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Israel: Way, Way Beyond a Religious Experience

By Sasha Fastovskiy

One of my fondest memories of my typical Jewish mother convincing me to go to Israel was towards the latter half of my Catholic school education. My Irish Catholic boyfriend and I just broken up and I was brutally devastated. My mother, slightly unsure of how to reason with me since I, a predictable teenager in every sense of the word, would snap at her every breath and suggestion. Then one day she called from work with a most splendid idea. “How about we send you to Israel?” Yep, that’s my mother; the only way to remedy a Catholic crush is with a Jewish husband.

About five years later, I was one of the millions of kids embarking on Israel trips via the Birthright program. Basically, we saw almost the entire country, walked up and down Masada, rode camels, and made lasting friendships. I didn’t fly home with the group ~ instead, I chose to stay in Israel for another few weeks to see my large family that had settled there and to get a taste of what Israel is like without the shiny bus confines of a free Jewish youth tour group.  The “real” places, the gritty, party-centric neighborhoods, each full of hummus and pushy people, did more than introduce me to an un-Birthright Israel; they made me positive I was going to return. So, in writing this piece in an attempt to convince folks of both the Jewish and non-Jewish varieties to visit Israel, I will focus on the highlights of this teeny, tiny country that appeal to the Jewish man, the Catholic man, and the everyman.

On the superficial end, people are really, really pretty. The tanned, pigmented skin, the darker hair and eyes, the tacky bedazzled clothes designed to catch the sunlight and make outfits glitter and glisten ~ even those appear alluring under the hot Mediterranean sun. When they’re not feeding their army-toned bodies with pounds of falafel and shwarma, they’re haggling for the freshest fruits, baked goods, and spices at the shuik marketplace, which is not unlike the New York Stock Exchange ~ only louder, hotter, and without that damn bell. They also moisturize their skin with products from the Dead Sea, where they often float and swim and soak in mud baths (meanwhile, I get mine at TJMaxx and pretend it gives me the same salt-soaked high).

The beaches of Israel are one of its main attractions; they are year-round in a country without a real winter season. Yet lack of on official winter aside, this country roughly the size of New Jersey has climates of all sorts in a 6 hour travel time-span: the North is green and lush, there are snow peaks and ski slopes at the Golan Heights, and traveling south yields you desert. Even farther down is the country’s southernmost point, Eilat ~ a beach town that I lovingly refer to as “Spring Break Israel.” Jerusalem, a must-see for any person of any religion, is literally the holy of holies. The city of religious crossroads is so moving it’s got a freakin’ hysteria condition named after it:

erusalem Syndrome: is a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem [Wikipedia].

Whatever telephone booth of religion one uses to communicate with his/her higher power, the best reception is most definitely in white, stony Jerusalem.

Finally, we come to a much lately hyped Tel Aviv. Recently named the #3 nightlife city behind New York and Tangier, Africa, with more bars than synagogues, the city’s self-branded motto is “The city that never stops.” No really ~ the clubs, bars, restaurants, and cafe culture (which Israel is famous for) begin at 9 p.m. and keep bumpin’ til 6 the next morning. Forgetting about all the culture clashes, histories of war and religious quarrels is too easy in Tel Aviv; Lonely Planet Travel called it a “modern sin city on the sea, rather than a Holy City on a hill,” and if sin is what you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed.

When exploring the globe, Israel rightly deserves a spot on the must-see list even for those less-than-anxious to get to know our religious roots. It’s a young, modern country ~ they’ve been voted as the country that spends the most time on Facebook ~ with a LGBT scene rivaling that of San Francisco. There are museums, gardens, historical attractions, clubs, and activities for all to enjoy, and then meet in the middle (might I suggest Masada?). As for me, my bags are already packed for a return pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but I gotta admit; like every Jewish mother, mine was right, and I should have gone earlier.

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