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Adventures In The Holy Land, Pt. 1; Tel Aviv

The first two days of our four-night trip to Israel

We recently stayed in Tel Aviv, Israel for four days so Anna could attend a teaching seminar for the International Retinal Panel. During our stay we would take a tour of Jerusalem, travel along the West Bank while venturing into Palestine, visit the ancient village of Masada, and then float and get all muddy in the Dead Sea. All of the main events happened in the final two days of the trip so this will just be a relatively short post in comparison, covering the initial two days of our journey, both spent in Tel Aviv.

Friday, November 1, 2019
We had left Singapore at 11:30pm the previous night, took an 11.5-hour flight to Turkey, had a 90-minute layover in Istanbul Airport, and then took another two-hour flight to Tel Aviv. When we were in Seoul, South Korea recently we got chatting to some friends of mine who had traveled to Israel in the past and the nightmares they had faced going through immigration once they had reached Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. One of them even told us about how he got cavity-searched, so we were both prepared for the worst. Once we were off the plane and inside the airport I cringed a bit when the first security guard snapped on a pair of disposable gloves, but it turned out to be just for him to search through our hand luggage. After that the line at the passport counter was taking forever, but it turned out that the reason the queue was taking so long to move was because we just had a really talkative guy checking our passports and when he first saw my Australian document, he looked up, gave me a curious look, and asked, “Do you watch Home and Away?” I smiled and mentioned that my sister used to have it on every night back in the day and that was it. We had to ask for entry border crossing cards, a separate slip of paper to be put into our passports instead of a stamp, because having an Israeli passport stamp can cause quite a bit of trouble when traveling overseas. There are currently eight countries that won’t accept passports containing Israeli visas, the most notable one being Saudi Arabia, a country to which we may need to travel one day. There are also quite a few countries whose passport holders are forbidden entrance to Israel without official confirmation from the Israeli government, Malaysia being on that list, so one of Anna’s colleagues was unable to attend. In fact, if Anna hadn’t taken Singaporean citizenship after we got married, this journey would never have happened.

As has been a pattern over recent trips, we arrived in Tel Aviv early in the morning, well before our hotel room was available so we dumped our bags with the concierge and decided to have a look around town. We were staying at the Crowne Plaza, which had an attached shopping mall so that was our first stop, mainly for a much-needed coffee and a couple of pastries, and then we discovered that there was a park and shopping district nearby called Sarona, a place with an interesting history:

Sarona was a German Templer colony established in Ottoman Palestine in 1871. Sarona is now a neighbourhood of Tel Aviv, Israel. It was one of the earliest modern villages established by Europeans in Ottoman Palestine. In July 1941, the British Mandate authorities deported 188 residents of Sarona, who were considered hard-core Nazi sympathisers. By the 2000s, the area had fallen into disrepair and was a haven for drug addicts. However, since 2003, the area has undergone massive renovation, which involved moving and relocating historical buildings before their restoration. The area is now a popular shopping district, as well as housing museums, cultural artefacts centring on its history, and IDF complexes.

Walking around Sarona was really cool with its mix of shops, bars, and cafes, as well as the Sarona Market. When Anna was purchasing a ring in one of the stores she asked for some recommendations in the area and the first one immediately given was Anita, a boutique ice-cream store. We initially thought this was a one-off, but we ended up finding incredible ice-cream shops all over the city. Anyway, we ordered a cup with two flavours, Pavlova & Mix Berries and Salted Pretzel, before we continued walking around, visiting among other shops a handmade dreidel store called Draydel House, a place with some unique takes on the spinning tops, and then it was on to Sarona Market. The market had some great looking food and there were plenty of free samples, but as you will find out over the course of this post and the next, it wasn’t an accurate representation of kosher food. We walked around sampling different cheeses, pickles, and halva, possibly the driest substance on earth. Seriously, dust is more mouth-watering than halva. Another thing that Israel is known for is pomegranate juice, generally used for detoxing, so we ordered a large one each, a decision we would later deeply regret and one that would also put the pair of us off pomegranates for the foreseeable future, despite how nice it tasted. Once we were done with the market and walking around the gardens in Sarona, we were able to check into our room at the Crowne Plaza at around 2:00pm and take a nap for a bit.
Our day up until that point (besides the awesome pickle store in the market that wouldn’t let me take photos):

After sleeping for a bit we caught a cab to the waterfront, which is split into two parts; Alma Beach, a modern seaside area, and the Old City area of Jaffa. Most modern beach areas are similar, whereas ancient cities are always fascinating so Jaffa was the obvious choice to spend some time exploring first. It would be nigh on impossible to summarise the history of a 3,800-year-old port city in the Middle East, but here’s the general background:

Jaffa, in Hebrew Yafo and also called Japho or Joppa, the southern and oldest part of Tel Aviv–Yafo, is an ancient port city in Israel. Jaffa is famous for its association with the biblical stories of Jonah, Solomon and Saint Peter as well as the mythological story of Andromeda and Perseus, and later for its oranges. The city as such was established at the latest around 1800 BCE.

Modern Jaffa has a heterogeneous population of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Jaffa currently has 46,000 residents, of whom 30,000 are Jews and 16,000 are Arabs. The 2010 film Port of Memory explores these themes. Tabeetha School in Jaffa was founded in 1863. It is owned by the Church of Scotland. The school provides education in English to children from Christian, Jewish and Muslim backgrounds.

Our taxi driver was an elderly man who kept explaining to us along the way that Tel Aviv was a party city, that around 69% of people there were aged between 30-40, and that we’d be among the older people out that night. I wasn’t expecting that, but another thing we weren’t expecting was the fact that the sun sets in Tel Aviv before 5:00pm, it’s almost as if the city is in the entirely wrong timezone and is something that would throw our body clocks off for the duration of this trip. When it had been dark there for a few hours, you’d be led to think it was getting kind of late when in reality it was only about eight o’clock in the evening. So, despite the fact that we arrived at Jaffa at 4:30pm, the sun was already setting, but this just made the place that much more beautiful.
We spent the evening wandering through the narrow streets and laneways of Jaffa, taking in all of the ancient buildings, towers, and structures, plus the major landmarks in the area such as Jaffa Lighthouse, Clock Square, and the coastal canons, all while the sun set over the ocean.

After all of that walking we were beginning to get hungry and the waterside restaurants at Alma Beach were supposed to be pretty decent so we chose one called Manta Ray for dinner where we sat outdoors with some drinks and feasted on some selections from their great meze platter, as well as a grilled fish.
We were to meet the organisers and other attendees of Anna’s course at 9:30pm after everyone had arrived in town, but it was barely 7:30pm by the time we finished dinner so we found a nearby shisha bar for a few more drinks and a pipe. After a while we both began to bloat up, neither of us could stop farting, and I was burping constantly, feeling the need to vomit. It was too soon after dinner to be from the fish or the meze dishes we chose, I had already checked that the water was safe to drink so that wasn’t it, coffee, pastries, and ice-cream don’t have this effect on me, and nothing else we had tried had been a large enough sample to make us sick. Except for the pomegranate juice, that is. We had drunk about a litre (33.8 fl. oz.) each several hours ago and it now seemed like we were paying for it, however, we couldn’t be 100% certain. Whatever it was, we both wanted to go back to the hotel and let it all out, resulting in me violently throwing up for a few minutes once inside, but then we felt reasonably fine as soon as we were both empty.

We met up with Anna’s course-mates in the lobby of our hotel and we walked down to a pub in another nearby part of town where everyone chatted over some beers, while those who hadn’t eaten had dinner. It was a really fun night and Anna decided to ask one of the local organisers, Tamir, if it could’ve been the pomegranate juice that bloated us. He said it’s good for you, most people just take a small glass and share it. When she told him that we’d had a litre each he was gobsmacked. “That’s not detox, that’s just tox!” was the response.
Here are a whole bunch of photos from around Jaffa that evening, plus a couple of our dinner and the shisha bar before we bloated up like a pair of non-embalmed corpses:

Saturday, November 2, 2019
Anna was going to her course so I was free to do my own thing for the bulk of the day, but there was one small problem — Saturday is the sabbath, also known as Shabbat in Judaism, and this would severely limit what I was able to do due to many actions being classed as melakhah and thus being prohibited on this day of rest or historically punishable by death! Here’s a better description of melakhah:

Jewish law (halakha) prohibits doing any form of melakhah (מְלָאכָה, plural melakhoth) on Shabbat, unless an urgent human or medical need is life-threatening. Though melakhah is commonly translated as “work” in English, a better definition is “deliberate activity” or “skill and craftmanship”. There are 39 categories of prohibited activities (melakhoth) listed in Mishnah Tractate Shabbat 7:2.

Some acts forbidden on Shabbat include:

  • Threshing/Extraction Definition: Removal of an undesirable outer from a desirable inner.
  • Dissection Definition: Reducing an earth-borne thing’s size for a productive purpose.
  • Kneading/Amalgamation Definition: Combining particles into a semi-solid or solid mass via liquid.
  • Cooking/Baking Definition for solids: Changing the properties of something via heat. Definition for liquids: Bringing a liquid’s temperature to the heat threshold. This threshold is known as yad soledet (lit. “A hand reflexively recoils [due to such heat]”). According to Igrot Moshe this temperature is 43 °C (110 °F).
  • Extinguishing a Fire Definition: Extinguishing a fire/flame, or diminishing its intensity.
  • Ignition Definition: Igniting, fuelling or spreading a fire/flame.
  • Transferring Between Domains Definition: Transferring something from one domain type to another domain type, or transferring within a public thoroughfare.

Now, some of you reading this are probably thinking, “Why would you care, you’re not Jewish.” This is true, however, despite me seeing fewer Orthodox Jews in Israel than I did on any given day in New York City, prohibition of melakhah on Shabbat is enforced by law, although not to an extreme. Although no shops would be open, these restrictions would severely limit my food purchasing options.
Because it had been powered down for Shabbat, I pushed my way through the revolving door to exit the hotel and hit the street. I was quite hungry due to the fact that I had vomited everything I had eaten the previous evening so I figured I might get lucky finding somewhere open to eat at Sarona. I saw a cafe with people all around it so that’s where I went and I ordered the egg white omelette on the menu, which came with some bread and a side salad. I guess the hotplate must’ve been kept burning from the previous day and eggs aren’t really a solid or liquid so changing their properties via heat would be fine. Salad was also okay because the form of the lettuce doesn’t change, only the size, and it was cut quite large so it wasn’t done to make it into a more usable, productive state. The bread had obviously been made the previous day and when it came to dissection of the food in order to eat, that was all on me, not the cafe. Juice wasn’t an option due to threshing/extraction, but it was when I ordered a latte that things got weird. The waiter told me that he could only offer me a “very weak coffee” which was the result of the water and milk only being heated to about 40°C in keeping with the law, a temperature that also isn’t really hot enough for the coffee to properly infuse the water, thus making it not very strong. It actually turned out to be infinitely easier to get a beer anywhere in town that morning than coffee. My order at the cafe was able to be brought from the kitchen to my table, and also to diners who were seated outside, without transferring between domains due to the installation of an eruv, described as:

An urban area enclosed by a wire boundary which symbolically extends the private domain of Jewish households into public areas, permitting activities within it that are normally forbidden in public on the Sabbath.

Although the Jewish community must strictly adhere to laws of prohibition on Shabbat, going to the effort of building eruvs and heating liquids to a slightly cooler temperature than normal seem like ways of pranking an almighty deity who is easily fooled by the loopholes in the rules he wrote. Then I remembered this scene from the documentary Religulous:

After eating I decided to have a look around the beach area, making my way there via the main shopping district en route, but obviously everything was closed except for bars, restaurants, and cafes and wouldn’t be opening again until late in the evening or within the next few days. I was also having trouble getting cash out of an ATM again and this time I wasn’t sure whether the machines weren’t accepting my card or were just unable to function in general.
I arrived at the beach and it was quite nice with a bunch more seaside bars and restaurants, as well as plenty of entertainment, some of which was unintentionally funny. There was Israeli folk dancing that happens at Gordon Beach every Saturday, as well as a big outdoor gym area where meatheads could work out like in Venice Beach, California, all just grunting, flexing, and slapping butts. Instead, I walked out along the pier to a lighthouse, just taking in the sights. It was a nice walk, but I could feel myself getting sunburnt so I went back to a shaded area along the shore to sit down with a bunch of senior citizens for a bit and that’s where I got the biggest laugh of the day. There were three guys working out there, one was absolutely ripped and doing chin-ups and some other impressive feats on horizontal bars directly in front of us, another was doing push ups, all the while giving the third guy tips on capoeira moves. If you are unaware of what capoeira is, it’s a Brazilian martial art that combines acrobatics, dancing, and complex moves involving hand plants, kicks, and flips (that link is a video that will give you a decent idea). The only problem was that the guy trying to do it wasn’t particularly good at capoeira so I found myself sitting there with a bunch of confused older people who were innocently trying to figure out why a muscly dude was doing cartwheels in the sand in front of several other muscly guys.
It was a hot day, a dry heat compared to the insane humidity of Singapore, but I had no cash for a drink so I had a sip out of the drinking fountain where people also washed the sand off their feet, and walked for forty minutes back to the hotel, passing a cheese shop that you could smell before you could see, despite it being closed, along the way. Once back I killed two birds with one stone, grabbing a bottle of sparkling water from the minibar and making an instant coffee in the room, which turned into mud when I added water, but it still gave me the caffeine fix I had been lacking. I also managed to get cash out of an ATM next our hotel and Anna was still going to be a while so I planted myself in a bar back in Sarona for a few hours until she was done.

Anna was soon back from her teaching and we had a dinner that night with everyone else involved in the course. This meant taking a minibus with the International Retinal Panel crew back to a restaurant at the beach, Anna’s first venture into that area of Tel Aviv, so we had a look around the boardwalk and took a few photos first. It was nice to hang out with everyone while we were feeling 100%, they were really cool people and an interesting mix of nationalities, some local, others coming from Columbia, Italy, India, France, Argentina, China, and a multitude of other other countries. The restaurant we went to looked good, but the entire group, myself included, consisted of about 30 people, taking up two massive tables, and the platters we received, two per table, were to be shared. The problem with this system was that Anna, myself, and a few others were tucked away in a corner on the back table and our food and drinks kept failing to appear. Everyone else received a meze platter except us, we waited about 20 minutes and then had to ask for it, as well as remind the staff that we had also ordered drinks. When it finally arrived, the other areas of both tables were receiving a grilled fish that looked delicious, but when we finished our platter the fish never arrived, nor did the second drink I ordered. We asked about the fish and when it finally came ours was just what seemed like fish offcuts including several heads, all of which was deep-fried to the point that it was so crunchy it was pretty much inedible. We didn’t bother eating much of it, that second beer never came, and everyone that was there for the course had homework to do so we got back in the bus, the interior blue light making my Rick and Morty “Pickle Rick” shirt appear as if it were covered in turds, and we went back to the hotel, them to do group work and me to have a couple of drinks at the hotel bar until it closed.

Tel Aviv is such a cool city and nothing like we expected, yet a completely hidden gem when it comes to traveling, but this was just the beginning! Stay tuned for the next instalment when we do all the cool stuff you would expect one to do while in Israel that in no way would fit into this post, like visiting Jerusalem and floating in the Dead Sea.

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