Want to explore Israel with me? Be sure to nab one of the last few spots to our Wander Women Israel: A Yoga, Diving, + Adventure Retreat for May 27-June 3, 2021 or High Flying Israel: An Aerial Arts + Yoga Retreat for June 5-10, 2021.
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?
Can’t wait for more on this and to see a fresh take on the destination!
Thanks Kaitie! I don’t say this often, but I do really think I’ll be showing a side most people haven’t seen before of this place!
Wow this was interesting
Thank you Jo-Anne! More to come 🙂
You just keep opening my eyes, gal, to the world out there! I’m really loving the way you describe the places, scenery, everything! I have never been to Israel, never thought about going but your post was very interesting to me! Ya got me wondering!
Well I’m glad to hear that because I have a LOT of posts coming up about Israel, ha. So I’m hoping even those who have never considered a visit will be interested and stay tuned 😉
When my husband and I travelled around the world a few years back, we went to Jordan but skipped Israel. After reading just this article, I’m now sad that we skipped it! Can’t wait to read more!!
Also, that olive green dress you’re wearing in a couple pictures. Who makes it? Where is it from? I absolutely love it and it looks like the perfect travel piece.
I ended up doing the opposite! I planned to go to both but ended up skipping Jordan this time (with a vow to go back, of course). I’m super glad I decided not to stretch myself too thin. Three weeks each in Israel and Egypt was perfect.
As for the dress, I got it specifically for this trip! You can find it on Amazon, here: https://amzn.to/2PjBQ0Y
Aww Alex what a lovely intro and STUNNING photos. That little islet is otherworldly!
As a Jewish person lucky enough to have visited Israel on the aforementioned Birthright, I have a TON to say about Israel & it makes me a little sad that someone would have to explain their reasons for visiting more than with other places. To summarise my feelings in the BROADEST of brush strokes, I’d say that people are people & in this case, a victim of politics, world events, corruption & propaganda, on both sides. And it’s a terrible, heart wrenching shame.
I am so excited for your unique take on what I hold in my heart as one of the most magical, vibrant destinations I’ve been to. I’m dying to return — ESPECIALLY TO TEL AVIV! Already, I’m learning some new things to be proud of. Had no idea about the vegans, clean energy, PhD’s – wow! Keep it coming.
Ps — I know blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jews. They totally exist!
Oh yeah, I saw some of them — and think that’s why people were clarifying! Actually, some of our closest family friends are Filipino Jews, and their oldest daughter works for the state department. She’s traveled all over the Middle East, including some places where her last name, heritage and travels to Israel could cause pause at immigration, but she says her face confuses them so much they just wave her through — ha!
And I totally get what you mean about being sad someone even has to explain why they would go to Israel. I definitely had the thought in the back of my mind that I have close friends who would be borderline offended I even felt the need to write this post. And I have very close friends who were borderline judgemental that I went in the first place. People say, “don’t listen to what others think!” But I do like to listen to what others thing, because listening and learning is a crucial part of being a better human. But it’s hard when you have people who’s opinions you respect who are just all over the place on one issue and you can’t really please anyone, fully.
Of course I do think Israel gets a disproportionate amount of flack compared to other countries where the governments make controversial human rights decisions. Any blogger that travels to Israel opens themselves to some level of criticism, but look at what is happening in Myanmar with the Rohingya — and yet I haven’t seen anyone criticized for traveling there recently. And with all my years living in Thailand and their laundry list of human rights issues, I think I had all of two people in my entire nearly ten year stint living and traveling there question my opinions on the actions of the government. Why are travelers to Israel held to a different standard? I don’t know why, but from what I’ve observed they absolutely are.
I fell in love with Israel; the people, the food, the scenery, the history. People assume that Jews and Arabs hate each other but it’s just not so. I was shocked to see many sitting and having coffee together, or playing chess, or sharing meals. I came with the perception that the media portrays in the back of my mind, but left knowing there is far more love amongst the people of various religions than the media would lead you to believe.
What a beautiful comment, Kirsten! <3 It rings very true to me!
Alex, I am SO looking forward to your fresh perspective on Israel. It sounds like it was pretty life-changing (what an appropriate place for such an experience). Very excited for your upcoming posts!
Thank you so much Riley! Glad to hear that since you are going to be reading about Israel for a loooong time, ha! This trip was just too good!
Can’t wait to read more about your time in Israel! It looks like a beautiful and dynamic country, so interested to read of your experiences in contrast to what is portrayed in the media.
Thanks Genevieve! Excited to share a fresh take…
As an Israeli and a traveler I enjoyed reading your post very much!! Thank you for sharing your experience in such a compelling way.
All the best
You’re so welcome 🙂 You have a beautiful home! Thanks for reading!
I’m so eager to hit up Egypt and Israel – will be using all your content to plan!! Cannot wait!
Ah, you’re going to have such a great trip! I absolutely know I’ll be back to both someday.
Israel looks amazing, they must have loved having you visit. Looking forward to more!
LOTS coming! I can’t believe how much I crammed into three weeks!
You take great photos! What are those blues stones called?
Hey Katie! Unfortunately, I can’t remember 🙁 We saw them at a tour of the Levinsky Market, which I will be writing about. Someone (ahem, me) hit the Tel Aviv nightlife a little too hard the night before…
Perfect post! I went to Israel on a Vibe Tour trip in 2017 and it opened my eyes to the beautiful country of Israel. It’s such a complex place and it can be difficult to put all the emotions about this country into words. It’s an incredible place & I look forward to reading more about your experience there!
Hey Margarita! I went and read about your trip too 🙂 Vibe puts together such incredible experiences! I am really grateful to them for showing me such exciting sides of Israel.
I think you wrote this post really well. I’m of two minds in regards to visiting Israel. I think my issue is that I see Israel more as Goliath. Regardless of this fact, I would still love to visit the region, experience the culture and meet the people. I’m curious to find out what you thought about it!
There will be mannnnny posts on the subject — I really crammed a LOT into three weeks in Israel!
I love this post and appreciate it so much! I totally feel the pull to Israel too, but can’t really put my finger on exactly what it is that draws me there. I went to a Jewish preschool (despite not being Jewish), and even though I don’t have many memories of it (there are a couple), Israel has always been fairly high on my list. I can’t wait to read more of your posts about Israel!
Probably just that exposure to the culture growing up planted a seed of curiosity in you! Many more Israel posts coming up 🙂
Thanks so much for sharing this! Israel is on our list of destinations for travel in 2019, so can’t wait to read more about your trip!!
Oh that’s so exciting Kristen! Much more Israel coverage coming in 2019!
I have never been to Israel, but I would absolutely love to go. I’m pretty sure that once I do,I will return home at least 10 pounds heavier. But I know it will be totally worth it. Thanks for sharing your experience there with us.
YES: the hummus is worth it. Ha!