Friday, October 24, 2014

Israel 2014 Day 5: Tel Aviv's epic hummus

Israel 2014 Day 5: Tel Aviv's epic hummus

The first couple of days in Israel were life-changing, and today was also going to be momentous, for a tastier but less weighty reason. Today we went to... the one... the only.... Abu Hasan Hummus! (Actually, I think they have a couple of branches!) It was THE BEST. I'm serious. It was INSANELY GOOD. Today, was alllllll about the epic hummus. It was smooth, it was warm, tangy but not sour, smooth but not watery, packed with olive oil but not oily, it was perfect... but more on that in a moment.

Today we got up early and headed off to Tel Aviv! We dropped off the car in an all-day lot and walked passed a closed McDonald's. As you know if you ever read my travel blog, I really love visiting McDonald's in foreign countries, as I always find it hilarious how they localize their menu to fit the new country. Here, in Israel, apparently the Egg McMuffin is new? And of course, no ham in this one... a tomato instead.

McDonald's in Tel Aviv!
Egg McMuffin... New!?
Weird but funny random character wearing a huge Chai necklace
We started the day meeting Michal's friends at Brasserie. They had nice breads and muffins there. I got scrambled egg, with cheese and feta on the side. I ordered a "Cafe Filtre" -- a French press! Michal's friends were awesome and told us about the green bikes that were available all over town for grab-and-go rentals by the 30 min. Super straightforward. They gave us great advice and we chatted nicely over a great breakfast. We parted ways and headed to the car and got our first of many green bikes for the day. It was only ₪17 (17 Shekels) for the day (about $5 or so). Amazing deal.
Tel Aviv Beach!
Time for a passionfruit popsicle and a Hebrew Coke Zero
Bike rental for the day
We biked first to the Tel Aviv beach and it was glorious. Along the roadways there were really fun juice stands, and you could bike along a center island in the roadway which was for pedestrians and bikes specifically. The Mediterranean was beautiful! We decided to drop off the bikes and wander for a bit... but had some trouble locking the bikes at first. Michal called the hotline and sorted it out quickly with their great customer service, rattling off a bunch of questions in pitch-perfect, fluent Hebrew. Sure is good to have a "tour guide" like her around :)

After a tasty passionfruit popsicle to cool down in the hot sun (eat it quick, it melts fast!) and a funny Coke Zero with Hebrew letters on it, we biked to the village of Old Jaffa. First up was a Farmer's Market-type place, which had local beer on tap! I got a small glass of the wheat one, and it was very refreshing. They also had cool housewares with Hebrew writing on them, like a jar for coffee, tea, and sugar! That was SO cool. I am going to have to pick up something like that during this trip, for SURE.

Local craft beers
Spreading my wings
From here, we walked to the LEGENDARY Abu Hasan / Ali Karavan hummus shop!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Oh my G-d. :) This place was truly glorious, in all senses of the word. It was just perfect. They only sell one thing: hummus. We got there, and it was packed. Apparently your timing is important: early in the morning it's busy, as the local Muslim folks in the area tend to like to eat this hummus earlier for breakfast. Then there is a gap for an hour or two in the late morning, and then a lot of local Jewish people tend to come for a late lunch. I guess that's a cultural thing, I hadn't heard about hummus being a breakfast food before, but honestly I could eat this all day and every day, it was absolutely amazing. If you're a tourist, there's a sweet spot right in the middle of the day, between the two rush hour meals. This place is so good it's incredibly popular. It was described to us as more of a "Muslim-style" hummus, a little lighter than hummus I'd had ever before at home. I could see from the consistency why it would be great as a breakfast dish.

The WORLD FAMOUS Abu Hasan (Ali Karavan) Hummus shop
Old Jaffa
We sat down and the guy said, "Hummus? 1 or 2?" There is no menu, only hummus. Exactly my kind of place. They make one thing, and they do it better than anywhere in the world. Pita was just included, and the guy came out and dropped a bunch on our table. There are drinks if you want, and if you flag down the waiter. It also came with a weird palate-cleanser thing, raw white onions in a vinegar sauce! That was funny, I wasn't sure how to eat that part!

Oh... maaaannnn....
The best hummus, literally, IN THE WORLD
Cleaning the plate
The hummus was truly epic. It was warm! It was very creamy, a very smooth flavour, with some chunkier elements. It was almost like cottage cheese! So different. MAAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!! That was SO freakin' awesome. I absolutely crushed it, powered through almost the entire thing by myself. That was the most awesome thing ever.

From here we walked past the flea market, and then biked back along Tel Aviv Beach. We checked out the Neve Tsedek art street, and walked to Nachalat Binjamin market, which was awesome. They had really great arts and crafts there, Mezuzahs, cool artwork, signs with custom Hebrew writing, and lots more. I got a tasty melon + mint smoothie, and then bought my parents a stained-glass hanging artwork from a really good artist working in the market.
Square in Old Jaffa
Fun area that used to be a train station
Halva Gelato
Glorious day
Lots of mezuzzahs
More gelato
Awesome artist making stained glass at the market
Awesome :)
We spent a while in the market and I really enjoyed it, there was so much cool handmade Jewishy stuff there... it was so perfect for gifts. From there we took a short stop at the Shuk ha Carmel, an open-air food market. It was mostly touristy stuff, but I did find a really cool Hamsa there for my Dad. They had silly shirts too. After walking through it for a bit, we saw a cool spices area and, even better, found the largest and most juicy Lychees I've ever seen! Huge! I bought a whole bag, and since Michal doesn't like them that much, I proceeded to eat the entire bag.
HUGE Lychees, I ate the whole bag
Walking towards the mall, we saw some of the very funny to watch and joyous group of ultra-Orthodox Jews called the "Na Nach" Hasidim. They are a subgroup of Breslover Hasidim, and their goal is to spread joy and happiness. Good goal :) Here's an interesting NPR article about the Na Nachs:
"Rabbi Nachman says that when you're happy, you keep the Torah better," says Zohar Ginsberg, a 24-year-old member of the sect. "So you have to do whatever you can to be happy. Dance. Sing. Jokes. Nonsense."
I've certainly never seen a shofar (the ram's horn) blown for an event not in a Synagogue, so this was quite a hilarious and funny thing to watch. We watched for a little bit, and these dudes were certainly happy and excited folks. This was great.

We walked a bit further and went inside to get some AC in the Dizengoff Center. It was an odd mall, and we saw another McDonald's in there which is always fun to look at. They had some funny stuff like a "Chicken Mix" and, most awesomely, the "Mega Big America" burger, apparently based off some World Cup Soccer thing. Hilarious.

At McDonald's: "Mega Big America" burger?!?!
After a long day of walking, we found a small booth area with "Reflexology", called Happy Feet Foot Massage! We decided to try it out for fun, and it was great.

Biking back to the car after this was great with our relaxed feet :) We dropped off the last set of bikes for the day, and GPS'd to Ilanit's house, Michal's really awesome cousin. We got there and asked "Who's coming over?" I should have known the answer, "Everyone!!" Haha. Awesome. The dinner was very tasty, and Nir and I talked about craft beers and he very kindly offered me some of his Glenfarclas 15. When he comes to visit San Francisco, I will have to return the favour!

After a lovely evening of chatting and good food, we drove back home to Ra'anana, having a nice long deep conversation (as we do!) Great times.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Israel 2014 Day 4: The Western Wall

Israel 2014 Day 4: The Western Wall

I had always wondered if one day in my life I would finally visit the Western Wall, the most holy site in the world for the Jewish People. And today was that day! We came to Israel on this trip to celebrate with Michal's family, for the Bar-Mitzvah of her young cousin Tomer. Today was his big day and it was just amazing to celebrate with everyone.

We started off with a fun chance to use this cool squeezer thing to make orange juice. "The kids" usually like doing this task, so naturally it fit that I'd love it too. Yep.

Starting the day with some epic OJ!
After a quick breakfast we boarded the bus for Jerusalem! Michal's Uncle was the "tour guide" and made the bus trip really fun with trivia and prizes for the kids. It was incredible, like being on a bus to summer camp: songs, games, and good times ahead. We got to Jerusalem and started at the Tower of David (no relation to King David, apparently!) The multitude of religions all together in Jerusalem was visible right from the start, with the Crescent Moon right on top of the Tower of David. Very cool to be here! We walked through the ruins, as well as the many different museum exhibits there.

So sweet!
Tower of David
View from the Tower of David
Cool model of the Dome of the Rock
Walking around and going into museum exhibits
Good times
In the museum exhibits, we learned about the history of the land of Israel, through different time periods. There were dioramas of "shuks" (markets), discussion of the Ottoman Empire, British rule, the creation of the State of Israel, the 6-day War, and a Dome of the Rock model replica. The Tower of David was a fortress in the past. This was all very interesting to learn some history before diving into the big event at the Western Wall after lunch. But first, time to eat!

Lunchtime = time for silly faces
The "monkey face" we invented as we were waiting for lunch
We had a tasty lunch at Beit Ticho ("Ticho's House"). I had a Lemonade & Mint slushie thing which was very tasty, as well as a Multicolour Market Salad and we shared some Cheesecake. I also got a "Cafe Botz" or "Mud Coffee" -- a very thick coffee that (I learned this the hard way back at Dr. Laffa in Toronto) you are *not* supposed to stir! The coffee grounds stay at the bottom of the cup, unless you excitedly (and incorrectly) stir it up. Tomer and I chatted lots about Disneyland and got to know each other. He, very graciously for a 13 year old, spoke cautiously but confidently in English. I have no conversational Hebrew, but his English is very good. He taught me a few Hebrew words and I taught him a few English sayings. Then we made funny faces for the camera.

To the Wall! We walked in, and I have to say... wow. The sight of it! Breathtaking!

Driving towards the Western Wall
Wowowowow we're here!!
And... there it is. The Western Wall: the most holy site in the world for the Jewish People. Can't believe I'm here!

Tears come to your eyes immediately, to see all the other Jewish people there, praying at the wall. Thoughts run through your head about the struggle of the Jewish people over centuries, and the joy that being able to be at this wall is actually possible. I looked at the wall in awe for a few minutes, and then followed the rest of the family into the new and very well-done "Chain of Generations" exhibit.

Awesome art/history exhibit next to the wall
Cool stuff!
This was a cool walk, with art exhibits made up of layers of glass, making towers of "generations". These pillars were shaped like a menorah. It was really artistic and an awesome way to show off some of the excavated caves. Inside one of the excavated areas, there was a mikvah! Another portion of the artwork showed a tree growing out of the roots of Judaism. A really interactive way to show a historic site, it finished with a Holographic movie which was also great. Very nicely done!

From here, we walked outside, past the wall, and to the caves beside and under the wall. This started with an exhibit, showing the original temple in 3D. They did some spin-arounds, to show you the size of the original temple and the remaining Western Wall... and I was surprised to learn there is actually a "Southern Wall" too!

A 3D model of the Western Wall and what the entire Temple would have looked like
We learned about the Temple Mount, which I believe they said was built after the destruction of the first Temple. The 2nd Temple was built, and the Western Wall was actually the "Shuk" (the market). They showed the model, and the bridges with archways, walking towards the wall. They described this and then surprised us; we were actually inside one of the bridge arches at that moment.

After the 2nd Temple was destroyed, Muslims built on top of the Temple Mount, and this is where the Dome of the Rock is today. The 6-Day War was when Israel won access to this portion of the wall. Now, why is the Western Wall so important, but no one ever talks about the Southern Wall?! This is because there were 3 portions of the Temple: the Main Entrance, the Sacrificial Location, and the "Kodesh ha Kodeshim" ("Holiest of the Holy"). Only the "Kohain ha Hadol" (the High Priest) could go in there once per year -- the Holiest person on the Holiest day. The Western part of the wall was the closest point to Even ha Shtiya ("The Foundation Stone"), also called "The Drinking Stone" or the "Drink of Life". This is the holiest part of the Temple, and thus the Western Wall became the important pilgrimage point (over, say, the Southern Wall).

We learned stories from the tour guide. Apparently a guy went digging for the 10 Commandments, as he believed them to be in there. After that, the area was sealed off so that people can't dig there. We walked through the caves to see the Kotel ("The Western Wall") up close. Something extra-cool about the tour in the caves is that the more "up" (North) you go along the wall, you get to the closest point to the Foundation Stone. So that was pretty epic.

In the Western Wall "Tunnels", learning about the history of the site
In front of us was a HUGE stone, 250 tonnes! They have no idea still to this day how they managed to move it. We walked "up" along the side of the wall to a small prayer spot. We touched the wall there... wow it was so cool to be here.

Thousands of years of history...
Along the tunnels
After a moment there, we headed back out and it was almost Bar-Mitzvah time!!  We gathered around, and Tomer was presented with a Talit, Prayer Book, and Tefillin. We collected together, and off we walked with purpose towards the wall, led by the Bar-Mitzvah boy and our Rabbinical Student/Beardy tour guide (who was hilarious) and the organizer/Chazzan. It was super fun.

The excited organizer exciting the crowds
It's Bar-Mitzvah Time!
From here, we went to the Aron Kodesh, the arks inside the left part of the Western Wall. Inside we found some quieter prayer areas there, along with the arks. We went into the area with the Torahs, and there were 7 Aron Kodeshim, each with more than 10 Torahs in them. So many! Some even had 18 Torahs in them (18 is referred to as "Chai" or "Life", an important number in Judaism). This was super epic: the closest point at the outside wall to the Foundation Stone AND there were around 100 Torahs there... a sight to behold! Being the holiest place at the Western Wall, there were a lot of very dedicated religious people in there, and people were praying but looked up very excitedly at us because of the Bar-Mitzvah celebration. Some even stopped what they were doing to join us!

Taking out a Torah from the Aron Kodesh in the Western Wall!
It's go time!
Tomer picked out his Torah and we walked back outside to the table area, to do the Torah reading in front of the Wall. The Torah was taken out (unrolled) and several Aliyahs happened (members of the family were called up to say parts of the prayers). Tomer read his Torah portion and we all cheered. Random people we didn't know came up to us to stand around (closely!) and watch, and just to hang out near us during this celebration and to touch the Torah. One part of the celebration involved throwing candy, which obviously excited the many kids around us. The kids ran to grab some of the candy we were throwing, and were all very excited. The Chazzan was very good, he encouraged them all to have fun and then said a firm but kind "Thank you!" to tell them nicely that it was time for us to all get back to our task at hand.

Mazel Tov!
Proud Mama
This is awesome
Lots of strangers joining in on the dance
A few other strangers gathered around after this kids dissipated. In the midst of our efforts, a man came up and actually asked us for money! That was very surprising to me. I felt bad for him, but it didn't seem like the right place nor time. Thinking about it further, I suppose he was hoping we would help him out as the idea of Tzedakah ("charity") is very important in the Jewish religion and we were in the midst of doing something very Jewish. (That said, the idea of common sense is also of high importance, so likely our friend should have probably waited until after the festivities were complete to ask.) Nonetheless, he joined in on the excitement and watched on as we danced.

We continued dancing, lifted Tomer up in a chair, and more dancing and singing followed. It was such a fun experience. After this we walked back to the Aron Kodesh, and I got to open the Aron Kodesh!! That rocked. Our beardy Rabbinical Student fellow fist-bumped me after the Aron Kodesh part. Awesome.

The Bar-Mitzvah Boy heading back to the Aron Kodesh with the Torah
Taking some photos with the crazy (and Canadian!) Rabbi :)
After some photos and hugs, and our crazy Rabbi buddy put his arms around everyone and kicked up his feet for a photo, we headed back to the wall for some personal time for prayer at the Western Wall. I have been excited about doing this for a very long time... With my Tallis and Yarmulke on, given to me by my Father on my Bar-Mitzvah, I took a big breath and walked towards the wall, learning my hands and head against it.

Taking time at the Western Wall to reflect
This was truly amazing
A custom is to write a note to G-d, a prayer, or something meaningful on a piece of paper, and roll it up and put it into the cracks of the wall. I tore out a page from my travel journal notes (that I am referring to when writing this post), spent some time thinking about and writing something, and found a nice spot for it. That was quite a moment.

Putting one's hands and forehead against the Western Wall for the first time is really an entirely different experience than one you've ever had before. The sun was hot, and the wall was warm and welcoming, powerful... as I thought it would feel, it was like a magnet. I just wanted to keep holding it. I stayed there for quite some time, making "Kohanim Hands" felt like the right thing to do. I could really feel the energy from it, and warmth from the hot sun as well. Thoughts danced through my mind: the struggle, pain, longing, and hope. The ability for a people to survive the harshest and most unfair conditions, extreme hatred, and to respond to this with passion and love for living, and the humility and courage to view the seriousness of life with an attitude of humour and joyfulness. The information I learned yesterday that some people with my last name perished in the Holocaust added even more weight to the situation... "So that you may live". Thousands of years of Jewish history lead me directly to this point. It was really a truly incredible moment.

With tears in my eyes I met the rest of the group, took photos, and said farewell to the wall. I use the word "awesome" a lot, but this thing was truly "awesome" in the exact sense of the word.

Me and M'Lady
A HUGE Mezuzzah leading into the Western Wall area

From here we took a short drive to Abu Ghosh, a town nearby... yes, it was time for food!!

They started the meal with a bazillion salads: hummus with chickpea, 2 eggplant ones, cabbage, olives, pickles, tabouleh, french fries... it was so good! We had lemonade and water, and then... the meat: very moist chicken, lamb "kebab" (lamb meatballs with parsley in them), and lamb chops. Holy moly!! What a meal!!

And of course, time to eat!
And to end an incredible day, some Baklava :)
After a really awesome dinner, and a really awesome day, we headed back to Ra'nannah, and slept on the bus. We got home, and had some Halva for dessert when we got back... just a little snack. :)