Seven is a sacred number in Jewish liturgy. It appears 735 times in the Old Testament and repeatedly in various rituals, including wedding ceremonies where the bride circles the groom seven times as the sheva bruchas (seven blessings) are chanted. So why on our seventh trip to Israel didn’t my husband and I run to the kotel (the surviving Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem) and immediately immerse ourselves in spirituality and, like other Jewish pilgrims from around the world, push handwritten prayers between the cracks of the bricks? Let me get back to you on that with an impressive (though likely invented) rationale.
The truth is, upon our arrival, Tel Aviv’s Carmel market beckoned and the freshly made halvah was a mighty sweet welcome. We bypassed the hot hello of the chili craze that has hit Tel Aviv and dashed past the pepper-laced sesame candy that was on display. As expected, the market spices were aromatic and exotic. I was so inspired that I plan to cook this summer with a Bedouin mix rather than the usual BBQ marinade. We may just have to concoct Arak cocktails as well. Dreaming about how we could wow our pals back home, we hightailed it to the Levinsky Spice Market in search of the freshest zatar and other goodies. Ever distractible, we found ourselves sampling the local craft brews at Beer Bazaar Levinsky, just off the main street. Our favorite? Shapiro Stout. Only in Israel! The bartender was both accommodating and happy to talk — when asked where he was from, he responded “depends on your politics—I am either from Samaria or the West Bank.” It appeared to us that he was from a treasure chest, especially when he explained that it was happy hour which meant that for every glass of beer we drank we got to take home a bottle. So with a makeshift six-pack we made it back to our hotel, avoiding (among other things) the casually dressed guy speeding past on the sidewalk with an Uzi strapped to his back and a skateboard beneath his feet.
We stopped briefly at our beachfront hotel to admire Tel Aviv’s ability to blend Rio, Fire Island and a pinch of Miami’s Fontainebleau before setting off for the rehearsal dinner – we were, after all, in Israel to attend a wedding.
Abulafia is a famous Arab bread shop and restaurant in the old city of Jaffa. The bride, an Israeli Jew, met the owner’s daughter at Columbia where both were international students. Pretty fabulous; except that the evening of friendship wasn’t quite complete because the baker’s daughter had to stay in America while awaiting her green card. Her family took great care of us. The food was delicious and familiar with Middle Eastern flavors that transcended religious and ethnic differences.
One of the guests met the groom’s parents when they moved from France to Boston two years ago. I asked what prompted the immigration. Turns out Sophia was held hostage in the kosher grocery when terrorists attacked Paris in 2015, and she no longer felt safe from anti-Semitism in her home city. Quite a conversation starter given the recent events in America—but I won’t go there.
Where we did go was to a most glorious wedding in Caesarea, an ancient coastal town south of Haifa. The invitation instructed us to arrive at six and be prepared to stay until 3am. They weren’t kidding. The pacing was more akin to a baseball game than a volleyball match, and the food, drink and tributes were plentiful. Everyone settled in for the night. Perched on a bluff overlooking the sea at sunset, we gathered in front of the chuppah while surfers caught the waves below. Inside flowed into outside, formality was limited and once the ceremony ended the attendees rushed the family who never had a recessional.
Almost immediately the dancing began in the adjacent banquet hall, and the newly betrothed couple were carried on their friends’ shoulders (forget chairs) as the hora and every form of circular movement filled the room with frenzied joy.
As the evening unfolded some guests revived themselves on beach beds, while those more committed to the dance floor refueled on trays of treats passed among the dynamic crowds.
Israel is a late night nation and a careful one. It’s the place where the rental car rep makes sure you know what to do if you get a flat or a traffic ticket before he releases you into the urban wilds. It’s also a country with many check points, not all of them military. We hitched a ride back to Tel Aviv with our new Israeli friend, who we’d met at the wedding but who lives most of the year seven (again!) blocks from us in Manhattan. Just as we left the venue, he was breathalyzed. Though he had consumed only a couple of glasses of wine over the course of the long evening, the officer suggested he stop for water and a rest before heading back. It wasn’t a punitive exchange, rather more like a parental representative recommending caution. At various points during our journey we were reminded of rules and how to get around them- often by the same person! Ask me off line for more examples.
Which brings me to Friday, or as I think of it, “caper day.” We had been advised to bypass the crowded beach in Tel Aviv, and go instead to Hof Hatzuk, or Cliff Beach, in Herzliya, just up the coast. When we got there we discovered that it was not as charming or secluded as advertised, so instead we went to the nearby Ritz Carleton, figuring we could pass as hotel guests and slip in—after all, we are American tourists. Well, not quite. First of all the lobby entrance is several floors above street level and signs to the contrary, the way in is all the way on the other side of the marina’s shopping mall. No problem. My husband (a.k.a. 007) found a Ritz room key on the ground so we could swipe ourselves into the back door. Damn. It must have been expired. No worries. We zipped around to the main entrance and walked past the guards with confidence. Then we were off to the pool except—oops. The floor for the pool is not marked. Luckily the nice room service person told me it was on twelve. Almost there. Except you have to swipe into the pool level. What to do? Fortunately the pool attendant appeared and offered to let us in. All he needed was our room number. OO7 told them we were staying in room 821. “Where did that come from?” I asked, once we were safely sipping on lemon water at poolside, taking in the expansive view. My accomplice said he had seen the room number that the couple in our elevator entered as we stopped en route to our destination. Don’t leave home without my hubby.
By the time we got to my relatives’ apartment for Shabbat dinner we were ready for a drink—or to confess. We were greeted by an overwhelming crowd of Katzman cousins. This is the branch that didn’t leave Russia when my grandmother and her brothers did way back at the turn of the 20th century. Following hard Soviet times the descendants of my great aunt moved to Israel in the early1970’s and we have been making up for lost time!
The Friday meal was festive as the family just keeps growing. We looked at old and new photos, and caught up on politics. “No,” said our (formerly) Russian cousins, “Russia isn’t organized enough to rig your election.” “Yes,” they said, “here in Israel we are also embarrassed of our leader’s anti- intellectual pandering.” By contrast, conversations comparing child rearing were easy.
We capped off caper day sharing a Shabbat drink with our toes in the sand by our hotel. Remember what I said about it being a late night country? And Fire Island has yet to institute beach bars—let alone ones that serve under the moon at midnight.
The next morning, we had to use the Shabbat elevator which stops on every floor so no one has to worry about “working“ on Shabbat by pressing a button. Such a cool work around. So how come no one figured out a timer for the espresso machine? At the Royal Beach hotel, they serve only filtered coffee on Saturday!
It’s ok. We had more room for pomegranate juice when we got to Pek’iin—a town where Jews, Druids, Christians and Muslims have coexisted for centuries. We visited the cave where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is said to have hidden from the Romans for 13 years, surviving only on the fruit of a nearby carob tree. During that time, he wrote the Zohar, commentaries on Jewish law and mysticism that are the foundational text of the Kabbalah. Now that I saw the genesis of his theorizing I am pretty convinced Rabbi Shimon had to have been tripping during his time exiled amidst the rocks.
I had at least a quasi-mystical experience, but in my case it was in Akko where I ate (for the second time in eight years) at Uri Buri. It’s a fish and seafood place where they just keep bringing you new courses until you tell them you’re full. My favorite dish was salmon and wasabi ice cream. In addition to the traditional deity, I worship the culinary god and didn’t want the delicious dishes to stop. Uri Buri may change their menu policy after we left. I couldn’t help myself. We were celebrating that we haven’t been living in a cave for a dozen years, and the good news that our dear friends’ daughter back in the States had just gotten engaged. Also, that we had survived an insane thrill-a-minute death-defying speedboat ride in the Akko harbor earlier that afternoon. When the women joining our exploit covered their heads I should have understood that they were reciting final prayers. It’s a “thing” in Akko to ride a small speed boat over an intentionally whipped up wake that almost dumps you under the nearby vessel that is engaging in the same antics. Oh and you are also meant to take in the awesome waterside views of the ancient city while holding on for dear life.
On Sunday we ended our adventure with even more water. And, as it turns out, drink as well. I guess this was a thematic summer holiday. We continued further north to Rosh Hanikra. The grottos were gorgeous and the cable car down to the sea was a lot more stable than the Akko boat. But the real highlight was meeting the border guard who was from Texas. He did Birthright 15 years ago and made Aliyah. We were overheated wearing shorts. The guard by contrast was dressed in heavy fatigues in the noonday sun, laden with equipment and fulfilling his reserve duty miles away from his wife and kids. So we kept him company for a while and got a great recommendation for lunch in Zichron Yaacov. We stopped at the Tishbi winery and chocolate factory just outside of town, had a fine meal, and we were off to the airport. Interestingly, there’s no TSA precheck, and yet you don’t have to take off your shoes or show your liquids—the Israelis seem to know everything, whether you tell them or not.
We can’t wait to go back for our eighth visit. That’s a very lucky number for the Chinese people and I imagine it will be for us as well.