Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Should You Visit Israel?

Should You Visit Israel? | Adelante

I contemplated not telling my parents that I was going to Israel. I knew that my announcement would be met with apprehension, disapproval, and fear. But my tickets were bought, and my heart was set on going. Despite the political climate, no government or parental warnings could stop me.

I've always felt an inexplicable pull towards the Holy Land. Perhaps it's because most of my friends are Jewish, and they've always raved about their visits and Birthright trips. Maybe it's due to my intense fascination with Judaism, despite being raised Christian-ish. Or perhaps I was just tired of my European comfort zone, and felt ready to explore a more exotic corner of the world.

When one of my sorority sisters moved to Tel Aviv, I saw it as my golden opportunity to finally visit Israel. I booked my trip on a whim and started counting down the days.

Jaffa, Tel Aviv | Adelante
Jaffa, Tel Aviv

Upon catching my flight from Spain, I found myself getting detained in the underbelly of Madrid-Barajas airport. As I was strip-searched and interrogated, I couldn't help but thinking, "What the hell have I gotten myself into?"

I was paralyzed with fear and doubt. "If this is happening before I even get to Tel Aviv, what's going to happen once I'm actually there?" My belongings were strewn across counters, my valuables confiscated from my carry-on, and my dignity battered and bare. I asked myself in alarm, "Is this safe? Should I really visit Israel?"

But after spending a week falling head over heels for Israel's culture, cuisine, and people, here is why my answer is an overwhelming yes!

Old City of Jerusalem | Adelante
Old City of Jerusalem

Become immersed in a captivating culture

Israel is an intriguing blend of East meets West. Ancient and modern, cozy yet exotic, its contrasting elements create a colorful amalgam of Israeli culture. The variety of ethnicities, traditions, and religious backgrounds adds to the country's magnetic diversity. From rabbis to hipsters and nightclubs to synagogues, Israel truly offers a taste of everything.

Israel's mesmerizing culture is unlike anything I've ever experienced. Throughout my trip, I was hypnotized by the country's stories, religious ceremonies, language, and culinary traditions. Rich, complex, and stimulating, the thought-provoking culture of Israel is undeniably worth experiencing firsthand.

Western Wall, Jerusalem | Adelante
Western Wall, Jerusalem | Adelante
A spiritual experience at the Western Wall

One of the most memorable experiences from my time in Israel was celebrating my first proper Shabbat. As Judaism's official day of rest, Saturdays in Israel are unusually quiet and calm. Depending on how one practices their religion, observing Shabbat can mean anything from not going to the supermarket to completely avoiding the use of light switches, lotions, or electronic devices.

I took the next 24 hours to fully unplug, detaching myself from the devices I'm normally glued to. On Friday evening I accompanied my Orthodox friend to her synagogue, and afterwards we went to a friend's house for a feast of epic proportions.

The next day was spent singing, playing cards, and having long chats around the dinner table. In a day and age where selfies and Snapchat dominate social gatherings, focusing on genuine human connection for a full 24 hours was a much needed breath of fresh air.

Explore the colorful markets

Markets have always been my favorite places to explore while traveling, but Israeli shuks are especially bursting with life. From Tel Aviv's Carmel Market to Jerusalem's famed Mahane Yehuda, the bustling markets of Israel are a lively feast for the senses.

Serving up fresh Mediterranean delights and an unparalleled array of produce, the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv seduced and consumed me. Hungry for a revitalizing dose of culture shock, I got lost among the maze of stalls peddling fresh seafood, exotic fruits, and aromatic spices.

Carmel Market, Tel Aviv | Adelante
Carmel Market, Tel Aviv | Adelante
Carmel Market, Tel Aviv | Adelante

Experience an enchanting mix of old and new

While Israel's historic sites are dazzling enough to warrant a visit within themselves, what makes the country so unique is its compelling juxtaposition of ancient and modern. From Tel Aviv's sparkling skyscrapers to the Roman ruins of Caesarea, Israel paints a provocative picture of the Middle East's past and present. In the heart of the Holy Land, Jerusalem boasts a fascinating mix of trendy and traditional.

Rather than clashing, these contrasting elements complement each other in an unexpected way. The opposing forces of old and new tell a spellbinding story about Israel's history, rendering the present all the more engaging and complex.

Tel Aviv, Israel | Adelante
Cityscapes of Tel Aviv
Caesarea, Israel | Adelante
Ancient ruins in Caesarea

Savor fresh Mediterranean cuisine

The fresh and flavorful gastronomy of Israel effortlessly enraptured my tastebuds. A haven for the health-conscious, the culinary melting pot of Israeli fare is one of the world's finest. Refreshing Mediterranean dishes with a Middle Eastern flair dominate the cuisine, enriched by the presence of fresh vegetables, savory olives, chickpeas, and exotic spices.

Every time I taste parsley, I'm transported back to my first day in Tel Aviv, when I euphorically devoured a colorful Israeli salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, onion, parsley, lemon juice, and olive oil. I frequently daydream about the creamy hummus, crispy falafel, and comforting shakshuka I savored, and I still shamelessly order my fix of Bamba online.

Israeli breakfast | Adelante
A traditional Israeli breakfast
Carmel Market, Tel Aviv | Adelante
Tel Aviv's Carmel Market
Israeli Cuisine | Adelante
Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and gluten-free falafel

Get a taste of hummus heaven

If foods were soulmates, then hummus would be mine. Though I've spent the greater portion of my adulthood devouring hummus stateside, the stuff here doesn't even compare to the creamy perfection of true Israeli hummus.

My wildest hummus dreams came true at Ben Sira, a hole in the wall hummusiya in Jerusalem. This no-frills, unpretentious hummus joint takes chickpeas and turns them into edible works of art. Served with the traditional fixings, you can enjoy your hummus with a fluffy pita or fresh slices of onion. (While I love sinking my teeth into a slice of onion slathered with hummus, I also snuck in my own gluten-free pita for an extra Celiac-friendly treat!)

Hummus at Ben Sira, Jerusalem | Adelante
Hummus at Ben Sira, Jerusalem

Float on the Dead Sea

While Israel's variety of beaches is nothing short of sublime, nothing quite compares to bobbing like a cork on the Dead Sea. Just a short drive from Masada's commanding ruins lies the resort town of Ein Bokek, the perfect retreat for a lazy day along the Dead Sea.

More than 400 meters below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth. Due to the unusually high concentrations of salt, effortlessly floating in the water makes for a relaxing, otherworldly experience. Local vendors sell the sea's famed mineral mud to lather on before taking a dip.

Dead Sea, Israel | Adelante
Dead Sea, Israel | Adelante

Challenge yourself

If you go with an open mind, you're much more likely to leave enchanted. Rather than letting the media bombard you, form your own opinions. Be mindful, ask questions, and listen, but don't let the political climate define your experience (or keep you from going in the first place). Don't be afraid to be curious, but strive to refrain from judgement. Establish your views after seeing and experiencing it for yourself.

Old City of Jerusalem | Adelante

Grappling with the ups and downs of spirituality, politics, extreme sensory overload, and adrenaline rushes stretched my mind in countless ways, but in the end, I fell irreversibly in love with Israel. The food, culture, religion, people, and the country's overwhelming complexities left me captivated and positively seduced.



Have you visited Israel?
If not, would you ever consider going?



Please note that this post is not a political commentary. Please keep all comments respectful and appropriate.


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