Plenty of Bible-thumping, Armageddon-watching Christians visit Israel. I, however, was raised Presbyterian, that calm inner-sanctum of Christianity where the zealotry is mercifully tempered.
Still, I dreamed my entire life of seeing the Holy Land, but I wasn’t interested in any fanatical “Left Behind” tours, where a humorless guide with a Carolinian accent points out where the Second Coming will take place and then sweeps his arm yonder to pinpoint the sandy acreage where the nonbelievers will commence their eternal burning.
My other option was to land at Ben Gurion Airport and feel my way around solo, but that wasn’t quite the way I wanted to experience Israel for the first time.
Instead, I took my maiden voyage with a rabbi.
Taking a two-week tour of the Holy Land was a natural extension of my religious and cultural curiosity. It’s a quest that has led me on more than one occasion to Congregation Shaaray Tefila — a Conservative synagogue not far from the upstate New York town in which I live — for Seders, Kabbalah study, Jewish film festivals and beginning-Hebrew lessons (a far better mind-sharpening exercise, for my money, than crossword puzzles). A tour led by the congregation’s rabbi, Elliot Marmon, just seemed right.
Our group of nine booked a tour that included religious and historical stops in the Old City, Mount Herzl, Yad Vashem, Tiberias, the Golan Heights, the Dead Sea, Druze villages and verdant kibbutzim. Our guide turned out to be a 30-year veteran of the tour business named Tzvi Manor. He was humorless only some of the time. And not once during our odyssey did he try and pinpoint the messiah’s landing strip.
All the places were as stunning and mystical as I had imagined, but what fascinated me even more were the people. Israelis are an animated tapestry of passion, intensity, warmth, intelligence and ferocity, the likes of which I’d never seen.
They possess the passion of Spaniards, the hospitality of Italians and the don’t-waste-my-time directness of New Yorkers. They’ve crossed continents and oceans to live in a country that isn’t always the easiest of places in which to dwell.
One afternoon in Jerusalem, all toured out, I let the rest of the group explore the Menachem Begin Heritage Center Museum as I listened to our guide deliver a soliloquy on what it’s like to live in one of the most densely populated, controversy-ridden and stimulating countries in the world.
Over cups of strong Israeli coffee, he told me why he went from visitor to resident nearly 40 years ago. Born to Czech parents and raised in Argentina, his first visit to Israel was in 1967.
“I went back a few times to be sure, but once I came….” Manor said, staring into his coffee. “There’s something about it that gets into your soul.”
Despite the danger implicit in the bag-checking guards parked outside every café, and police forces patrolling crowded marketplaces with sub-machine guns, 7 million people choose to call Israel home. Thousands more clamor to immigrate each year.
But untold millions are afraid to visit — and that baffles Manor.
“The perception of violence is because of the media,” Manor said. “The overall risk is relatively small.”
In his 30 years of touring, he’s never had an incident and doesn’t even know anyone personally who has.
“You don’t always look around for danger, but your eyes become trained,” he explained.
For him, it’s a small price to pay.
“I like that it’s a country full of challenges,” he said. “Anyone who says they’re not affected by the stress is either lobotomized or lying… but I don’t think I could live anywhere else.”
To be sure, there’s a certain charge in the air from the possibility of danger, but I also felt a different kind of electricity, one that springs from the mysterious interweaving of old and new: a 58-year-young country founded on ancient and hallowed ground; rusted shells of Syrian tanks left where they were stopped in their tracks five decades ago; a McDonald’s sign perched off a highway in the Judean Mountains.
The ancient and the modern make for an intoxicating spell, a fragrance that wafts invisibly as it embraces the visible: the ancient glow of the Old City; date trees bathed in the Mediterranean sun; the cantor who paces the aisles of the Yeshurun Central Synagogue as he wails out the Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evening; the 20-year-old woman in green army fatigues, a firearm slung over one shoulder as she scans the crowd in Zion Square, and a group of school boys, laughing as they run to the corner shwarma stand.
There is no place like Israel, and no people quite like the Israelis. What I absorbed in 14 days went far beyond touring famous biblical and historical sites. As with Manor and countless others, I was changed irrevocably by my first visit to Israel. And I’m not surprised that it’s gotten into my soul, as well. I may not uproot everything and move there, but I will return to Israel… again and again.
Stacey Morris is a freelance writer who has written for the New York Times Syndicate, Better Homes and Gardens, Specialty Food and Adirondack Life.