I know I should have visited Israel before now, but each attempt I’ve made in the past has been thwarted, so when I had the chance to join a cruise that disembarked in both Ashdod and Haifa, the chance was too good to pass up.
Two relaxing days at sea were followed by three and a half days spent in the heat of the Holy Land. Arrived at Ashdod (what an ugly port, not destined for tourist ships), I offered my first shaloms spoken in Eretz Yisroel and rapidly reminded myself that Israelis can be the rudest and most offhand of all nations. No matter: I was in Israel and that’s all that counted.
First stop on dry land was to collect the hire car that we’d pre-booked. We couldn’t believe how they could rent out a car with so many scratches and marks; even the front number plate was wonky! However it wasn’t long before we encountered the standard of driving on the local roads and soon found out why our car was far from pristine. The roads were easy to navigate, although our Hebrew is so poor that we could only cope with the signs that were translated into English. It didn’t take long to get onto Highway 4 and famous place names started to appear: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa – places I’d only ever heard of or encountered in the Bible.
Our destination on our first day was to Ra’anana, a suburb of Tel Aviv, to meet friends and business colleagues. We pulled off the main road for a light snack of Israel’s national dish: Falafel in pitta bread. However we didn’t realise that Bnei Brak, the town we’d chosen, was ultra religious. Coming from London we were used to Chasidic Jewry in Golders Green and Stamford Hill, but this was something else. I must have been the only woman wearing short sleeves and no head covering or wig (sheitl). Even the snack bar we chose was Glatt Kosher, despite not selling meat products. Anyway we enjoyed our food, shared with a couple of Israeli soldiers, and continued on our way. We eventually found our destination, made friends with a beautiful, elderly, cross-bred spaniel-dachsund and had our first proper meal on Israeli soil in the seaside resort of Herzlia. Israeli food is hugely influenced by Middle Eastern cuisine, and owes very little to traditional European Jewish cooking. The food was delicious, although not kosher (there were prawns on the menu), and my pudding of a semifreddo of Halva was too delicious to leave, although I was rather full by then.