At the end of August, after summer baseball and before school, all 7 of us, plus
my father and my wife’s aunt and uncle, were in Israel for my oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah. It was an amazing, and exhausting trip, full of memories, stories, and lots of good times. It was also a chance for my wife and I to make the Jewish ritual of becoming a Bar Mitzvah a meaningful experience for everyone in the family. The planning of the trip took many months, but in the end we had an incredible time.
Day 1: Good manners on the airplane
“Daddy, I love the plane because they serve you food and you can sleep and all you have to do is have good manners.”
Wow, that’s one way to look at it, 7-year-old daughter of mine.
8 hours into our great Israel adventure, we were still over the Mediterranean, but our kids were all awake and buzzing with anticipation. My boys were trying to act professional, as they’d both been to Israel twice, but the girls were in full-on adventure mode, as the far-away idea of “Israel” was getting closer by the second as our 767 headed east at 500 miles per hour.
About 11 hours beforehand, we’d spotted the El Al plane from the deck of the parking garage at Logan and it became really…real. We were leaving for Israel. All of us. Plus my wife’s aunt and uncle. And later in the week my father. After months of anticipation, the wait was over.
While the centerpiece of the trip was my oldest child’s Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel, the trip was way more than a Bar Mitzvah trip. It was an intense 8 days in-country during which we drove over 1000 kilometers and did as much as possible. And while it was my 23rd time in Israel, I had never planned a trip like this before.
Day 2: Falling asleep before her second wind
Erev Arrival in Israel was marked by three classic frustrating things that always seem to happen in Israel: unnecessary delays while renting a car, endless traffic everywhere, and Jerusalem parking issues. So while none of those things surprised me specifically, they all definitely happened and were certainly all annoying. Plus the cigarette smoke everywhere. I mean seriously- Israel is 30 years behind when it comes to getting rid of smoking in public areas, and maybe more.
One of the rental cars was ready, the other one required some backtracking and extra time to get squared away but after 45 minutes we hit the road to Jerusalem… and of course the drive up Route 1 and into the capital took well over an hour with traffic at Latrun and Beit Zayit.
But spirits were high as we navigated our way into town and past Mamilla, and we even scored some on-street parking to unload our cars. Our side-by-side AirBNB apartments were perfectly nestled between Mamilla and Zion Square, with everything important within a 20-minute walking radius. After battling evening traffic in the neighborhood once the cars were empty, it took a good 30 minutes to u-turn one of the cars into the Mamilla garage thanks to Hutzot HaYotzer traffic, which was far less than awesome and was a fearsome indicator of things to come.
Emerging quasi-victorious from the garage we then walked two minutes down to a burger restaurant and had a delicious dinner that probably tasted twice as good because we were exhausted and hungry. My almost 4-year-old fell asleep while waiting for food, and of course woke up wide awake, ready for the day, at 9 pm. Eventually she fell asleep at like 11. I was out by 11:30 and all was quiet. For a while.
Day 3: The best 17 Shekels I spent in Israel
A classic Jerusalem morning, cool and pleasant, gave way to late-summer heat as the clock ticked towards noon and we dodged the direct sun in the alleyways of the Old City. A breakfast of Turkish coffee and assorted fruit was followed by a 10-minute stroll to Jaffa Gate and a further 5 minutes to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We walked through the church and then headed down through the market to the Kotel, bursting into the plaza in brilliant midday sunshine. 15 minutes was enough and we made our escape back into the alleyways and the new city, eating lunch at a café off of Ben Yehudah. By 2:30 we were all exhausted and ready for a rest. Later on we drove to Talpiot and took in the view from the Haas Promenade while walking under blooming olive and pomegranate
trees. It was gorgeous. An attempt to visit Yemin Moshe was thwarted by the sheer impossibility of finding parking while two different wedding parties were taking photos, so we battled the Mamilla and Hutzot Hayotzer traffic while taking a full 40 minutes to park. By 7:00 the kids had eaten pasta and chicken, and I grabbed the best falafel in Jerusalem from Hummous Ben Sira– at 17 Shekels per pocket it was an absolute steal. Perfection. No exaggeration.
But the best part of the day? Well, something clicked in all three of my girls, who started chirping “Ima” and “Abba” incessantly instead of “Mom” and “Dad.” This new interest in Hebrew, for girls that have had very little exposure to it, developed more and more each day, which was nothing less than amazing. We can work with that. And it has continued after the trip.
Day 4: Hey, ho, away we go, riding on a camel
A week before the trip I was very fortunate to ask my wife a clarifying question about what kind of camel experience she wanted to have. Good thing I did, as I’d planned to stop for some quick photo ops on the side of the road heading down to the Dead Sea, but in fact what she wanted was a full-on camel trek. No problem. We left Jerusalem before 8 and by 9:45 had sped down to Beer Sheva and past Dimona before turning off for the Mamshit Camel Ranch… where I had once spent a long and (probably) sleepless night in 1995.
A one-hour camel trek on an old Nabatean trail and into the desert followed, with the 9 camel riders joyfully plodding their way across the wilderness through breathtaking beauty and quiet. We could have gone on forever and everyone was joyful. A quick mint-tea and ice cream treat followed, and then we headed across the desert and down to the Dead Sea, arriving at Masada along with 200 Birthrighters who had fortunately just finished on the mountain and would not be joining us later up top. Food, and then a 105-degree top-of-Masada experience ensued. It was really hot. Really hot. I mean it was so hot that they closed the snake path. So most of us did short bursts in the sun while seeking refuge in the shade for longer periods, but the 7-year old bounded around like the infernal heat was nothing. It was fairly impressive.
But the real surprise happened afterwards. After years of stopping at the Ein Gedi public beach, I was stunned to find out that the beach was, um, no longer there? And neither was the gas station. Apparently the shrinking of the Dead Sea has resulted in an epidemic of sinkholes and the road, and the beach area, are no longer safe. I was crushed.
So instead of a free and somewhat gritty Ein Gedi encounter with the Dead Sea, we drove north to Kalya and paid the extortion of 50 shekels a person to swelter in the heat and rub radioactive hot mud on our bodies. The kids didn’t love it but my wife did so that’s OK.
A Chevy Traverse full of exhausted Brosgols then cruised up Route 1, into Jerusalem from the east, through the tunnel, and then screeched to a halt by Hebrew University. I glanced at my watch at 6:43 and mused aloud that it would take a full hour to get to Mamilla and park through the apocalyptic traffic…and I kid you not we parked at 8:15. That’s 92 minutes. And it was that bad.
I love Israel fervently but the whole country, and Jerusalem in particular, is not big enough. Particularly for big cars. Everything is built on a smaller scale and navigating streets and parking with a big car, let alone with a big car and a second car with more family members, is hugely challenging.
What’s even less of a joke was me getting stuck in even more traffic for 45
minutes near Beit Shemesh three hours later when I was going to pick up by father at the airport. I went to bed after that at 1:30. What a day.
Day 5: Finding a peaceful moment
This day needed to be low-key. Everyone was beat and nobody wanted to get up. I got up at 8:45 to have a short meeting with Tamir Goodman (yes, that Tamir Goodman), and then it wasn’t until well past 10:00 that
everyone got up and we went to the Israel Museum. A little Dead Sea scrolls, a little outdoor sculpture garden, and a little walking around was more than enough and we were back for a late lunch at home.
A little later we walked straight up Jaffa Street to Mahane Yehudah, where the kids were delighted by mangoes the size of footballs, pomegranates at a ridiculously low price, delicious challah for like 6 shekels, and, of course, the massive candy displays. A walk back down Jaffa Street morphed into a slower stroll down Ben Yehudah, and at around 5 we all looked at each other and said “early dinner.”
Now, choosing where to go with 10 people is always an adventure, but adding in the kids’ tastes and my dad’s aversion to dairy and my aunt’s soy allergy and myriad other factors made this a much trickier endeavor. Luckily we ended up walking into Piccolino, a little place off of Yoel Solomon which (unbeknownst to us) shared a lovely outdoor courtyard with two other restaurants in the “Kikar HaMuzika,” the music square. What followed was a picture-perfect two hours of a slow dinner, a man playing piano, the girls and boys dancing around in a cool Jerusalem evening, and finally a nice stretch of time when everything was quiet and happy and nobody was in a hurry.
And as a bonus attraction, many of the streets in Jerusalem were adorned with aerial art displays strung over them- multicolored umbrellas, flowers, a Brazilian flag…seemingly everywhere you turned there was something beautiful to gaze up at. It was pretty neat.
Day 6: Bar Mitzvah
The day had arrived, so we were all up at 7 and out the door by 8. Mamilla was quiet and the stones were still wet from being washed overnight, and the walk down to the Kotel through still-empty alleys of the Christian Quarter took less than 20 minutes.
The Bar Mitzvah itself took place at the Masorti Kotel, an egalitarian oasis
on an otherwise Orthodox and contentious piece of real estate. We stood in front of the stones and shared in the joy of a ceremony that went basically exactly as we had hoped. Everything made sense. It was personal, intimate, spiritual, and meaningful.
My son read Torah and led Shacharit beautifully, we remembered my mother with tears, and celebrated both the journey to Israel and the journey to adulthood of a newly-minted Jewish adult. My wife’s speech was so perfect that I had literally nothing else to add, and as she embraced my son after her words it was clear that we had done the right thing by coming to Israel. It was so clear.
Many pictures were taken but this one takes the cake- note the photobomb with the 2-year old and her star-blanket-slash-tallit. Wow. I still wonder if the blanket is supposed to be a tallit or if it’s an amazing coincidence. I definitely hope it was aspirational and
intentional. But the tallit my son wore is certainly worth another few words. We had gone to buy one before the trip and he was worries about choosing one, but I told him it that the tallit would actually choose him. And within 30 seconds he knew which one he wanted. And it was perfect for him.
We walked home, packed the car, and were out of Jerusalem before noon, and by 12:45 we were on Route 6 stopping for snacks at another place where Israel’s ability to build unintelligently-designed infrastructure was clearly evident. The rest area on the highway had literally one lane of traffic going into the plaza, which was the same one narrow lane that went through a double-sided parking area, which was the same one narrow lane into which the cars from the gas station were merging into, so it literally took 10 minutes to park and at one point there were four sort-of-separate lanes merging into the one narrow lane while cars were waiting and backing up and parking. I was just shaking my head. And doing other bad things. It was insane.
Evening found us in Zichron Yaakov, where we had rented a spacious
AirBNB steps from downtown and the pedestrian mall. We had a phenomenal dinner with friends who had moved back to Israel from Newton four years ago, and we watched the sunset over the Mediterranean while enjoying delicious food and great company. My dad talked to our host about cybersecurity, my uncle-in-law bonded with a fellow policeman from the Netherlands over cop stories (he was a detective in Warwick, the other guy investigates Muslim honor killings- no joke), and I was content to eat, drink, and watch my kids, and everyone else, have an amazing time.
Day 7: Haifa delivers, as usual
When talking about Bar Mitzvah locations, the first idea that my son had was Rosh Hanikra. He loves that place, loves the grottoes, the sounds, the beauty. I get it. But Jerusalem won out in the end.
We headed out after breakfast for the northern coast, though, and arrived at Rosh Hanikra a little before 11:00. The upper parking lot was full, the temperature was well over 90, and it was humid. Not to be deterred, though, we hit the grottoes, took some breathtaking pictures, took the obvious Jerusalem/Beirut sign pictures, and then got out of Dodge.
We backtracked to Haifa, climbed the Carmel right up HaTzionut, and miraculously found two parking spots, one right in front of the other, just above Gan Ha’em in Merkaz HaCarmel. We walked two blocks and sat down at Café Café, where we had a fabulously enjoyable meal. The breeze was blowing, we sat outside in the shade, the kids got iced mint lemonade slushes (as usual), and again, everyone was happy. My wife and I shared a shakshuka, we hit up the Bahai Gardens, and headed back home. The evening was a celebration of ice cream, street
performers in Zichron, and me watching a beyond dull Hapoel Beer Sheva-Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer match that could have, should have been, a lot better and ended 0:0.
Day 8: Warm waters
Caesarea was a short drive from Zichron and all we wanted to do was go to the beach, so we packed a morning’s worth of gear and hit up the old aqueduct for 15 minutes of climbing around and then a solid 90 minutes in the Mediterranean. Late August sea temperatures in these parts are totally comfortable and we romped around collected shells and riding the waves as the sun beat down overhead. Tiny fish nibbled at our ankles, my four-year old daughter made friends with a little kid from Denmark even though they couldn’t communicate, and things were very OK.
A little later we returned to Haifa and the Grand Kenyon to do shopping,
and after another crazy discovery of two parking spots next to each other in the German Colony, admired the Bahai Gardens from the bottom and had an excellent dinner at Fattoush. We begrudgingly returned to Zichron knowing that it would be our final night sleeping in Israel and that feeling of sadness and melancholy got a little closer. By this point people were also making serious
declarative statements such as my aunt and uncle-in-law telling me that “this was the best trip we’ve ever taken” and my father saying more or less the same thing- and from a man who has traveled A LOT I took that as high praise. I also blatantly fished for compliments from him for knowing my way around Israel so well and was absolutely rewarded. Yessssssss.
Day 9: A half-day too long
We were out of Zichron by 10:30 and roving Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv before noon- it was hot but we kept in the shade. A final meal of (mostly) hamburgers broke out at 1:00 and then I had to zip over to the airport to get my dad on a flight back to Paris. I was back in the White City by 4 but then all my best-laid plans came undone as my friend who we were supposed to visit near Kiryat Gat actually ended up not being in Kiryat Gat so we had four hours and nothing to do, as all roads in and out of the city were going to be impossible to travel on through rush hour.
So like any good Israeli on a hot day we went to the mall (in this case
Azrieli) got an early dinner at Café Café (of course), splurged on another round of slushy mint lemonade, and sat around while our server took as long as she pleased to get things to us… but as we weren’t in a hurry nobody really cared.
We went up to the roof of the mall, where there’s a little outdoor terrace, and walked around in the breezy-overcast evening as the Ayalon Freeway and Tel Aviv cityscape sprawled out beneath us and the iconic three towers of the Azrieli Center soared above us. My friend eventually came by for like 15 minutes at 7:15 and then we headed to the airport. As the afternoon ticked by it was clear that with the change of plans the trip had been about a half-day too long, but what can you do. In retrospect we probably should have stayed in the north for the first part of the day and done Tel Aviv in the evening, and put my dad on a train to the airport from Binyamina. Next time I won’t make the same mistake. Haha.
Erev Return to Boston at the airport was easy, and featured an argument at the car rental place (of course) (which I sort of won), a quick trip through security (30 minutes from check-in to departure area), a giddily-happy late-night croissant, lemonade, and Aroma-breakfast-at-10pm feast in the food court, and little girls squealing at the sight of our airplane home win matching skirts and outfits. And yes, it was cuter than it sounds.
Day 10: Leaving home, coming home
When I was a kid I couldn’t handle leaving Israel. I would get such an intense sadness. In recent years that acute unhappiness has subsided because I (luckily) get to go fairly regularly. But this time, I felt it. I didn’t want to leave Zichron. I didn’t want to go to the airport. I didn’t want to get on the plane. But there I was in the early hours of the morning with a sleeping 2-year old in front of me and a not-sleeping 4-year old next to me, watching “Turn Left At the End of the World” on my tablet with all the memories of the trip kicking around. The song from the ending is (still) amazing.
The flight home was a breeze- I catnapped and actually napped for at least
5 hours and enjoyed the beautiful predawn descent into Logan. We landed at 5:45 and were back in Bedford at Starbucks by 7:45. My wife was at work by 9, and I went in the next day.
In some ways, it felt like we never left. But actually, I know that our lives were changed forever by the experience. The whole thing still feels like a dream. I just wish we could go back again, right away.
In the meantime the girls have transformed our porch into a Café Café and serve us virtual (and sometimes actual) food and drink, remembering the good times we had.