Getting under the skin of Israel’s fascinating culture
On her recent journey in Israel, our Asia + the Middle East expert, Venetia Stanley, spent time with our friends on the ground in order to experience the country’s remarkable and diverse culture.
I spent more than a year researching Israel in preparation for our addition of this exciting destination to our collection. The deeper I delved, the more intrigued and perplexed I became by the state of Israel: its people, its heritage and its complex, multi-faceted culture. Compelling but frequently contradictory, it presents our clients with contrast galore: ancient history alongside modern technology; deep spirituality and intense hedonism; pristine beaches and crowded cities; vast expanses of desert in the south and undulating, fertile green hills in the north. Israel is altogether a captivating blend of influences. As the fulcrum and meeting point for the Jewish, Islamic and Christian faiths, the country has an enormously complicated and tangled provenance, central to which is understanding and acknowledging the concept of Zionism, on which the state of Israel is founded.
As ‘home’ to three of the world’s major religions, Israel punches well above its weight relative to its size and there is so much to take in. The focus, therefore, of my trip was to spend an extended amount of time with our specially selected private guides to get under the surface of this fascinating country, learn how the locals live and try to understand the multitude of influences, historical, religious, economic, linguistic and geopolitical tensions that have shaped Israel today.
From following the route of Jesus’ last entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and exploring the great lengths of subterranean tunnels under the Western (Wailing) Wall to discovering some of the great restaurants of the world in Tel Aviv and visiting the legendary ruins of Masada and caves that yielded up the Dead Sea Scrolls, I was fortunate enough to explore this astonishing place in depth, accompanied by experts and specialists in their respective fields. But, ultimately, everything boils down to the relatively simple proposition, namely that Israel is the product of immigrant peoples and cultures, bringing with them everything from their religious observances and cuisines to their politics, languages and traditions. We, at cazenove+loyd, are well connected in Israel and our private guides, specialists and friends on the ground will give you unparalleled insight into the country’s diverse culture.
Starting our journey in Tel Aviv, we spent a day with our private guide Arvsha, an Ashkenazi Jew, who gave us a detailed account of his life in the city, as well as his personal perspectives on Israel’s position in the Middle East. We quizzed Arvsha at length on the extent and significance of the West Bank settlements, hoping to understand why they so often appear to the Western observer as such an intractable problem. We also gained an insight into the tribal Bedouin, at risk of losing their identity and traditional way of life as goat herders by seeking more lucrative employment in Jerusalem. We explored the Levinsky Market, until a decade or so ago a magnet for drug dealers and the homeless but which has, in the interim, been populated by artists, trendsetters and hip chefs. This has resulted in an escalation in property prices and the market is now a gastronomic destination in its own right. With our expert, Hadara (a former pilot in the Isreali Air Force and now a gastronomic guide, wife and mother), we discovered and sampled an abundance of local delicacies, many of which have their origins in far-flung countries – from Russia and Poland to Spain and North Africa. From Benny Briga’s famous sliver of a shop concocting flower-petal and fresh-herb sodas (grown in boxes on the roof of his dilapidated car parked outside) to Arabic breads, as well as properly authentic hummus (a vat is made fresh daily) and crunchy, parsley-coloured, deep-fried falafel at a tiny kitchen called The Golden Bean (crammed with locals having their lunch), we followed Hadara as we weaved through the grid of streets that make up the Levinsky Market.
Our next stop was for an ‘audience’ (there is truly no other word for it!) with Doris Hiffawi. Doris has made a name for herself by inviting people to come and visit her neighbourhood in Ajami, the Christian Arab quarter of the city, where she presents, with huge charm, glamour (she was formerly a beauty queen) and aplomb her ‘Jaffa Stories and Coffee’.This enterprise has brought her fame, fortune and frequent appearances on television, where she is clearly regarded as a ‘celebrity’. We were warmly welcomed into her house where, over strong black coffee, she recounted her experiences of growing up as an Arab-Christian girl in a largely Jewish and Muslim area of Old Jaffa. Her tales and anecdotes illustrated perfectly the complexity of this mixed population city, and gave us an insight into the ancient Arab-Christian presence in Israel, which is a thriving one but often overlooked.
Doris spoke with great enthusiasm of her childhood in Jaffa and harmonious relations with neighbours of different faiths. She also revealed how she sees Tel Aviv evolving in the future with more women like her empowered and wanting to open businesses and make their contributions to the burgeoning economy. We asked her many questions about her children and their schooling, and her husband’s famous and thriving coffee business. Our morning with Doris was a particularly memorable and enjoyable aspect of our trip, which really helped us understand how much of local life in Israel is very civilised and, as far as we could ascertain, contented.
Modern, liberal and tolerant, Tel Aviv is in sharp contrast to the ultra-orthodox, super-disciplined religious life and culture prevailing in Jerusalem, a mere 70 or so kilometres to the south-east. The city is much bigger than I imagined, sprawling over many hills and with many infrastructure projects that create crawling traffic. But everywhere, there are views – wonderful panoramic views of the Old City, the modern city, the Mount of Olives and the huge, ancient Jewish Cemetery called the Tomb of the Prophets. Yet one of the most memorable experiences in Jerusalem was spending the afternoon with Elisa at the Mahane Yehuda Market. We were introduced to local fruit stallholders, spice shop owners, brilliant bread bakers, tahini makers, Arab restaurant owners and even a pair of local rabbis out doing their daily shopping. Curiously, we saw virtually no other tourists. We sampled dumplings at an Iraqi restaurant that habitually has a queue at lunchtime, followed by some Palestinian sweetmeats. Mahane Yehuda is the place to experience the gastronomic 'melting pot' of Israel, and particularly Jerusalem.
Driving north from Jerusalem to Nazareth, we visited Degania Alef. This kibbutz, established in 1910, was the first example of a Zionist farming commune in Israel, organised on socialist principles and consequently known in Israel as the ‘mother of all kibbutzim’. This and other kibbutzim have survived largely by their ability to adapt and moderate their philosophy and approach to changing attitudes towards working and remuneration. We were shown around by the head of the kibbutz, Janos, who gave us a detailed insight into how the kibbutzim in Israel works and why 1.7% of the country’s population elect to live in a kibbutz settlement. He explained the process of applying to a kibbutz, how the schooling of children works, the communal activities and how decisions that affect the kibbutz are taken. We learnt that while the residents do not hold particular religious beliefs, they do have strong political views. Touring this kibbutz with Janos was a truly original and eye-opening experience. The idea of the kibbutz is familiar worldwide, but not until you see one in action can you really appreciate its extraordinary and unique approach to life and living.
The Golan Heights
Continuing our journey north to the lush Golan Heights, we were invited to lunch with a local druze family, which was another highlight of our trip and a truly unforgettable experience. The Druze are a small but important and significant ethnic group in Israel. Renowned as fearless fighters and able to maintain their Druze status only by strict rules against intermarriage, they are a highly respected and valued minority in Israel. We were welcomed into Fawizia’s house, in the town of Majdal Shams, and served a delicious home-cooked lunch. All of her recipes were influenced by her Syrian roots and heritage. After lunch, we listened to the history of her immediate family who lived here, at what is now the northernmost tip of Israel but which, 40 years ago, was part of Syria. Following the Six-Day War, they opted to remain in their homes and, thereby, become part of Israel in which they now are a respected and valued part of Israeli society. Engaging with Fawizia was an uplifting and enlightening experience that added a wonderful additional perspective to our adventure in terms of appreciating the multi-ethnic composition of modern Israel.
As my visit progressed, it became increasingly apparent that the extraordinary mix of people that make up Israel today – whether pursuing their ancient customs and cultures or more modern ideologies – have, between them, forged a country of enormous diversity and talent. Thanks to expert guides, and brilliantly arranged introductions to local people, my trip was a totally unforgettable experience.