The Holy Land beckons with its convergence of religions – Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Baha’ism – and the power of its past resonates wherever you step foot. Lyle Michael counts his blessings to walk down the cobbled paths of Jerusalem, to experience the calm of Tiberias, and to imbibe the pulse of the vibrant Tel Aviv and soothing Jaffa

Shalom Shabbat is how we were welcomed to Jerusalem, a Hebrew greeting signifying completeness, and shalom meaning peace. On the days of the Jewish Sabbath, Friday and Saturday, you experience a quieter side of Jerusalem, the first city on our Israel sojourn. Yet it’s a sense of communal living that follows you around, whether you walk the streets of the Old City, through the Jewish or the Arab Quarters, the Armenian or the Christian ones. Whether you visit the Room of the Last Supper or genuflect at the Tomb of Jesus, witness an Armenian procession or rough it out at a traditional Arabic joint dishing out the best hummus there is in Jerusalem, there is an air of peace that permeates, though one is conscious of Israel as a nation ravaged by war and strife for 300 years till date. But as it was rightly pointed out to us first-time tourists, ‘you have to be in Israel to know what we are all about, much more than a nation on the news, more than a divided land’. And it remains an experience to treasure, to keep close at heart, to share with you.

A Culinary Exchange
Food is truly a universal language and this is primarily the reason for our Israel sojourn where India was served to Israel on a traditional platter and culinary education thus enhanced. Organised by the Israel Ministry of Tourism, a visit to the culinary schools in parts of Israel – one such being the Rimonim Culinary College in Tiberias – demonstrated the semblances and the distinctions between Israeli and Indian cuisines and cooking techniques. Ethnic Food comes to Israel gave our Indian chefs from Taj Sats such as Chef Pankaj Jha the opportunity to present and teach the students at different levels dishes such as pao bhaji, Murgh Kheema Masala, Patra ni Machchi, Chicken Tikka, Anda Takatak, Parsi Ravo and Seb Halwa to name a few. And it was a hit with demands for a dash more spice and sugar respectively! But more importantly, it teaches a culinary enthusiast that religious laws do govern food all over the world. Take for instance, the cleansing of all equipment used at culinary schools in Israel into the sacred seas, first and foremost!

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With regards to Judaism, the Kashrut is the set of religious dietary dos and don’ts mainly for philosophical, practical and hygienic purposes, mostly derived from the Torah’s book of Deuternomy and Leviticus. Some theologians have said that the laws of Kashrut or kosher foods are symbolic in character: kosher animals represent virtues, while non-kosher animals represent vices. Several Jews who do not follow these laws have termed them as primitive and taxing in today’s age of food preparation, though some are in favour of the health benefits of the same.

There is a web of rules and regulations under Kashrut of which a basic understanding may go as follows:
The meat of certain animals such as pigs, hares and camels may not be eaten at all. This includes the milk, organs and eggs and of the forbidden animals.
Of the animals that may be eaten, the birds and mammals must be killed in accordance with Jewish law which clearly states that all blood must be drained or cooked out of it before it is eaten, as ‘the life of the animal is contained in the blood’.
The flesh of birds and mammals cannot be eaten with dairy. No milk and meat as the Torah lays down that ‘the life of a kid cannot be seethed in its mother’s milk’. Fish, eggs, vegetables, grains and fruits can be eaten with either meat or dairy. According to some orthodox Jews, fish may not be eaten with meat.
Certain parts of permitted animals may not be eaten such as the sciatic nerve and its adjoining blood vessels plus a certain kind of fat around the liver.
With regards to wine and other grape products, if it is made by non-Jews, it may not be eaten.  This stems from the Jewish laws that define idolatry practices and products used for them.
Dairy products such as cheese are most complicated due to the rennet used in its production. The fear arises that the rennet may be used from a non-kosher animal and hence cheese produced without rabbinical supervision is not kosher cheese.
Utensils that have come into contact with meat may not be used with dairy, and vice versa. And those with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food. This applies if the contact occurred while the food was hot. Equipment and ingredients, hence, have to be thoroughly checked and certified as kosher before they can be applied in the kitchens.

While in Tiberias…
You make your own journey when you explore the unexplored. Israel is multi-faceted and has a lot to offer such as Tiberias – north of Tel Aviv on the west coast of the Sea of Galilee – a serene, vacation city that could well fit the ‘unexplored’ bill. Located on the shores of Lake Kineret, Tiberias is Israel’s lowest city at 200 metres BSL, named after the Roman emperor Tiberius and steeped in rich history. Housing the Church of St. Peter, hidden down an alley from the lakeside promenade; the Mount of Beatitudes – where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount and named his 12 apostles – as well as the tombs of several Jewish sages, Tiberias has lots more to offer the history and religious buff. As for the culinary one, it’s the fresh fish that tops the list. The tilapia and the salmon served up grilled with the most tempting sweet potato and mushrooms is a treat we indulge in at Deck’s – our seafront restaurant while the extravagant Arab-owned Magdalena (in the ancient city of Magdala) presented us with refined Mediterranean and Lebanese fare in the Baladi Eggplant, the best entrecôte steak with asparagus and mashed potato, along with fresh, wholesome salads topped with Feta, Chevre and olives; Fisherman’s Dish of roasted tilapia filled with Basmati rice in fish stock, fresh bread with red lentil mash; a slice of basbusa (semolina cake); knafeh (scrumptious cheese and phyllo pastry); a sweet adaptation of the savoury Turkish borek known in Israel as the popular bourekas. And to end, it’s customarily Arabic coffee.

Jerusalem
If Tiberias is calming, Jerusalem is overwhelming. Looking out from Haas Promenade over the vast expanse that takes you from Mt. Zion on your left to glorified Dome of the Rock – the Black Dome of the Al Aqsa Mosque in close proximity – to Mt. of Olives on the right – where Jesus is believed to have ascended into heaven – you are transported to more than 3000 years BCE.

Jerusalem is vital to the Jewish people because it is Ir Ha-Kodesh (the Holy City), where the City of David stands on Zion, the site of his son Solomon’s Temple, and as the eternal capital of Israel. The high ridge along which the promenade runs lies to the south of the city where, in the Bible, it relates how Abraham commands his people to stay there while he and his son Isaac were to proceed to Mt. Moriah for the ‘sacrifice’ – Temple Mount as it is famously known. When King David emerged the founder of the joint land of Jerusalem and Judah around 1000 BCE, he renamed his city Jerusalem, meaning City of Peace, and chose Mt. Moriah as the site of his future temple. A visit to the Jewish Quarter is hardly complete without the Western Wall, that space of legend where you may have once been told to make a wish on a piece of paper and place it in a crevice amongst the millions that have been placed by visitors since centuries. So we paid heed and left our prayer to the Gods to pick from the wall, Al Buraq (the Wailing Wall), the square of Jewish obeisance, open to one and all. With the Golden Dome as its background, you learn of this heavily guarded wall being a small part of the structure that was the second temple of the Jews, later the Noble Sanctuary of the Muslims. A convergence of faith!

Jerusalem is sacred to the Christians where Jesus impressed the priests at the Jewish Temple, where he spent the last days of his ministry, and where the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection took place. The conversion to Christianity of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine (306-337 CE) and the pilgrimage of his mother, Empress Helena, to Jerusalem in 326 CE made possible the building of many Christian shrines in the city. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is venerated as Calvary (Golgotha- the Place of the Skull) and marks the site of the Resurrection that soon became the supremely sacred place in all of Christendom, teeming with tourists from over the globe. You walk in Jesus’ path when you tread the long Via Dolorosa through the last four Stations of the Cross, Jesus’ Passion leading to the Crucifixion. You walk for 1.5 kms and relive the sorrow to as much an extent as possible and leave the Old City with heaviness and hope, and a fascinating nugget that the name ‘Jerusalem’ features a total of 676 times in the Bible yet in the Quran, not even once!

Yet Jerusalem, we know, is important to the Muslims where Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. After the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem is the third most sacred place of Islam. The 17th sura in the Koran contains a passage that depicts Muhammad’s Mystic Night Journey on his winged horse El Burak (according to Islamic Hadith tradition) from Jerusalem, where he ascended through the seven heavens, after receiving the Koran, into the presence of Allah, and was flown back to Mecca by the archangel Gabriel. Now Islam in Jerusalem dates back to 638 BCE, following a brief period of Persian rule, when the Muslim Caliph Umar captured Jerusalem in six years after the death of Muhammad. Soon after his occupation of the city, Umar cleansed the Temple Mount, built a small mosque and dedicated the site to Muslim worship. The most imposing structure the Muslims found in Jerusalem was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Nearby, the Arab conquerors undertook the building of a more spectacular edifice, the golden Dome of the Rock, not only to proclaim the supremacy of Islam, but also to ensure that Christianity would not tempt the new followers of Islam. The site chosen was the very same rock where previously had stood the two temples of the Jews, by David and Solomon.

Now when you travel, you let the place take over, the people, the culture and poignantly the food. When in Israel, you could say you travelled well if you bit into freshly baked challah – Jewish Sabbath bread – or some Israeli bagel bread with a sprinkle of za’atar. Or, if you have indulged in a good meal of hummus, pita and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. Abu Shukri in the Muslim Quarter is definitive enough, you pay about $10 for fresh pita, a variety of four hummus – whole chickpea, with tahini (masabacha), with fava beans (foule) and with brinjal – unsweetened pomegranate juice, moist Arabic cake called mammoul and coffee that tells you this is how the Israelis do it, leaving the ground beans as silt at the bottom of your cup, and a taste that you want to savour for long. While on the subject of the best hummus in Israel, note down another, by the name of Abu Hasan in Tel Aviv-Yafo where you would not mind standing through your meal as do the many that flock to this haunt. Jerusalem has more to offer a gourmand, from a rustic Mediterranean meal at Naurah in the town of Abu Gosh to a fine dine set-up at the Slow-Food Eucalyptus in the quaint Artists Quarter.

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Stuffed figs in wine leaves at Eucalyptus

All in all, it’s a veritable feast when you dine in Jerusalem with juicy beef meat dripping off the skewers, lamb chops, hummus, falafel, tabouleh, fatoush, tahini, babaganoush, labneh, pickled vegetables, dolma (stuffed wine leaves), mince-stuffed figs, maklubah – a chicken and rice preparation that calls for applause at its ‘unveiling’, St. Peter’s fish – tilapia – with carrot cream, roasted cherry tomatoes and grilled fennel… all with a fine bottle of Teperberg Vision 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon – from the 1870-established winery near kibbutz Tzora in the Judean hills. The sweet tooth was treated to baklava, not your sweetened version back home, along with kanafeh – a Levantine goat milk cheese-laden pastry with honey and chopped nuts, and there’s mahalabia, too, the custard-like delight of sheep’s milk with almond slivers and cherry sauce.

Tel Aviv-Yafo
Leaving the tastes of Jerusalem – in both the figurative and literal sense – in search of more, our Israel excursion takes us to Jaffa and Tel Aviv, northwest of Jerusalem; the former the old port city of Biblical significance – where Jonah set sail into the Mediterranean Sea before being swallowed by a whale – and the latter the region built off Jaffa, on the Mediterranean coast. Tel Aviv-Yafo is what the two regions go by, Yafo, Hebrew for Jaffa, believed to have emerged from Noah’s son Japhet’s founding of the port city. But that remains a belief as does the claim that the name emerged from the word yafah or beautiful. And then you have Tel Aviv (TLV), the bold one; the ‘white city’, ‘the one that never sleeps’, ‘the bubble’, Israel’s cultural and financial centre home to several foreign embassies, and the second largest populous city in Israel after Jerusalem.

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Tel Aviv’s nightlife is like no other!

Jaffa
To walk off our healthy fill, it’s a tour of Jaffa that works – the land of yore that most the world over would equate with the juicy, almost seedless oranges; rightly so, yet a taste of the fruit remains an unquenched one, for it is not winter in Israel. Developed by Palestinian farmers in the mid-19th century, during the Ottoman rule and prior to the British rule (1917-48) the orange variety takes its name from the city of Jaffa where it was first produced for export; a symbol of production and Jewish-Arab cooperation then.

And then there’s Jaffa the region. Quaint verandahs that don the streets with bougainvillea drooping over the railing, wooden beams to support the ancient structures and the Sea of Galilee that flows alongside, lush landscapes dotted with date and olive trees and a glut of history that makes Jaffa worth every little bit. Visit the Franciscan-run St. Peter’s Monastery and you will learn of its fascinating tale dating back to the Ottoman period when the church built over a medieval citadel in 1654 to honour St. Peter was nearly destroyed twice in the late 18th century and consequently twice rebuilt. The current structure was built between 1888 and 1894 and last renovated in 1903. Which is what you see today; a calmly imposing structure – replete with a belfry – set against the backdrop of the Sea of Galilee, thus serving as a beacon to pilgrims that the Holy Land is near. Serenity is your companion through Jaffa as you look out over the contrast of old meets new; tradition meets modernity, and beauty a common facet.

Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv is ‘white’ for the designated UNESCO World Heritage Site (2003) comprises the largest concentration of Bauhaus buildings – white modernist architecture from the 1930s by German- Jewish architects who immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine after the rise of the Nazis – in central TLV. We would also like to have you believe ‘white’ is for the pristine beaches that you catch sight of when you enter TLV, where a bike ride is a must-do, a green culture that is so refreshing to witness and experience first-hand. TLV is ‘the one that never sleeps’ for its nightlife is intoxicating (no pun intended) albeit expensive. What one can opt for before hitting the town is to down a few arak shots at a Cofix near you – the brand new local coffee chain that took the takeaway scene by storm, where you pay 5 ILS (shekels) for anything you order, or less. That’s 1.28 USD. Bars where they make their own liquor, taking from ‘moonshine’ as you would recall, a term to describe the illicit liquor brewing, to underground nightclubs, music gigs, speakeasies, gay bars and more, TLV is where it’s at and where you should certainly be when in Israel. Lastly, it’s ‘the bubble’ for the city does not seem to be largely affected by the goings-on in the nation – though it is the place where you have the military command-and-control centre, responsible for the siege of Gaza – living in its own bubble.

As we traverse the streets of TLV, the aromas from the myriad of Mediterranean spices set our feet in the direction of the well-known Levinsky spice market. A quaint lane between Herzl and Ha’aliya streets, you have compact stores that go way back, largely run by immigrants from Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece and Iranian Jews from the Iranian revolution of 1979. Pick and choose from a variety of treats, spices inclusive of za’atar, sumac and what have you; nuts, dried fruits, barrels of olives and olive oils, dates and date honey, aromatic cardamom coffee powder, baklava, legumes, rice, cheeses and cured meats and halwa – healthier than its Indian counterpart, made of sesame with honey and can be flavoured as per one’s taste buds. Truly a taste you would not want to shake off, and bring back with you to relish. A colourful experience, Levinsky is not all you have when out on a market spree for a stone’s throw away is Carmel, where the shopper in you will need half a day at leisure for sure. Fish, sausages – yes, pork as well – cured meats, candy, vegetables, fruit, clothes, accessories, souvenirs, a whole range of halwa you could conjure up, slightly on the higher side, but worth every shekel… all under the same roof that is the long and stirring Carmel.

Dead Sea

There is mysticism abounding the next place of visit, two hours away by road from Tel Aviv, bordered by Jordan to the east and West Bank to the west. It is the lowest elevated point on the earth, 400 metres BSL, the drive to which takes us across the fabled lands of Jericho (3000 years old), Lydia, Samaria, Lazaria. The desert lands displaying the lives of the Bedouin tribes pan out and the Green Line runs along, demarcating the lines between Israel and its neighbouring countries of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. We are headed to the Sea of Death, where nothing survives, where illnesses get cured, where you float away your sorrows and give them all to the ocean. The Dead Sea is one for the bucket list with its curative properties hidden in the black mud and the sacred salt which make for the perfect souvenirs FYI; nothing like a warm salt cleanse (note: expect burning on cuts and wounds) to calm those nerves and a mud bath that can beat any anti-ageing agent in a matter of minutes. All you do when you enter the vast expanse of the Dead Sea is walk carefully till the water reaches your knees, turn backwards and start moving in further, then just immerse yourself and float away. Therapeutic and rejuvenating, ironically makes you feel alive! Though once you’re back on terra firma, you’re zapped and it’s wise to choose a time when the sun is not at its blazing best for your visit to the Dead Sea.

Serenity in the scorching heat

Israel takes us through its lands laying credence to the adage that ‘travel is the perfect tutor in life’. And we surrender to its antiquity, its lore, sights, sounds and the people, of which the youth are most intriguing – each having to compulsorily serve time in the army. Of course, we surrender to the flavours such as the taste of a warm rughelac – a chocolate cinnamon croissant – or that of a Dark Lager beer named Goldstar, a top-class wine from the Segal Winery and a mince-stuffed pita at the renowned The Brothers restaurant (Ha’achim) in Tel Aviv.

With the awareness of the volatile scenario in the Holy Land, we still could not help but say to Israel that she set our hearts racing and left us with a peaceful, easy feeling, not to mention the honour of being Goodwill Ambassadors to the country. A privilege, indeed.

This travel feature was published in the Oct-Dec 2015 issue of UpperCrust. Photographs courtesy Rithika Shetty and Jharana Seth.