Tag Archives: Middle East

Travel Guide: Tel Aviv

A lot gets packed into our eighth grade trip to Israel. After four nights in Jerusalem, two nights in the Negev, and three nights on the Kinneret, the trip staff were exhausted. Built into the trip was a weekend with host families, usually students’ relatives or family friends. For staff, this meant two nights to choose anywhere in Israel to stay and just relax. One of my carpool friends was also a trip chaperone and we chose to spend the weekend in Tel Aviv; it was nothing less than glorious.

With the kids, we stopped in Tel Aviv twice over the course of the trip: Once to eat falafel and hang out in a park before visiting the Olympic Museum, which was entertaining for the kids and a lovely display of Zionism, and once to go to the beach. Suffice it to say that Tel Aviv (and perhaps anything) with kids is completely different than with adults.

After traveling by bus with a group of students also staying in and around Tel Aviv, we were free! We dropped our bags at the hotel and headed straight to Nachlat Binyamin, the artists’ market where, back in 2007, my parents bought a fruit plate that still sits on their kitchen counter and I bought a pair of purple earrings that I wore every single day until they turned green. (Those earrings are the reason that I chose purple studs when I pierced the second hole in my right ear.) I didn’t buy anything this time, but it was still fun to look around.

From there, hungry, in the mood for shakshuka, and still in need of gifts, we wandered Shuk HaCarmel, the most famous of Tel Aviv’s markets. As readers of this blog know, I adore markets. I love food and smells and flavors. I love the dedication of the vendors, the passionate bargaining of customers, and the speed of each transaction. I love the crowds and how markets are universally loud, frenetic, and a true delight for all the senses.

This particular market area of Tel Aviv is also a great spot for really neat street art. Shout out to my weekend partner-in-crime for her patience every time I said, “Wait, need a picture.”

Truth be told, however, we spent most of our weekend just sitting on the beach. I’m generally really bad at sitting but that’s all my body wanted to do. Sometimes we sat with food or drinks and sometimes we just sat and watched the water. We met up with a friend and some friends of friends and had ourselves a lovely time.

In addition to a great beach atmosphere, Tel Aviv also has a great restaurant and bar scene. On recommendation from one of our trip guides who lives in Tel Aviv, we went to Four One Six, a vegan restaurant that exceeded all expectations. After a few minutes of talking to the owner, we made a New York connection – he and his twin brother, the head chef, are from Brooklyn and opened the restaurant together a few months ago. He had previously worked at Candle 79, a phenomenal vegan restaurant that was blocks away from my Upper East Side apartment for the month that I lived there. The owner was really friendly and told us that he and his brother are working to challenge the food scene in Tel Aviv by introducing delicious vegan food that highlights what vegan can eat rather than what they can’t. Sounds a little like Candle 79! (And Vedge in Philadelphia, which I also highly recommend.) The owner dropped off a plate of chocolates and stopped back to ask if we’d figured out the flavors. Delicious isn’t a flavor but that’s what they were.

Other food highlights from the weekend include shakshuka, which we didn’t find at Shuk HaCarmel but ate outside at a sidewalk bakery/café, and burekas, which we also enjoyed while sitting outside. I could eat nothing but Israeli food every day for the rest of my life and never get bored. Every meal, including breakfast, is full of various types of fresh salads and I just love it.

After dinner, we met up with our guide, his girlfriend, and a few other friends at Dizzy Frishdon, a great bar with outdoor seating, several indoor bar areas, a table with swings instead of chairs, and a few rooms of normal tables and chairs. It was a really lovely evening to sit outside (are you noticing a theme?) and enjoy just being in Tel Aviv and watching the nightlife all around us. Our guide’s friend is a part owner of the bar and that came with food and drinks perks, which was a lot of fun.

Overall, it was an incredibly relaxing weekend and exactly what we needed to prepare for the final two nights of the trip back in Jerusalem. It actually ended up being two and a half nights after a seven-hour flight delay, so it’s a good thing that we were relaxed and rejuvenated. Beautiful beaches, beautiful food, and beautiful people have a way of doing that.

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View from our hotel room

Travel Guide: The Kinneret

After four nights in Jerusalem and two nights in the Negev on our eighth grade Israel trip, we headed north to the Kinneret, the region of Israel around the Sea of Galilee (Yam Kinneret in Hebrew). We stayed at a kibbutz where I’ve been before and had the best food of the entire trip. Unfortunately, we also had an insect infestation to go along with the stomach bug, fever, and colds freely passing from student to student. This meant changing the kids’ rooms every night to quarantine the sick and avoid the rooms with unliveable colonies of insects. No exaggeration. I slept in a different room each night and spent one night on the couch of a room two colleagues were sharing. Our sleepover was honestly a lot of fun!

As much as I love the desert, I do agree that the Kinneret is beautiful.

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Sunrise

The Kinneret is home to the Banias, which our trip guides consider Israel’s most beautiful hike. The site centers on a waterfall and a cave with shrines dedicated to the Greek god Pan. It was a gorgeous day, warm with spring flowers blooming. After our time in the Negev, it was nice to see the world returning to life after the winter.

After our hike, we drove to Har (Mountain) Bental in the Golan Heights, Israel’s most strategic defense point and one that it has so far refused to give up. From Har Bental, you can see the border between Israel and Lebanon, as well as the remains of an army bunker.

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We spent the afternoon in the Golan and visited De Karina Chocolate Factory to learn how chocolates are made and try out making our own. My favorite part of De Karina was the hot chocolate I bought at the café after the tour. It was simply melted chocolate, whole milk (which I never drink), and real whipped cream (which I never have) topped with chocolate shavings and served with a house-made praline. It brought a huge smile to my face.

The next day, we participated in the first of two service projects for the trip (the second was Latet in Jerusalem, which happened three days after this one even though I wrote about it first). This was my favorite activity so far and, I think, my favorite activity from the entire two weeks. We volunteered with Leket, an organization that collects surplus food products from a variety of venues to distribute to people in need, harvests farm produce that will otherwise go unharvested, and also runs its own farm with all products going to the hungry. Our task was to harvest a field of kohlrabi. If we could accomplish that quickly, the Leket staff told us, there was a field of beets that also needed harvesting.

Our eighth graders didn’t need telling twice. It was a bright, sunny day and energy was high. Excited about playing in the dirt, the kids filled buckets and buckets of kohlrabi and emptied them into packing crates. I heard more than a few races and competitions and tried to point out that the goal was the same, no matter who filled the most buckets. However, I ultimately found myself in a flow state much like what Levin describes in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina when he mows hay with his peasants.

Time slipped away and I didn’t notice the dirt under my nails, the stiffness in my knees, or the sunburn on the back of my neck until we were done with both fields about an hour later. All I knew was that you use both hands to pull up the kohlrabi, break off the leaves, and throw it in the bucket. The beets were easier to pull out of the ground but the technique was the same. If I could make a living just doing service work with students, I think I would.

That night, two drummers came to the kibbutz to lead us in a drum circle. I was pleasantly surprised at how many Jewish and Israeli folk songs the kids knew – and how many I knew! Songs I hadn’t heard in years and some of the dances that came with them just soared. It was such a great experience to have as a community, especially following an afternoon working together to help others directly from the land that we were singing about.

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One of the drummers playing a shofar as an instrument!

Energy was obviously running high and it took us a while to get the kids calmed down with suitcases packed and into bed. We needed to leave the next morning for host family destinations for the weekend. For my colleagues and me, that meant a free weekend to relax and refresh. More on that soon!

Travel Guide: The Negev

The Negev is Israel’s desert and my favorite region of the country. I first visited the Negev on my second trip to Israel in 2013, which was the start of my fantasy of living on a kibbutz by the Dead Sea. I’ve slightly modified that dream based on this trip to Israel and now I think I’d prefer to live on a moshav and work with Israeli and Palestinian children on conflict resolution and restorative peace practices. If my next life plan doesn’t work out, there’s always that!

Having fallen in love with the desert in the past made me even more excited to bring students there on our eighth grade Israel trip. We began with four nights in Jerusalem and then drove to the Negev to hike Masada, an ancient fortress where Herod built palaces for himself in the late first century BCE and where Jews hid after the destruction of the Second Temple. We hiked the winding snake path, built by the Romans in 73CE to reach the hiding Jews. Those Jews, known as Zealots, committed suicide rather than be taken by the Romans. Or so the stories tell us!

It was a hot day and the hike was difficult for many students, which tells me that there’s not enough (or proper or effective) physical education in schools and physical activity in general. The staff on our trip, all of which exercise regularly, had little trouble.

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I love pictures of waving flags but there was no wind when we reached the top, so this was the best I could do.

To the sounds of prayer and singing at the top of Masada, I wandered off alone to meditate and take some pictures. I love the desert because of its colors and its desolation. Such emptiness makes me feel close to the sky and reminds me that in the grand scheme of the world and life, I am nothing, not even a speck on the trajectory of evolutionary history. Those feelings remind me that my own problems are easy to solve and really don’t matter very much at all.

Guards accompany large tour groups in Israel and it was so interesting to see the different responses of each guard to our group’s prayers that afternoon. Most Israelis are secular Jews but we had Jews of many kinds in and among our group throughout our two-week trip.

That afternoon, we visited the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. It is receding at a terrifying rate of about one foot per year. I noticed the shrinking size of the Dead Sea, which is actually a lake, upon seeing it for the second time in 2013 as compared to my 2007 trip, and it was even more obvious this time. The hotels that used to sit right on the shore are now a short car ride away.

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Across the Dead Sea is Jordan!
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Salt from the Dead Sea, which gives it its the Hebrew name Yam HaMelach, or Salt Sea

We spent our two nights in the Negev at Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh, which had really fun and eclectic decor in front of the reception office:

The following morning we visited Makhtesh Ramon, a geological phenomenon that requires a little explanation. Makhtesh Ramon is often translated as “Ramon Crater”, which is inaccurate. A crater is formed by impact, usually from a meteorite. A makhtesh, however, is formed by erosion and geological changes occurring over hundreds of millions of years. Visiting a makhtesh is basically a journey through evolutionary time. The only examples of a makhtesh are found in Israel’s Negev and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.

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I spent more time at Makhtesh Ramon back in 2013 and took a lot more photos. For your viewing pleasure, and because I love it there, here they are:

The next morning, we visited an alpaca farm that also raises llamas, camels, donkeys, sheep, and other animals. The owners actually brought the alpacas and llamas to Israel from South America and now have an organic farm where they give tours and sell wool that they make on site.

That afternoon, we hiked Ein Ovdat, a desert canyon. By this point in the trip, we had a number of students ill with a stomach virus and others struggling with dehydration so we didn’t climb the waterfall but that’s supposed to be really beautiful, too.

In addition to hiking Masada, no trip to the Negev is complete without a stop at a Bedouin tent to learn about this group of nomadic people who used to inhabit the desert. In Israel today, 100% of Bedouins live in villages and towns so their desert hospitality tents, complete with dinner, a camel ride, and the option to spend the night, exist only for tourism and education. While camel riding is one of those activities that everyone does when visiting Israel, it is simply the Middle Eastern equivalent of elephant riding, the problems of which I learned about on a trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand about 18 months ago. If elephant riding is animal abuse and needs to be stopped, so does riding camels. And considering one of them bit a student and the rest were stubborn, snorting, and protesting the entire time, I’d say the camels more than agree.


We left the Negev after two nights and I was sorry to say goodbye. The desert is beautiful and I hope you make it there someday, to any desert. I love waterfalls and trees as much as the next person, as my post about the north of Israel will demonstrate, but the desert is special. It’s nothing and everything all at once.