After spending only one day in Tel Aviv, I headed out for Jerusalem to meet up with an old friend, Ron, who I met during my travels in Kiev, Ukraine. Many of the travelers I meet along the way ask to reach out if I’m ever in their hometown, but rarely do our schedules align - as in the case of Stephan from Cologne, Germany. I'm always hopeful to cross paths again with the people I meet on the road, but I know it’s always a long shot. When Ron messaged me saying he had a few free days to visit Jerusalem, I scrapped my original plans for Tel Aviv and quickly departed Tel Aviv even though I’d just arrived into the city. Since Ron is originally from in Israel, I couldn’t pass up the chance to travel around with a local.
After years of traveling, Ron's perfected his strategy for visiting a city. Before we even stepped foot in Jerusalem, he found a hostel for the night, reserved tickets for multiple attractions, and even looked up several excellent restaurants that we needed to visit. Ron only had three days to visit Jerusalem and wanted to cover as much ground as possible so he was well prepared - which is more than I can say of my own life. I've become rather comfortable with my slow-paced travel lifestyle, but with Ron I was thrown back into the “normal” travel speed for vacationers. Day one began at 7:00 am with a trek across Tel Aviv to meet Ron at the central bus station for our trip to Jerusalem.
7:00 am wake up call is normal for most people, but not for this backpacker.
When we arrived in Jerusalem, we dropped our things off at the hostel, got some breakfast, and were off to the races starting with my all-time favorite thing to do in a new city - the free walking tours! The main guide organizing the groups wore a large advertisement attached to his backpack listing all of the cities where the free walking tours operated. As I studied the sign, I dawned on me the sheer breath of my travels; there were 17 different cities listed on the advertisement and I’ve visited every single one of them with one exception - Liverpool.
They had NYC listed as well, but I’m not counting it since it’s in the US.
Even then, I lived in NYC for almost three years!
Over the next few days Ron and I walked endlessly around Jerusalem visiting the old town, the Western Wall (and the underground tunnels), the Tower of David for an amazing audio visual show projected directly onto the castle, the Israel Museum where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed, and the Hurva Synagogue just to name a few. What I normally would spread out into four days, Ron and I completed in just two action-packed days!
Even with all of the attractions, the highlights of my trip through Jerusalem with Ron were the meals. Unlike me, who considers food merely as a basic requirement for sustenance, Ron planned his days around what meals he wanted to eat. Even better, since he is from the region, he has a wealth of information regarding food and a laundry list of dishes he was determined to try while in the city. All of his recommendations were checked, reviewed, and compared to make sure he knew what places were the best and exactly what dishes he wanted to try in each place.
The man takes his food seriously. He would even give my old roommate, Andrei, a run for his money.
Since we were in Israel, it should come as no surprise that there were numerous meals involving hummus. Much like Texas BBQ, the locals here pride themselves on their hummus recipes and revere the dish as almost a separate religion unto itself. Every family has their own special recipe complete with secret ingredients and traditions passed down from generation to generation. Ron and I made a hummus pit stop every afternoon to try small, hole-in-the-wall restaurants most people (including myself) would overlook. Ron knew exactly what to order and every single dish was incredible. When I lived back in the US, I was completely indifferent toward the bland, pasty dish of blended chickpeas. Though every vegetarian I knew lauded the dish as a wonder food, I could never understand why. Thanks to Ron, I now appreciate good hummus.
I ate more hummus in my one-month visit to Israel than the last 25 years of my life.
As Ron and I wandered through the old city, we stumbled upon a small shop called Jafar Sweets. Ron heard the restaurant was renowned as the best place to eat Kenafeh, a bright neon-orange goat cheese based dessert pastry soaked in sugary rosewater syrup. From the window outside we saw an enormous circular pan on the front counter from where the brightly colored dessert was portioned out. The pan was over four feet in diameter, but the man behind the counter was serving so many plates that within five minutes the entire tray was empty! If you ever find yourself in Jerusalem, don’t let the color of this dish scare you off; fresh from the oven this warm, sweet, savory, cheesy, and chewy dish is something that should not be missed!
Ron and I made two stops together and after we split ways I stopped in for a snack every time I passed by.
Closer to our hostel were two other foods Ron was excited for me to try. The first was a Jewish pastry called Rugelach. These small pastries measure no more than 2.5 inches in length and are best described as miniature croissants filled with chocolate. When eaten fresh out of the oven, these concentrated pockets of happiness can brighten even the worst of days; I could easily eat an entire tray of these things for dinner. Since the bakery was across the street from the hostel in the Mahane Yehuda Market, it was my first stop every morning even if I at breakfast at the hostel.
I'm thankful I left Jerusalem after just one week; otherwise, I easily could have doubled my weight within a month solely off of the Rugelach.
The last snack Ron wanted me to try was a traditional Jewish dish called Kugel from the extremely conservative Me'a She'arim neighborhood just north of my hostel. Kugel is a dish traditionally served during Shabbat that looks like a cross between a birthday cake and a casserole. While there are many variations, kugel usually consists of densely packed egg noodles, light seasoning, pepper, and caramelized sugar. It is a delicious and surprisingly hearty meal - just one slice split between two people is more than enough.
As great as the dish was, for me the neighborhood was just as entertaining. Me'a She'arim is full of Hasidic Jews decked out in their traditional black coats, pants, shoes, broad-brimmed hats, white shirts, and tzitzits dangling from their sides - Ron and I stood out like sore thumbs. Just to give you an idea of how conservative this neighborhood is, Ron pointed out a banner as we walked by hanging from one of the apartment balconies proclaiming the family inside did not “corrupt” their children with things like the internet or telephones!
And I thought Texas was conservative.
My favorite meal with Ron however was actually at a Liberian restaurant we went to on Christmas Eve called Hamotzi. As we sat down, Ron asked if I was opposed to eating anything; I chuckled and indicated that as long as it’s prepared well I’ll eat anything. Smiling, Ron turned to the waitress, chatted in Hebrew, and looked back at me to ask if I'd ever eaten brain before. Of all the lessons my parents taught me growing up, the one that stuck with me through the years was, “just take one bite.” The rule was originally intended to get me to eat my vegetables, but over the years I've adopted it as a fundamental tenant of my life, especially when it comes to food - I’ll try anything once.
Bring out the brain!
The waitress brought out a sampling and surprisingly delicious with a consistency of warm flan with a bit of a spongy chew to it. Aside from the initial Hannibal Lecter flashbacks, I wasn’t opposed to making it my meal, but in the end we passed in lieu of what Ron so eloquently described as “guts.” One dish was an assortment of various grilled animal parts on a bed of rice while the other was “guts” in sausage form. I cannot for the life of me remember what was in the sausage, but doubt it was worse than what you find in a standard-issue hot dog back in the US.
For a brief, fleeting moment I experienced the undeniably joyful feeling of being Anthony Bourdain. Like most people, I’ve watched countless episodes of Bourdain's No Reservations series where he meets up with a local friend in a foreign country and is introduced to new, amazing dishes that usually involve some rather exotic ingredients. For years I sat in my living room back in Texas hoping that one day I would have the opportunity to experience such a meal and finally after all this time here I am in Jerusalem meeting a local Israeli friend in a small restaurant away from the tourists sharing a wonderfully delicious and strange meal.
It was the best Christmas gift I could have received.
My first few days in Jerusalem were amazing and it was a refreshing change of pace to once again travel with a friend. I’m very much looking forward to my remaining days here in Jerusalem, especially now that I can slow things down since there’s no longer a time constraint. With Christmas just around the corner, I think the only logical thing is to take a quick trip out to Bethlehem. Who would have thought I’d have the chance to celebrate Christmas Day in Bethlehem? You can’t get any more Christmasy than that!
Long live the travel life!