In the past few years, I have participated in virtual panels on multiple topics for Con-Tinual: The Con That Never Ends. Yesterday, I also contributed to their weekly #DestinationResearch about my visit to Israel in October 2022. The content of those posts is included below, but if you’re interested in a great Facebook community with a wide range of pop culture topics, I highly encourage you to check out the group itself.
Jerusalem & the Judah Family Reunion
Last October, I visited Israel for the first time. The visit was not for writing research, though everything eventually becomes grist for my book mill, but could be considered research of a different sort. Family members from the United States, England, and Australia converged on our cousins in Israel for an epic family reunion. Why Israel?
Here’s the short version: My great-grandmother was Lilian Judah, the oldest of 8 siblings. She was born in Baghdad as part of the Baghdadi Jewish community and emigrated with her family to Rangoon, Burma. There, she married an Indian Jewish man, Joseph Saul, and had four children, including my maternal grandfather. The extended Judah family evacuated the country and fled to India during World War 2. My branch of the family ended up in the United States because my grandfather’s older sister was the first American war bride from India, and the immediate family followed (and became spread all over the country due to various branches of military service). Many of Lilian’s siblings left India for England, where some stayed and others emigrated to Israel after the country’s founding. And just to make things complicated, one of Lilian’s sisters wandered all the way to Australia, where she started her family. (Scheduling the annual Zoom call for one night of Hanukkah is fun!)
I flew into Tel Aviv with my parents, younger sister, aunt, and a California cousin on a Saturday morning, and we took a car into Jerusalem. I’ve been to Salt Lake City multiple times, and the city is always disconcertingly dead on Sundays. Jerusalem on a Saturday for Shabbat is exactly the same way, but it was cool to see it come alive later in the day.
The official reunion was based out of Jerusalem, where we gathered for delicious dinners with the local branch of the family. The travelers were treated to 2 days of amazing tour, led by fantastic author/speaker Ken Spiro, who was originally from Brooklyn (and still sounded like it). Since my immediate family also did some exploring on our own prior to the official reunion start, I’ve broken the Jerusalem portion of this series into 2 parts rather than trying to keep events in chronological order. Below are pictures and descriptions from places in the city that are NOT part of Old City Jerusalem. That’s coming up next!
- Ken Spiro’s most notable book: Crash Course in Jewish History: The Miracle and Meaning of Jewish History, from Abraham to Modern Israel
- A resource on why my family was in Burma, for which many of my family members were primary sources: Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma
Old City Jerusalem
The Old City of Jerusalem is such a distinct part of the city that it deserves its own post. I visited twice, wandering with my immediate family and as part of the official reunion tour.
Since context always matters, I should note here that I consider myself ethnically Jewish, but I was not raised in the religion, and I don’t consider myself part of any particular religion as an adult. But I am a history buff, so I’m always going to be excited by what one of the local cousins referred to as “more old rocks.”
On the second day of the official family reunion tour, we headed out of Jerusalem toward the southeastern part of Israel, which drops in elevation toward the Dead Sea. Our stops included the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, Masada, and the Dead Sea itself.
Ein Gedi is an oasis within canyons that feature spectacular waterfalls. We hiked the Wadi David lower section. We were lucky to catch glimpses of local wildlife and dip our feet in the water before the area was overwhelmed with (loud) school kids.
Masada, an ancient fortification atop a mesa, has been on my bucket list since I learned about it in high school. We took the cable car to the top to see cool archeological things (more old rocks) and stunning views.
We closed out the day with the mandatory visit to the Dead Sea. I was…underwhelmed. Learning about how humans are contributing to the recent (and very obvious) shrinkage of this body of water was disheartening. I did get in the water, which is so laden with salt and minerals that it has a unique (and almost creepy) texture. Floating around was fun for about 10 minutes, which is when the blisters on my feet acquired earlier in the trip (thanks, new shoes) demanded to know what I was thinking. I’m glad I did it while I had the chance, but it’s not something I’d be anxious to revisit.
After the official close of the Judah Family Reunion, my immediate family spent the second half of the week in Tel Aviv. My mom devised walking tours of sites in the southern and northern portions of the city. This city of 450k people did not exist barely a century ago.
The southern part of the city was cool, where we visited the original port town of Jaffa, then wandered into the new portion of the city, including stops at the Great Synagogue and other notable local highlights. We had a mid-morning treat of gelato from a local chain called Golda (named after Golda Meir, a former prime minister) and a great lunch outside a wine bar during an outdoor festival that featured local artists and handmade crafts.
We started our northern tour at the Eretz Isreal Museum, where we visited pavilions featuring thousands of years of artifacts of different types, such as glass and pottery. My stepdad talked our way into the planetarium show. It was good that we were only one of two families in the audience because I ended up digging for memories of a college course 20 years ago to narrate the history of astronomy and the life cycle of a star during a Hebrew presentation with no subtitles. My mom planned a walk through parks and neighborhoods back to the hotel, which would have been lovely — except it was Saturday and everything was closed, even in a nominally more secular city than Jerusalem.
Haifa, Caesarea, Rosh HaNikra, Acre
One of the day tours we took out of Tel Aviv traveled up the northern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. We had a brief stop in Haifa to see the Bahá’í Gardens before a longer visit and tour of the amphitheater and colosseum ruins of Caesarea. At the northern tip where Israel meets Lebanon, we took a cable car to wander through the gorgeous Rosh HaNikra grottoes. We finished up the whirlwind day with a visit to an excavated Crusader-era fortress in Acre. (I’m pretty sure this was the day I managed to drink three iced coffees in multiple towns.)
For our final tour out of Tel Aviv, we headed into northeastern Israel and the Golan Heights.
Our first stop was at a gas station to see Armageddon, which is really just a hill where the world is supposed to end. Everything about that felt ironic and perfect. Yes, I bought an iced coffee.
The theme of this tour was high-up places because next, we stopped at a viewpoint to see the Sea of Galilee. That was also the day I learned that the Sea of Galilee is actually a giant freshwater lake. I have absolutely no idea where my brain thought it was located before then.
Next, we headed up (literally) again to a viewpoint to take in the Golan Heights region, on a spot that used to be a military base — because we could also see Syria.After, we stopped at a small manufactory and learned about olive oil, where we also had one of the best meals of the trip cooked by a local Druze family, one of the ethnic minorities of Israel.
We closed out the day at a tiny outdoor archeological museum of an ancient Katzrin village, a Byzantine-era Jewish settlement (4th-8th centuries CE). My final chance to spend time with old rocks!
We flew back to Newark, then drove back to Baltimore the following day. I’m incredibly thankful to my cousins who arranged the Judah Family Reunion and to my parents who helped make it possible for me to take this trip. Since the spouse couldn’t accompany me due to work constraints, I know I’ll be back one day to share this with him. Thanks for taking this walk down memory lane with me!