Israel For the First Time: Reflections in the Holy Land

Part 1: Arrival, Tel Aviv sights and sounds

Walking along the cobble-stoned boulevards lined with noisy markets selling goods in all the colors of the rainbow, I turned around and looked all around me. Breathtaking, I thought whilst melting into the heavenly surroundings. I’m actually in Jerusalem. The legendary Jerusalem that all the roads supposedly lead to—as the fabled saying goes – and I can see that its true.

Damn, I have to head to the train station to return to Tel Aviv in ten minutes. My friend and I jostled for a few last-minute purchases in the market (presents for friends back home) and climbed upwards out of the market towards Jaffa Gate in the Old City. Memories of the past week flashed in my mind mixed with the possible hell of missing my train back to Tel Aviv. Where is an available taxi!! We practiced our zoom vision focus.

Just a week ago, I stood on the cramped roads of Hong Kong, taking care of last-minute details of my weeklong trip to Israel. Like Hong Kong, Israel’s summers are desperately hot. Unlike Hong Kong, Israel’s heat is accompanied with less humidity. That should be all right, I’d just pack lots of summer dresses and sunscreens. I headed towards Hong Kong’s Mong Kok neighborhood to stock up on necessary travel essentials.

My childhood friend is getting married in Jerusalem. It was a last-minute wedding planned in the Jewish heartland. I haven’t seen or spoken to her since our University days. How time flies and paths cross. We met in Houston, Texas, my hometown back in the day. Fast forward fifteen years, we are meeting again, this time in Israel. Never in my wildest imagination could I have foreseen this one.

I hurried home to secure all belongings in my suitcase. With my bags packed, I boarded a shuttle bus for the airport. It was my virgin flight on El Al Airlines – Israel’s national airlines. Security was what I expected, long, thorough, and detailed. I can’t complain; airline personnel are only doing their jobs.

Fast forward twelve hours, 4820 miles west, and five time zones backwards; I arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport. I’m used to flying in the other direction, east–east back to the United States to visit family and friends. I made my way past closed shops (it was a little past 23:00 when I landed) and to the immigration headache section. There were no Doctors in sight for about an hour. Finally, a breakthrough and I was approved to enter Israel.

First few days was spent in the city of Tel Aviv-Yafo–great city to explore on foot. It is a city of diverse contrasts from its pristine beaches to Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew), one of the oldest port cities in the Middle East. Its neighborhoods range from hippy to Bauhaus to modern cool. This diversity and contrast can be deceiving, as Tel Aviv still is able to retain its small city and local feel.

August is also one of the busiest months for Tel Aviv, tourist-wise. The hotel rates skyrocket like the city overheated by the unrelenting sun. The locals and many tourists take cover at the beaches of the city, which runs along Tel Aviv’s western border. You can find the many luxury and boutique hotels and follow them to the beaches. There is a street called Shlomo Lahat Promenade that you can walk on starting just a bit south of the Tel Aviv Port all the way down south to the Etsel Museum close to Jaffa. It is a leisurely walk that may take you anywhere from thirty to forty minutes depending on your speed. You can heat up pretty fast walking outside without shade so bring plenty of water or other liquids for replenishment.

I stayed with a lovely couple that I found through Airbnb in the Central District of Tel Aviv. They have two friendly Siberian cats with long coats. In their free time, the cats like to chase the pigeons that made its home somewhere on the rooftops. As a former cat owner, I befriended them pretty quickly. I had my own miniature fridge to use so I went around the neighborhood grocery stores and bought the basics like bottled water, yogurt, and fruit.

The beach was a fifteen-minute walk from their apartment. One day I decided to take a leisurely stroll and explore the beach. The street I walked on was full of cute little boutique clothing shops, cafes, and international restaurants. It could have very well come out of Western Europe somewhere. As I scaled closer and closer to the beach, a strip of blue horizontal sea came into view. The closer I got, the bigger the sea appeared until the beach flashed in front of me in a way that I just can’t miss. The crystal blueness of the water was nature at its most natural and finest state. So beautiful! I found a restaurant/bar on the beach, sat, and ordered a lunch. It was a wonderful way to enjoy the beach and people watch at the same time.

The Jewish weekend is Friday and Saturday. It is a fact that hit me straight on the noggin in Israel. I should have been aware of this fact prior to my trip that I somehow overlooked. Many public transportation and services close late Friday and Saturday. I had to plan around Saturday instead of Sunday, what I’m used to in Christian-based societies. A few months back in Hong Kong, I met Rabbi Gilad Kariv of Israel’s Movement for Progressive Judaism. I was able to get in contact with someone on his team who connected me to a local Tel Aviv Congregation Beit Daniel to attend a Shabbat Service. Services started at 18:00. I called for a taxi to the synagogue and arrived a few minutes past 18:00. The synagogue was modest in appearance front the outside and inside. It was located in a residential neighborhood bordered by a recreational park on one side. Hebrew radiated from the center as I grabbed a prayer-book and sat down. Sounds of screaming children cut through the Hebrew sermon, as a childcare center was located a little too close for comfort. The congregation looked very diverse, men and women of all ages and races sitting together in harmony. I enjoyed the services although could only understand a few choice Hebrew words and all of the spoken English.

That night, my hosts had a small potluck party. I joined them and brought some various pastries and cookies for the dessert selection. Three of their friends came over to the apartment with bread, salad, and meat dishes to share. The home-cooked food was amazing to see and to taste. I’ve always thought that Middle Eastern food was average. Traveling to the Middle East has since changed that opinion. The varieties of vegetables, fruits, hummus was to die for. The cheese selection is enormous, if only I could eat dairy! We had a good night and I was thankful to have been invited.

Next day, I continued to explore Tel Aviv’s fascinating neighborhoods. I walked through markets with very good prices on clothing. I walked through the white section of Tel Aviv otherwise known as Bauhaus. I walked through my new favorite neighborhood called Neve Tzedek. According to TelAvivGuide, Neve Tzedek was the first neighborhood built in the “new” city of Tel Aviv. Many art galleries, jewelers, crafts, healthy foods, and small shops can be found here. Streets are lined with lush plantation in bloom in purples, yellows, and reds. It almost has a Tuscany feel to it. I was immediately taken back to my trip to Italy a decade ago. As picturesque as it feels, it also doesn’t disappoint as it boasts many artists and yuppies that live in the area.

Next time: My journey to Haifa


  1. I too got caught by the Saturday sabbath when in Israel. I was there for work and had one weekend. I went to Jerusalem on Friday and planned to explore Tel Aviv on Saturday. One small problem, everything was closed. I even had trouble finding a place to eat. I should have taken my co workers advice and done a tour package to the dead sea. Live and learn, now I have a reason to go back 🙂

  2. Xiaoming, you’ve done a great job of taking us along with you on your first few days in Israel. I am really looking forward to the next installment. Keep it coming!

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