I won’t exaggerate if I say that Israel is a legendary country. It has a very special meaning for three influential religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and a significant part of its history is described in the Holy Books. Even for a non-religious person like me Israel is a place of extreme importance because of the role it played in the rise of civilization.
Before visiting Israel, I heard a lot about it from my friends. I got a bunch of recommendations about places to see, restaurants to eat and clubs to have fun. My best friend Mishka actually lives in Haifa where he works on the research project and I knew he would join us in Tel Aviv and show us all around. I felt myself perfectly prepared for the trip, with an exact plan for the whole week… But Israel suprised me and made me change the plans.
1. Israel is a country of contrasts. Religious way of life coexists with contemporary culture, Oriental traditions – with Western habits. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are so unlike that seem to belong to different countries (which remains me Beijing and Shanghai in China). I didn’t expect seeing so many people wearing religious dress – almost everyone in Jerusalem – and could hardly imagine how the religious holidays looked like. Of course I knew that everything was closed and public transport didn’t work but knowing is one thing and seeing it with your own eyes is another. We needed to turn back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem the day of Shavuot, a big Jewish holiday, and had to search a private bus driven by a muslim driver – the only transport available. It was the early morning, and we saw the whole families going to the sinangogas: men dressed in black, with shtreimels on the head, and women wearing long clear dresses. When we arrived to Tel Aviv, we didn’t see any signs of such a celebration.
2. Israeli population is very young. If in Europe you see almost the same number of the young and aged people in the streets, in Israel the first category is definitely more numerous. Most of families have more than one child – in fact, the official statistics mentions an average of 3 children per family and the average age is below 30 years.
3. Israel is expensive. I didn’t expect the prices will be as high as in Europe and even worse – as high as in Paris which is one of the most expensive European cities! If you want to eat tasty without spending a lot, a good option might be local markets. We visited the famous Carmel in Tel Aviv and Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem. The first one is extremely noisy and crowded but it’s fun to discover local food and makes you feel the rhythm of the city. The second one is calmer and well organized, with cozy eateries and bars on every corner.
4. Many young people are armed. Of course I knew that Israel was in a situation of war but knowing and seeing it with your own eyes is quite different. Some soldiers look younger than their age and bring so huge submachine guns that you wonder how they lift it. In public transport, coffee shops, bars, supermarkets – armed people are everywhere and by the end of the trip I got used to see them without thinking of the war every time.
5. To sum up, Israel is an Oriental country. And this was may be the most surprising thing about it. I always thought about Israel as a part of European civilization but in fact it isn’t! Of course today you see the signs of globalization everywhere, such as aesthetic coffee shops and modern public transport, but the habits, mentality of people and their lifestyle remain perfectly oriental, even if in different ways – voices are louder, smiles are wider and music is everywhere in Tel Aviv; traditional dresses, no makeuped women and Shabbat in Jerusalem.
A conclusion can be made of all these surprises: Israel is a country which one should see with his own eyes. No matter how many articles you read and how many stories you heard before, you won’t be prepared to the reality. One just must go and see!