Taking the Kids to Israel with the NY Times

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The New York Times this week ran a piece about visiting Israel with the kids. Nothing special there.

The difference was that they wanted to avoid museums as much as possible, yet still have an educational experience for their kids. And keep the vacation fun and adventurous.

“JUMP! Just jump!” I could hear Sarah, my 12-year-old daughter, pleading. My feet were dangling in the air and my body was squeezed into a manhole-sized opening in a dirt floor, with only a flickering candle illuminating the darkness. I grappled around and held my breath before dropping to the ground.

Up ahead, Sarah’s two older brothers were scrambling through a cloud of dust into a hollowed-out chamber dug 2,300 years ago. We were in the remains of Maresha, about 50 miles south of Tel Aviv. Its residents excavated caves to produce limestone for construction, and then created an intricate network of tunnels to connect the caves so they could be used as workshops, storage chambers and reservoirs.

Covered with chalky sediment, we climbed up a rickety wooden staircase and emerged into daylight. Our tour guide had warned that caving wasn’t for the claustrophobic, so the children’s grandmother had remained above ground. “How was it down there?” she asked.

“Like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ ” responded 14-year-old Charlie.

“No, more like ‘The Temple of Doom,’ ” argued 16-year-old David.

My husband and I shook off the dust and smiled. This was what we hoped for when we booked the trip. Our goal was to learn as much as possible about Israel’s history in 10 days without spending too many precious vacation hours inside museums, temples or churches. We wanted our children’s holiday to have a whiff of adventure. If the caves of Maresha reminded them of Indiana Jones, we were on the right track.

Teenagers thrive on action and intrigue, and Israel fits the bill. The entire country is kid-friendly — lively and colorful, laid back and casual. Outside of some ultra-Orthodox areas, no rigid rules or dress codes apply; you can wear jeans and T-shirts just about anywhere. You can go caving and then show up at a nice cafe for lunch without changing clothes, and nobody cares.

Israel is a young country that has been dogged by regional conflict from its very beginnings. Whether you’re touring ancient archaeological sites or modern military monuments, some discussion of Middle Eastern strife inevitably crops up. Every Israeli — from gun-toting soldiers we met on top of the Golan Heights to tent-dwelling nomads we met in the Judean Desert — has an opinion on the contention, and few refrain from expressing their thoughts.

This continuing dialogue, heightened by endlessly televised news about the conflict, served as a dramatic backdrop for our three-generation trip. We crisscrossed the country, which is about the size of New Jersey. Few destinations offer such a vast array of experiences in such a small space — or so many educational opportunities that feel like plain fun.

We started with an open-air jeep ride up the Golan Heights, which rise steeply from the Sea of Galilee. As we bumped along the rocky terrain, our guide described Israel’s capture of the area during the Six-Day War in 1967. He broke off to jump out and grab a gigantic pomelo off a tree; flicking open a switchblade knife, he served us pieces of the surprisingly sweet, juicy fruit. Nearing the crest, we could see Jordan, Syria and Lebanon spread out below, a grid of roads and fences marking the borders between green and brown patches of land.

We disembarked at Mount Bental and toured the Israeli Defense Forces bunkers used in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. “Look!” Sarah whispered as we entered the situation room. I stumbled, and found myself face to face with an Uzi submachine gun, on the shoulder of a pony-tailed girl barely older than my boys. A group of female soldiers was gathered around a map, conversing in Hebrew. Three pairs of eyes took in every detail: the olive-green fatigues, the polished black boots, the backpacks, the cellphones, the sunglasses . . . and the guns, nonchalantly draped across backs, looped through cargo belts around waists. My children stood riveted, casting sly glances at the soldiers until one broke the ice with a broad grin. They welcomed Sarah into their fold and posed for photos, hands on triggers.

Our Golan Heights excursion unleashed a torrent of questions about the war for independence and Israel’s 1948 declaration of statehood. We found answers at the Ayalon Institute, formerly a clandestine munitions factory built by the Haganah (the pre-independence armed forces) under a kibbutz near Tel Aviv. Restored and opened to the public, the institute is not mentioned in many guidebooks and gets little press. Yet Charlie — who devours detective novels and has twice toured the International Spy Museum in Washington — declared it his favorite site.

The place conveys a real sense of danger; had the Haganah members been discovered, they would have been hanged. The factory operations were concealed by a bakery and laundry; a 10-ton oven and a large washing machine hid entrances to the shop floor, which housed as many as 50 workers who, at the peak, produced 40,000 bullets a day. The noise of the washing machines camouflaged the din of the manufacturing process below ground.

David was especially fascinated by the sunlamps that munitions workers used to get an artificial tan. “It’s like an alibi,” our guide explained. “They pretended to leave the kibbutz each morning to work on a neighboring farm and then they sneaked back into the factory to make bullets. People would be suspicious if they looked too pale.”

Next we traveled to Akko, site of a medieval Crusaders’ fortress and later an Ottoman citadel. When the Turks were defeated by the British in 1918, the fortress became a high-security prison that held Jewish freedom fighters. Today the Underground Prisoners Memorial Museum pays tribute to them. A gloomy, ominous air hangs over the prison cells, with their thick stone walls, iron bars and narrow windows. Our group was mesmerized by the gallows room, with a noose centered over a trapdoor in the floor.

The Akko complex was impressive, but nothing could have prepared us for the majesty of Masada, the sprawling mountaintop fortress built more than 2,000 years ago by King Herod (and later the site of a mass suicide of Jewish defenders besieged by Roman troops). Nimble as a goat, Charlie raced straight up the “snake path” — a trail with sharp switchbacks — in half an hour. It took me another 20 minutes, including water breaks. Our group met at the summit, stunned by the vastness of King Herod’s vision. There were dozens of ruins, many decorated with detailed mosaics and frescoes.

Descending from Masada by cable car, we gazed at the shimmering Dead Sea, the deepest salt lake on earth, sitting 2,621 feet below sea level. No trip to Israel would be complete without a dip in the Dead Sea. At Ein Gedi, one of many day spas dotting the shoreline, we soaked in warm mineral-springs pools, glopped on piles of clammy black mud and bobbed like corks in the sea’s waters. Later, at the gift shop, Sarah insisted on buying a tub of black mud to share with her friends; she was already envisioning a Dead Sea spa party in her bathroom.

We stopped for dinner at Genesis Land, a Biblical-style encampment in the Judean Desert. Here tourists can take a camel trek and eat traditional cuisine under “Abraham’s Tent.” The adults considered it the equivalent of a medieval theme park with fake knights and jousting contests. But the children adored donning Bedouin smocks and sharing shish kebab, hummus and pita bread around low tables.

In Jerusalem, we spent the better part of four days exploring. The walled Old City is informally divided into four quarters — Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish — with a vibrant clash of languages, cultures and religions. During our stay, American visitors were advised to stay out of the Arab market (popular for inexpensive souvenirs) at night because of tensions in the Gaza Strip. Otherwise, we were free to roam.

The highlight was a walking tour of the turreted stone ramparts commissioned by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. We hiked up several steep flights of stairs and inched our way, single file, along the perimeter of the Old City. The ramparts are not for those with vertigo, but they gave us a glimpse of a wholly different side of Jerusalem: a rooftop cityscape with women hanging out wash, children playing soccer and gardeners tending their grape arbors. In the distance was the golden Dome of the Rock; up close was the gleaming marble Citadel, another gift from the great King Herod.

Our last stop in Jerusalem was at the Western Wall tunnels, a series of hidden passages — only recently opened to the public — that peel away layers of history to reveal the full length of the Western Wall from the Herodian period. The children were amazed to learn that the same King Herod who built the mountaintop fortress at Masada had also engineered the grand expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. As we strolled the ancient cobblestone street that ran along the Temple Mount, Charlie let out a low whistle. “King Herod was the man,” he said. “Can you imagine what he would build if he were around today?”
be cool in israel

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