Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Croatia, Morocco: if I had picked anywhere else on the Mediterranean for a family holiday, at least anywhere that’s not convulsed by civil war, I don’t think anyone would have noticed. But when I told friends that we were taking our children to Israel on vacation, I got some odd looks. Was there a special reason, someone wanted to know. Were we in search of political insight, asked another. Perhaps one of us was interested in finding his or her Jewish roots, an acquaintance suggested. Perhaps one of us was ‘searching’, spiritually speaking, and would like to walk in the steps of Jesus. Nobody seemed able to believe that we just…went to Israel, on Wizzair, in search of winter sunshine.
But that wasn’t the end of it. ‘What is the purpose of your visit to Israel?’ Upon arriving in Tel Aviv we were stopped, as everyone is, and asked to explain ourselves. When we mumbled something about tourism and showed our various passports — between the four of us we have two surnames, three nationalities (Polish, US, UK), various combinations of dual citizenship — we got more questions. Nobody just… goes to Israel. What was our real goal? Only when my husband produced the name of an Israeli acquaintance — a man who jumped off a train heading for Treblinka 75 years ago and joined the Polish underground — did the point of our trip seem to make sense: Ah, a connection to history, to tragedy, to heroism. We were waved ahead.
To be fair, the Israelis have good reason to assume that visitors will be ‘searching,’ whether for salvation or glory, because so many have in the past. We had lunch in Haifa’s ‘German colony,’ built by Protestants who came to the Holy Land in the 19th century to await the Second Coming. We had dinner nearby in Zichron Yaakov, built at about the same time by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, to realize his utopian vision of a Jewish national home. Just up the coast we visited Acre, an earlier incarnation of which was built by, among others, the Order of the Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary, otherwise known as the Teutonic Knights. Conquered by King Baldwin I of Jerusalem in 1104, Acre once produced more revenue for the Crusader coffers than the entire kingdom of England. After it fell, the Mameluks burned it, on the grounds that this would keep the Christians from coming back.
But they did. In 1917, the British arrived with what seemed a pragmatic agenda — to tidy up the place and divide the whole region into proper modern countries — but that proved utopian too. Wanting to keep things simple, a British bureaucrat named Sykes declared that he would like to draw a straight line from the ‘e in Acre to the k in Kirkuk’. That unfortunate straight line, crafted together with Monsieur Picot of the Quai d’Orsai, divided the French mandate from the British and eventually gave birth to a series of untenable borders and unviable states which are being violently disputed even as you are reading this article. From the top of the Golan Heights, a mere 40 miles from Damascus, I could hear the echoes of distant artillery fire only last week.
But if the locals suffer from a long tradition of over-enthusiastic visitors, so do the visitors. ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’, a malady caused by proximity to the birthplace of three great religions, is one result: sufferers begin to believe that they are, in fact, the messiah. ‘Tour Guide Syndrome’, is another: sufferers begin to feel that they cannot possibly bear to hear one more lecture about the Arab-Israeli dispute, pro or con. I don’t know how to cure the former. But the latter can be alleviated by the polenta with truffle oil and porcini at Machneyuda, the fashionably noisy restaurant near Jerusalem’s spectacular spice and vegetable market. Israeli craft beer helps.
So does Israeli wine, though one has to be careful. The very expression ‘kosher wine’ has the same effect on me as the sound of someone scratching their fingernails along a chalkboard, so negative are my childhood memories of that sickly sweet beverage. Fortunately, there is now an alternative. Once upon a time, wine had to be boiled in order to be considered kosher, hence the revolting result. But nowadays, according to an Orthodox vintner who explained this at great length, wine merely has to be made by people who are observant, or anyway observant enough to win the local rabbi’s approval, in order to get a kosher label. I have no idea if that’s what the scriptures say, but in any case there is quite a lot of good wine to be had in Israel, both kosher and unkosher. And if you drink enough of it, then your millenarian vision will seem far, far less urgent.