I am an active duty officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. All views expressed in this blog are my personal views as an individual and not those of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

That hit the spot

Started this post 9 days ago...took that long to upload pics.  Enjoy...
For those who have never been, how can I describe Israel?  I've been there seven times now that I can remember (plus two as a baby), and each one has simply been one unforgettable experience after another.  Just as Israel the land condenses the whole world - painted desert, coral paradise, snow-capped mountains (at least in winter), green valleys and coastal plain - into a country the size of a Manhattan balcony; just as thousands of years of human history can be traversed there on a single tank of gas, so too can a lifetime's worth of profound moments and memories be created there during a single visit.  And it happens every time.

Where to begin?

I arrived on Sunday night (day 0 of R&R) and was picked up at the airport by mom (time not seen: 9 months), brother and sis-in-law (also 9 months).  Stopped for shawarma on the way back, then on to my grandmother's (6 years) where I also saw an aunt (2 years) and uncle (15 years).  Trip already worth it.

Day 1: Walked around mom's hometown of Hadera, buying some necessities, reliving old memories, eating street-vendor falafel and trying not to stare at Israeli women, who are so blindingly beautiful you need SPF-protected sunglasses.  Trip already worth it.

And they carry guns...

Day 2: We drove down to Dimona for my youngest brother's graduation from sergeant's course.  Ceremony was one part moving, two parts cringing: Israelis march in formation only slightly better than startled cats.  But I was very proud of my brother, who earned his stripes over three challenging months of training.  Trip worth it just to share that accomplishment with him.

ok, maybe two parts moving

L to R: Porky, Wolfman and Q-ball

That night on the way back from Dimona we stopped by Tel Aviv where my brother and his wife (A&C) signed for their new apartment (they just moved to Israel the week before).  Mazel Tov!

Apartment negotiations went deep into the night

By then it was getting late, so the new sergeant and I decided to call a cousin in Tel Aviv and stay out later.  We had Israeli beer, kosher burgers and a plate of "cheeps" (fries).

Day 3: The next morning found us at the train station early.  I was enjoying the Two Beer Hangover thanks to General Order #1, but other than that it was a brand new day:

The next few days (days 3-5) were Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  We started eating on Wednesday afternoon and finished around sunset on Friday.

Surrendering to the food.  In a room full of Jewish mothers, resistance is futile.

My uncle M on Saturday morning...

 And the previous Tuesday... 

Day 6: I don't remember what I did.  I think I went to Haifa to see my best friend, HL.  If you're wondering why there are no pics of her here...well I'm an idiot.  I only took a few and none came out well.  But I got to spend lots of time with her, almost making up for a 6 year absence...

Day 7: Finally it was time for my much-anticipated vacation in Eilat, Israel's resort town on the Red Sea.  I've tried to make it down there on previous trips and it never worked out, so this time I made my plans in advance, rented a car, gritted my teeth and made the 5 hour drive through the gorgeous Negev.  Along the way I picked up my brother from his base on the Gaza border, right as Hamas decided to fire off a few rockets in our general direction.  I didn't see or hear anything, but that didn't stop me from taking off into the desert as fast as my mint-green, four-cylinder Daihatsu with the 12-inch rims would go.

File photo (forgot to take a pic).  Mine seemed...mintier.

In Eilat, we stayed at the Queen of Sheba hotel thanks to my dad's recent accumulation of 2389232 Hilton points.  Points left after 3 nights?  Zero (followed by 10 zeros).  It was a great place to stay, though nothing can compare to my Afghani-can.  We did the usual beach stuff - getting sunburned, drinking to excess, plotting advanced fire-and-maneuver tactics to cut off thieves if they stole our stuff while we were in the water.  I'll let the pictures tell the story...

Our hotel.  Todah abba.

View from our balcony

and at night

Thanks, Hilton Honors.  I'll be the Mr.

From the top-floor restaurant

Speaking of food, breakfast was possibly the best I've ever had.

The spread

Some cheeseseses


Day 8: We just tooled around, did a little shopping and were generally lazy.


infidels raining death and destruction

infidel riding donald


The happy couple at dinner

After dinner we went out and got properly smashed.  Alas, though he did his best, never take a religious Jew along as a wing man.

I don't even picture taking this remember

Breakfast on day 9 - with a side of sauteed Marine

My first time.  Incredible.  If you've never done it...do it.


Rock on

Where are we?

Navy Seal pose - had to be done

Some more pictures from the trip...

airplane landing in the middle of Eilat

Israelis - straight to the point 


The Jordanian flag flying in the city of Aqaba just across the bay



where the streets have no names...

No fun allowed

clear meat - a Jewish delicacy


Day 10: Time to leave Eilat.  In the morning though, we rented an ATV and raced through the desert.  I was instantly hooked - new hobby for me.  Didn't get any pics though - too busy arguing with the rental place which ripped us off.  After that, it was time to leave Eilat and go back up north...
Negev, looking back toward Eilat 

Egyptian border 

Back in Hadera that night, my mom threw a party in honor of E's graduation, A&C's aliyah and my b-day

todah ema

Day 11: Rise and shine!

During the day we took a trip to Mt. Tabor...

Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor 

 Mt Tabor

On location at filming of Monty Python/Holy Grail 

Mt Tabor 

Mt Tabor: better in person 

E proving he can be shorter than mom 

Great day 

...and in the evening we went to the ancient port of Caesarea, where the ruins of King Herod's palace still stand right on the shore.  From Wikipedia:
    In 22 BCE, Herod began construction of a deep sea harbor and built storerooms, markets, wide roads, baths, temples to Rome and Augustus, and imposing public buildings.[3] Every five years the city hosted major sports competitions, gladiator games, and theatrical productions in its theatre overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
You can still see the chariot race track, the public bath house and of course the amphitheater, which hosts concerts and events to this day.

Security is of course an ever-present issue in Israel.  
This is a concrete pit for suspicious/explosive objects.

ancient jacuzzi

The amphitheater - my camera died before I could take my own pics

Days 13 and 14 were Yom Kippur.  Got to hear the Shofar in Israel and attend both the next-door Ashkenazi synagogue and the neighborhood Sephardic shul that my grandfather used to belong to years ago.  Fasted and such. 

Then came day 15 - my last day - and the much-awaited trip to Jerusalem.

Along the way we first stopped at Latrun, an IDF base and tank museum and site of some of the bloodiest fighting of Israel's War of Independence.

The old British Tegart fort at Latrun

Israel's newest tank, the Merkava 4

Recreating a childhood pic

and then, Jerusalem...

Walking through the Old City

Entrance to a shuk (market) in the Old City

Mount of Olives (al Aqsa mosque seen on the left)

The Western Wall, with the Dome of the Rock above it 

Some historical context, gratis:
The First Temple was built 3,000 years ago (10th century BCE) by King Solomon.  It stood for over 400 years, until the Babylonians destroyed it in 586 BCE.  It was reconstructed about 70 years later - we know that reconstruction as the Second Temple.  In 19 BCE King Herod expanded the base of the Temple, known as the Temple Mount.  The Western Wall is the sole remaining segment of the Temple Mount - it and the Second Temple were destroyed by the Romans around 70 CE.

Jews have been praying at this spot for a very long time. I've prayed there several times in my life, including of course on that day.  Like on the night Sugar Bear died, at first I didn't know what I wanted to say to G-d, but this time, out of nowhere, the words came.

Jews at home

Dome of the Rock

A little later on in history - in the late 7th and 8th centuries - Muslim conquerors built al Aqsa mosque (the gray dome) and the Dome of the Rock (the golden dome) atop the Temple Mount.  The Rock referred to is the Foundation Stone, believed by Judaism and Islam to be the spiritual center of the universe.  It is the holiest site in Judaism.  If you'll indulge me, let's play a little game of compare and contrast...

Compare: Israel conquers the Old City in 1967, marking the first time in 2,000 years that Jews have sovereignty over their holiest site.  However, the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, is also the third-holiest site in Islam (after Mecca and Medina I believe), and of course in 1967 there's already big shiny mosque over the Foundation Stone.  So rather than assert Jewish sovereignty, they grant authority to the Muslim waqf.

Contrast: The waqf, the authority over the entire Temple Mount, naturally bars all Jews.  Additionally, they along with many other leading Arabs such as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, deny that the Temple(s) ever existed there and thus that the Jews have any claim to the site (and by extension, of course, to Jerusalem or Israel).  This has tangible consequences...just look at how they treat the place, attempting to erase ancient evidence of the Jewish connection to the site.

ANYway, we talked a little about all this but mainly just soaked in the experience of being there.

E having an Abbey Road moment

The road he's actually crossing was the border between Jordanian- and Israeli-held Jerusalem from 1948-1967.  If you look closely at the building across the street, you can still see bullet holes from the fighting that raged across this boundary.

After an amazing lunch we went back to the Old City, spent a little more time there and did some shopping.  By then it was getting late...

Sunset at the walls of the Old City

We made a quick stop at Mt. Scopus (Hebrew U) on the way out, then made it back to Tel Aviv for dinner with the cousins.

Like a maniac, I then drove to Haifa and spent two hours, from about 1-3 AM, with HL.  So glad I did.

And then R&R was over.  By the numbers:
  • 15 - days spent in Israel
  • 6 - years since last visit
  • 4, maybe 5 - average hours/night spent sleeping
  • 17 - cousins seen
  • 13 - new babies in the family since I was last there (#14 announced while I was there)
  • 1 - days spent fasting
  • 30 - approximate number of gut-busting home-cooked meals eaten
  • 5, maybe 10 - number of lbs gained
  • 1015 - pictures taken
  • 6 - breathtaking panoramas not adequately captured by pictures
  • 140 - maximum number of km/h driven
  • 5 - times I got to see HL
  • 2 - cheap sunglasses I bought and broke
  • 0 - times I thought about Afghanistan
  • 180 - approximate number of days until I land in California
  • 31 - number of years I have lived, as of today.  How do you sing Happy Birthday in Arabic? 
My goal on this trip was simple: enjoy every minute of it.  I did.  Yet I also was glad to get back, though I can't really explain that feeling.  There are a lot of new faces here, now that so many people are rotating out at the half-way point.  But for me, no question, staying the year is the right decision, and I've got a good feeling about the next six months.