Back to our roots

Philippe and I needed time out. A long overdue, weekend getaway. In this sliver of land, you can either head north—to Zichron Yaakov, Tiberias, Safed—or south toward the Negev Desert and Eilat and other smaller towns and villages, kibbutzim and settlements around. After lengthy conversations and a lot of research, we decided to return to our roots: Haifa. One hour north. A hotel in the Carmel center. A five-minute walk from the apartment we bought when we got married; where we hunkered down, gas masks over our faces, during the First Gulf War in 1991; where we hosted parties for our friends from America, Sweden, England, France, Russia; and where Benjamin lived for the first year of his life.

Thursday night, we strolled south on the promenade at Dado, one of the city’s most beautiful beaches, before meeting our British friends for dinner at Sheelti Eli, a hip, indoor-outdoor, kosher restaurant with at least one hookah on the floor next to each table.  None of us had ever eaten there and couldn’t believe that observant women wearing wigs as well as secular women wearing sleeveless tops and tattoos could feel comfortable dining in the same spot.

Old friends

Friday morning, after gorging ourselves on the typical Israeli hotel buffet breakfast with everything from chopped tomato-cucumber salad to individual-sized shakshuka to seeded bread with spreads like honey and hummus, Philippe and I rode the Carmelit funicular to the seventh and last stop, Paris Square, in search of Friday’s Old Turkish market near rehov Yafo. While no such market exists, the city is trying to turn over the area with artists’ studios and funky boutiques. Murals and street art caught my eye. Occasional red- and-blue Israel Railway trains, running north to Nahariya and south to Beersheva, puffed into the nearby station. The mild waves of the Mediterranean purred in the harbor. Mosques abound with silver and turquoise painted turrets called worshippers to pray. Men and women speaking Arabic, Hebrew, Russian and Amharic passed us on the streets.

Stunning scenery

From there, Philippe and I headed up to Hadar, the middle of the city by the bay with its windy, hilly streets, which many people compare to San Francisco. Twenty-five years ago, we used to trek down to Shul Talpiot, an overcrowded, covered market, in search of the freshest challah, most succulent chicken and moistest dates every Friday. Rehov Herzl, the main artery, didn’t look familiar with its newly paved road, but the stores selling shlock haven’t changed. Around noon, we wound our way back down steep stairs, through the flea market, toward the port in search of the best falafel but instead ended up at a chain called Hummus Eliyahu with the freshest hummus we’ve ever eaten.

Throughout the morning, we rehashed our history—our favorite ice cream spot that no longer exists, the pizza place that used to be kosher and is no longer, the cafe-movie theater where we ate apple strudel and watched indie flicks. We each shared the same strong memory of sitting in a theater during the Gulf War, hearing a siren, the movie stopping, donning our gas masks and exiting the back door at the end; the seats, we recalled, were sienna red.

Just as large parts of the country begin to shut down on Friday afternoons to usher in Shabbat, we anticipated our next stop: a one-hour Thai massage with hot oil with a young woman named Sukanya who, despite her tiny frame, digs her elbows and kneads her hands into shoulder blades and hip flexors, fingers and toes. One after the other, we left her clinic feeling like jellyfish, fleshy and flimsy with our limbs dangling.

Saturday’s highlight included the free guided tour of the Bahai Gardens, a Unesco World Heritage Site. When I had called earlier in the week to inquire, the woman had advised me to get in line about 30 minutes before the noontime tour. I took my book and bottle of water and sat in the piercing winter sun and waited, patiently, until the volunteer wrote down my name and assured me a spot. Philippe joined me, and, along with about 70 other people, we learned the main tenants of the religion and why Haifa is the headquarters to the six-million worldwide Bahai population and that even if a missile fell on the mountainside, their holy scriptures would be protected since they’re housed in their library hundreds of feet below ground level.

That afternoon, we checked out of the hotel and strolled to our friends’ apartment for a late lunch. Alex and Lena, both Russian immigrants, arrived in Israel shortly after us, the year after the Berlin Wall and Communism collapsed. Philippe met Alex at work when they were both employed as engineers at the Israel Electric Corporation and have stayed in touch ever since.

After sundown, we drove south and stopped at Moshav Herev Le’et to visit my great aunt Bruria, two of her children and a few of their kids. I’ve been visiting my Israeli family since my first trip in 1970, and every time it’s the same: the door is unlocked, anyone is welcome, and coffee and cake are always on the table. That night, I confessed my political ignorance and asked who I should vote for in upcoming elections this March and why. Before the elections two years ago, I’d educated myself, attending panels and reading about each party’s platform. But I hadn’t anticipated a coalition breakdown so quickly; I haven’t kept abreast of the changes in leadership, which seem constant. The gist of the lively, almost heated, conversation that ensued was that first I have to decide if I believe in one state or two. But if it’s one, I then have to decide if I believe everyone who lives in this country should have full and equal rights.

All I can say after experiencing my second war this summer is it’s complicated. Complex. Tangled and entangled. Even tortuous at times.

As Muslim prayer time came to a close on Friday and dozens of people poured out onto the streets from the mosque, I said to Philippe that Jerusalem–and other parts of this country–should learn from Haifa. Because of its heterogeneous population with 82 percent Jews, 14 percent Christian and 4 percent Muslim as well as Druze and Bahai, it often serves as a model for (mostly) peaceful coexistence. Everywhere we went we noticed Arabs and the seamlessness of living side by side. I’d long forgotten that part of life in the Mediterranean Coastal Plain and loved the reminder of possibility.

Girls walking on the wall

Cool cafe in the flea market

A view of the Bahai dome from above

Leave a Comment

9 Responses to “Back to our roots”

  1. Zondra Barricks February 4, 2015 at 5:43 am #

    Love reading your posts. Always feel I’m sitting next to you hearing the story. Really enjoy every report and the diversity of experiences. XOZ

  2. Ellen February 4, 2015 at 10:13 am #

    Beautifully written, as always!

  3. Ulrika Johansson February 4, 2015 at 4:50 pm #

    Love your story.
    I love Haifa and always visit when in Israel.
    I hope I’ll be visiting during Pessach.

  4. Mona F Kolko February 4, 2015 at 10:43 pm #

    What a lovely travelogue this was to read about your Haifa holiday!!!

    I think you offer a perfect coexistence solution for Israel to contemplate!!

    xo
    auntie em

  5. Simon Lang March 18, 2015 at 11:15 am #

    I enjoyed your blog ,we live in the north in Karmiel so it was very familar
    I dont think we are related but who knows???
    Keep up the good work
    Simon

  6. marla March 19, 2015 at 3:37 am #

    very interesting. I feel like Im there

  7. Ahmed Dalloyou March 21, 2015 at 7:52 am #

    You live in a racist, third world country without a Constitution.
    You cannot get decent sushi, eat decent food of any kind,
    It’s all mediocre and kosher. And you live there why? Art and theatre are second-rate at best.
    Your children cannot get a liberal, unbiased world-class education. Maybe they will study computers so it won’t matter. On the other hand, you seem to make a name for yourself writing about cultural differences in your pitiful sorry place.
    Be atzlacha!

  8. Elly March 2, 2016 at 2:33 pm #

    Dear God Krishna:Gimme a Christmas present pleezez Paul:Ah I understand your secret mission to enhance the beauty index of North America. But what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas Holiday encounters’ are best left where they are, isn’t it hehehe

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