My Fifth Trip to Israel, Home of My Heart in The Middle East
Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2020, including this trip to Israel in February 2020.
It had all started to become comfortingly familiar — the exact gate the daily Newark to Tel Aviv flight departed from, the recitation of pre-boarding announcement in English and Hebrew, the familiar mix of blue-haired Christian pilgrims, families of Hasidic Jews, and bored-looking hipster Tel Avivians crowding the boarding area.
But this time, something was different. An ominous sounding announcement warned that we would not be allowed in Israel if our passports showed evidence of travel to China in the last two weeks, and we each had to go up for a one-by-one inspection, adding to the chaos of the additional security that all flights landing in Israel must undergo before their departure. Israel was one of the first countries in the world to enact any kind of border restrictions, and at the time it felt dramatic — and seemed to put everyone on edge.
It was unnerving, I was exhausted, and when I got to my seat and heard flight attendants bickering with stubborn passengers, I could have burst into tears. It was in that moment a serene staff member approached me with a new boarding pass. You’ve been upgraded, she smiled.
And thus the famous Israeli hospitality began before we’d even taxied from the gate in New York. Gil, my new boyfriend at the time, had used his miles to upgrade me, and I can confirm I’ve never appreciated a bump more.
Twelve hours later, gazing out the window at the skyline I had fallen for so deeply, home to the guy I was in the process of doing the same with, my heart felt home. It was my fifth trip to Israel, where I anticipated I would spend a large amount of the year. Instead, little did I know, the doors of the country would close shortly behind me, again, the first in the world to do so — and they haven’t reopened since.
You know how some places, you just can’t quit? That was me and Tel Aviv, a city that seems like it was made for me — quirky and cool, creative and chaotic, intense and passionate; the perfect blend of urban energy and natural beauty.
I had one week there before finishing my time in Israel with a romantic weekend up north. And to be honest, I felt so at home in The White City, I didn’t pull out a real camera one single time until we had left the city limits. It was all iPhone snaps of places I’ve been before with people I know and love — the exotic gift of finding a new place that feels like home, halfway around the world.
Of course, that’s somewhat of an exaggeration. I went new places. In Tel Aviv, there are always new places to go, and fabulous friends who know all about them. Catching up with two in Jaffa, we swung by the new Chapel Bar hoping to luck into a cancellation.
We didn’t, but I scoped the hotel it’s hidden in for what I thought at the time was my dad’s upcoming summer trip.
We ended up at Beit Kandinof, the kind of restaurant that feels like an incredible underground find but that actually every single one of your cooler-than-cool Israeli friends has offhandedly recommended whenever you’re in Jaffa.
The space is more, in fact, than just a restaurant — it’s an artist studio and exhibition space, a hip bar, and home to a regular rotation of cultural classes and workshops.
And so I quickly fell into a familiar pattern — while the rest of the world, and Gil’s apartment, went to work, I opened my laptop and worked-from-home before it was cool, sometimes subbing in a dog friendly cafe as my office-of-the-moment. It was easy to do so with such an adorable assistant.
When I wasn’t working, I was running around the city (literally) forever trying to avoid learning how to use the bus system, and taking class at favorite spots like Studio Sol. It was here that I found my Israeli home base for Yoga Sculpt, barre, and more — usually in English, but with the ocasional Hebrew word I’d file away, whisper under my breath to myself, and ask Gil the translation of later.
It was easy to continue my health streak in Tel Aviv, where food is effortlessly fresh and good for body and soul. My girl Jannah introduced me to Anastasia where she insisted we try the vegan shakshuka, a must for plant-powered travelers headed to the city.
It was my first trip to Israel in the “winter,” and I found it odd not to have to fight the daily temptation to go to the beach. Instead, I worked fairly distraction-free by day, and at night, we played.
On evening, Gil told me to get dressed up and be ready by eight. When we hopped in a cab, I had no idea where we were headed. When we got out, we were in a Wonderland.
Fantastic Tel Aviv, by the same minds who created Bellboy, which I fell for on my first ever trip to the city, is the Alice in Wonderland tale in table form. Whimsical, silly, sweet — I couldn’t have dreamed of a better date night. One of many features that left me swooning was an installation in the bathroom instructing me to make a wish and blow on a sculpted birthday candle — at which point a hidden camera was activated, and a photo of you spit out of the cake. There were surprises like that everywhere you looked. Tel Aviv is just like that.
One thing that has struck me as a fascinating cultural difference, the more time I spend in Israel, is that the concept of “alone time” is not really something that’s valued in Israel. Time is for spending with family or friends, something I’m both fascinated by and slightly terrified of as someone who really recharges alone.
I once met an Israeli guy who told me that the only excuse his parents accepted for him not coming home to see them on the weekend was if he was at his in-law’s instead, ha.
Still, I managed to steal away my solo moments — usually while researching something for either my upcoming High Flying Tel Aviv or Wander Women Israel retreats. Or, when I was doing something that Gil or most of my other local friends would scoff at, like having a turmeric latte and trying to decipher the yoga schedule at uber-hippie Urban Shaman.
I have to admit the most memorable moment of my trip isn’t a very photographed one — our night at The Block, perhaps the most famous nightclub in Israel. We went, in typical Tel Aviv fashion, after a wholesome Shabbat dinner with Gil’s entire family, who all live within a twenty minute walk of each other in the city. It happened to be Valentine’s Day (for which I felt it was my duty as unofficial US Ambassador to Gil’s apartment to bring an entire Target section of holiday special release candy), and I teased Gil mercilessly that we were having Valentine’s Day dinner with his mom, to which he replied that actually we were going on a date in a bus station.
Yes, back to The Block. Located under a bus station in a gritty part of Tel Aviv, we waited in line before going by a female bouncer who recited the rules I’d already been briefed on by the regulars: no phones, no cameras, no creeps, no heels. Enjoy.
What happened between then and sunrise is probably something I’ll save for a future memoir, but it gave me the vibe I’ve always expected Berghain in Berlin to have. I can certainly attest I’ve never experienced anything like it in the US, where wide-spread public fun is generally of a more heavily regulated variety.
Not that I’m ever ready to leave Tel Aviv, but you could say I was ready for a recovery weekend after that.
For the last two nights of my last trip to Israel, we headed north to a zimmer. A zimmer is a unique form of Israeli accommodation — generally small rural rentals that are somewhere between a quaint bed and breakfast and a modern Airbnb! They are usually family-owned, super-private, and mega-romantic.
“Going to a cabin up north” is such a cliche among Israelis that there’s even a Hebrew song that makes fun of trying to save a dying relationship by doing so, ha. This was my second time at a zimmer, my first also being in the Galilee region of Israel. I found this one on Instagram and immediately told Gil, we have to go there. Thankfully I have him because the whole booking process was in Hebrew and not something I would have been able to manage otherwise — I always feel very lucky to have these domestic travel experiences as an international traveler.
Ma’ale Gamla, where this zimmer is, is located on the east side of the Sea of Galilee — known locally as Lake Kinnaret — is in the Golan Heights. Syria and Israel have battled over this border for decades, and it officially became part of Israel in the 1960’s. And as we watched the sunset the night we arrived, I reflected it might just be the closest I’ll ever get to having that particular passport stamp — though I guess you never know.
Today, it’s a peaceful area where we visited a winery, went for hikes and walks in national parks, and mostly just enjoyed the incredible view of this historic lake.
In fact, it’s pretty much what we spent the entirety of the next day doing. I woke up to the sounds of Gil rustling around in the cabin and assumed he had a work emergency he had to deal with, even rolling over and mumbling something about where the laptop charger was.
So imagine my surprise when I felt him throw something at me and tell me, wake up, Santa came! Gil and I had been unable to spend Christmas together, which I’d really wanted to do to escape the US, dreading my first big holiday without my mom. So, this was his gift to me. Christmas in February on Lake Galilee, tiny wrapped presents spread out in front of a small fake tree, two stockings hanging from the zimmer’s fireplace, hot chocolate ready in the kitchen, Christmas music on Spotify.
Basking in the sweetness of one of the most creative and thoughtful things anyone has ever done for me, we didn’t bother leaving the property until sunset.
We didn’t have much of a destination in mind, but drove uphill, stopping first at a viewpoint that had a little audio tour we could play in multiple languages explaining the history of the region (from an Israeli perspective, of course.)
Our next stop was Gamla Nature Reserve, where we walked past the closed barrier and had the beautiful sunset to ourselves. When I saw the maps of the trails and photos of the waterfalls here, I regretted we hadn’t gotten out earlier to do a proper trek. But between the idyllic views, the gazelles we shared a stare-down with (peep them under the tree in the photo below!) and the fact that we had the place entirely to ourselves, I really couldn’t complain.
And, as I always say, I’ll go back, someday.
That night, having enjoyed enough cozy meals in the zimmer, we asked our host for a recommendation, and headed to Moshbutz Restaurant in Ramot (Gil assures me the name is just as funny in Hebrew as it is in English.) We were both skeptical of the place as we approached, but left raving — it was a great find.
The next morning, we made up for our laziness the day prior with a few stops en route to the airport. My favorite was Terra Nova Winery, where we had a private tour with the old hippie who owned the place and was thrilled when I told him I run women’s yoga retreats in Sinai, part of Egypt since a peace treaty in the 70’s. “Oh yes, I used to live there, when it was Israel,” he told us, regaling us with a tale of when he went totally off the grid, living in a cave until officers arrived and told him, this is Egypt now! Time to go home.
The borders of this region are controversial and chaotic, fluid and fascinating, and this wandering heart can’t wait to get back to learning and exploring it.
Though we paid for it later, as we rushed to the airport late (as usual), I couldn’t resist a quick stop at Korazim National Park, too. It was worth it, I think, for my tipsy fake tour narration, and the only photo I snapped of us the entire week on my actual camera.
And thus, with a chaotic goodbye at the departures terminal, another trip to Israel came to a close. I couldn’t believe it was less than two years prior I’d discovered this tiny country that left such an imprint on my heart.
People often ask if I’m Jewish or if I have family in Israel — no to both! Of course for a while I was dating a Tel Avivian, but I fell under the spell of this country before I fell for him. There are no qualifications necessary to travel nor love this unique land and culture.
In my ‘ol 2020 plan, I was supposed to be using Tel Aviv as somewhat of a base for an array of Middle Eastern travels, and my several Wander Women Retreats there (with a million friends loudly and lovingly helping me, in true Israeli style). When we kissed goodbye at the terminal on my way to Thailand, I left a suitcase in the apartment I thought I’d spent much of the year in and told Gil, I’ll see you in two months in Jordan. Instead, a year later, unclear when I will be allowed to re-enter Israel at all.
I am so passionate about this region and truly can’t wait to get lost in it again. I may not know my romantic future. But I know I’ll be back. Someday. And I’ve got a bucket list a mile long of what I want to see and do and experience and who I want to hug when I get there.
L’chaim, Israel. May we meet again soon.