. The tour guide’s advice for those who wish to purchase things at markets is to go with an Israeli who would better know the value of things and to go in a large group. There is strength in numbers when you go to markets and if a bunch of people walk away, that is a lot of money you are losing. This video by GrrrlTraveler has some really good tips.
Never take the mickey and haggle on something you aren’t intending on purchasing. Never lowball.
Every Birthright trip goes to this city in the north of Israel. What is the significance of Tsfat? It’s the centre of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. Honestly, I should have done some reading before this trip, but you know the holidays kind of got in the way.
I never learnt about the Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism in the one year I was in Hebrew school. During that time I started questioning religion and then I became an atheist. I didn’t know there was a mystic side to it.
If I had to give you a
not great Cliffnotes of the Kabbalah, it’s some sort of metaphysical system “explaining” nature and god and the relationships and all that. Mysticism is some sort of new age or There’s some sort of “Tree of Life” symbol that looks like this:
I still don’t get it, but whatever floats your boat.
It was pouring the entire time we were there, but the good news was a lot of what we were seeing was indoors so we wouldn’t get too wet. Bad news is I didn’t get as many pictures as I would have liked. It’s really hard to take good pictures in pouring rain.
Our first stop was at Avraham Loewenthal’s gallery. From what I’ve read online, a lot of Birthright groups stop here and listen to his talk and some people buy his art. Some people on these groups have described his persona as very hippie. I can’t say that their description was wrong. Artists are often very hippie like, nothing wrong with that, I have some hippie tendencies too.
The art he made was cool looking. I especially liked the Hebrew letters inside a circle with the rainbow colour scheme, please don’t judge, I didn’t study art. That was designed on a computer. The other art pieces I thought were cool were ones based on the sounds of the shofar (a horn blown on the high holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).
The next two stops were at two synagogues, the Abuhav Synagogue and the HaAri Synagogue. I haven’t been to a synagogue since my cousin’s bat mitzvah in 2013, but I thought this was cool. Glad I was able to take pictures because they were very pretty synagogues. The former was more Spanish and Kabbalah influenced and the other was Ashkenazi, but it was founded by Spanish exiles. The Abuhav Synagogue is home to the world’s oldest Torah scroll.
For lunch we were taken to an area with two vegetarian restaurants. Most of the group, including me, chose Elements Cafe because it was closer. Elements Cafe is 100% gluten free and vegetarian and has a varied menu. You can order pasta, soup, salad, and more.
Pasta and ice cream
One criticism of our tour group was we really should have pre-ordered food. The cafe is small and family-run and while they were very happy to get our business (like every business a birthright group goes to, we’re basically walking bags of money), it’s really stressful serving 20+ people. I was one of the unlucky ones left waiting for my dish, but there was one other person who was left waiting a bit longer and she got frustrated, and understandably so. Some people were not happy with the portion sizes. One guy ordered a pizza and it was very small, like the size of a poppadom. He told the staff that they should have indicated on the menu what diameter the pizza is. I ordered the raw courgette and pesto pasta, which was good.
Since it was Friday, we came back to the hotel early for Shabbat.
Shabbat Shalom, Mama!
Had to reference The Hebrew Hammer (this is the safe for work version of Shabbat Shalom)
So I have never observed Shabbat. My dad never did either. We’re aware it’s a thing, but we’re not observant.
I always thought Shabbat was something only really religious people did. I had one friend in primary school who was Reform Jewish and she didn’t observe it.
When I heard we were observing Shabbat, images in my head of no smartphones, no social media, no pictures, no fun popped in my head.
That paradigm shattered during Shabbat services. Like they promised at the start with no vegan policing, like if someone is seen wearing wool or eating something with honey in it you don’t yell at them, there was no shabbat policing, and that was good. Let people observe it in the way that’s best for them and respect other people’s beliefs. That is the sensible way.
No one cared if you used your smartphone. The only thing they asked was that you dress modestly.
The Shabbat activities were a mix of icebreakers and discussions where we unpack and discuss what has happened during the trip. We also did more typical things like candle lighting and kiddush (prayer over wine).
The best activity of all was eating Bambas. What are Bambas you ask? One of the best snacks from Israel. A staple food that people eat from a young age because it has vitamins or something. Admittedly, it is junk food, but it’s really good. Better yet, it’s vegan. They are basically like Cheetos, but covered in peanut butter. I really like peanut butter so naturally I did like them, but I ate them in moderation. 😇 The Israelis in the group had a Bambas chubby bunny challenge where they asked us trivia questions about the popular snack food and whoever was it had to stuff more Bambas in their mouth until the group got the right answer.
The best snack food ever!
Americans can get Bambas at Trader Joes. Lucky you!
During Shabbat, we did not travel and our awesome bus driver got a well-deserved day off. The good news for us is we get some proper sleep for once and that is a rare occasion.
Just before sunset, we took a nice walk to the tomb of Rabbi Meir (we did not go inside), walked past the Hamat Tiberias National Park, and then we walked towards the Sea of Galilee.
Some pictures from the walk
If you are a cat person, you’re going to be really happy in Israel or really sad, depends on how you look at it. There are many stray cats all over Israel. On a positive note, that makes for some cool pictures. Half my pictures of this trip were of cats. On a not so positive note, that means a lot of cats without a home. 🙁
The Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake and a popular hangout spot for people and cats alike. I got some great sunset pictures and a few nice cat pictures. On Birthright, a lot of activities are rushed and we sadly didn’t get to spend much time here, but I do want to come back. They really do try to pack a lot in 10 days.
In the evening, we went to the mall. Why the mall? I’m really not sure, but dinner was nice. I went to Café Café and got a grilled veggie sandwich (they called it a bagel on the menu, but it doesn’t look like a bagel) with a cucumber and tomato salad. I split a vegan chocolate pie dessert with some fellow travellers. It was really good!
Sandwich, salad, and dessert
As always on the bus, we learnt a couple of Hebrew vocabulary words/phrases. The first one is beseder, which means okay and the second one is ani ohev chayot, which means I love animals.
Coming up next… Action packed drive to Tel Aviv: authentic food, vegan shawarma, and rescued farm animals.
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