The Herodian, hideaway of the King of Israel

There used to be a joke in Israel. It worked in English and Hebrew, so here it goes.

A tourist goes to visit Israel. He is astounded at what a beautiful country it is. He’s awed by the crops in the field, the amazing range of topography from mountains to deserts, from to to ocean. Haifa sits on the ledge overlooking the Mediterranean and little Safed (Svat) is a gem atop a mountain overlooking the sea of Galilee. He decides his future is there and he gets his family on board and they all move to a Merkaz Klita (Welcoming Dwelling) where they will first settle for free while everyone learns Hebrew and figures out what work they would like to do. But nothing goes the way it’s supposed to. The family is completely bogged down in bureaucracy. The kids learn Hebrew quickly, but mom and dad? By the time they’ve been there a year they have a couple of hundred simple words and an accent that makes Israeli’s cover their ears. Their skills don’t seem to fit in and their poor language skills make even an interview feel like climbing a mountain. Although they arrived with quite a lot of money, a year later, they are nearly broke, still don’t have a home of their own or something they could call a profession. The kids are happy, but the parents are sometimes too depressed to get out of bed in the morning.

“What happened?” says the man who first came there. “It was perfect. Beautiful. Everyone was happy. It was just like a tourist guide, full of fascinating archaeology, golden fields, exciting technology, hope, joy … with a future.”

“Aha,” said the Israeli to whom he was talking. “That was because you were here on a tourist visa.”

This particular bit of humor works for any place on Earth — or for that matter, Heaven and Hell. It’s an all-purpose joke. You just don’t “get” a country when you go there on vacation. I know a lot of people who moved to places they fell in love with as tourists, only to discover that the day-to-day lives of those who lived there was something too different for them, at least permanently. Nonetheless, I maintain that everyone should spend at least a year living in another country and not next door. It’s the only way you learn that how we do things here isn’t the only way they can or should be done. When you live abroad, there are no foreigners because you are one.

I had a dream about Israel last night. I often dream about Israel, and frequently, I dream in Hebrew. This is particularly interesting because apparently somewhere in my brain, I know a lot more Hebrew than I ever managed to to speak while I lived there. Owen spoke like he was born there within six month, but I spoke with such an awful American accent, often substituted words that sounded similar to the correct ones — which was hysterically funny to Israelis who are not, overall, big on politeness. They laughed until they cried. Each burst of laughter made me less willing to try to learn the language properly.

Mount Gilboa where the wild irises bloom

Nonetheless, I stay just under nine years and loved the country. I didn’t love the politics. I’m not sure anyone loves their country’s politics, but Israel and the Middle East are particularly incomprehensible. There is truth on every side, lies on every side, and a bizarre mixture of both on every side. It is not only possible to believe two completely opposing beliefs simultaneously, it’s almost a requirement. For example you can believe it is absolutely imperative that Israel have borders that can be protected against invasion because we have seen what happens when we don’t, but also believe that the Palestinians are getting a raw deal. Both things are true and both issues need to be somehow reconciled. If it were up to me, I would try to convince everyone involved on both sides to declare the past done. It’s too complicated to work out the differences. Start from today. Make something work now because the past is gone and living there is not doing anyone any good at all.

Wild poppies in the Galilee

In my dream, a friend (who I didn’t recognize and still don’t) was singing an Israeli folk song. She asked me if I knew the song. I said I didn’t. She asked me a lot of questions about the country and places I had visited. Eventually, I woke up talking to her explaining I had moved there and never been a tourist. I never did touristy things unless I had guests from the States. I loved having guests because it was the only time I had to do the tourist stuff.

Otherwise? I worked. I raised a family, or tried. I had a terrible marriage which was a “bounce back” from a recent divorce (always a very bad idea — overseas or not). I didn’t understand anything and he wasn’t much of a help. I worked long hours and commuted … something few Israelis did at that point though I understand these days, Israelis do commute between cities. It’s a very small country, after all. Today’s Israel is very different. Owen commented the other day that he had overheard some Israelis talking and could barely understand them. The language — especial the idioms — have changed enormously during the past 30 year. He was embarrassed that he understood so little.

The western Wall and the Dome of the Rock

But the thing is, I was involved almost from the first couple of weeks in work, relationships, and working at being a part of a society about which I understood only pieces. I never gave myself a chance to learn the language which remained a huge barrier for me. I was tied down to very young children and their care while they didn’t even understand my language nor I theirs.

Moving to a country is not at all the same as vacationing there. Maybe retiring might be similar. I wouldn’t know. I never had any significant time off while I lived in Israel. I was always working. Like many people who move to a new country, most of my friends were immigrants too. From England, Australia, South Africa, France, the Philippines, and of course, the U.S. In the years I lived in Jerusalem, almost all of them went back to where they came from.

They got tired of battling bureaucracy, dealing with terrorists and impending war, as well as Israel’s weird brand of socialism crossed with capitalism. With salaries too low to live on and what was then the most insane inflation you can imagine.Calculating various currencies and overdrafts while tryin to figure out what you were really earning. Mostly, I came to realize that Israel was not solving its problems. With each passing year, the idealists got older and the younger ones were a wholly different culture than the ones in my age group or older. The new crowd were born there. As far as they were concerned, the lay of the land was the way it had been since before they were born and they weren’t giving up anything to anybody. Much like this country. Is the U.S. giving back our Native Americans their land? Or even giving Black people a couple of acres and the equivalent of a mule? Of course not. After a certain point in time. the land belongs to whoever has possessed it, regardless of what happened before. I did not think there would ever be peace in my lifetime or maybe ever.

My home in Baka, Jerusalem

Yet I loved it. I love the Old City. I love walking the wall of the old Jerusalem. You could still do that back then. You could still go and dig around in archaeological areas and “find stuff.” You could walk through a corner in Jerusalem where David fought Goliath. Climb a mountain where an Israeli king made a last stand. See where the Romans broke through the walls into the city. Look at the reservoirs built by Herod the Great (his greatness is in considerable dispute, by the way). You could climb the Mount of Temptations, follow the Via Dolorosa and have Arab coffee along the way at the Misery of the Cross Coffee House and Souvenir Shop while shopping for sandals. You could fall in love with the open air spice shops and vacation along the Sea of Galilee. Drive to the top of the Banias and visit Eden where Adam and Eve had that especially delicious apple.

Old city wall in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee

With all of that, it was never a vacation for me. It was beautiful, haunting, and rich with thousands of years of history … but in the end, it wasn’t “home.” Because when I thought of home, I knew I wasn’t there.

Maybe had I made a more sane marriage, learned the language, and felt the country was moving in a better direction, it could have been home, but I made too many bad choices too fast. I learned too little and most of that, too late. Ex-patriotism doesn’t work for everyone … at least not when it’s very far away, across an ocean in a culture that bears little resemblance to your own.

Categories: Anecdote, Archeology, Israel, Jerusalem, Life, Vacation

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16 replies

  1. Living in a country other than one’s own does have its frustrations. I spent 2 years and 3 months in Slovakia in service to The Peace Corps, 3 months learning the language and customs and 2 years working as an English teacher at the Economics University outside the capital of Bratislava and right near the Danube. The first 3 months I lived with two Slovak ladies in their apartment while I attended the Peace Corps school, and the rest of the time in a dorm room at the University. The language was difficult for me. Fortunately, I taught in English so that was no problem. I really enjoyed my time there and did get to travel around and into the Czech Republic, Austria, and Hungary.The ladies I lived with for those 3 months spoke no English, so I had to speak Slovak to them for all my time there. They became good friends,and I still am in contact with one of them. Slovakia has some beautiful countryside and the Tatry Mountains are gorgeous. The people were a little leery of us because we were Americans and always the enemy for so many years while they were occupied by the Germans and then the Russians. My university students were eager to learn proper English because it meant they were eligible for jobs with American firms in Europe as jobs in Slovakia were scarce. All in all, it was a great experience.


    • I guess because the US is such a big country, an awful lot of people never leave it at unless it’s to Mexico or Canada — of they are in the military. We know people in this valley who have never been to visit Boston — and that’s just 75 miles away. A few haven’t even made it as far as Worcester, which at its best is a very “missable” city.

      Even with bad traffic, you’d think they’d at least be interested in seeing what Boston is like. One afternoon a few years ago, Garry and I took our granddaughter and her best friend into Boston for the day. They were terrified when a homeless man begged them for change. They had never met a street person. A lifetime in Uxbridge offered them no preparation for a city srteet, much less overseas.

      I’ve noticed that a lot of the people who blog have lived overseas and quite a few have made their homes on foreign soil. I find that comforting. They have memories of being strangers, of needing to make their way using a different language and how difficult that can be. Of trying to figure out how to find the dairy department or order a block of cheese in kilos rather than pounds … or for that matter, figuring out what the temperature means in Celsius.

      I think we would all have a better grip on what the world means if we spent at least a year learning how to live in another culture. I remember looking forward to “culture shock.” That was the point, after all. I wanted to be in a different world, enjoy a new perspective. I never knew how my son felt about it until relatively recently when we’ve had more time to talk, but it turns out, once he got past the first few weeks, he fell in love with it. He did things all sorts of things he never told me about … like going into the desert wearing boots to stomp on scorpions and digging near ruins to try and find little pieces of archaeological treasures. He didn’t tell me because he figured it would make me nervous (he was right).

      You don’t need to be rich to travel alone when you aren’t married. In fact, alone is the easiest way to travel. Nobody else’s schedule to meet or food preferences to deal with. It’s how you meet people, figure out how to deal with unique events. Someday, maybe we’ll encourage our kids to travel rather than living at home into adulthood.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I still remember a fish dinner we had in Tiberius. Peter had a convention in Jerusalem. (of course I went too)


    • Ah. You ate St Peter’s fish. I know that because it’s the ONLY fish in the Galilee. It’s pretty good fried, but awfully bony. Jerusalem, though, is full of mystery. When were you there? Was I there too?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a perfect description of that experience. HH and I had a (v.) vaguely similar experience with France. We knew the language, we had made many trips, friends, visits & excursions before and we LOVED the country, the people, history and everything. Then, we moved to just outside of Greater Paris but still in the boundaries of Ile de France – and everything changed. With all the problems we encountered, the attitude, the never ending to-and-fro’s of Admin…. we simply fell out of love and are now waiting to become a second time enamoured with that country. We’d love to visit our beloved places again, to feel the feelings again we once had – for the time being it’s not possible.


    • Sometimes, a vacation is the best you can do with a country. Israel really tried hard to welcome newcomers and if you were young enough — and free of a lot of encumbrances — it was easy and fun. In many way, Israel is made for children. A kid can travel the country and be safe wherever he goes. Arabs and Jews are both highly protective of children and left to their own devices, without a lot of governmental nonsense, are generous and usually friendly. It’s the politics that makes everyone crazy. That and the bureaucracy!

      I always wanted to visit France. Just never quite got around to it. But I spent a lot of time on the British Isles and that made up for a lot — and of course, 9 years in Israel. Garry has traveled more than I have, though he never stayed long anywhere. Still, at least he has seen other places, even if he was working at the time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I once was in Israel with a friend. We had to be off the beach of the Red Sea at 4pm and soldiers with guns on the back of open vehicles gave us a fright. We took bus tours to travel to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, through the desert and many places. We prayed at the Wailing Wall, ‘did’ the Via Dolorosa, visited the cradle of Christianity etc. It was a sobering, sometimes frightening and somewhat unreal trip. My friend and I are both Christians, albeit from different denominations, but we didn’t feel much of the ‘faith side’, it was very touristy and business-minded. But it was a unique experience.


        • When I first moved there, all the soldiers were startling, but after a while, it wasn’t because they were just doing their annual service. They were someone’s husband or brother or son. There was almost NO violent crime in Israel. No murders, armed assaults. That kind of crime was very rare and it certainly wasn’t a lack of weapons. Every man had access to weapons, but they didn’t USE them. They were military weapons and were only used as a necessity.

          All the Christian sites were run like businesses. And it was Christians who ran those businesses. But you know, tourist sites are just like that. When you lived there and knew your way around, you could see things and skip the tourist stuff. My son had a real passion for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and my favorite was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Owen gave little guided tours to tourists and I always took my guests to Bethlehem which was in many ways like it had always been.


  4. I love your posts about your time in Israel; the photos tug at my heart strings and I haven’t ever been there. And I agree – expatriotdom very rarely, if ever, works, though the process of understanding this opens one’s mind in very particular and important ways. There’s a danger too of never quite re-rooting in the home country despite returning to the apparently FAMILIAR. You ARE changed, and in ways that others who have never lived as exiles do not appreciate. The gains and the losses are somehow equally enriching; they add dimensions – eccentric or otherwise.


    • I remember finding many of my “old friends” in the U.S. seemed to feel insulted that I had changed. They wanted me to be just like I’d been when I left. Even if I hadn’t gone anywhere, you’d figure in the course of 9 years, I’d inevitably have changed. But friends make an investment in the “you” they know. They don’t want you to change and seem to resent the differences. Some of them actually seemed jealous that I’d made other friends who weren’t them. What did they think I was going to do?

      I always wanted to hear absolutely EVERYTHING wherever someone had been. How people lived. What their houses looked like. What they wore. What they ate and can you cook something? I wanted to know how they felt about the differences. I’m so curious about the world. I often wish I’d married much later and left myself more time to roam before marriage.

      I’m equally puzzled by Americans who travel to foreign places and then complain they can’t get a decent hamburger. If you want to live on burgers, why are you bothering to travel? They don’t go to learn. They want to look at things, then go back to a hotel that’s as close to “home” as they can find.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Everything you say here, chimes with me too.


      • I think this was a problem that many British migrants to Australia had too. After WWII the Australian government was keen to boost the population and actively encouraged migrants, first from Britain and then all of Europe. Naturally life in Australia was described as all sun, sea and fun so I imagine that a lot of British people thought it would be permanent summer holidays. They didn’t expect flies, spiders and snakes or that their new homes in the suburbs would lack the services they were used to at home or that travel distances would be so great. Of course they also missed their families. Some, especially kids, embraced it but a lot of families went back. Once they got there quite a few found that they didn’t fit in at home any more either and ended up coming back for a second try. We emigrated at the tail end of this period and I recall the adults reading newspaper stories about families who had done this three or even four times.


        • We had a lot of reruns in Israel, people who’d come, gone back, returned … and they never really found “home.” I think if I’d made better personal decisions I might have stayed longer, but I think eventually i’d have gone home. Almost everyone did, even those who’d been there for almost their entire lives. At some point, they needed to go home.

          I thought that missing America would diminish over the years, but it actually got worse. Because friends got married, had babies, got divorced, moved … and I’d never seen the kids or even had a real conversation with them.

          I got lucky coming back because I didn’t stay in New York. 9 months after I got back, I found a job in Boston and moved here and with Garry, built a new life. I had a terrible time — emotionally — in Israel, but I never regretted it. I really did love the country and many things about it. I still miss it, especially in my dreams, but I don’t miss the Israel of 2020. I miss the Israel of the 1980s. You can’t go back to that because it’s gone.

          That’s the thing about moving on. Like it or not, we change and so does everyone else. The world doesn’t wait for you to come home.

          Liked by 1 person

          • That’s very true. When I think of places I loved I think of them as they were and I know they will be different now. Makes me feel better about knowing I’ll probably never see them again.


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