So you want to visit me, hurrah!
When to stay:
I have very liberal flatmates who have people dropping by all the time, so you can come whenever you want. If you want me to be free during the day, however, I have breaks from the yeshiva on the following dates:
October 16th-24th – Sukkot break (Please note October 17th and 24th are religious holidays) January 11th-24th – Winter break
April 4th-18th – Pesach break (Please April 11th and 17th are religious holidays and also from 11-17th most restaurants and shops will be predominantly selling unleavened bread)
May 25th-31st – Term ends on May 25th and I assume my apartmental rental will cover up to the end of the month, so I will be here until 1st June. Note May 31st is also the Jewish festival of Shavuot.
I would really like to put together a Christian Tour so we can hit all the major Christian places thematically and in one go, so please buzz me to talk dates if you want in.
On account of Israel’s standing with its neighbours, entry points are limited and you’ll probably want to fly into Ben Gurion International Airport. Travel guides optimistically talk about land crossings with Jordan and Egypt but if you attempt to do this just to come visit me, you are insane. Unless you are planning a regional tour of which I am a stopover, fly to Ben Gurion.
Once here and disembarked, you go through security (please note this will be your first experience of the complete disrespect shown to queuing etiquette and it will not be the last), then baggage, then go out into the really big hallway. Walk straight out the main door in front of you and turn right, where a company called Nesher operates minivan taxis to Jerusalem. The cost of this is about £15 to take you directly outside my flat. You can take a train but it’ll take twice as long, and basically you’ll be Elly and I’ll be arranging with you privately to come take the train with you, so it’s not something to deal with here. When you want to return, you do the same trip in reverse.
I live in a four bed flat with three flatmates, a cat, and a balcony. The flat is on the first floor and has a lift.
I generally make all of my own meals but my flatmate knows the magic of ordering takeaways and I am sure would be delighted to teach us.
In Jerusalem, you basically walk everywhere. Sometimes a tram or a bus will hook up two places you are travelling between, but as my hatred of public transport has been reset to zero while here, I literally walk everywhere within less than 40 minutes unless there’s an obvious and direct route. Google Maps has good coverage of public transport lines if you need it though. Israeli drivers are literally the worst drivers I have ever encountered on earth and I would be somewhat hesitant about hiring a car unless someone else more experienced in Israeli road rage was driving.
Uber opened here in April 2016 and currently has no drivers. If you like like to use a taxi, you will need to download Gett which has similar pricing to what you would expect. I always use Gett and never random taxis – the one time I did we immediately got ripped off and that will not be happening again.
What to do
I am on a student income and thus am not up for taking an no expense spared camel-riding holiday in the Negev. However, I’ve only ever been to Tel Aviv outside of Jerusalem and I would be up for checking out other Israeli cities like Haifa, Eilat (SWIM WITH DOLPHINS), Tzfat, Nazareth etc. Israel is a very small country and consequently you’d be surprised at just many places can be reached and back in a day. In addition to cities, there are also common touristy things to do like climbing Masada, bathing in the Dead Sea, taking a political tour of the West Bank, camping in Galilee etc.
In Jerusalem – check out the stuff on Trip Adviser. Make a list of stuff you want to look at. Give me the list. I plan how much you can fit into the time you have based on distance and travel methods and whether I’ve visited that place six times already, and then we go do it. Alternatively, you tell me what sort of thing you want to do (“Christian tour! Political stuff! Bird watching! Underground trance party!”), and I will try to make it happen. Alternatively, if you just want to hang out, I will plan our time together based on what I think you would enjoy and I haven’t done yet.
Food is generally expensive here because most of it is imported/kosher supervised/just a side effect of the occupation, but there’s a lot of cheap places based on hummous, falafel, shwarma, and pizza, and a load of cool juice and coffee places that I can take you to. Pretty much everything is kosher. I have no idea how to distinguish fresh foods made in settlements but things like bottles of wine should have indications on their labels as to origin.
The Jew thing
Israel is a Jewish state (for now) and the calendar is arranged around the Jewish calendar. That means that the weekend is Friday and Saturday, not Saturday and Sunday. On Friday, the shops are packed as everyone runs around preparing for Shabbat. In West Jerusalem, pretty much everything closes on Friday afternoon, with the exception of a couple of restaurants and the odd corner shop here and there, and pretty much all public transport, and does not reopen until Saturday night. A rule of thumb is therefore to make sure you’re where you want to be for Friday through Saturday night by early Friday afternoon. Arab areas of Israel and more secular places like Tel Aviv stay open as usual. This is just something to be aware of when planning your trip.
I don’t travel on Shabbat and I usually go to synagogue on Friday evenings and have a nice meal at home after if I’m not out elsewhere at a Shabbat dinner. I do not generally go to morning services on Shabbat because I do not consider getting up to go a service starting at 9am to be “resting” but I will happily go if you want to. The nearest synagogues are within twenty minutes’ walk but because of the lack of public transport thing it is completely normal to walk long distances to get to places – I walked 40 minutes to get to a friend’s synagogue this morning and an hour and a half back (there was lunch, a steep hill, conversation with other people…).
I am not as intensely religious as some of the people here but I am a practicing Jew in Jerusalem, so there may well be times when I have to go do a random Jew thing. Israelis are incredibly used to tourists and non-Jewish people turning up to their stuff, so if you want to join in, that will nearly always be just fine. Please note that as a Jew, I am not allowed on the Temple Mount i.e. the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
Frequently Asked Questions that I Imagine You Probably Have
Do I need to know Hebrew? I mean, it’d probably be beneficial to your tourist experience and prevent you getting ripped off by vendors, but generally speaking no. Israelis are taught English in school and because of the huge influx of American Jews making aliyah and tourists visiting the Holy Land, everyone you will need to speak to should be fluent in English.
Where can I change money? So, I don’t actually know – I have a Halifax Clarity credit card that charges me 0% commission on worldwide transactions and which you should totally also get, which allows me to use certain ATMs (but not all of them) to get cash out. If you find out, let me know!
Should I talk politics? I mean, you’re reading this because you’re on the newsletter and you know my experience. You’re probably not going to be in danger unless you’ve gone into a situation knowing it could get you into trouble (like, I don’t know, travelling to the West Bank to participate in a protest and striking up conversation with a settler on the bus). If you want to talk politics with people, especially Americans who have made aliyah because they believe in the Zionist dream, you are likely to find the whole conversation intensely frustrating. On the other hand, if you’re not Jewish, you will probably never have had the experience of talking to someone who’s very friendly and engaging who will then suddenly tell you that Arabs can’t be trusted and there’s no such thing as a Palestinian and you may like to get involved in that discussion. I, frankly, generally do not bother unless asked.
What about the terrorism thing? The current way in which terror attacks in Israel manifest is random stabbings in public areas. I looked up as many of the news stories about these stabbings as possible and basically, if you look like a tourist, you will be fine (most of the attacks have been on soldiers, security guards and black hat Orthodox men). Car-ramming and suicide bombings are not really any more likely than in the UK at the moment – please also bear in mind that everyone has been in the army, most stores/sites have armed guards, and that guns are not viewed here as pretty toys with which to thumb your nose at the President. They do not mess around here. In the event of a terror attack inside Israel, the attackers will be disabled/disposed of in extremely short order.
Current advice from my yeshiva is not to go into East Jerusalem alone but to travel in organised groups. ISIS are operating in the West Bank but generally speaking Mahmoud Abbas put a lot of effort into building Palestinian security forces and as long as you aren’t there over a time of particular tension, you should be fine. My main concern when wandering into Arab areas without knowing Arabic is getting ripped off, sexually harrassed, or robbed (two down, robbed to go…). Obviously if you’re wanting to do any of these things we’ll be putting a lot more thought into planning our personal safety. You will not be going in Gaza while visiting me because I will literally never forgive you or myself if you get kidnapped, bombed or murdered and there is very high risk of one or all of those things happening if you attempt to get into the Strip (I should note my flatmate disputes this).
What should I bring? This will depend on the time of year that you’re coming and we’ll obviously have more of a discussion individually, but generally whatever you would take on holiday to a place with mild weather and very little rain. It’s getting a little chilly at the moment but it’s nothing compared to the UK (I wrote this sentence in November and I still don’t have to wear a coat outside). Israeli supermarkets will stock most basic items you can think of. I should have all of the adapters you will ever need. Sim cards cost like £20 to buy and then are PAYG (contract doesn’t appear to exist here) – I have a spare 009 sim card that I can lend you that you can top up online. If you are a light packer, or conversely, a heavy packer and thus already have a significant baggage allowance, I would be very pleased to use you as a mule to import gravy granules and double concentrate squash.
Will going to Israel cause me trouble visiting other countries? No. Israeli tourist visas are issues on loose slips of paper tucked inside your passport that you can throw away after returning home. I can’t speak for what would happen if you were to leave the country via Jordan, Egypt or Syria (please don’t go to Syria), but if you’re planning to do that you’re probably a more advanced traveler than me and know what you’re doing anyway.
What are the pokemon? Mainly fire and fighting pokemon. Growlithes, Meowths, and Mankeys are abundant here. Tel Aviv has a lot of electric and water pokemon.