I awoke, and was out of bed at 6:00 AM at the Ariel Hotel. The 7 hour difference in time had me functioning in the twilight zone. So, before the Hotel’s restaurant opened for breakfast, I went for a walk along the same road where I wondered during the evening before.
Unlike the evening, the street was waking with traffic and pedestrians starting their day. By 6:00 AM, convenience stores were opening for business, and people seemed to be quite awake and alert. I was awake only because I wasn’t certain if I should still be asleep.
Although it was 6:00 AM in Israel, it was only 11:00 PM back home in Ontario.
I stopped off at one of the convenience stores to pick up an English newspaper, which turned out to be either the Jerusalem Post or Ha’Aretz. I purchased both. And at the checkout, the guy at the cash was eating a delicious looking sandwich which made me quite hungry. I hoped this was an item he was selling; along with coffee of course.
So, when I asked if I could buy a sandwich like his, he shook his head no, but he would be pleased to tear his sandwich in half and share it with me. As a matter of fact, he insisted that I accept half his sandwich. After-all he said: “I have enough, and it tastes real good. You’ll make me happy by taking it”.
You have no idea how that made me feel. Here I was, a stranger in a strange land, speaking to someone I had never ever met before, and most probably will never ever meet again, and his generosity was immediate, genuine and overwhelming. Welcome to Israel I thought. I thanked him, and left him to finish and enjoy his fabulous sandwich, and walked back to the Ariel Hotel feeling pretty good about being in Israel.
By the time I got to the Hotel, the soldiers were now awake and milling around the lobby, looking far more with it, than they did when I first saw them the night before. The front desk clerk, and a few of the other Hotel staff were sitting in a corner of the lobby, watching a small television with ongoing news of the battles in the territories. The soldiers were also interested, but spent more time just quietly chatting amongst themselves. In the driveway, the busses that were to take them back to the battlefront were just arriving.
Finally: Breakfast was served. And what a fabulous Israeli breakfast it was. I quickly discovered that all of Israel’s Hotels served scrumptious breakfasts as part of the room reservation. Ordinarily, I am not a big fan of vegetables. But in Israel, the vegetables are so fresh that they taste like nothing I had ever eaten before. So, here I was, 6,000 miles away from home, eating vegetables until I was so full, I thought I would burst. Anne still doesn’t believe me.
As a side bar. The only other person joining me in the large dining room was the waiter. That’s how bad business was for the Hotel. However; in an adjacent room with the door closed, there was a small singing group rehearsing their choir.
The scene was like something out of a movie. I sat eating my breakfast, while reading one of my two English language newspapers, all alone in this big empty room, listening to a choir sounding as if their voices belonged to angels, while the soldiers collected their kit bags, slung their combat rifles over their shoulders, got on the busses, and headed back to war.
After breakfast, I went to my room to finish packing, and had a look at the view from my window. It turned out to be spectacular. My room overlooked the Old City of Jerusalem, and a massive park, set in a long valley, probably as long as 1 mile, and as wide as a quarter of a mile. And to my disbelieving eyes, there were horses just freely grazing with nothing to keep them from walking away. I was later told that the horses were owned by Arabs who used them for horseback rides for the tourists.
I informed the Hotel that I was going to be checking out, which made them feel quite bad. “Is there any problem? Is there anything we can do to make your stay better? Can we change your mind? Why do you want to leave”?
I felt quite sorry for the people at the Hotel. But; I wanted a more modern location closer to the action. Not only was the staff at the Ariel accommodating about checking me out, they allowed me to keep my bags there for as long as I wanted, and were more than helpful in getting me a cab to take me to wherever I was going. This was no more and no less than the hospitality I came to expect wherever I went in Israel.
Since it was still too early to go to the new Hotel, I decided to explore the valley on foot, where the horses wandered freely, and discovered that it was a huge park donated by an American couple. And when Israel isn’t in turmoil, it is quite a favorite attraction. But even during this time of war, Israeli grounds-keepers were out cleaning the area and trimming the foliage. It was quite gorgeous.
Upon check-in at the Dan Pearl Hotel, I found their service also to be as friendly, courteous and helpful as can be imagined. The fact that I was probably the only tourist in the joint didn’t hurt matters either. I checked into a real nice suite. Unpacked. And decided to make the Dan Pearl my home until it was time to leave Israel.
If you’ve never been to Israel, you should know; what they consider to be a Four Star Hotel, is the North American equivalent of a nice Holiday Inn, for which they charge a couple of hundred dollars US per night during normal times.
When I went down to the front desk, to glean a little information, I discovered how multi-phone prepaid telephone cards worked, and how they would save me a veritable fortune. I also got the name of a certified guide, who worked at night on the front desk, and during the day drove a taxi. “Would I like to meet him”? Asked the front desk clerk. “You bet”.
Even though I had a big breakfast at the first Hotel, I was now hungry again. I guess vegetables are great for filling you up while you eat them. But a few hours later, you feel pretty empty. I was invited to enjoy the Dan Pearl’s breakfast while I waited for my driver in their dining room. And to my great surprise, this breakfast was even grander and more expansive than the first. But; just like the at the Ariel, I dined virtually alone, save a family of Orthodox Jews who might have been tourists, but seemed more to be visiting.
My guide and driver, whose name is Tommy, showed up in less than half an hour. He was extremely pleasant with a warm and ready smile. And he spoke English; as well as, or better than most of the people I know. We talked about what I expected from him, and how much he wanted for his services, including his car. It wasn’t hard to come to an agreement since I was his first tour customer in more than a year.
It is important that I point out, that part of our agreement, was that Tommy would take me to wherever I wanted to go. And once we both agreed to our mutual conditions, we wasted no time and got on our way.
The first stop was the Wailing Wall, aka The Western Wall, aka the Wall of the Second Temple, aka the Wall, aka the Kotel as it is referred to in Hebrew or Aish. The Wall, which is all that is left of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, is the most sacred place in the universe for Jews. In normal circumstances, as many as thousands of people would line up to touch the Wall, pray in front of it, and slip a note carrying a request for God within the cracks between the ancient stones.
As I approached the Wall, full of anticipation, there it suddenly was. After hearing about the Wall for my entire lifetime, here it was, smack dab in front of me. I didn’t quite know how to feel, after-all, it is the dream of just about every Jew to be able to approach the Wall and stand before its religious majesty. Just as Christians flock to Bethlehem or the Vatican, and Moslems to Mecca.
My first impression was that the Wall was far less big than I had anticipated. Not that it was small by any means. But; it wasn’t the overpowering structure I had expected. Remarkably, it was also devoid of people. I didn’t count, but I would guess that there were no more than a dozen or so people who were at the Wall, mostly to pray.
I touched the Wall, and then inserted a couple of notes which some friends had given to me to place between the large stone blocks. And then I found an old religious guy who agreed to take my picture in front of it for the sum of 5 Shekels. With this done, I walked away and turned back several times to better fix the image into my mind.
One of the things that impressed me most about the Wall, was the entire complex, which included the Wall, the Dome of the Mount, The Al Aqsa Mosque, and the tunnels which run underneath. All of which was not more than literally a stone’s throw from one another. The close proximity of all these Holy sites to each other was quite unbelievable.
From the Western Wall, we took a drive to the Old City, the Eastern side, which is more or less the Arab side of Jerusalem. The stark contrast was stunning. On the Jewish side, which was pre 1967, the ancient buildings were incredibly well preserved, surrounded by modern architecture in a pristine setting where there was no dirt or litter on the streets.
On the Arab side however, it was a different story. The streets were filthy and the buildings were very much in a state of disrepair; from mild to severe. And more than that; on the Western side of Jerusalem there was a bustle in the air which crackled with the aura of activity. On the Eastern side, there was no sense of movement. People, many of whom were dressed in Arab garb, sort of just hung around.
I saw a group of yong boys wearing what appeared to be school uniforms, making their way on the littered street, when one of them unwrapped a sandwich as he walked, and just threw the paper on the street as several older people just looked on, as if what he did was normal. I guess in East Jerusalem, having little to no respect for where you live is normal.
I asked Tommy why it was like this? Why Israel which controlled all of Jerusalem didn’t clean this side up and repair the architecture? His explanation said much more about the Middle Eastern condition than it did about East Jerusalem.
Many Arab Israelis live in West Jerusalem. They rent and own homes and businesses. But; in East Jerusalem, it is entirely different. The Arabs will not sell to Jews. To do so is risking death. Therefore; there is no development. Nothing really new. And no money from the existing owners for maintenance. The only Jews in the Old City live within their quarter.
We drove through the old Jewish quarter in the Old City, where the ultra Orthodox live and carry on their commerce. The streets in this quarter are narrow and dark, clogged with mostly foot traffic bustling from one cluttered shop to another. It is scene like I have never seen before.
Passing through this narrow area was like taking a trip into a different dimension, where all the rules we are used to no longer apply. In this Ultra Orthodox, fundamentalist quarter of the Old City, women who are not properly covered up are subject to attack, as also are people who would drive through on the Jewish Sabbath.
The denizens of this community live a life outside of mainstream Israel. They don’t work in the conventional sense. They don’t mingle with other Israelis. They don’t serve in the military. And to the best of my knowledge, they don’t contribute all that much, if anything at all towards taxes. What they do however, is make a lot of babies and vote en masse to elect their own in the Knesset. As of now, Shaas, which is their political Party, is the third most influential group after Likud and Labor.
If ever they were take real power, it is in my opinion, they would do more to damage, if not totally destroy Israel, than all the Arab armies and terrorists combined. To suggest they made me feel uncomfortable and alien is an understatement. I didn’t like them, their fundamental beliefs, and their attitude to the rest of the world. I was pleased once we drove through and saw them only in the rear view mirror.
From the Wall and the Old City, we went to the Knesset, where Tommy had dropped me off. He would return within an hour to pick me up.
The Knesset is a very modern building surrounded by substantial security measures, giving the facility more of an image of an armed fortress, rather than a Parliament Building. I had to jump through security hoops to get inside. But even with that, I couldn’t get to see all that much, unless I wanted to hang around for several hours to take the English language tour. And even at that; I wasn’t really all that interested in seeing a bunch of desks, chairs and offices.
Instead, I wondered outside and walked a few hundred meters to the Supreme Court Building, which was surrounded by the most spectacular Rose Garden (The Whol Rose Park of Jerusalem) I could have ever imagined. The place was simply alive with fragrances, a long flowing and sometimes cascading bubbling brook amidst exploding deep rich colors wherever one looked. The Supreme Court Building was also quite spectacular in terms of its architecture and modernity. I don’t know if the Supreme Court Building is on the list of must see sites. If it is not, it should be.
Tommy was late in picking me up, so I hung around the Knesset gate guarded by a lift barrier and a very tough looking guy with a machine gun in hand. He suggested, not too politely, that I stand far from his check-point on the street corner, some 50 meters away. I thanked him for being so polite and grateful that at least one tourist showed up during this time of stress.
I guess my quick sarcastic reaction caught him off guard. He apologized and told me that I could hang around and wait for my driver wherever I wanted. This was just a sample of how on-edge so many Israelis were.
When Tommy finally showed up to get me, the guard and I were exchanging stories about each other’s countries. We wished each other well. I got in the car, and told Tommy: Let’s eat.
He was just about to suggest a restaurant when I suggested my own. “Take me to Sbarros on Jaffa, next to Ben Yehuda Street. The one that was blown up by the suicide murders. Lunch is on me”. He said no.
He was not about to go to that restaurant which he told me was blown up not just once, but twice. He just would not go there. “Fine. I’ll find another guide. Our deal was simple. You agreed to take me wherever I wanted to go. And that’s where I want to go”.
Keeping a cash paying customer beat the fear of suicide murderers all to hell. So off to Sbarros we went.
To get into the restaurant was something else in itself. I have never been frisked by an Oozy toting guard to be able to have a pizza before. But; that’s exactly what I had to do to get into this restaurant. Once inside, we lined up (not a very long line) to order our food, and then took a seat beside the big picture window looking on Jaffa Street, which is one of Jerusalem’s most important commercial and tourist thoroughfares.
As I ate my pizza, which was kosher, and certainly didn’t taste nearly as good as an American Sbarro pizza, Tommy sort of choked down his food as he kept a wary eye open for the suicide killer who might put a damper on our meal.
There was a British journalist in the restaurant, interviewing the few patrons who were there; and the restaurant manager who just happened to be an Israeli Arab. He spoke quite loudly into his recording machine, asking all the type of questions one expects to hear from any news media. And when he was done interviewing, and starting to wrap up his gear, I called him over, and asked him if he wanted to interview me.
Before he could ask his first question, I began with: “My name is Howard Galganov, and I flew over 6,000 miles on a 10 hour flight from Toronto, Canada, just to show solidarity with the Israeli people and to eat a Sbarro pizza, right here on Jaffa Street”.
In disbelief, he asked why? and with the tape recorder rolling:”Because I want the Arab terrorists to know that they’re not going to scare the crap out of everyone. And to tell you journalists to Fuck Off”.
He didn’t skip a beat. But he did smile and press on. After the interview, he told me that I was right to be indignant about the media, and that he was part of a British contingent of journalists who were as pissed of with the biased coverage as I was. He was there, he told me, to show the other side. The Israeli side.
After Sbarros, Tommy and I walked around Ben Yehuda where much of the terrorist violence was targeted. On a normal day, Tommy told me, people would be walking shoulder to shoulder on the pedestrian mall, with hardly any room to move. But now; with the constant threat of suicide murderers, the Mall was just short of being deserted.
I needed Israeli Shekels with which to pay Tommy, and I wanted to cash some Canadian, American Express Traveler’s Cheques. On Ben Yehuda, or just about anywhere you looked in Jerusalem, there are no shortage of money exchangers. Most of whom offered their services with no commissions. I had a rough idea how much each Canadian dollar was worth, so when I found a hole in the wall place where they exchanged currencies and sold falafel, I bargained somewhat, and got 2.98 Shekels (NIS) for every dollar. I should have held out for 3.
But I needed more money than just a few hundred Shekels with which to pay Tommy, so I went to a bank that dealt with Master Card. At the front door, the armed guard asked me a question in Hebrew. He was the first, and only person I came across in Israel who couldn’t speak English. So in sign language, he tapped on his Oozy and pointed at me. “Thank you I said. But I don’t really need one”. This cracked up the people standing close to us. What he wanted to know, was whether or not I was armed.
Once in the crowded bank, crowded like I had never seen a bank crowded before, I met with their foreign currency manager and made the transaction. Being a tourist, maybe Israel’s only tourist, I was given the red carpet treatment and rushed through.
It all of a sudden occurred to me how Westernized Jerusalem really was. Except for the security guard, everyone I spoke with, spoke English. Some spoke without a Hebrew accent. Tommy spoke like a Canadian. The bank manager spoke with a slightly British accent. Some spoke like Americans. And many spoke with a continental intonation. Without really thinking about it, I just took it for granted that everyone spoke English.
One of the jokes in Jerusalem, is that Hebrew is the second official language.
Then I began to notice the signs. All street and government signs everywhere were in Hebrew, Arabic and English. All commercial signs were in Hebrew and English. Some were only in English. This was the most bilingual (trilingual) city I had ever seen. And none of the widespread use of English threatened the social peace or the Hebraic character of the country. If only the Quebec Separatist and ethnocentric crud could see this, they would “plotz” (Yiddish for explode).
From Ben Yehuda, Tommy and I drove to Yad Vashem, where he dropped me off, and I wandered through the Holocaust Memorial by myself. Literally by myself. I didn’t spend a great deal of time on the exhibits, since I have seen their equal and similar exhibits at the Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC.
However; one of the exhibits which I did see, was absolutely unique and compelling.
The Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, is constructed atop a large hill with very steep sides. And from the walkway which separated the building from the edge of the slope, there were railway tracks which sort of started out of nowhere. And from nowhere, or perhaps from everywhere, the tracks extended over the steep hill by as much as a hundred feet or more. And at the very end of the tracks suspended in oblivion, was an actual cattle car which was used to transport Jews to their doom.
Almost nothing I could think of, could have better defined the condition of the Jewish people.
This left me quite depressed. However; on my way out, I passed by one of the main entrances which had a dedication written over the doorway stating NEVER AGAIN. And under that pledge stood several dozen 18 year old boys and girls in uniform carrying their M16’s and Oozies. Suddenly, I felt as if NEVER AGAIN really meant something. I didn’t know whether to smile or cry.
Tommy brought me back to the Hotel where I collapsed on the bed. I turned on the television to see and hear what was happening in the world, and surfed the channels, only to discover that virtually every channel was broadcast in English with Hebrew subtitles. I found CNN World, which is different from the CNN we’re used to, and watched and heard one of the most biased anti-Israel news reports ever.
After being aggravated long enough by CNN World, and then by BBC Europe, followed by Sky News, a CNN wannabe, I left the room and walked over to Ben Yehuda to see the street-life at night. And while I dined on one of the best stir-fries in the entire world, Ben Yehuda, Jerusalem’s most happening street and tourist magnet, was like a ghost town.
This is part two of a multi part series on my trip to Israel. To read whatever else I have written about this trip, please refer to the editorial archives section found in the menu on the left hand side of the page.