By Alyssa Kapnik
Our third day began in Haifa, fresh on the bus at 8:30 in the morning. There’s a certain amount of adrenaline associated with our mornings – we’re not staying in most of these places for more than ten or twelve hours, so our suitcases are tightly packed (and growing tighter), and we leave our sunglasses and water bottles on the bus at night. We’re nomadic, and it almost feels like we’ll be this way forever.
Breakfasts are early in the morning, but they’re magnificent: cappuccinos, thick Israeli yogurt, nuts, melon slices and gourmet cheese with artisan breads. We’ve also come to expect all kinds of fish, which seems almost punishing so early in the morning, but as I graze the buffet tables, I make room for the older Jewish men behind me with plates filled with pickled herring and lox, and think, To each his own. We’re in Israel – anything goes. And then I shamelessly move on to the entire table covered with freshly baked croissants and sweet breads. Breakfast dessert seems almost compulsory by Day 3.
Thursday morning we’re on our way to our first kibbutz of the trip. Historically, kibbutzim are collective communities, traditionally based in agriculture. I’d never been to a kibbutz before, but always imagined an open field, tall grasses and children running without socks or shoes. I imagined the communist ideals to play out in some strikingly obvious and plainly visible way: the entire settlement playing some massive game of catch, where there are no teams, just camaraderie and engagement. Instead, the kibbutzim turn out to be large areas of land with buildings and homes. Same as any other community. Steve, our lovely tour guide, gives us the broad strokes: there are few kibbutzim nowadays that function under the communist structures they came to represent. They all started that way, sure, and their ideals formed a great deal of the Israeli identity. But many of the kibbutzim started businesses – toy and weapon factories, restaurants, beach resorts, artist studios and museums – and capitalism took hold. Arguably the most successful kibbutz in Israel received in a two billion dollar military contract with a foreign army, producing different forms of plastics. We passed the kibbutz on the road, and it looked absolutely bleak. The home of a great factory.
We drive to Kibbutz Cabri, home to a few different notable Israeli artists in the last seventy years, including Yehiel Shemi, a prolific abstract sculptor, and enter the Gottesman Etching Center for a quick and thorough lesson in printmaking. This is one of the few times on the trip where we’ve been given free reign over our materials. The instructions are quite open: draw, carve, paint, press. It’s immediately obvious just how difficult and apparently wild the medium is. Lines are not always clear: they bleed, blossom, spread. Circles are nearly impossible. We’re not in control. We do our best, giggling and deferring to each other for best practices and confirmation on the order of operations. But we take our charge seriously, too. Move the paint thusly, in all directions, but be careful not to go to the edges. Wipe thoroughly with the talisman, press harder now. We’re proud of ourselves for producing something, and it’s surprisingly gratifying to watch our works come out of the professional press.
We eat a sumptuous meal at a restaurant in the kibbutz: multiple courses, tapas and Carpaccio, soups and salads, and then climb back into the bus, ready to continue north.
The next stop is incredibly brief, a walk through the narrow, winding streets of Tzvat, a world-famous city known as the birthplace of Jewish mysticism, and home to a small artist colony, and we stop into David Friedman’s studio and shop for a succinct and thorough discussion on the content and background of his intricate, powerful, Kabbalah-infused works. We stay the night at the relaxing and beautiful Hotel Spa Mizpe Hayamim, which boasts organic gardens and olive branch massages, a full dinner spread and every kind of tea.
It’s late Friday morning, and the excitement of Shabbat is buzzing through the group. We know we’re on our way to Jerusalem, and that feels like a great milestone. But we’re pretty far up north, and the drive down through the Jordan Valley is a dry, dusty trip through the very hottest part of Israel. We drive for hours along the Jordanian border, watching a winding dirt road parallel us about 200 feet away, on the Israel side of a simple metal fence with barbed wire. Steve says he used to patrol these borders when he was a young soldier, and the job consisted largely of checking footprints on the dirt roads to make sure no one had illegally crossed into Israel.
We ask Steve multiple times to clarify for us. So that, right on the other side of this fence, is Jordan? The country? Those hills, those dusty, rocky fields, are Jordan? At one point we can almost see Syria, too, and we’re mystified. This part of the world feels incredibly foreign, even here, looking out into an expanse of Middle East. We touch our feet into the Sea of Galilee, eat falafel at a roadside shop, and watch Palestinian cars drive by with green license plates, and Israeli cars drive by with yellow license plates. We pass camels, Bedouin encampments, military checkpoints, and it’s still unreal that we’re actually here.
Museum of Art, Ein Harod is the last art stop on our road to Jerusalem, and I admit I was skeptical when we got off the bus. The museum is on another kibbutz, a white cement building with little architectural character on the outside. But inside was an entirely different story. Lofted ceilings, natural light, multiple displays laid out across multiple levels. One of the curators of the feminist art collection, Dvora Liss, led us through the exhibit, and with each explanation, she nearly ran herself out of breath. I found myself clutching my heart with each description. All of the artists in the show are observant Jewish women, and the works and installations speak to layers and depths of Judaism I didn’t think a Jewish museum could touch. Much of the works are about respectfully questioning, prodding and poking at different biblical strictures and guides. I wanted to wear the coat made of torn and resewn Ketubot for undissolved marriages. I wanted to live in the tunnel of small paper clay scrolls showing the balances and imbalances between Torah and Real Life. I wanted to watch on loop the film of an orthodox woman getting ready to dip into the Mikvah, the ritual Jewish bath, and then getting ready again for the world after she’d dipped.
We’re back on the long hot road to Jerusalem, and the bus quiets down for stretches at a time. We’re all a little tired, and anxious to arrive in the city before sunset, anxious to settle into our fourth hotel on our fourth night. This time we’ll be staying put for two nights straight. This time we’ll be having dinner with families and friends. Climbing slowly up a remarkably steep hill, we finally cross into Jerusalem. The low sun is already coloring the white limestone of the city a glowing, hazy yellow, and each time we go under a bridge or through a tunnel, we come out into another picturesque expanse of the ancient city.
It no longer feels so foreign to be in Israel. Somehow Jerusalem feels not only like a Middle Eastern city, not only like the home of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but also, in a sense, like home. I have this strange and almost indescribable sense of ownership over the city. Without totally understanding it, or having any way to defend it, I feel as though I somehow deserve to be here. A night with dear friends over Shabbat dinner confirms the feeling, and walking back to the hotel, across miles of conspicuously car-free streets, passing other Jews walking home from other friends’ Shabbat dinner tables, I feel totally relaxed and utterly invigorated. Tomorrow we’ll go back to seeing art, but for tonight, I am exhausted. Another day has come and gone, and our trip is nearly halfway done.