So… where do I start? How do I describe the life-changing trip I just took to the Middle East? What can I say about all the amazing things we experienced? Here are some fleeting thoughts from my (jet-lagged) mind:
- Easily connected. Before we left, both students and teachers were all concerned about internet access in Israel, and we’d done lots of research about getting 3G cards for our cell phones so parents and our school could contact us in emergency situations 1. Turns out that that wasn’t an issue at all, as Israel has wifi absolutely errrrrrrverywhere. No prob, Bob.
- What I wish I woulda known… I spent literally 2 years working with Doron Yodan, our AMAZING tour planner guy 2, and I was pretty sure I knew everywhere we were going and why it was important, etc. Turns out that I was/am totally ignorant to so much of Israel’s history (and present), so I learned so much in every place we went. There was so much I wish I would have known before—so much that, had I been able to pre-learn, I could have truly appreciated—but, you know, you just don’t know until you go. There was so much learning along the way that I felt like I was constantly soaking up tons of information.Here’s what made things even cooler: on the day we left, I began reading Reza Aslan’s “Zealot”, not because I was trying to learn about Israel or Jerusalem, but just because it was next on my reading list. WHAT A FITTING COINCIDENCE! Literally 10 or 20 times, I would read about something in the book, and then within 3 hours, we’d be at the site where it happened. I completely suggest reading this book, especially if you’re planning on doing some exploration in Israel—it’s a great, entertaining, informative read that puts everything into context beautifully.
One more thing: very recently, Lisa and I caught BBC Four’s excellent documentary Jerusalem: The Making of a Holy City, another one I’d highly suggest. I can’t tell you the amount of times that, while watching it, we would squeal “I’ve been there! I’ve been there!”
- Safety. The first and most common question we got about our trip: “Was it safe? Did you ever feel scared?” No, or at least almost never 3. Outside of one close call, I never felt more in danger than I do just wandering around in a city in the US; most of the time, my guard was lowered almost completely. The people were friendly, security was literally EVERYWHERE, and even in driving through the West Bank, I never felt threatened at all. In fact, the most threatened I ever felt was due to…
- El Al’s security = CRAZY. At our arrival in Hong Kong (our layover), each passenger (read: every single one of my students) were individually interviewed about why we were here, where we were going, who we knew on the flight, our relationships to eachother, and what we were doing in Israel. It was about as close to third degree as I could have ever expected—never have I experienced security at that level.For example, of the 11 students we brought with us, 10 of them are current students enrolled in our school; one is a high school graduate of another school, but the sibling of one of the girls on our trip. We know him—he’s family. I didn’t think that there would be a need to clarify all the intricacies of my relationship with each of our 11 “children”, so when I was asked by El Al about who these kids were, I truthfully replied “They’re my students.” 4 Things broke down, though, when the boy told El Al that he was not a student at our school. This triggered an immediate kneejerk response by El Al: Were we trying to pull a fast one on them? Why did I say this was my student? Who was this kid actually? Why had I LIED? It took almost 10 minutes of questioning to get things cleared up, but truthfully, I was certain that the boy (and, by association, I as well) were not going to be permitted onto the flight. SCARY.
- FOOOOOOD. Just like I felt in Egypt and Malaysia (both Muslim Halal countries), as an Adventist, Israel’s a great place to eat. My religion isn’t quite a strict as the Jewish Kosher laws 5, but after living in Taiwan (aka “The Island of Pork and Seafood”) for 5 years, it was amazing to be able to walk into just about any restaurant and eat whatever I wanted to. Moreover, if I actually lived in Israel, I guarantee I could go full-vegetarian and easily gain 10 pounds. Falafel,hummus, feta cheese… wow. Some of my favorite things:
Baked or fried savory crossaint-y fill pastries, filled with mashed potatoes , spinach, cheese, or olive+cheese+tomato sauce filling, covered in sesame seeds. Every hostel we stayed at had these for breakfast, thrown into the corner like they weren’t manna from heaven. Also could easily grab them at any gas station or market, as if they were an afterthought, when truthfully, they were totally Yum.com.
So I’m not a really big “nut” nut guy, so I’ve always had a healthy respect, but not a huge obsession with these layered pastries stuffed with chopped nuts and honey. Not the case in Israel, where they come in about 256 different varieties, including peanut 6, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, honey, sweet milk, rosewater, and just about anything else sweet. Eeesh.
I’ve had these a couple of times in the States, but nothing like in Israel. I don’t know how many deep-fried ball of ground chickpeas or fava beans I had, but it has to have been about one dose per day. Stuffed into a pita and smothered in hummus, that’s a meal that will alter your perspective on life. Extra points for being the most unhealthy thing a vegetarian can eat.
Ok, so this was a brand new dish for me. The first time I had halva, I thought it was a strangely-flavored slice of hard peanut butter, but I came to find out that it’s sesame-flavoured tahini, best described as kinda grainy/grimy Israeli fudge 7.The first one I had tasted very peanut-buttery, but in Jerusalem, Lisa and I came across a place called Halva Kingdom that served it in a bunch of flavors, including espresso, cinnamon, cookies-and-cream, and triple chocolate.
Am I a hummus snob now? After having it a couple of times, I began to notice subtle differences in the cooked, mashed chickpeas blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic. The winner of the entire trip happened in Haifa (northern Mediterranean coast), where, at a hole-in-the-wall place, we ordered 3 different types with basically all-you-could-eat pita—enough for 6 people to get full—for about US$5. Cheapest and maybe most delicious meal of our trip, and it wasn’t close.
My 2014 delicious food MVP of this trip, Knafe (pronounced kuh-NAH-fay) is a sweet pie-ish thing, with a crust made from long thin noodle threads of shredded phyllo dough 8. On top of that, they spread soft white cheese (similar to un-salty mozarella), more shredded noodle threads, honey-and-rosewater flavored syrup, and pistachios. Sounds weird, right? IS AMAZING.
I didn’t realize that I had first tried these, 2 months before, at my sister’s wedding in the Dominican Republic, where they’re called kippes 9. Think a really heavy hush puppy, filled with onions, garlic, and Halal or Kosher ground lean beef, lamb, goat or chicken meat, formed into an egg shape and fried. Had one mindblowing kube in Jerusalem, and spent the rest of the trip (unsuccessfully) looking for another hit.
This was breakfast for me every single morning: just soft, tart, Greek yogurt that’s been put through a cheese cloth (so it’s thicker and “cheesier”), covered in olive oil, and seasoned with salt and za’atar. It’s basically a more tangy, delicious, salty version of sour cream. Truly, what didn’t I eat this stuff on? Toast, eggs, bourekas… Gosh, I’m making myself hungry.
Remember how, during the Jewish Passover, how the Israelites were told to mark their doors with blood using a hissup plant to keep away the Angel of Death? Well I don’t know about the blood, but those leaves (cousins of oregano) are totally delicious. Ground those up, add olive oil, garlic, and salt, and eat on EVERYTHING.
- Video recap. Finally, using a cool web service called Flipagram, I threw together a little video slideshow of some of the highlights from our trip, stolen from our trip Tumblr, http://tpcast14.tumblr.com/, where our group of 13 set a world record for “Most Selfies in a 10 day period”. Take a peek:
What a crazy-fun time. Lisa and I agree that it was an awesome experience that neither of us will ever forget. I only hope that I’ll have the chance to go back one day—here’s to hoping that things stay/become stable enough that that opportunity comes again!
- …and so we could upload pictures to Instragram ;) ↩
- If you ever are planning on going to Israel, look up the Israel Youth Hostel Association, with whom Doron works. ABSOLUTELY great people to work with! ↩
- While wandering Jerusalem one day, we left through the notorious Damascus Gate to go see the Protestant Tomb of Jesus; on the way back, our group got split up, so I stayed back with two of my students while Lisa went ahead with most of the group. On meeting together back by the gate, we walked in on the tail end of a demonstration. We were able to get the group to where we were supposed to be going without them basically realizing what was happening at all. Later on, though, we found out that they were throwing Molotov cocktails just a few meters away from where we had all been standing. #CloseCall ↩
- Why this is not a lie: while the aforementioned boy was not a current student at my school, each kid who came on the trip was getting high school credit for attending the trip, so, by definition, the kid was my student. ↩
- My reaction to the idea of a cheeseburger by the end of the trip: ↩
- In the States, baklava seems to usually be made with walnuts or pecans; in Israel, peanuts are “standard”. Cool. ↩
- This is not meant to be an insult. ↩
- Think like shredded wheat cereal or Weetabix. ↩
- After the wedding, I tried these at her reception and was enthralled, but I didn’t get to investigate, as we had wedding pictures to take, and by the time we were done, the kippes had disappeared. I ended up doing the second-best thing: Googling them. Fast forward a few months down the road, in Jerusalem, after eating those kubes, I’m sitting in my hotel room, Googling these delicious meat balls, and the Google search links are purple, not blue… because I had already been to those websites, months before. Cool. ↩