First Impressions

I travelled to Israel for the first time 11 years ago. I went on a tour very similar to ones many dragon boat team members are going to take.

I’ve been trying to put together a section on the DBI website for people who have never travelled to Israel before, or haven’t been in a very long time. It’s been leading me to think back to when I first went.

You know what one of the biggest surprises was? How really small everything is there. When you grow up in Canada and only read or hear stories of the Middle East, including bible stories, you picture everything in the scale that is familiar to you. The mighty Jordan – that’s got to be some impressive river, right? And Mary and Joseph had to schlep all the way from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, so it must be really far. Well, it turns out that Bethlehem is practically a suburb of Jerusalem. The ‘Sea’ of Galilee is a lake. It’s pretty big, but I think I could swim across it if I tried. And the Jordan! The first time I encountered it, we were travelling by bus from one place to another and, as we rattled over a tiny bridge, the guide said, “And there’s the Jordan river.” “Where?” we asked. “We just went over it,” the guide said. The thing we went over was a creek, a trickle. Of course, that was at a low point for it, but even when it is at its most impressive, its barely bigger than a stream. But when you live in a desert, a stream is pretty impressive.

Another thing that surprised me what how not scary it was there. By the time I made it there, my husband had been travelling to Israel for work several time a year for some time, and I was always a wreck when he went, following the news for the region obsessively until he returned. I was still eager to go myself, and I was determined not to let my fears ruin an opportunity to go to a country I’d always dreamed of. We went at the height of the Second Intifada. The first night I was there, I could hear artillery fire from our hotel room in Jerusalem. While I felt nauseous to think that there were people in such danger so close I could hear it, I felt no personal fear. And I’ve never felt personal fear. As small as the country may be, most of the people and the places in it are perfectly safe. And warm and friendly and welcoming.

The last surprise, although it should not have been a surprise, was that history is alive there. It’s not just packed away in a museum to look at, or even an official historical site such as Masada; it is everywhere. Here’s only one small example – on my last trip, the tour guide stopped the bus on the side of the highway outside Jerusalem and took us down into chalkstone caves right on the side of the road.

The caves were artificial, chiseled out thousands of years ago by stone masons creating cups and plates for the priests of the Temple. It was too easy for pottery, he explained, to be rendered unkosher, so the priests used stone instead. We scrabbled around, finding round cores that were the discarded insides of the cups. Below is a photo of my kids holding ones they found (sorry for the quality – it was taken with a camera phone.)

Later, in an antiquities shop, we got to see one of the cups that matched the cores we found. How awesome is that?

Okay, it might just be the history geek in me, but it is just so amazing that, instead of being told about how biblical-era stone masons cut stone cups for the kohanim (Temple priests) and maybe see a photo, or a cup behind glass in a museum, we got to crawl around in their caves, touching the chisel marks and finding the cores that fit into these cups. It makes history real.


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