In August 2016, our family took a trip to Israel for the bar mitzvah of our oldest child. (Click here for that post.) That trip changed our family’s life forever, so when it was time for the next bar mitzvah, we knew it was time to go back again. Here is that story.

Thursday: The Algorithm Wins

After some last-minute preparations, a frantic search for enough earbuds, and a quick trip to Trader Joe’s for plane snacks, we set off for the airport with great excitement and hopes for an easy drive to Logan and a relaxed check-in experience.

That was not meant to be.

In an ironic continuation of the traffic woes from our previous Israel adventure, smart me checked the traffic maps to Logan and said, “Hey, let’s take the Pike in.” Oops. An hour and 10 minutes later we pulled in to the satellite economy parking lot and finally clambered into the terminal for check-in about 45 minutes later than we had wanted. Luckily the El Al security guy gave candy to the girls and all was right with the world. My wife also got a kick out of someone in line not-quietly looking at us and saying, “I think all those kids are with that family—and they don’t even look religious!”

(This whole thing also made me realize that there comes a time in every man’s life when he realizes that the algorithms that run the apps that tell us how to get places are probably a lot smarter than he is…so I downloaded Waze and we used it for the entire trip. And loved it.)

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Next stop: Tel Aviv!

Pre-flight dining in Terminal E was fine, boarding was quick, and despite El Al’s best attempts to seat us not together we sat in groups of two, three, and two in the same two rows and headed east, into the night, on a 777. Meals were consumed, movies were watched, small children slept, and I did not. Worse flights I’ve had, as well as better ones, but nine-and-a-half hours later we landed in Tel Aviv.

Friday: Our Eyes Were Bigger Than Our Stomachs

In a rare and remarkable example of arrival-in-Israel efficiency, we cleared passport control, got our bags, picked up our rental car (a nine-passenger Ford Transit!!!), and were at our Airbnb in Bat Yam in less than 90 minutes. We had a great apartment on the 20th floor of a new building right across from the beach, and after settling in and picking up basics at the local mini market we drove out into the Shabbat evening looking for a place to eat.

Parking in Jaffa, we headed to the Port area from the Clock Tower side and came to “The Old Man And The Sea,” a restaurant I had heard and read a great deal about. We grabbed a table and were immediately set upon by a bevy of wait staff who threw about 20 bowls of mini salads at us, and then falafel, hummus, lemonade, and more. The food was perfect, so much so that our boys ate pita, the bar mitzvah boy ate (and loved) falafel, and we all ordered entrees as well because we were flight-hungry (flungry?).

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Just the appetizer plates!

Well, that sounds like a good idea, but when the main courses came we were all so stuffed with pita and salad and falafel that we ended up bringing more than half of it back home. At least we had lunches for a few days.

A post-trip shot of Tel Aviv in the night rounded out our activities for the evening, as we headed home and to bed in short order. The wind howled through the night, but we all slept peacefully, at home in Israel.

Saturday: Now Representing Israel

Morning dawned with rough seas and an overcast sky, but by 10 the sun emerged and a lovely, albeit breezy, day broke out. We drove to a Tiv Ta’am supermarket for a full spread of groceries for the week and then spent a few hours up at the Tel Aviv Port. We ate at Aroma, posed with statues, played on various playgrounds, and, of course, had some celebratory ice cream at cleverly named “Glideria.”

After a rest in the middle of the afternoon, we paid a visit to Nes Ziona and some friends we knew from working at Rashi. I had worked with the mother as her assistant teacher in Hebrew in 2001 and taught her son in kindergarten in 2002, and here we were, with three of her kids and five of ours all hanging out and playing together. We picked kumquats off a tree in the yard, sent the kids off to the playground in the dark because, well, it’s Israel, and laughed when the dog walked himself home and knocked on the door.

Not to be overlooked was when we were talking about the weather of the day and how we had loved walking around outside, and our friend shivered and said, “Wow, I can’t believe you were outside today. The weather was horrible and we didn’t even leave the house!” I reminded her that compared to sub-freezing Boston, a 60-degree Tel Aviv midday was totally lovely.

But the actual best part of the visit, other than the home cooking and

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The competition outfit

the kumquat tree, was when the 16-year-old daughter, who has represented Israel on the world stage as a rhythmic gymnastics competitor, let one of our girls try on one of her competition outfits. I mean, it was awesome.

Sunday: Smooth Stones

Our early activity was a visit to Sorek Cave near Beit Shemesh, an accidentally-discovered stalactite and stalagmite cave that you can walk through in about 40 minutes. After surviving watching the movie with a most vociferous and energetic group of Beit Shemesh third-graders, the guide mercifully let us walk ahead and enjoy the sights alone. The formations were dazzling and reminded me of the reactor from “Total Recall” plus a mélange of “Predator” and “Star Wars” creatures, and the kids enjoyed it.

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The Valley of Elah

A short drive later we fulfilled a longstanding goal of our oldest daughter, whose Hebrew name is Elah, by visiting the Valley and the Brook of Elah. Parking on the side of the road, we walked down into the mostly dry but somewhat muddy bed of the stream where, channeling our inner King Davids, we selected some smooth stones and prepared to slay Goliath. Or bring them home.

My original plan to drive up to Tel Azekah was thwarted by a combination of jet lag, hunger, and difficult-to-navigate roads in the park, so instead we sped to Bat Yam, where a joyful homecoming to Café Café ensued despite the fact that their shnitzel was comprised of a lot of corn (?) and not a lot of chicken. The shakshuka, however, was most delicious.

Everyone got to rest up in the mid-afternoon hours, but in the evening the party really got started when I picked up my father and his girlfriend, who arrived in Israel via Paris to spend the rest of the week with us. And let me brag for a hot second; somehow I timed that pick-up at Ben Gurion perfectly, as they walked out of customs less than two minutes after my son and I got there to pick them up. I mean, the espresso I had ordered was still steaming.

Sometimes, I even impress myself…especially when the achievement is in Israel and has to do with transportation logistics.

Monday: A Better Everyday Life

It’s not that I avoid Tel Aviv, it’s just that I don’t usually spend time there. Most trips I lead do the Jerusalem-Haifa thing and stop by TA just for a day. But this time around it was definitely a TA, all the way kind of thing, beginning with Monday.

The morning was spent at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, where the kids were bored but we did see a smattering of nice Impressionist pieces and some dazzling works by Chagall. Continuing on, we skirted the Kiriyah and had a wonderful lazy lunch at Café Landwer, just outside of the Sarona Market.

The Cafe Landwer choice was somewhat amusing as a) I had never been to one before despite b) the fact that two opened in Brookline and people have been telling me to go for months and months, so of course the first one I went to was the one in Tel Aviv. The motto on the table, which I assume is the restaurant’s motto, is “A Better Everyday Life,” and you know what, if I ate lunch there every day my life would be pretty awesome as well. My salad was downright exquisite.

We then walked to the indoor Sarona Market, a foodie paradise with something like 90 stalls and restaurants featuring artisanal food and wine and cheese and beer…so maybe it wasn’t the best idea to eat a big lunch beforehand?

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A very large avocado

Rounding out the day we made a last stop at Shuk HaCarmel, where we picked up a bevy of trinkets and produce and came home happy. Pomegranates the size of dodgeballs, avocados bigger than my hand, pita right out of the oven…I think we ate most of what we bought for dinner that night and stuck all the leftover fruit in the fridge.

Evening fell and I got the opportunity to watch some Monday Night Football, with Hapoel Be’er Sheva beating Beitar Jerusalem 3:1 in a most enjoyable, uptempo match. Even better, the loss knocked Beitar down to eighth place in the league and out of play-off position; the ultras in the stands at Turner Stadium loved it, and so did I.

Tuesday: Lovely Lady

A sunny February day in Tel Aviv can usually predict a much cooler one in Jerusalem, and that theory held true today, as the capital was breezy and overcast and warm jackets were a good call. A short and easy drive up through the Judaean hills ended up with us sitting at Aroma for the first of two visits, where we sipped beverages and found a delightful iced ginger, honey, and turmeric concoction that became the unofficial drink of the trip.

Of particular interest and helpfulness this time around in the Mamilla garage was that the parking spaces now have red and green lights over them so you can actually see where there is an open space; what a fabulous innovation! You can imagine that parking our nine-passenger tank was always an adventure in the undersized Israeli garages, so anything that helped that process along was most appreciated.

After fueling up, we walked through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and assorted alleyways as we made our way to the Cardo, and eventually the Kotel, where the men’s section was empty but the women’s section was packed and the girls got the pleasure of elbowing their way to the front. When in Israel….

Lunch in the Old City was followed by the navigation of many more alleyways, with the highlight being when one of the shopkeepers called our 9-year-old a “lovely lady,” which made her day and which we heard about for the rest of the week. “Did you hear him? He called me a lovely lady! Why?”

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Matching jackets

Eventually a visit to the Haas Promenade finished our business in the Holy City, where we had the girls pose for a matching-jacket picture and just beat the rush-hour traffic when leaving, arriving in Bat Yam by 4:30.

Wednesday: Hump Day!

Under brilliant skies we packed overnight bags and headed from the urban sprawl of Gush Dan down into the northern Negev. The vast swaths of apartment buildings and new construction eventually gave way to the green-and-brown of the moshavim of Be’er Tuvia, and continuing south we skirted Be’er Sheva and Dimona before arriving at the Mamshit Camel Ranch at 11:30.

There, in the truest embodiment of Hump Day (or Hump Daaaaaaaaaaaaaay), we hopped onto camels and did a one-hour trek into the Mamshit wilderness along the old Nabatean trade routes. The up-and-down of the camels prompted my Apple watch to ask me, “Are you doing an elliptical workout?” Sorry, Siri. No.

Happy children were happy, I rode around with a makeshift kaffiyeh because I had forgotten my hat at Logan, and my wife and I smiled as our 10th- and fourth-graders were singing “A Million Dreams” together on their camel. And while “The Greatest Showman” is not about Israel at all, that song ended up being played and sung all week on the trip. More on that later.

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Not an elliptical workout…

At the same time, our 6-year-old was in full camel mode, and when I told her that in some places you can do day-long or overnight camel treks and camping out her eyes widened and she told me that next time, “We HAVE TO do that.” I mean…that’s not a bad idea.

A twisting, winding drive down to the Dead Sea led us to Ein Bokek at 3, and after checking in to our hotel we bound down to the beach for the requisite photos. Recall that in 2016, it was approximately 104 degrees at Kalya Beach and I wanted nothing at all to do with swimming in the humid, salty, hot water that day…so a 68-degree dip today was a different story and was, in fact, most pleasant.

A gigantic buffet dinner was consumed, our boys spent all night practicing Torah and chanting their aliyot on the balcony, and my wife and I took a lovely nighttime walk through Ein Bokek and back on the promenade. Perfection.

Thursday: Bar Mitzvah

Sleep was fleeting and I was up at 4:30 playing NBA Mobile, so at 5:30 I set out for a run with a full moon just over the ridge to the west and the skies brightening in the east. Two miles down on the road, and two miles back on the beach, I got back as the sun rose over Jordan. After a shower and another massive buffet, it was time for the main event.

Masada was just a 15-minute drive up the road, so after leaving at 10 on the nose, we were up on top of the mountain by 10:45 and set up the service at the Eastern Observation Point. Our son put on his tallis and tefilin for the first time, our boys both read Torah, our girls read their readings, my father gave the priestly blessing, and it was even better than we had hoped.

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A newly-minted Jewish man

But beyond that, we were joined by a guest. And I don’t mean the people who walked in and looked at the view and took pictures of both the Dead Sea and us praying.

At the point in the service when you take the four fringes of the tzitzit and wrap them around your finger to kiss during the third paragraph of the Sh’ma, we were joined by a small bird, who flew in and landed on the railing. Now, if you’ve been to Masada, you’ve seen (and heard) these very chirpy birds, black with reddish-orange wings, and in this case, as I was explaining that you kiss the tzitzit when you say the word “tzitzit,” the bird chirped after we said “tzitzit.” We laughed, but when we sang the paragraph and I said “tzitzit” the first time, it chirped again. And it chirped the second time, too.

So the immediate consequence of this behavior was that we named the bird “Tzitzit,” but the one we felt a little later was when my father’s girlfriend suggested that the bird was actually my late mother, who died three-and-a-half years ago, coming to participate in the service. I mean…maybe?

(And beyond Tzitzit the Bird, another remarkable thing happened later in the day when I was posting pictures of the service on Facebook. It turns out that the tallis my son chose and wore was handmade by a woman I know whose kids I had taught at both Prozdor and at Rashi. Amazing.)

The service was meaningful, many tears were shed, my wife spoke passionately and beautifully, and we left the mountaintop with joy and love in our hearts…and after spending an unnecessarily small fortune eating at the Masada cafeteria afterward.

We met some crazy ibex on the way home that were dashing across Route 90, skirted a rainy Jerusalem, and got back to Bat Yam with that feeling of going-homeness starting to creep in a little. Believe me when I say that at this point, nobody was interested in leaving Israel.

Nobody.

Friday: Perfect Lighting

After four days of non-stop action, we all needed a break. The kids had been eyeing a massive blue playground on the beach all week so we walked down there and spent the morning on the climbing structures and swings while playing with a 9-year-old girl from the Netherlands named Taylor who spoke excellent English. We had some Aroma, got some pre-lunch ice cream, and after the roads of Tel Aviv re-opened after the morning’s marathon, we visited the art fair at Nachalat Binyamin and made another pass through the shuk while enjoying a visit from a former student of mine who now lives in Zichron Yaakov.

We then drove over to Jaffa, where the sun was brilliant over the Mediterranean and the stones of Old Jaffa were positively glowing in the afternoon light. We made wishes on the Wishing Bridge, took panos of Tel Aviv, got stuck at a dead end, and regrettably did NOT

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Had to come back and eat here again…

find the hanging orange tree, but we had a magnificent dinner at The Old Man And The Sea because, according to the kids, “Grandpa and Linda HAVE TO GO THERE.”

Luckily, they did, and we did, and they loved it, and we loved it all over again. This time, though, my wife and I just got the salads/pita/falafel; if I hadn’t still been full from the Dead Sea buffets I probably would have eaten some more.

Saturday: “All of My New Friends on the Playground”

By this point everyone was exhausted. And sad about leaving. I went on a long run before everyone was up just to clear my head.

I took the girls to a different playground, where they became immediate best friends with Sofia-who-could-not-speak-English and played at full speed for two hours. We ate lunch and packed, and then I took my father and Linda to the airport as they were flying home with an overnight in Paris. In the car I asked my daughter what her favorite part of the trip was, and she immediately offered, “All of my new friends on the playground,” and “Lemonade.” OK….

Our last evening was spent watching the sunset from the porch at Aroma, where I ordered way too much food and we all had some iced mint lemonade because that’s what you do to celebrate and commemorate.

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Iced limonana

Leaving the apartment and going to the airport was harder than usual for me. These days I leave Israel and I generally feel like I’ll be back soon and that’s cool, but this time I had some old-school mid-90s angst and sadness about leaving. Not helpful was the fact that not a few people I knew had been posting on my Facebook page about how we should just make aliyah already. And while that ship sailed the day I came home from Israel in 2001, it did tug at me a little more than usual this time.

Ben Gurion check-in and security was easier than usual, and again, despite El Al’s best attempts to have us not sit together, we did end up 2-3-2 in the same rows and settled in for what was a most comfortable flight to Toronto on a new 787 Dreamliner. I catnapped between movies and somehow we landed 30 minutes early, at 5:30 a.m., a full two hours and 15 minutes before our connecting flight to Boston.

No problem, right?

Sunday: Next Stop, Niagara Falls

Wrong.

Twenty-five minutes to taxi to the gate and get off the plane. Ten minutes to walk to passport control. Twenty-five minutes to wait there. Twenty minutes waiting for bags at the carousel.

We walked out of the customs area and upstairs just before 7, where WestJet told us and 25 other people who had to wait for their bags that the cut-off for checking bags for U.S.-bound flights was 6:45, and that the best they could do was rebook us for Monday. And they only told us that after we waited in line for 45 additional minutes, but then added that we could go talk to an El Al representative downstairs and see what they could do for us.

Three hours later, the seven of us had been rebooked to Boston via JFK on a 6 p.m. flight, with meal vouchers coming for lunch and dinner. OK…we can do this!

But then, thanks to the high winds causing cancellations up and down the northeast, our flight was cancelled and we were offered hotel, meal vouchers and Toronto-Detroit-Boston with a Monday night arrival.

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Surprise!

But that wasn’t in the cards for us, as we picked up a Ford Flex at Avis and left Pearson Airport at 12:45, zoomed along the shore of Lake Ontario, soared over the Welland Canal, and stopped for pics at Niagara Falls. (Smile, everyone!)

Dinner at Panera in Victor, N.Y., at 4…snow from Albany to Westfield…I had to stop driving in Ludlow…my wife closing out the drive home and pulling into our house at 10:45 p.m…welcome home. I’m sure that in 10 years, or 20, we’ll laugh about this, but it wasn’t super funny at the time.

And yes, all of the kids were in school on Monday morning.

What Now?

It was another amazing experience for our family, and although some of the things we did were the same as the last trip, it was a totally different feel this time around as our kids were a little older. I will never forget the boys practicing Torah together (both before and during the trip), the joy of camel-riding, watching the sunset every night over the Mediterranean in Bat Yam, and certainly the visit of Tzitzit the bird to the service. The joy and meaning and connection to Israel and Judaism that our first trip created for our kids was off the charts, and who knows what will happen in the aftermath of this incredible trip.

Here’s one thing I do know, however. All of us, and my father, are already talking about a bat mitzvah in Israel in two-and-a-half or three-and-a-half years when our oldest daughter turns 12 or 13.

And why not? For us, Israel really is a land of a million dreams.

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