Israel 2007: Olives and Religion

In January of 2007 I went on a trip to Israel to meet with my SAP co-workers in Ra’anana. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ra’anana) Ra’anana was about a 25-30 min cab ride from downtown Tel Aviv and was a very beautiful, very modern yet old looking city.

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Incoming to Israel by flight
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We arrived at Ben Gurion Intl late at night taking a flight from Atlanta. It was just like any other airport I’d been in and there was no trouble finding the baggage claim. Our group consisted of Dan and Shawn, friends of mine I’d known for awhile, and Lisa and Klaus, the owners of Praxis Software the company I worked for from 2004 until 2006 when it was acquired by SAP. Also with us was Paul Selby, a member of the Business One product team, who had a home office in Oregon. Many of the members of the Business One product team were located in Israel, and most were development resources. Business One was originally an Israeli software product, and the German software megagiant SAP bought it back in the 90’s in an attempt to update their portfolio with an offering for small and medium sized businesses.

The Ben Gurion airport is the first line of defense for Israel, and as this flight was post-9/11 it was the focus of heightened security. Strangely, I suppose, there was very little security for us to get into Israel. I had a nervous conversation with the passport control agent and he gave me a slip of paper with the official “This says you can be here for 3 months” declarations. I wondered why he didn’t just stamp my passport like all the other countries passport agents I visited had. Days later my SAP colleagues told me it was in case I wanted to go to a county (ahem, Palestine) where my travelling to Israel would be looked upon as, risky. I could simply keep this paper in my passport for convenience during my stay, but my visit to Israel didn’t go on my, shall we say, “permanent record”. It seemed odd, Israel is so proud of itself and what it’s accomplished, so strong and committed, and yet here they are giving visitors the option of saying they’ve never been there.

We picked up our bags and then began searching for a money exchange. There wasn’t an easy way to pick up Shekels in the Atlanta airport, and Ben Gurion wasn’t exactly better. We feared cabs wouldn’t pick us up without proper currency. Klaus was able to locate an ATM of sorts and gladly helped the rest of us out by exchanging his Shekels for our USD.

Our 80 mph cab ride at 11pm through the streets of Tel Aviv in the driving rain was a great way to kick off the adventure. Tel Aviv was very much like Paris or New York City, lots of electronic billboards and giant windowed, multi-story street level shops.  We drove and drove into what seemed like darker and darker parts of countryside and town until finally arriving at our hotel.

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The Mediterranean while facing west

We stayed at the Hotel Daniel right on the beach of the Mediterranean. Jet lag put us at the bar and Shawn tried to order a cognac. The waitress did not speak English well at all(why should she?) and looked very confused. We thought at first there might be a language barrier as Shawn was ordering from the menu she gave us, but unbeknownst to us at the time, Remi Martin could not be served. It was Saturday, it was Shabbat, and cognac was not kosher. She seemed annoyed that we even asked for it, but tempered herself realizing we were from America and probably not Jewish. My question was, why give us a menu that wasn’t Shabbat friendly? The answer, you’re just supposed to know.

We retired to our rooms and tried to sleep. Around 4:30 am I awoke to a hunger like I hadn’t had in awhile. My body was convinced it was lunch time and I had missed breakfast. I mean I was crazy hungry.

Finally morning arrived and we wandered around the lobby until we found the stairway to the breakfast buffet in the restaurant. This wasn’t your standard continental breakfast, there was meat and cheese and fruits, nuts and juices. It was very filling, yet there was something slightly different and this would be my second lesson on Kosher. The meat and diary products were located in very much separated areas of the buffet. I think the yogurt was on a different table altogether. In Jewish law, the proximity of milk and meat must be separated by a table (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milk_and_meat_in_Jewish_law) The reason behind this law has changed since Biblical times and it is now enforced largely because much of the aging population is lactose intolerant.

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Herzilya

It was Sunday, Israel’s Monday, and so shops were open and people were going about their jobs like it was Monday. We made some plans to visit the SAP office in Herzilya and wandered around the hotel a bit.

I can’t recall each day for day, but we visited lots of places around the area. We visited the marina and shopping malls, each time going through tight security to get in. Being wanded and searched by a 16 year old kid with an M16, was awkward at first, but you become surprisingly used to it. Walking through a metal detector became second nature.

We ate at some local restaurants and I recall Shawn ordering some red snapper which was served head-on whole fish, bones and all. Great wine and mostly good food, although I was probably too cautious to order or eat something that I couldn’t finish, for fear of insulting the hosts.

One night we got a cab back to the hotel and the driver threw an absolute fit when Shawn paid him more than the fare as a tip. He would only accept exact change, and to this day I’m still not sure why. Shawn told him he would give him the change as a tip, but the driver wouldn’t have it. Of course, he might not have had change, but we weren’t asking for change. We were giving him 50 Shekels for a 35 Shekel ride telling him to keep the rest. Odd. We were already at the hotel so we gave him the 50 and just got out, him yelling and all, speeding away like some cheated teenager.

We spent the work week going to meetings that lasted for hours late into the evening. We had lunch in the SAP cafeteria and let me tell you they had the absolute best hummus I have ever eaten. Smooth and well textured, you could tell it was made with actual virgin pressed olive oil. Tons of veggies and fruits were laid out, along with dates, olives, nuts and breads and very little meat or hot dishes.  I sort of figured everyone that worked at SAP Israel was a vegetarian.

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This room has been blessed

Upon each doorpost in Israel there is a little box mounted at an angle, containing a Jewish prayer, and it symbolizes the room has been blessed by a rabbi. Every door at the SAP headquarters had this and so did the ones in our hotel. It served as one of those unmistakable reminders that you were in a deeply religious and deeply proud country. Of course, just because you’re Israeli doesn’t automatically mean you’re Jewish, and I imagine for people who do not consider themselves Jewish living in Israel could be difficult.

Friday afternoon we were presented with an amazing opportunity. Our friends at SAP had been using a tour guide, Yossi, for some time and trusted him fully. He offered tours of Jerusalem and Bet’ lahem round trip, with himself as the guide and driver. Shawn unfortunately had to attend meetings the day we were supposed to go and couldn’t join us but the rest of us agreed to go. It was risky. Yossi had done the tour many times but of course as we would be going into Palestine there was risk.

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Israeli Countryside

We started the journey in the late morning, driving through the outskirts of Tel Aviv, and Yossi was quick to point out the obvious differences between the housing project where Israeli’s lived and where Palestinians lived. It was like comparing Edina to parts of North Minneapolis. An obvious difference in economic equality. The Palestinian housing looked like Soviet era block housing, devoid of much color or vegetation, while the Israeli housing appeared lush and sprawled with decorative rock.

There were lush rolling hills and ancient structures and vineyards and white crumbling gravel everywhere. The roads were all well maintained and I imagined what cargo traversed them 2000 years ago when they were built. The road we took from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was created during biblical times.

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Holocaust Museum

The first stop was the holocaust museum, I’d already been to the one in Washington DC and quite frankly wasn’t interested in another long arduous painful and depressingly sad tour of history, but I was out voted.  We pulled up to the architecturally magnificent building and wandered inside. I skipped many parts of it, regrettably, and hung out in the cafe area waiting for everyone else. I certainly wasn’t diminishing the importance of such a museum, I knew it had to be a part of Israel, but I felt I had experienced so much of Israel already and I didn’t want to be reminded of the terrible and awful things Jewish people have experienced just for being Jewish. Admittedly, it was selfish.

On we went into Jerusalem. I felt my chest tightening and put my mind on alert. I don’t know why but I felt like I was entering a dangerous place. Perhaps it was my mothers concern for me after I told her we were going to see these Christian holy places and her warning “they are still kidnapping people there”.  We drove by the new soccer stadium, on the finely groomed streets, around the perfect houses and shops and I noticed large tanks on top of the roof’s. These were hot water heaters. The sun would heat them up during the day and they were insulated so you had hot water long into the night and morning.

We pulled up to a set of very high and large walls lined with barbed wire on top, and went through a gate into an area inside. There we waited for a few minutes until out came a somewhat beat-up late 70’s model Chevy conversion van, rust colored. Yossi told us here was our guide for the Bet’lahem leg of the tour, as his Israeli citizenship prevented him from entering Palestine. This was an Israeli law. Palestinians did not forbid Israelis from entering, Israel did. Yossi said this was because so many Israelis had been going to Palestinian controlled Jerusalem to get cheap goods or get car repairs done and had gotten into trouble. Not helping Yossi.

We all got out of our air conditioned, late model Volkswagen passenger van and filed into the beat up Chevy. I sat in front because I wanted to take pictures and to show we didn’t just see our driver as some kind of taxi driver – he was our guide, or so I thought.

We stopped at a checkpoint gate which looked like something out of old East Berlin and handed him our passports so the 60 something agent in the gatehouse could check them over and do whatever they needed to do to feel like 5 Americans weren’t there to screw around. Check, off we went.

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Streets of Bet’lahem

We drove down the narrow streets past dingy looking old structures. The pavement and sidewalks were less glamourous than the ones in Israeli controlled Jerusalem and the cars were older and banged up.  As we drove towards our destination, of which none of us knew what was, a man in a leather jacket and checkered hood approached the car. I was a bit startled at his brashness and just thought, why not take a picture?

We arrived at a large sprawling gift shop, overflowing with shelved inventory. Everything was made of either a ceramic and then painted, or of Olivewood, a wood only available in the Holy Land. This was obviously a gift shop made for rich Christians.

There we met our actual guide. He immediately introduced himself as a Christian and his English was excellent. He was going to take us to the Church of the Holy Sepulture, one of eight possible locations for the birth of Christ.

We got back in the van and our silent driver drove us to the church – right across the street from a Mosque. Everything is next to everything else in this part of the world.

I wrote this up in an email to a colleague as a send off for his visit to Israel back in 2008. It serves as a “lessons learned”.

  1. Be prepared for lots of talking. I mean more talking and “well of course” than you ever thought possible.
  2. Israeli’s are much more direct and get annoyed by passive aggressive Minnesotans. Don’t be offended if they yell at you for apparently no reason.
  3. Hebrew is difficult to read and listen to, don’t try unless you really need to.
  4. Make sure you try the hummus even if you don’t like it here. Try all the food you can actually.
  5. Make sure you try the olive oil and buy some to bring home.
  6. Wine is good too.
  7. All the taxis are small.
  8. Go to Jerusalem if you get the chance, cause really, you probably won’t go to Israel on vacation on your own.
  9. Women there are beautiful. Everyone looks like Sarah Silverman. You’ll wonder if you’re in Brooklyn at times.
  10. Don’t stay in your hotel room the whole time. The best thing you can do to get over the jet lag is walk around and explore.

And lastly, don’t be afraid. What you see on Faux News and CNN is way off. Tel Aviv and R’nana are very modern cities.  You’ll probably be 3 feet taller than everyone else and will look like the big dumb American you are, but they love Americans(obviously).