“People go to Jerusalem to pray, and Tel Aviv to play.”
I was told this so many times in June during a one-week FAM trip to Israel, from so many tourism folks, it started to feel like the country’s catch phrase.
There was truth to it.
During a Friday night in Jerusalem, the nation’s capital and largest city felt eerily quiet as much of the population observed Shabbat.
Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, images flooded social media of the tens of thousands of revelers parading and dancing in various states of dress as they celebrated Pride, which draws so many people from around the world, festivities have moved from a seaside promenade to sprawling Hayarkon Park.
This contrast between the two cities made the play versus pray mantra seemingly indisputable.
But, based on my time in Israel, its peoples, cultures, and topographies have so much more to offer Canadian visitors than any binary can capture.
Israel’s “city of play"
We landed a week earlier in Tel Aviv, Israel’s “city of play.”
Our journey could’ve started with a visit to the seaside promenade. It was the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the skies were sunny, and temperatures were in the mid-20s—which meant the beach was packed with locals lounging amidst golden sand or working on their “gainz” at the many outdoor exercise stations.
Yes, fit bodies abounded.
Rather than immersing ourselves in the local beach culture, we opted for a quick drive by on route to exploring the oldest part of Tel Aviv—historic Jaffa.
Meandering through ancient stone stairwells (some of it made from petrified sand dunes), winding pathways, and artist boutiques, we learned about the area’s connections to Alexander the Great and Napoleon before stopping at Saint Peter’s Church.
Our guide, Michal Neuman, explained that it’s here that Peter (of New Testament fame) received his famous vision that allowed for eating “unclean” animals—a revolutionary break from religious beliefs of the time.
Neuman added that the vision also encouraged him to seek out pagans to convert to Christianity because, as she laughingly spoke of her own people, “Jews are too stubborn.”
In the days that followed, Israel’s play versus pray motif continued to feel less like a juxtaposition and more like an organically symbiotic, interwoven experience.
In what’s left of Caesarea, a former port built by King Herod around 20 BC and one-time home of Pontius Pilate, Neuman took us through its history and notable features—an oval hippodrome, Roman public toilets, a mosque minaret—spanning from before the Hellenistic era to Roman times to beyond the Crusades.
As we walked amongst the columns and decapitated statues, we came to a restored Roman theatre where crew people were setting up sound and light equipment for a coming concert.
The likes of Shlomo Artzi, Bjork and Suzanne Vega have performed here.
“If you want to make it big as an Israeli musician, you play here first,” Neuman explained.
“Everything is in one place”
This interplay of fun/modern meets historical/spiritual continued throughout the FAM.
We floated in the mineral-rich Dead Sea, enjoying some laughs (and in some cases, a screwdriver) that was more than beach and chill time; it was also physical, mental, and spiritual healing.
As the water supported my body, I felt waves of tension leaving my hips, shoulders, and neck.
“The Dead Sea has high levels of bromine in the air,” said Hassan Madah from Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. “Just breathing it promotes relaxation.”
During a steak, shrimp, and lamb kebab dinner at Medita Restaurant in Jerusalem, he explained what makes Israel such a special destination: “In Israel, everything is in one place.”
He points to the country’s small size; one can reasonably drive from north to south in six hours, which means nothing is far from anything, and with so many people from around the world calling it home, “in seven days you can comfortably see desert, many cultures, the lowest place on earth, parties … It’s really unique. When you come for a pilgrimage it’s one thing; for leisure, it’s totally different … and people are asking for more than pilgrimages. The whole scene has changed.”
He highlights the increase in Michelin Star Restaurants as well as boutique and big-name hoteliers.
“We have more international and high-end chains,” he said. “Six Senses, Kempinski…the Four Seasons is coming to Tel Aviv.”
Infrastructure is also expanding, including a subway in Tel Aviv and trams in Jerusalem.
Getting to Israel from Canada is also a lot easier than many may realize: Air Canada offers non-stop flights from both Toronto and Montreal, lasting about 10.5 hours.
My friends and family were shocked when I told them. Like myself, they’d imagined mythic Israel to be some far-off land that couldn’t possibly be reached without a layover.
Safety in Israel
I also asked Madah about safety in Israel, given what North Americans often see on the news.
He understands how some people might be concerned because, “When I see the news coming from the U.S., I get scared I might get shot there. It’s the same wherever you go; we’re not unique. Can you go everywhere in Mexico? There are lots of things happening in the world, but personal security is very high in Israel; rates of theft and assault are very low, even compared to Europe.”
“There is some tension sometimes, but you see the police. The problem is the perception.”
During the FAM, we got caught behind tanks being towed on the highway in front of us, and on the drive to Jerusalem, Neuman pointed out the fence separating Israel from Jordan.
“There are landmines,” she said, “but we haven’t had problems with Jordan for decades.”
These moments, rather than detracting from the experience, became a part it.
On board the Jesus Boat
Our boat excursion on the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus is said to have walked on water, is a perfect example.
We whisked along the calm waters in a lovingly created fiberglass replica of the famous ancient Galilee fishing boat, also known as the Jesus Boat, discovered in 1986 and dating back to the first century AD.
Israel’s pray meets play vibe abounded, along with something more.
We basked in the warm breeze and applauded a once world-champion hydrofoil windsurfer as he whisked by, and it occurred to me—elsewhere in the world, that would be the sum of the experience: a boat ride in a nice setting.
But we were in Israel. Our captain pointed to the Golan Heights on the far shore. Once, they belonged to neighbouring Syria, whose military forces would fire on Israeli fisher people.
In 1967, Israel sent its own forces into the mountains to claim them while pushing Syrian forces decisively to the other side.
For me, the inescapable presence of this complex not-so-distant history, folded in with ancient Biblical tales (and perfect weather), added to the meaningfulness of this multi-faceted moment.
I felt deeply connected, grateful, and blessed. Any day-to-day worries seemed small by comparison.
Vibrations at the Western Wall
These enmeshed layers of pray, play, and history sank deeper and grew richer in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, in particular, at the Western Wall.
Known to be the holiest place in Judaism, as well as a site of controversy and protests, I was actually a little intimidated.
The surrounding plaza was peaceful as folks washed their hands at public outdoor stations. I mimicked them, keenly feeling like an outsider as I joined the many Orthodox Jews at the wall itself.
I waited to be yelled at for doing something wrong.
Instead, I soaked up the vibrations of the many men praying in the gender segregated section, observed young boys intently reading the Torah while one teen in black pants, kippah, and white shirt, dutifully stood about, looking incredibly bored. Somewhere beyond, I heard the notes of someone playing a saxophone in celebration of a mitzvah.
In the plaza near the Wall, a large group of young, teen boys from a sporting group formed a circle.
They began clapping and singing in Hebrew, “Our Father Still Lives, The Nation of Israel Lives!”
Then they’d come together in a mass, still singing and clapping, lifting each other onto their shoulders.
I waited for someone to shut this down. But no, they just grew louder and happier. They were still at it an hour later when we passed by.
Maybe they came to Jerusalem to pray, but this felt way more like a Tel Aviv party.