- - Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hearing that I was going to Israel right after the conflict in the Gaza Strip ended, friends reflexively said “be safe.” I understood their reaction, considering the media coverage and all, though I never doubted the security of my life and limb.

Now that I’m back I am happy to report I was safe — as were Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett and the mesmerizing popular combo The Klezmatics, all of whom I had the good fortune to encounter in my travels.

I inexplicably scored a ticket to Lady Gaga’s open-air concert in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park. She had flown on her private jet directly to Israel from Dubai, a first. The first surprise of the night was the light security footprint. Expecting an interminable line feeding into airport style metal detector gates, I found no stanchions and only a quick wanding.

Twenty-three thousand eager fans watched the pop princess power through her hits and a dizzying phantasmagoria of costume changes, one of which was executed on stage, cleverly concealed by carefully placed handlers and accoutrements. I suspect she had a different wardrobe on her Dubai stop. When Gaga brought on her special guest, Tony Bennett, for a duet from their new hit album, two puzzled young fans asked me “Who is that man?” After Tony, the electro-power-pop party resumed.

But I was gaga long before I saw the Lady. Enjoying a breakfast of salads, labaneh and shakshuka at the Mt. Zion Hotel on my first morning in Jerusalem, I overheard a New Yawk accent at the table behind me. Curiosity got the best of me, and I was soon immersed in conversation with David Licht, a founding member of The Klezmatics, in town for the annual Sacred Music Festival.

That evening I bathed in the eclectic vocal stylings of Hebraic Harlem gospel singer Joshua Nelson, orchestral maneuvers of Morocco’s Orchestre Chabab Al Andalous, and the meditative resonance of the begenna, the stringed instrument from Ethiopia known as the “harp of David.” The music would have been enough, but the staging added another dimension — the concert took place in the Tower of David, an ancient citadel inside the Jaffa Gate to the Old City. Well, I was gaga.

The absence of crowds was a clear benefit, to me if not the shopkeepers. No lines, no waiting and no crowds at Golgotha, or at Jesus’ burial tomb inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or at the Western Wall. I was free to wander the narrow alleyways of Old Jerusalem, take in the desert view and breeze atop Masada, soak in the Dead Sea, stroll the gardens of Galilee where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount, and see Peter’s house, he of “upon this rock I shall build a church,” without being rushed or shoved by mobs following an umbrella. Fascinated by history and the Mysteries that have exerted a magnetic pull on humans from Altamira to Owsley, I was gaga.

The broad span of history was on the dinner plate at The Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem, where the charming ponytailed chef, Moshe Basson, offers the ultimate Slow Food experience. He conjures with herbs and ingredients found in biblical verses. Figs stuffed with chicken were followed by kubbeh (a traditional Iraqi soup), duck breast and maglubeh, a chicken-vegetable-rice casserole, all washed down with an herbal tea of verbena, hyssop, sage and hibiscus. Moshe takes his biblical cooking seriously — though not the menu, he will prepare locusts (Leviticus 11:22) on special order. Born in Baghdad, Moshe Basson traces his family history all the way to 700 B.C.E. That’s a lot of grandma’s recipes to draw on.

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is the beginning and end of every trip to the Holy Land, and it has been for centuries. Before the international airport, the ancient port of Jaffa, at the southern end of modern Tel Aviv, served as the gateway for pilgrims and other travelers. Jonah set sail from Jaffa before becoming an hors d’oeuvre for the whale, and it was here that Peter resurrected the widow Tabitha and had a vision that transformed the Western world. The old stones of Jaffa now shelter artists and hipsters as well as history.

Tel Aviv’s gorgeous beaches, sun-drenched climate, Art Deco architecture and hip nightlife invite inevitable comparisons to Miami Beach. It’s world class museums, thriving commercial sector and robust tech and media scene evoke New York City. Added to all that, a Mediterranean vibe gives the city its own unique flavor. Think the life-is-good attitude of Italy yet more efficient without being overbearing. I don’t know if it’s the climate or the covenant, but the Israelis are less stressed than New Yorkers, the denizens of my hometown. Even the men and women of the Israeli Defense Force strolling the streets with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders are smiling and friendly — and gorgeous — young, fit, with a Mediterranean flair.

Israel’s multicultural society finds expression in Tel Aviv’s eating scene. Hummus smooth as silk and fresh salads make a fast food lunch as healthy as it is delicious. Young chefs in a universe of restaurants draw on the land and sea’s bountiful harvests and the culinary traditions of the Mideast and Mediterranean.

On my last day in the country, I was dining on sumptuous fish at the chic Herbert Samuel restaurant with a view of the sea when a striking olive-skinned brunette trailing a small entourage walked in. She caught my eye — as did the man behind her, Shimon Peres, the former president and prime minister of Israel. I shook hands and exchanged warm greetings with this legendary elder statesman. It was my final gaga moment.

Blessed with unsurpassed physical beauty, diverse geography, history, culture, cuisine and warm friendly people, Israel stands alone as a destination.

Whatever you seek in your travels, Israel has it — and more.

Getting there

For information on travel to Israel: Visit GoIsrael.com.

For information on flights from major U.S. cities to Israel: Visit ElAl.co.il.

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