It’s interesting, isn’t it: out of the thirty-eight countries I’ve been blessed to visit, this is the first one I really feel the pressure to explain my desire to travel to.
The majority of the world associates Israel with two things: religion, and politics. I don’t shy away from either, here on Alex in Wanderland, as the posts I just linked to demonstrate. But neither is the reason I spent three weeks in Israel this year, nor do they explain why I left so intoxicated by the place.
Even some Israelis seemed confused about my trip. Are you Jewish, they’d ask, peering suspiciously at my blonde hair. No, I’d confirm. Christian? Culturally, I’d respond, or perhaps explain that I was raised that way, but I wasn’t there for religious tourism (though if that’s what you’re looking for, head over to my friend Angie’s wonderful guide.)
So, what then? I grew up in New York with countless Jewish friends and always admired and was intrigued by Jewish culture, which seemed to be such a joyful force. I’ve been to about a billion bar and bat mitzvahs, enjoyed many a Shabbat dinner, traveled with friends keeping strict kosher, and even been a bridesmaid in an orthodox wedding. When my friends started going on Birthright, a program that brings young Jewish people to Israel to connect them with their heritage, they all came back raving about the land of milk and honey.
An Israeli friend once explained to me that questioning God and challenging the rules are welcome aspects of Judaism, which I thought was pretty cool (and could, ahem, relate to.) As the only Jewish nation on Earth, Israel is an incredibly unique place to experience Jewish culture.
When I began traveling, I found myself constantly meeting large groups of Israeli travelers, fresh out of their compulsory military service and hungrily exploring the world. Backpack long enough, and you’ll have a couch to sleep on in Israel. Israeli travelers join American travelers in sometimes being a bit of a punchline for our various idiosyncrasies, so I’ve always felt some kinship.
I even found myself crowned an honorary Israeli a few times when I, a lone solo traveler, joined a pack who became so comfortable they’d often turn to me and speak Hebrew, taking several sentences to remember I wasn’t one of their countrywomen. I admired the spirit, the intensity and the zest for life I found in so many Israeli travelers, and kept in touch with many over the years.
And the more I read about places like hip, beachfront Tel Aviv, the other-worldly Dead Sea, and the vast, adventure-filled Negev Desert, the more I wanted to finally make good on those promises to go visit.
Sure, I had some minor hesitations. But having spent many years living on Koh Tao, a place that is so inaccurately and unfairly portrayed by the media, I felt certain that there was more to the story of what life is like for the people of Israel than what I was reading in the news.
The politics and history of this region are mind-bogglingly complicated. I confess that I understood little to nothing about them prior to this trip, and found myself Googling hilariously basic search terms (“how to explain the Middle East conflict to a seven year old” may have come up) to try to grasp even the general idea. I walked into Israel with an open heart and open mind, and still feel I am yet to understand the issues in enough depth to start to hold truly informed and educated opinions.
Israel is young and tiny, for the amount of press it gets. It’s about the size of New Jersey, Wales, or El Salvador, with a population of under nine million. While about 75% are Jewish, the rest are a mixture of Muslim, Christian, and other religions. It’s a baby of a country, just seventy years old, yet since its establishment in 1948, the State of Israel has fought eight recognized wars, two Palestinian intifadas, and a series of armed conflicts in the broader Arab–Israeli conflict.
Now, history has never been my strong suit, and attempting a brief overview of such a complicated topic would guarantee missing many nuances. But it seems to me that how you feel about Israel and Palestine and Zionism and the hope of a two state system and all the rest is going to depend greatly on whether or not you see Israel as David or Goliath, in the eponymous Bible story.
But while I tried to unravel Israel’s history as much as my mind could absorb, my sights for this trip were set on modern-day Israel. After contemplating endless iterations of this adventure, my three week trip fell into three pieces: a dive safari that would take me to the Red Sea, Dead Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and even the Sea of Galilee; a solo sojourn to Midburn, Israel’s regional Burning Man event; and a travel influencer tour with Vibe Israel, a local non-profit. I felt Vibe was the perfect fit for me, a group that aims to show the world a fresh and contemporary side of Israel outside religion and politics.
I think anyone reading this will be familiar with at least the fact that there is a conflict in Israel. But did you know Israel is first in the world in water recycling? That there are more start ups, cafes, museums, vegans, clean energy innovators, PHD holders, and theater tickets sold per capita than in any other country in the world? That it is host to the world’s largest regional Burn? That it hold’s the Middle East’s largest — and essentially only — gay pride events?
The Israel I found was home to some of the most vibrant cities, stunning landscapes, and interesting people I’ve encountered on my travels. It was teeming with creative energy, filled with delicious healthy food, and bursting with a passion for the outdoors and adrenaline-pumping adventure activities.
Oh, the food! I know that for many, trying a local cuisine is reason enough to hop on a plane, and dang, I loved Israeli food. I loved that there was a delicious modern Mexican place across the street from my hostel in Tel Aviv where I could sit at the bar in shorts and eat pork tacos and think about the fact that yup, I was in the Middle East. I loved that there were entire restaurants dedicated to various iterations of hummus in Jerusalem. I loved that everywhere in the country, from Eilat to Nahariya, I could stop at the Starbucks-esque chain Aroma and grab a healthy chopped salad or fruit and granola. I loved the breakfast that became my routine: a chopped salad (yup, salad for breakfast), two boiled eggs, hummus, an orange, and tea.
So I suppose I went to Israel to scuba dive and experience a unique culture and sample the nightlife and eat açai bowls and hummus and jog along the beach and go to an arts festival and contemplate going surfing and soak up the sunshine and make new friends and laugh with old ones and experience the young cities and timeless natural wonders and well, do all the things I enjoy doing anywhere in the world.
That’s how I ended up in Israel. I know that this is a place people feel very passionately about. For me, it was one that was very important to see and understand with my own eyes. This is a beautiful part of the world with some incredible people in it, and I can’t wait to share what I’ve experienced.
Have you been to Israel? Do you want to go? What drew you there?