Pesach (or Passover) is a tough one for us because of the extreme dietary restrictions. We can't eat wheat, barley, spelt, rye or oats. This makes taking a holiday a bit of a logistical nightmare when it comes to eating out. We had tossed around the idea of going to Israel for Pesach, thereby avoiding some of those problems because a very large portion of the population would be following the same dietary restrictions. But, of course, we were having trouble committing.
In January, we were chatting with some acquaintances of ours. They are a middle aged couple with two grown children. (I'll call the couple Mr.M and Mrs.M.) When their children were infants they had gone to Israel, hired a company to take them out in to the Negev and done a seder; the full moon rising as they retold the dramatic story of the Children of Israel hurriedly escaping Egypt. Whoa. That sounded amazing. We like camping, a seder in the desert sounded intriguing and it would be great motivation for going to Israel. We were so excited by the idea, Mrs.M promptly invited us along! After a bit of faffing about, Dadam and I decided we wanted to commit. We shared the idea with GranEde and GranDude, who were both really excited about it and we invited them along too!
Preparations moved forward and it was the week of the trip. We were leaving on a Wednesday (to avoid paying some outrageous plane fares) and GranEde and GranDude would arrive on Saturday; we'd meet up in Tel Aviv. Tuesday, before we were to leave the next day, we got a very sad phone call. Mrs.M's mother had passed away very suddenly. Would camping/seder still be on? Yes, Mr.M had decided there were too many people involved (16 others by then, including us) to just quit the whole thing. So, everything was in place.
Wednesday morning we drove down to London. Kids were excited, we were nervous. We were flying a "cheap" airline and they are very strict about the weight of the bags, so I had packed extremely lightly. Plane flight felt like forever. It was the first time in my life I've been on a flight where halfway through the pilot made an announcement that evening prayers would be held in the galley! Once we arrived in Tel Aviv, it was a bit of a whirlwind. We were all exhausted and the passport control took an hour and a half to get through. The kids were tired, thirsty and yet very wound up from being on the plane for four and a half hours. When we finally figured out how to get to the rental car place, we had to wait more, they charged us more money and then we got a car that was barely big enough. We ended up having to fold down one of the seats in the back, just to fit our luggage!
We drove north to a seaside town called Netanya, where Mr.M and Mrs.M have a family flat. They had generously offered that we could stay there for a few nights. We didn't know what to expect, but we were astounded when we got there. It was beautiful and the beach was right across the road!!!! When we got up the next morning, we ate breakfast and headed down. It was amazing. The water was clear and a beautiful color. The ambient temperature was warm and the water was warm too! I could have stayed there the whole vacation, I really think. The kids played (I don't know why we didn't put them in their suits!) and promptly got soaked. It was really lovely. We walked down the beach and enjoyed the morning then had lunch at a little cafe.
When we had arrived on Wednesday night, I was really despairing of our ability to make ourselves understood. I really felt overwhelmed and not a bit frightened by being in a country where I knew very little of the language. But Thursday morning, I calmed down a bit and some of my pidgin Hebrew began to come back. I found I understood a bit more that I thought I would. Remarkably, the kids seemed mostly unruffled by not understanding much of what was going on around them, though when we stopped to play at a playground and PrincessE heard another boy speaking English, she sort of began stalking him just to hear him speak.
In the afternoon, we drove out of Netanya to a moshav (a planned community settlement) where some friends(Mr. and Mrs. Scribe) of ours live. They had been here and recently moved back to Israel. Their house is beautiful and the garden fantastic. The children were all thrilled to see one another and we got to see the nursery where their youngest goes to school. Here in the UK he was in the same grade as Lu-lu, so he was going to structured school, full time. In Israel, they don't start structured school until they are six!!! The nursery grounds were the most amazing thing I had ever seen. Mrs.Scribe warned us that the nursery grounds looked "like a junkyard". I thought she must have been exaggerating, but no, the nursery play ground was a junkyard. There were skeletons of chairs, old speakers, computer keyboards, mixers, dolls, nuts and leaves from surrounding trees, a full size high chair, folding chairs, the cab of a truck, tables, an old oven or two. It was amazing. I was a bit nervous about the safety at first, but Noodle dove right in and was having a fantastic time. She pretended the mixer was her sewing machine, as she grabbed a piece of fabric and ran it under the mixer arm. She found a baby doll and began to move a high chair and crib to set up a little "house". There was no broken glass and no sharp bits. All wires had been safely trimmed. I can imagine that the children would spend hours out there everyday, changing the landscape to fit whatever game they were playing, and allowing their imagination to roam free. Something like that would never fly with our culture of lawsuits and health and safety, but there was a surreal quality of reality through the chaos of four and five year olds. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Mr. and Mrs. Scribe's beautiful home. They live on the edge of a marsh and when we were there we sat outside and visited and ate and listened to the chorus of frogs. It was wonderful to catch up and see their beautiful home.
On Friday, Mr.M arrived in Netanya. He was a bit frazzled because he was without Mrs.M. His biggest worry was getting all the food we'd need for the two days in the desert. I was enlisted as his aide. We sent Dadam and the kids to the beach (oh, I was sad to miss being with them) and we tackled menus, grocery lists and shopping. The first stop was the souk, an open air market. It was amazing! The place was heaving because it was Friday afternoon. In Israel, most everything completely shuts down for Shabbas. This means, by four on a Friday afternoon shops and main roads are virtual ghost towns. Things don't reopen again until Sunday morning. Back to the souk, we dove in. Mr.M with his basic Hebrew and me with mine barely there. One very interesting thing I noticed, was the complete lack of children. No one, and I mean no one, had a child younger than nine years old with them. I'm not sure why. I'd guess it's because the chaos was so great that no one wanted to drag a stroller with them or risk losing a kid. We got fruits and veg, the smells and sounds were amazing. There was a wandering band, playing loudly and celebrating the soon arriving Pesach. I did a bit of attempting to shop. I even got a couple of "gifts" from a few stall sellers, for what I'm not entirely sure. We got fabulous baked goods, I saw the largest selection of kosher for Pesach sweets I've ever seen. There were vegetables and fruits and crates of eggs piled higher than I am tall. We stopped off at a deli and ordered massive amounts of salads and amazing goodies. It was a fantastic experience.
Saturday morning Mr. M (who is a biologist) took us to a nature reserve for a bit of a hike. He wanted to show us some soft shelled turtles that live in the area. Alas, the park was already full of people enjoying their day off and we couldn't find any turtles. We did see a tortoise, some parrots and lots of beautiful flowers.
As we headed to Tel Aviv, we got a text from GranEde and GranDude that they were already at our meeting spot! They must have flown through customs, lucky ducks. After a bit of wandering in a GIANT city park, we finally found each other. Hugs and kisses all around, and then we took a big walk and did some caching. The park was also very, very busy. It was Shabbat after all, so everyone had the day off. There were lots of parties with loud music, charcoal grills everywhere we looked and massive gatherings of families and friends. It was starting to feel like dinner time and so we headed into the city where our hotel was. The traffic was horrendous and I wished I hadn't been so insistent on finding someplace in the city center. When we got to the hotel, they directed us to their "parking". It was an l-shaped empty space in between some buildings. And they were cramming in the cars. In fact, as we got there, we saw them back one car into another, knocking the bumper off!!! I was very nervous to leave our rental cars with expensive deductibles sitting in this "parking lot". But we really didn't have any choice.
We got settled in and headed out to try and find some food that wasn't excessively expensive and that was open. We finally picked a Chinese restaurant! What irony. It was good food and we enjoyed ourselves and the walk around the city. When we got back to the hotel, we settled the kids down and the grownups enjoyed the large balcony and our adult beverages, while visiting with each other.
Sunday morning we decided to get out of Tel Aviv. One big city is much like any other. We drove north to an ancient Roman port, Cesaria or Qeseria. It was incredibly interesting. There are many of the ruins that are not excavated and not protected. This is partially due to the vast quantity of ruins. There was a huge aqueduct that sits on the sea shore. And a couple of large ruins that are just sitting in the dunes, eroding from weather and time. We saw a beautifully preserved mosaic tile floor, depicting a large number of different bird species, that was the floor of a massive mansion. We wandered along the beach and found fragments of sub flooring and marble. Then we paid to go into the national park part of things, where everything was excavated (and a bit too commercial). There is a massive hippodrome and an amphitheater, both completely excavated. Unfortunately, they have also built a promenade of shops and restaurants on top of the Roman-made harbor wall that is still left. They have also made the amphitheater into a working, usable one, so it was very difficult to see the original grandeur. But there are magnificent mosaic floors that are still amazingly vibrant and marble columns and a fascinating history as a Roman port, a Muslim stronghold, a Crusader castle, a Byzantine city and lastly a refugee settlement.
Monday morning we packed up and left Tel Aviv. The cars were still in one piece, shew. We drove south and as we did, the scenery changed dramatically. Tel Aviv had been somewhat green, in between the buildings, with large palm trees and lots of flowers. As we entered in to the desert, the landscape became dry and barren, with rolling hills and lots of rocks. We made it to our meeting up point, met the other eight campers, and loaded our stuff in to large Land Rovers. It was miserably, stiflingly hot. We bumped along and then our guide, Chayim - also a biologist, stopped and we took a short hike. He talked a bit about the geology of the area, we saw a lizard and he gave the kids a chance to try and touch it so they could see how fast it moved. Chayim also demonstrated making fire with flint, which littered the landscape. From a distance the flint looked like small plants growing all over the desert floor. But it was just flint, bits and pieces, mostly fist sized and smaller. We stood on a plateau and looked down over the Zin Valley, outside of Kibbutz S'de Boker. More bumping later we arrived at a small wadi, a dry ravine. Some of the tents were already set up, there was a large shade tent also set up, a port-a-potty and a cooking area.
There was a bit of milling around after unpacking everything and getting the tents sorted out. The flint covered ground made for a tough time finding a flat, comfortable place to put a tent. Once we got the tents up, it was resting time. The heat made us all want to just lay down in the shade tent and so we did. The kids played card games with some of the other adults and there was lots of visiting and chatting. We got a fire going, some of us tried to do it with flint. The kids played hide and seek, an ingengious game as there were very few hiding spots in the desert!
We set up for seder and got everything ready. The sun set, the moon came up over the hill.....and was completely obscured by the clouds. Sadness. Chayim had told us that there were two young women, backpacking the whole way from north to south Israel, who were also using the same camping area we were in. Very close to the beginning of the seder, they arrived. One of the important ideas of a seder is that we should invite in people who are "strangers in a strange land" because "the children of Israel were strangers in Egypt". I'm not sure that I've ever been to a family seder where an actual stranger was invited, but here we were presented with two!!! We invited the women to join us and they did. They were really friendly and had some amazing backpacking stories. We perservered with our seder, the kids got exhausted and all of them asked to go to bed. We made a little bed next to us and the fire, for The Boy-child and Lu-lu. They were asleep within five minutes. Eventually I did take all four and bed down in our tent for the night, while everyone else finished the seder. Unfortunately, the wind picked up something terrible and blew all.night.long. It was a rough night.
When we all woke up in the morning, everything was covered in a fine layer of desert dust. Yuck. We blearily got up, I tried to keep the chilren as quiet as possible because they, of course, got up with the sun. Everyone else did not. Finally the rest of the group got up and started moving. The plan for the day was a hike. Fine. We knew it was a long hike, 11km. I also knew that our kiddos were more than capable of that distance. But from our campsite, there were just cliff faces the direction that our hike was supposed to take us. How were we going to make it up a cliff?!?!?! Chayim had assured us it was just a "bit of an incline" and the kids would do fine. He was more concerned with the distance. We set out from camp, after our guard for the day had showed up, and began walking. We came to the cliff, the path went up, along the cliff face, had a couple of switch backs and then straight up from there.
We matched one child with one adult and started up. I had Noodle and I was in the lead. But I was having a bit of a panic attack. We were on a cliff face. The trail was very exposed. My children were on a trail that had a drop off on one side, that seemed very, very steep and far to me. I was very, very nervous. Part of me wanted to stop and take in the view, but I was so scared about the edge and my babies that I knew I couldn't stop. I was breathing fast, nearly hyperventilating. I just wanted to be done. I wanted to be to the top. Noodle and I got up, just fine. At one point she had to ask me to stop squeezing her hand so hard because I was hurting her. I didn't even realize I was doing that. Once we were up, I sat, head down, until everyone else was up. The kids loved it. They all had a great time. I nearly threw up and had an accident in my trousers, all at once.
Once that was over, the hike was cake. The other adults climbed to the top of the nearby peak, Hod Eqev, and the rest of us hiked around the base. We met up at the other side and walked down in to the valley and to a beautiful spring, Ein Eqev. It was quite deep and we watched several people jump in. The water was icy cold though and it was tough to even put our feet in! The girls and I stripped down to our knickers and went to the water's edge. The Boy-child and Dadam kept their trousers on and just stuck their feet in. PrincessE decided she wanted to jump in. Since I was the adult willing to get in, I got elected. Echad, Shtayim, Shalosh (one, two, three!), we jumped in holding hands. The water was COLD!!!!! PrincessE struggled to the surface, I felt like I was underwater forever. We left the spring and hiked back around to camp. Everyone was worn out, but all the kids were amazing. Of course, as soon as we got back, the kids were running around and all the adults were passed out.
We all helped to make dinner. The kids helped with some cutting and preparing food. We had a roaring fire and the sunset was beautiful. Happily the wind died down and the night was quiet and still. Morning seemed to come very early and we broke camp. GranEde and GranDude and the six of us went back into S'de Boker to continue on our trip and the other eight people went on a nature hike with Chayim. We headed west from the desert and north a bit to the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea was beautiful. Unfortunately the southern portion has been divided up in to pools for industry, so there are many leeves running horizontally, from Israel to Jordan, dividing up the water. The beautiful part came on the northern portion, where the sea is undivided and runs flat and turqouise to the mountains of Jordan. We got, with a little difficulty, to the zimmer where we were staying in Neve Zohar. It was a tiny town that was mostly tourist stuff, but not huge hotels. The zimmer was lovely, with a kitchen we could use, clean and lovely rooms and SHOWERS!!! Everyone took long, fabulous showers, where the water sluiced off our bodies in a lovely shade of brown. It was lovely to be clean, we all agreed.
When we talked about coming to the Dead Sea, the kids were all very excited. They wanted to put mud on, they wanted to float, they thought it sounded fabulous. For weeks we told them about how salty it would be, how they needed to not scratch boo-boos so the water wouldn't sting, we tried to prepare them. Even so, GranEde and I were of the opinion that any trip in to the sea was going to be a very quick one. We were sure someone would put water in their eyes and then we'd be done. We just didn't think it would be quite as quick as it turned out to be.
Post showers, we decided to head down to Ein Boqeq, the resort town three miles up the coast from Neve Zohar. We got our bathing suits and towels and lots of clean water, and we headed out. We found a quiet-ish public beach and went down to the water. Now, unbeknownst to me, Lu-lu had some rawness on her parts. We got our stuff situated in a safe spot and walked out into the water. GranDude was the first to flinch from the salt as he had badly cut his toe when we were camping, but he is big and soldiered on. Lu-lu got out to where her bottom touched the water and began a horrible, piercing scream. Her mouth was a giant O and her eyes were wide. And she screamed. I rushed towards her and picked her up. GranEde got fresh water out and we poured and poured and poured. Poor Lu. Tears ran down her face. Soon after that Noodle began to cry and then The Boy-child (who had a rash that he'd scratched on his neck) started in too. GranEde and I ran out of fresh water after all these injuries. PrincessE was the only one who was just fine. Dadam took her out and laid her back and she floated. Then Dadam and I did it, then GranEde and GranDude. It was quite a bizarre feeling, laying in water a couple feet deep and just floating.
Staying a long time was not really an option, with the burning parts and the sun setting everyone was getting uncomfortable. So, covered in the slimiest, oiliest feeling ever, we climbed back in the car and got to the zimmer again for another shower!
Friday morning we decided to head up to Masada. Since it was a warm day and the path we were hiking was well marked, I stupidly had the kids put on their sandals. The self-same sandals they had worn in the Dead Sea the day previously. I had rinsed them, really I had. But it just wasn't enough. By the time we were halfway up, Noodle's sweating had begun to leach the salt out of the sandals and the salt was so strong that it was eating holes in her poor little feet. GAH! It happened to all the kids, though I think Noodle's was the worst because she has the youngest skin. They were troopers, though and all of them made the 2.5 mile hike up the snake path, with relatively little fussing, even while their shoes were eating their feet. Masada was amazing. The ruins that have been discovered there are amazing. The engineering to make the place originally is astounding and the view just can't be beat. There are at least two palaces, one of which is three levels down the side of the mountain. There were huge storerooms and an amazingly elegant water storage system, consisting of huge cisterns and aquaducts that run out of the mountains and down to Masada. There were more beautifully preserved mosaic floors and even some frescos still vibrant with color after a couple thousand years. Amazing. We spent the whole afternoon, exploring and reading and talking. It was fantastic to be there with GranEde and GranDude because they were just as enthusiastic and interested! (And having two extra adults never hurt either.)
At the end we payed a bit extra to take the cable car down and save the poor kiddos feet, GranEde and GranDude hiked back down on the trail. It was an amazing day.
Next morning we hoofed it out of there and headed to Jerusalem. It was a bit disconcerting driving near to military checkpoints, but it seemed to be mostly calm. Driving into Jerusalem was surreal. As we came up from the western side we were driving right next to the walls of the Old City. There were people everywhere, more Jews than I'd ever seen in my life. Navigating around was a bit tense; a few times we were afraid we had lost GranEde and GranDude! The traffic was terrible. I was watching my watch the whole time and it was only a 20 minute ordeal, but it sure felt like a LOT longer.
Once again we were up against the Shabbas clock. We quickly walked to the old city, where I was hoping to find food and do some shopping before everything shut down. After seeing what was there, we decided the best course of action would be to split up. PrincessE went with GranEde and GranDude and Dadam and I took the rest for grocery shopping. Hindsight being 20/20, I now think we should have scheduled a tour for under the Kotel (western wall), where they have excavated a Herodian Street, an aquaduct and other amazing, archeological features. But I didn't do that, so we missed it completely. I guess we'll have to do it again another time.
We got food, GranEde and GranDude wandered through the old city and we met back up at the hotel. Being in Jerusalem was overwhelming and strange. And I didn't feel nearly as spiritually "lit up" as I thought I might.
Shabbat morning we got up and went into the Old City again. This time we were going to the Kotel for some morning prayers and then we wanted to explore. Dressed in our long skirts and long sleeves (for the ladies) and button up shirts for the gents, we headed out. The Kotel was beautiful, it was amazing to be there and actually witness it for myself. The boys went in first, while the girls stayed with our backpack towards the back. They wandered through, went to the wall and said some prayers and came back. We walked in to the much-less-busy women's side and, as a group, approached the wall.
We all gathered around, GranEde on one side and me on the other. We touched our faces to the wall, the girls touched it with their hands. Noodle and Lu wanted to take the "little pieces of paper" out of the cracks. We said Shema and asked the girls if they had any prayers they wanted to say. And then we were done.
The sign, next to the giant golden Menorah, says that it is the belief of Jews that the Shechinah (Hashem's spirit) rests within the Kotel, the wall itself. You know, is this heresy to admit?, I missed it. Was I not open to it? Tired from being away from home and stressed about the soldiers and our safety. Am I a bad Jew? Do I not have the right mindset? Too many questions in my mind? I believe I have felt something greater than me before. But it wasn't there, in the middle of a city at war with itself, where too many people make claim to the same land with no concept of sharing, where there is so much selfishness and intolerance and no compromise. There is nothing holy in the violence and hatred and distrust and betrayal.
We went up where it was okay to take some pictures and tried to get some good shots. Because it was Shabbas, we weren't going to take any pictures down close to the wall. After settling down and finding a quiet place to have our maztah picnic, we began wandering through the Jewish Quarter and out into the Arab Quarter. The difference was dramatic! The Arab Quarter was bustling because it was a Muslim holiday as well. We wandered through the streets lined with marked stalls. Every adult clutched a child's hand and we pushed through the crowd.
We made our way to the Dome of the Rock, but they wouldn't let us in. "Muslims only today." No problem, we said and wandered a different direction. Somehow, we took a turn and another, and ended up on a side street. Here there were even more people. Suddenly a small boy pushed through the crowd and grabbed Dadam's arm. "Muslims only. Muslims only." Dadam called GranEde, who was up ahead with PrincessE and we all turned around. As we turned around to head out, somehow, panic got stirred up in the crowd. A stampede began and we were trying to go the opposite way from the crowds of panicked people. The crowd pushed stronger and there were some cries and muffled yells. Quickly, each of us took our child and stepped in to a stall, out of the crush of people. As we faced in to the shop, with a kid in front of us, a small boy leaned out to me and said, "What is going on?!?!?" "I don't know," I shrugged. "The Israeli man is killing Palestinians. You know? That is what is going on." Oh how I wanted to respond. How I wanted to suggest that the Palestinians are in no way innocents in this situation. But I felt that I was fairly outnumbered and silence was the best course of action.
When things had calmed down we struggled back out and turned away from the crowds of people. We found a quiet space a took a breather. PrincessE complained she had been hit in the eye with a backpack and Lu reported a foot that had been stepped on. But I felt like we were just lucky not to have been caught up in whatever problems had arisen. And just as we were getting calmed down, 20 or so Israeli policeman came running by, each holding their night-stick, and they were headed in the direction we had just come from. It was time for us to get out of the Old City. Unfortunately, we got really, really lost in the warren of paths, alleyways and tiny streets. We spent a bit of time just trying to navigate out. We finally made our way through the Armenian Quarter, where parades and celebrations were taking place for Easter the next day. There were bands and drums and it was loud and crowded. Once out, we sat down and took a true breather.
We spent the rest of the day walking around Jerusalem. We wandered through the Russian Quarter, up to the new city center, we saw shops, played some chess on a giant chess board, and laughed. We did some caches and just enjoyed each other. Noodle and GranEde counted cats and dogs and there was a regular report on those. It was a nice afternoon.
That night we said our goodbyes to GranEde and GranDude. We were so sad to see them go. I was also a bit nervous about them making their way to Tel Aviv on time and in one piece. But they are grown-ups and I knew they could do it.
Sunday morning it was just the six of us again. And the city was alive because it was not Shabbat and not a day off. We wandered through the New City market. We ate lunch out! (I got a fabulous mint lemonade!) We went to the botanical gardens and tried to go to some museums. Unfortunately because the next day was the last day of Pesach, and that is another no-work day, most everything was closing early. Ah well, the kids enjoyed playing in the park and running around, Dadam got a few caches and I really enjoyed just sitting in the sun and having absolutely nothing to do.
Monday found us walking up to have a holiday lunch with Adam's cousin, who he hadn't seen since Elie was born. It was very nice to get the two families together. And we all enjoyed eating a proper meal at a table! After lunch we wandered back down through the old city and back to our hotel. Pesach was almost over. Yippee!!
We got up the next morning and drove out of Jerusalem. The rolling hills were beautiful. We drove towards Tel Aviv and there was a point when we were still in the outskirts of Jerusalem, that we could see the tall buildings of Tel Aviv, across a large flat plain. It was really beautiful. We stopped and did some hiking and caching. There were loads of beautiful spring flowers in bloom and the pine forest smelled amazing. We drove up to Netanya and did some shopping, then over to see Mr. and Mrs. Scribe one last time. They had invited us all to stay and we spent the last night there with them.
The kids had a fabulous time, they played and laughed and ran around. We all visited and laughed too. On Wednesday morning, we got up and went down to the beach. We had a hike, ate delicious food, played in the sand and the water and then headed back to get packed up and go home.
We planned a bit poorly and were a bit close on time, as we hit rush hour traffic in Tel Aviv, but we made it. Shew. Once we were there we had time to sit and eat the dinner that Mrs. Scribe had packed for us. We got on the plane with no problems and settled down for the ride home. I didn't let the kids get any toys out and made them close their eyes. In no time, they were all asleep and miraculously stayed that way during the whole ride home. We got back to London and it was quite a shock! It was so cold we could see our breath and we were all freezing. After we got the car, we drove about an hour and slept at a base. Then in the morning we got up and finished the drive. Dadam and I were completely wasted, but the kids who had slept four and a half hours on the plane, an hour driving to the base, and four and a half hours sleeping at the base, were just fine. Back to reality and real life with a thump.