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!

The requisite panoramic view of Jerusalem.
Giant menorah sculpture outside the grounds of the Knesset, the country’s seat of government.
Since my maternal grandmother was originally from Holland, my family gets weirdly excited about windmills. This one was built in 1875 by the Greek Orthodox church. Today, the site is a conference and shopping center (including Japanese restaurant).
A small section of the main Israel Defense Forces cemetery on the slopes of Mt. Herzl. Service members are buried in pairs, and not separated by rank or religion.
Inside the remembrance hall of names, which is built in the shape of a rising torch. We attended the daily ceremony held inside, during which the names of all service and security personnel who passed away on that date (no matter the year) were read.
A closer view of the bricks inside the remembrance hall. The lit “candle” marks a service member honored on that day.
A simple marker at the very top of Mt. Herzl marks the final resting place of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism.
After the cemetery, we visited the Herzl Museum, which includes exhibits on Theodor Herzl’s life, including a reproduction of his study in Vienna. I learned a lot from the presentation of his life, which is closely entwined with the history of Zionism and the path to the eventual foundation of an official Jewish state (though he did not live to see Israel’s founding). You can see here why he’s known as “the man with the beard.” Speaking of hair, mine got a lot of looks! In our 3 days in and around Jerusalem, I did not see a single other person (man or woman) with obviously dyed hair.
A display of Theodor Herzl’s book Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews), translated into multiple languages. Obviously, the entire museum’s presentation was very pro Zionism, which I have incredibly mixed feelings about. But books are always cool.
We visited a “newer” Jerusalem market, by which I mean it wasn’t in the Old City. The Mahane Yehuda Market, often referred to as “The Shuk”, is a collection of vendors and stalls across multiple aisles like this one, which had a cool art installation.
Right outside of Jerusalem’s Old City is Mamilla Mall, a modern outdoor shopping center featuring internationally recognized brands. I made my mom take a picture of me with some new friends, who are only one of the many art pieces on display.
Lilian Judah, her siblings, and their descendants. Or, when your family tree more closely resembles a shrub.
On the first day of the trip, I made the important accidental discovery that ordering an “iced coffee” gets you a delicious coffee slushie. I proceeded to take myself on a personal country-wide tour of as many of these as I could drink.

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.”

Outside Jaffa Gate, the historical Ottoman gate from 1538 and one of seven main open Gates of the Old City of Jerusalem.
I was serious about the old rocks thing, which is why this is one of the first pictures I took when we were wandering the market streets. These paving stones date back to the end of the Roman period (3rd-4th century CE).
Almost 40k people live in the Old City, which covers about 1/3 square mile. This is a glimpse of a neighborhood right off one of the market streets.
A courtyard inside the Old City, with a view of the Mount of Olives Jewish cemetery beyond. Probably one of my favorite pictures that I took on the entire trip.
More old rocks! Excavations in the Jewish quarter of the Cardo (a major shopping thoroughfare) from the city’s Byzantine era. This is about one story below modern street level.
We wandered through a neighborhood to get to this vantage point to glimpse the Dome of the Rock. Visiting the Muslim Quarter is possible but complicated, and didn’t make it onto our agenda.
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre within the Christian Quarter. It was packed, but definitely one of those places I’m glad to have visited in person even if I value it historically rather than religiously. We were trapped inside for a time behind a procession of singing monks.
The Western Wall, also known as the Kotel. Important to Jewish religion because it is the closest place Jews can pray outside the Temple Mount (in the Muslim Quarter). The line of umbrellas marks where the area is separated by gender (I’m sure you can figure out who gets the larger space). I am glad that I went down and touched the wall while I had the opportunity.
More old rocks, with a bunch of my family members! We toured the excavated tunnels adjacent to the Kotel, which included information about the multiple incarnations of the Temple Mount.
In this portion of the Western Wall that (now) extends underground, and has thus been more protected from the elements, you can better see the architectural detail of the stones built without mortar.
The tunnel tour ended at this very, very cool underground working synagogue.

South-East Israel

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.

Stunning desert vistas and my first real glimpse of the Dead Sea. A single generation ago, the water stretched to the highway we were driving on.
One of the waterfalls at Ein Gedi Nature Reserve.
A selfie from partially up one of the Ein Gedi canyons, with the Dead Sea in the background.
At the bottom of Ein Gedi, with Masada in the distance.
Two of the notable animal species at Ein Gedi, the rock hyrax (a large rodent also known as a cliff badger) and Nubian ibex.
Views from Masada. Left: The outlined square below marks the ruins of one of the Roman fortifications that laid siege to the community on the mesa. Right: At the bottom of the image you can sort of see the giant earthworks rampart built as part of the seige.
Architectural details at Masada.
A beach at the Dead Sea.

Tel Aviv

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.

Same location, different views. Left: Original port city of Jaffa (or Yafo), originally established in the Middle Bronze Age (1800 BCE). Right: Modern-day Tel Aviv, established 1909.
More cool spots in southern Tel Aviv/Jaffa. Top: The Zodiac Fountain and my sign on the Wishing Bridge (Mediterranean Sea in the background). Bottom left: The Gate of Faith sculpture, 1975. Bottom right: Egyptian Gate from the period of Ramesses II (13th century BCE).
In modern-day Tel Aviv. Left: The Tel Aviv Founders Monument (1949), built on the site of the first water tower. Right: The Yitzhak Rabin Memorial outside city hall, dedicated to the prime minster assassinated at a peace rally in 1995.
Front entrance and inside the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv.
More old (and one newer) rocks at the Eretz Israel Museum. Left: Bird mosaic originally from a Christian prayer chamber in the Byzantine period (6th century CE). Center: Who can resist a selfie with a giant ancient pot? Right: Modern-day clay obelisk (1999) with verses from Song of Songs.
A bit of Tel Aviv randomness. Left: Tel Aviv (and Jerusalem) have high street cat populations. I did my best to pet ALL of them. Right: My mom with a random art installation in a residential neighborhood.

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.)

Views from the top (left) and bottom (right) of the terraced Bahá’í Gardens in Haifa, Israel.
Amphitheater and portions of other ruins from Caesarea, Isreal.
At Caesarea, Isreal. Me: Take a picture of me with this giant old rock! Mom: Hanna, that’s a sarcophagus. Me: I know! Isn’t it cool?!
Inside and outside the Rosh HaNikra grottoes at the northern tip of Israel. The water matched my hair!
A few shots in and around the medieval Crusader fortress excavated in Acre (Akko), Israel. Excavated is literal here, because at one point the fort was intentionally buried with an Ottoman Empire fort constructed atop it.

Golan Heights

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!

The future site of Armageddon, as seen from a highway gas station, which is still hilarious to me.
Panoramic shot of the Sea of Galilee.
Visitor center and observation point overlooking the Golan Heights at a former military outpost. It was very windy. (I never did see anyone else in the country with dyed hair, except a woman with pink hair at Masada who turned out to be a tourist from Ireland.)
Golan Heights, as seen from above. Things I liked: wind turbines and solar panels! Things I didn’t like quite as much: The area called “Valley of Tears” and barricaded because of landmines, and the creepy giant white structure that the Israel Defense Forces use for urban warfare training.
Learning about ancient and modern-day olive oil pressing at a family-owned manufactory in the Golan Heights. This company uses the residual material of making olive oil to produce cleaning and skincare products.
A random picture I took inside the olive oil facility, and probably my other top photo from my entire trip to Israel.
Views of the Byzantine-era synagogue in the Ancient Katzrin Village open-air museum, Golan Heights, Israel.

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