Visiting Tarnow, Zbilatowska Gora, and Krakow

Like the other days of the Heritage Seminars trip, the fourth day in Poland was jam-packed.

The first stop of the day was a small city called Tarnow. Before World War II, there were about 25,000 Jews living in Tarnow, and there had been a Jewish community there since the 1400s. During the war, many of the Jews were sent to Belzec (one of the death camps that was part of Operation Reinhard), assembled in the Rynek (town square) where they were tortured, humiliated, and killed, or brought to the nearby forest Zbilatowska Gora and shot into mass graves (very similar to Tikocyn). We visited the town’s Rynek which had, for centuries, served as a center for Jewish and Polish life but then became a gathering spot for killing:


One of the shops along the outside of the Rynek today is an Irish Pub…I guess there are some things you really can find everywhere!


One of the things that makes Tarnow historically significant is that it is from this city that the first prisoners to Auschwitz were sent. In the summer of 1940, 728 prisoners (mostly Polish political prisoners and some Jews) were sent from Tarnow to Auschwitz. This monument stands in Tarnow now as a commemoration to the event:


After seeing these sites as well as an old synagogue in Tarnow, the group headed to the nearby Zbilatowska Gora forest. At Zbilatowska Gora, there are several mass grave sites. The site is very unique for a few reasons. Firstly, there are mass graves for political prisoners and Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as Jews. The other unique feature – and something that makes it extremely disturbing – is that one of the mass graves is just children. In the forest, 800 children were separated from their parents and shot into a separate grave.


Seeing this grave and thinking about the 800 children within it was very difficult, and emotions of those on the trip were definitely running high. Before leaving the site, our group leader asked us to write a letter to our future children as a way to reflect on and process the experience. I wrote the following:

To my future children:
I pray that I can protect you. Not from every high and low, but from insecurity, hunger, and danger. I pray that you will know where you come from, and that you will both love and understand the responsibility and blessing that comes with being Jewish. I pray that you will feel how much I love you, and that I will show it everyday. I pray that my arms will be a comfort to you, and that there will be no force greater to prevent it from being so. 

After leaving Zbilatowska Gora, we had a bit of down time on the bus while we drove to Krakow. Krakow did not suffer nearly as much destruction as Warsaw during the war, so we were able to visit many sites and buildings that remain – at least to some degree – in their pre-war form. The first location we visited in Krakow was the Schindler factory:


Oskar Schindler was a German businessman and member of the Nazi party, but he used his factory to save the lives of about 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust. Today, he is recognized as a righteous gentile by Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum in Israel that has been the authority on determining and honoring the status of righteous gentiles – those who risked their own lives to saves Jews during the Holocaust). Schindler’s story was made famous through the 1993 Steven Spielberg film, Schindler’s List. The movie was a huge success, winning 7 academy awards, and increasing the general public’s knowledge about the Holocaust (plus, it is #8 on the American Film Institute’s list of the best American films of all time!). Spielberg was very intentional about the film, and as a result, the events it depicts are extremely historically accurate. Admirably, Spielberg used the films profits (which were quite substantial!) to found the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Center, an organization which has now filmed and archived the stories of many Holocaust survivors. If you have not seen this movie, WATCH IT NOW! Today, the factory has photos of the Jews that Schindler saved on the outside of the building:


After Schindler’s factory, our time in Krakow including visiting several synagogues and an old Jewish cemetery:

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Following a full day of touring around Krakow, the group had an extremely memorable evening where we heard the first person account of Ms. Paulina:


Ms. Paulina is a righteous gentile whose family assisted in the saving and hiding of several Jews during the Holocaust. Ms. Paulina was a child during these events, and her memories of that time in her life were very moving. Her family lived in a rural area outside of the city, and many Jews came to them during the war seeking food, shelter, and safety. For many of these Jews, Ms. Paulina’s family helped them get to a nearby farm where the Polish farmer had built a hiding area in a barn. This is a map of the hiding spot (17 Jews survived the war here):


In addition to helping Jews reach this hiding spot, Ms. Paulina’s family also had one Jewish girl live with them during the war, pretending she was a member of the family. Hearing Ms. Paulina’s story was a wonderful experience and a very necessary reminder that there did exist good people during the Holocaust (even though maybe not as many as we would like…).

Following the talk with Ms. Paulina, some of the group went to the historic Krakow city center. The city center is built around a rynek (town square) – which happens to be the largest square in Europe! Surrounding the square are several churches, the cloth hall (basically a huge and very ornate building that used to be a cloth market), and the former city council building.


And, of course, a Christmas tree. I almost forgot these exist living in Jerusalem…


Visiting the town square and walking through some of the nearby streets that were filled with shops, cafes, and souvenir stores, it really hit me what a different type of visit to Poland one could have. While I was spending my week in Poland visiting mass graves, death camps, and old synagogues, others could be visiting sites important to broader Polish government, culture, and art. Bottom line: there are two ways to view the rynek. Popping into one of the souvenir shops, I saw several mugs and keychains that read, “I love Poland.” To even consider buying something with that phrase on it would be laughable after the type of trip I did, but it highlighted the disconnect between two versions of one’s historical perspective of Poland and the way that informs modern-day visits.

It’s also worth noting that Poland has definitely recognized and embraced the tourism that comes as a result of Poland’s role in the Holocaust. For example, this hotel we stayed at is Rzesow had chairs with Israeli flags on them in the lobby:


Different people on my trip had different reactions to the tourist industry that is built around (and benefits from) the destruction of Polish Jewry. Although I definitely feel some sense of indignation at the tragedy/unfairness of it all (Polish Jews were literally robbed of their houses, money, and all their belongings and now, years later, their deaths are still generating profits that they will never see), but I also left Poland feeling that the experience of seeing these sites and visiting these death camps should be – more or less – essentially required living. The result of standing witness to these places had an immense impact on my sense of gratitude, appreciation, understanding of the Holocaust as more than a statistic, connection to Israel, and overall desire to re-commit myself to the preeminent value of human dignity – and I imagine it would have a similar effect on others. But…more on that later in my final post about Poland where I’ll write about my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Other Poland posts:

Tikocyn and Lupachowa Forest
Lublin and Majdanek

Visiting Lublin and Majdanek

My Heritage Seminars group woke up in Lublin after our second night in Poland. We spent the first part of the morning exploring some of Lublin’s sites. First, we went to the Old Jewish Cemetery of Lublin:

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The cemetery was situated just off some roads and residential areas, so it made for an odd juxtaposition to be in the very old (and mostly destroyed) cemetery but also to be able to look out and see normal life so nearby. Something that was emphasized repeatedly on the trip was how the Nazi’s war against the Jews was much more than a physical war – it was also a mental and emotional war. One of the most striking examples of this was that when Jewish cemeteries were destroyed during the war, the tombstones were often taken and then used to pave the roads in the concentration camps where Jews were kept prisoner. Using Jewish gravestones to pave roads was intended to feel belittling and dehumanizing.

Which brings me to…Majdanek.

Majdanek was the first concentration camp to become a museum and commemoration site – established as such in 1944. One of the unusual things about Majdanek (and perhaps coincidentally the reason for its speedy commemoration) is that it had a high percentage of Polish political prisoners who labored there. The camp first started operating in late 1941, and it was originally opened to be a labor camp for Soviet Prisoners of War. This purpose evolved to include many Polish political prisoners and also Jews. One of the unique features about Majdanek is that – unlike many other camps – it is not in an isolated area. In fact, it is within the boundaries of Lublin. Today, it is right next to some busy roads and residential areas. It was crazy to imagine the people living there giving directions to their house, “okay, so you drive straight past Majdanek and then turn left…”

The camp today includes a combination of commemorative art, restored barracks and other buildings, and a museum. At the entrance to the camp is this distinctive piece of commemorative art – to approach the sculpture one must go down into a narrow arrow with jagged stones coming in from all sides.:


Approaching it really gives the impression of walking towards an ever-increasing peril with no escape – the artist did a good job relaying the message! Looking out at the fields of Majdanek, I was immediately struck by how vast the camp was. Compared to the relatively small area of Treblinka, it was abundantly clear that a camp needed to be much larger if people were there to work rather than only to die.

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We entered the camp through the same gate at which men and women were separated after arriving to the camp, and we passed several guard towers along the way:

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After being separated along gender lines, people who arrived to the camp experienced the infamous sorting process of who was fit enough to work and who would be killed immediately. Both groups made their way through this building:


Those who were selected to live were stripped of their clothes, belongings, hair, and sent to this room where actual water came down from the shower heads on the ceiling. The water was often freezing cold and then boiling hot:

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The clothes of all the prisoners were disinfected in another room in the same building. The disinfectant used for the clothing was Zyklon B, the same chemical that would later be used in the gas chambers to kill people. The pictures below show empty Zyklon B containers as well as stains on the walls of the rooms where the chemical was used:

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Those who were not sent to the real showers, were sent to the ‘showers’ – the gas chambers were referred to by this code name so as to decrease the likelihood of revolt. Those who were to be gassed were crowded into a small room:


An SS guard would stand outside in a small adjoining room and dispense poisonous gas through metal pipes into the room. The SS officer would also watch the death of those in the room through a small grated window:


Most of the people who died in the gas chambers were women, children, and the elderly, although men who were too sick or emaciated to work were also killed in this way.

After leaving the bath and gas house, we walked about 30 minutes towards the other end of the camp, stopping to take a glimpse into one of the barracks:

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At the far end of the camp was another piece of artistic memorialization.The writing on the outside of the dome reads, “let our fate be a warning to you.”


Inside the dome, are the ashes of prisoners cremated at the camp, collected when the camp was liberated in 1944.


This was one of the two most disturbing sights for me during the entire trip (the other being a seemingly endless mound of hair at Auschwitz). I don’t know what I was expecting when I approached this mausoleum, but when I looked in and saw the above pile of ash, it was too much for me and I walked away immediately.

The crematorium, where these ashes were produced, is right next to the mausoleum:


And, as a final reminder of destruction, there are also mass burial pits at this end of the camp next to the crematorium and mausoleum. These pits hold the bodies of Jews killed during Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival), a ‘cleaning up’ operation in which about 42,000 Jews were killed in two days in November 1942. This was an attempt to wipe out those Jews who had not been killed by the three Reinhard camps.


While this was another heavy day, I also experienced a lot of feelings of gratitude and appreciation. The silver lining, for me, of this type of trip is feeling an immense desire to treasure the good things in my life, the people I love, and the good fortune of my own relative safety in the world. Seeing sites like those described above makes it difficult to complain about little things or to not feel amazed at the good fortune and blessing of my own life.

Other Poland posts:

Tikocyn and Lupachowa Forest

Visiting Tikocyn and Lupachowa Forest

After the first day of activities in Poland, my group stayed the night at a hotel in Warsaw. The next morning, we were up bright and early to drive to a small town called Tikocyn.

Tikocyn was a small, predominantly Jewish village in Poland prior to the war – the total population was 3,000 and 2,000 of them were Jews. Visiting the town today felt like a big change from the bustling Warsaw:

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The first stop in Tikocyn was the old synagogue.


Since all of the town’s Jews were killed and the synagogue receives no current use, it has been restored to reflect its original decor and is open to tourists. The bima (elevated area of a synagogue where the Torah is read) was in a baroque style, and the prayers written on the walls around the synagogue were very beautiful:

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After the synagogue, the group walked over the Rynek (name for the town square commonly found in Polish towns). In 1941, all of Tikocyn’s Jews were called to the Rynek:


Women and children were loaded onto carts and driven to Lupachowa Forest, and the men were marched to the same location. My group followed their route by bus and entered the forest on foot:


What was waiting for Tikocyn’s Jews in the forest were mass graves that had been dug by Polish workers in the prior weeks. All of the Jews were killed in mass shootings by the Nazis, and the mass graves were covered again by Polish workers. It took two days to kill the entire Tikocyn Jewish population because about 400 people hid on the first day. The Nazis returned to the town to hunt out those in hiding and returned with them to the forest the following day. As we approached the clearing where the mass graves are marked today, I began to see the familiar flicker of the Israeli flag:

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At first I felt surprised to see the Israeli flags there. Throughout the trip, however, I began to see more and more how Israel has become representative of a redemption (of sorts) for those killed and also a symbol of hope to those who are trying to understand and confront the Holocaust.

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Walking out of the forest was truly an eerie feeling – as I approached the sunlight of the road outside the forest, it was impossible not to think about the fact that so many others were never able to leave.

After Lupachowa Forest, the final stop of Day 2 was Treblinka.


We arrived to Treblinka as the sun was setting, so the light wasn’t good enough for many pictures. Some basic information though…Treblinka was one of 3 death camps (along with Sobibor and Belzec) associated with Operation Reinhard. Operation Reinhard was the name given to the Nazi operation of efficient mass murder with the purpose of total extermination. The Nazis search for a ‘solution to the Jewish problem’ was an evolving process throughout the war, and the final solution of complete extermination is not generally thought of to be the plan right from the beginning.

In 1942, the decision for complete extermination had been made, and Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec were opened as a strategic part of Operation Reinhard. Unlike other concentration and slave labor camps in Poland and Germany, these camps were designed for the singular purpose of killing essentially everyone who went there. Trains of Jews arrived to camp and were immediately robbed of their possessions and killed in the gas chambers. On Treblinka’s most ‘efficient’ day of operation, 17,000 people were killed.

With the perspective of history, the finalization of Operation Reinhard and the building of these three camps was a major turning point in the fate of Polish Jews. At the beginning of 1942, 80% of Polish Jewry was still alive and 20% dead. By the end of 1942, this equation was reversed, with 80% murdered and only 20% still alive.

If you visit Treblinka today, you will primarily see sculptures and various forms of commemorative art. The camp was completely destroyed by the Nazis before the war ended in an attempt to cover up some of the evidence. The information that is known about the camp primarily comes from escapees who relayed information about the camp’s physical layout and operations.

One of the other Reinhard camps, Sobibor, was the site of a large-scale escape plan. In 1943, 400 prisoners made an escape attempt from Sobibor. While many of them were killed in the process, the following manhunt, or later on in the war, several of the escapees did ultimately survive. There is a good (BUT HIGHLY FICTIONALIZED) movie about the event called Escape from Sobibor.

Check back soon for more posts about my Poland trip!

Previous Poland posts…

Day 1: Warsaw

Heritage Seminars in Poland

Last week, I went on a five day trip to Poland with Heritage Seminars. The trip was through Pardes, and I went with about 25 other current and past Pardes students. As soon as I learned about the opportunity to participate in this trip, I knew I wanted to go. I had not been to Poland before, and I thought that the trip would provide a valuable experience for me to learn about, confront, and better understand the destruction of Jews that took place in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. While the trip definitely had a somber tone and – at times – felt extremely frightening, there was still an emphasis on life, perseverance, and the ultimate survival of the Jewish people.

We arrived to the Warsaw airport at about 8:30am (after traveling through the night) on the Sunday before last, and the group immediately embarked on a fully-scheduled day.

The first stop of the trip was the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw.


Warsaw was one of the European centers of Jewish life before Word War II. In 1939, there were 3.5 million Jews living in Poland – 350,000 of them living in Warsaw. At the end of the Holocaust, 90% of the 3.5 million were murdered. The cemetery was active before the war, with 150,000 people already buried here pre-1939, so there were some extremely old parts of the cemetery:


Many of the older tombstones were adorned with art and carving. This tombstone shows a hand giving tzedakah (generally translated as charity, although it’s not a perfect translation!). The hand is partially obscured by a curtain to indicate that the giver is donating anonymously (anonymous giving is considered the highest level of giving according to the Rambam).


There were also several graves that had been restored in recent years with new tombstones. The severed column represents that the person buried there died earlier in life than what would be normally expected:


During the war, 80,000-100,000 people were buried in this cemetery in mass graves. Today, the cemetery continues to receive some use from the small – but existent – Jewish community of Warsaw.

Inside the Warsaw cemetery was the grave of the well-known and much-beloved Yiddish author, I. L. Peretz. Peretz died in 1915, and is said that over 100,000 people attended his funeral.


After the cemetery, we visited a piece of what remains of the Ghetto Wall:


Most of the ghetto wall was destroyed by the end of the war (along with 80% of the entire city of Warsaw), so there isn’t much left of the wall to see – and even less remains of what was the ghetto itself. The small section pictured above now stands in the midst of apartment buildings and sidewalks, a grim reminder of what happened here. When the ghetto was instated, 450,000 Jews were crowded into the area (all of the Jews living in Warsaw, plus another 100,000 from the nearby areas). This was nearly 40% of the city’s population occupying only 3% of the land.

After visiting the ghetto wall, we went to the new Museum of the History of the Jews. This museum has only been open since April 2013, and its core exhibit just opened this past October. I don’t have pictures because it was dark when we got there and I was too enthralled by the exhibits to take pictures, but the museum was fabulous! It is ENORMOUS (about 43,000 sq. ft., according to their website), and it thoroughly covers the narrative of Polish Jews from their arrival in the 1300s until post-WWII.

After the museum, the last event of our jam-packed first day in Poland was a visit with the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich. Rabbi Schudrich is actually an American, but he has lived and worked in Poland since 1990. He is in the white shirt in the photo below:


We heard Rabbi Schudrich speak about the Polish Jewish community, the challenges it faces, and some details about his work. He told us how, after the war, only 10% of Poland’s Jewish population remained alive – about 350,000 people. Of that group, 250,000 left Poland, mostly moving to Israel of the United States. Of the 100,000 that remained, many hid or cast off their Jewish identities, too afraid and traumatized to fully live as themselves. Today, many of the children and grandchildren of these survivors are discovering their Jewish roots (or, older family members are beginning to think it is safe to reveal the truth). Rabbi Schudrich described a large part of his job as being to help these people to piece together different bits of information or ‘clues’ they have regarding their Judaism and, also, to help determine how many ‘pieces’ need to exist before being able to determine that someone is, in fact, Jewish. The situation that Rabbi Schudrich describes in Poland doesn’t exist in isolation, and many Jews from the former Soviet Union are experiencing the same identity challenges.

Overall, the first day in Poland was an exhausting whirlwind fueled by only airplane-sleep (ie, poor sleep), but it was a great first look into the history of the Warsaw/Polish Jewish community and the effects of the war. In hindsight, I think this day was the ‘easiest’ emotionally – no mass graves, no death camps, and, given the destruction of so much of the city, very little to serve as a physical testament to the horrors of the Holocaust. And, on that cheery note, check back soon for more photos and information about the rest of the trip!

Tzfat and Mt. Bental

Tzfat is a town in the Galilee region, known for its spiritual vibe, artsy aesthetics, and ‘airy’ feel. My family stopped by Tzfat for a few hours on our way north, walking around to get a sense of the town and grabbing a bite to eat. The town itself is full of narrow, windy cobblestone streets that lead past old synagogues, art shops, and eateries:

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The ubiquity of art is definitely the most unique quality of Tzfat. In addition to an abundance of art shops and vendors, the streets themselves are covered with art. Tzfat is also one of the few places in Israel outside of Jerusalem where religiosity is visibly expressed at every corner. Literally.


This is a picture seen painted on a wall along the street depicting ‘The Torah Kid’ as a superhero:


Besides walking around, we visited Abuhav Synagogue – a Sephardic synagogue in which a Torah written by Abuhav, a 14th-century Spanish scribe, resides. The synagogue is fairly simple from the outside, but the interior is colorful and beautifully decorated:

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One of the highlights of visiting Tzfat was a trip to a store called Tzfat Candles. True to the spirit of Tzfat, this is much more than your average candle shop. It is candle art.


You can buy candles in the shape of pretty much anything you can think of (besides all the fancy stuff, they also sell beautifully colored ‘regular’ candles). In addition to the variety of candles for sale, there was some pretty magnificent Biblical candle art on display. Highlights included David and Goliath:


Noah’s ark:

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And Samson:


I don’t know about you, but I would sure feel bad lighting any of these on fire! Noah and I bought a havdallah candle at the store and used it for the first time last week! It was awesome. 🙂

And, just for giggles, a misspelled sign advertising the popular Tzfat cheese (a semi-hard, somewhat elastic, cheese popular in Israel):


After Tzfat, we continued north to Mt. Bental. Mt. Bental is a volcanic cone in the northern part of Israel, near the Golan heights, and very close to the Syrian border. Due to its positioning near Syria, the location used to be a military outpost. Looking out from Mt. Bental, one can see, to one side, into the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria and across into Syria itself. To the other side lies the Israeli Kibbutz Merom Golan. When we arrived at the site, we saw a UN vehicle parked in the lot (these vehicles are also commonly sighted in Jerusalem):


Noah investigating a view as we walk to the main lookout:


This sign highlighted Mt. Bental’s unique location and proximity to several significant cities:


At the lookout, we could walk through the former military trenches and tunnels:

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View looking out towards Syria:



Check back soon for a final post recounting my family’s visit and our stop in Tiberias!

Baha’i Gardens and Dr. Shakshuka

During my parents’ visit, we spent a day in Haifa. Haifa is Israel’s third-largest city, and it’s located in about one-hour north of Tel Aviv, resting below Mt. Carmel. The primary cultural highlight of Haifa is the Baha’i Gardens – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Haifa is the world center of the Baha’i faith – one of the world’s newest religion. Baha’ism was founded in Iran in the 19th century, and its primary tenet is the unity of all mankind. Baha’is believe that prophets have appeared throughout history (Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Jesus, etc.), and religious truth is comprised of progressive revelations regarding a universal faith.

The Baha’i Gardens are built around the Shrine of the Bab. The Bab foretold of the revelation of the new faith to Baha’u’llah, the religion’s founder. In addition to the shrine, the gardens are filled with perfectly manicured trees, hedges, and plants. Gravel pathways and steps wind throughout the garden, which is open to visitors year round. One of the most unique features about the garden is that it is built along a hill and has 19 terraces!

From the bottom, the stairs can look quite imposing:

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A big part of the garden’s magnificence is how impeccable everything appears:

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We didn’t climb all 19 terraces (that’s a lot of stairs!), but we did spend about 45 minutes walking around the garden and enjoying the views out onto on the town.


After our day in Haifa, we headed to Tel Aviv for a couple days. While in Tel Aviv, we went to Jaffa for an evening. Jaffa is an ancient port city that was once separate from Tel Aviv, but urban sprawl has made the two cities essentially connected today. It is told that Jonah (of Jonah and the whale) set off from Jaffa, and many historians believe it to be the oldest port in the world. In Jaffa, we walked along the waterfront and strolled through the town center where there were shops, restaurants, and street entertainment. We got dinner at a restaurant called Dr. Shakshuka. Shakshuka is a North African dish that is quite popular in Israel as a breakfast any-time-of-day food. Traditional shakshuka is comprised essentially of tomato and eggs, but variations include adding eggplant or other vegetables as well as a ‘green shakshuka’ version that is typically based around spinach.

Dr. Shakshuka had about 25 different shakshuka variations as well as some other North African dishes like couscous and kebabs. From some reason, I don’t have a photo of the actual shakshuka, but here are a few shots of the couscous, meat, and salad we ordered:

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If you’re a shakshuka fan, I would definitely recommend paying this place a visit if you’re in the area!


Masada and FOOD

In addition to hiking in Ein Gedi, my family also did a hike up Masada during our Israel travel.

Masada is a flattop mountain in the Ein Gedi area that has earned fame for its role as the site of Jewish rebels’ last stand against the Roman Empire. A magnificent palace was first built atop the mountain by Herod the Great in the 1st century. Years later, after Herod had died, the Jews rebelled against the Roman Empire in 66 CE. The Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 CE and essentially ended the revolt then. A group of slightly less than 1,000 Jews, however, fled to Masada where they – historians believe – lived for over a year. One might think, why would the Roman army even bother with them anymore? I don’t know…maybe it was a matter of pride or finishing the job ‘right,’ but the Romans pursued the Jews to Masada and built eight camps around the mountain as they spent months preparing an assault ramp that would enable them to ambush the mountain.

All that is known about Masada’s tragic end comes from one survivor. The story states that, knowing the Roman forces couldn’t be held off for much longer, the Jews atop Masada decided that they would rather take their own lives in freedom than serve the Romans as slaves. Lots were drawn to determine 10 men who would kill the rest of the community, and, then, a final lot was drawn to determine who would kill the other nine and then commit suicide. One of the most interesting archeological finds from the site were pottery shards bearing names – generally thought to be evidence of the lots.

Today, Masada has become a site emblematic of both bravery and tragedy within the Jewish community during the time of Roman rule (and, more broadly, throughout history). The mountain is a popular site for Birthright groups, children having their Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Israel, and essentially any Zionist trip touring Israel. The iconic Masada experience is to hike the mountain just before dawn, reaching the top for sunrise.

Despite the pre-sunrise hour, my family acquiesced to hiking the mountain bright and early. The hike up the mountain took about 40 minutes at a pretty quick pace, and we reached the top a few minutes before official sunrise:


Unfortunately, it ended up being a cloudy day and the magic of the sun was fairly obstructed by the clouds. Nonetheless, it was still a great hike with awesome views from the top…and, even if we didn’t get the full splendor of a clear sunrise, it was neat to see everything come into full color! 🙂

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Me with my “baby” bro:


This is a picture of the tiered palace that served as Herod’s living quarters when he resided on the mountaintop:


With all the hiking, biking, and swimming, there was – of course – also lots of eating during this vacation. A few quick highlights include…

Fresh honey at the cafeteria at the Ein Gedi Kibbutz:


Yemenite street food in Tzfat. We ate a Lachuch Original where we had sandwiches made with malawa bread and filled with vegetables and cheese:

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Finally, we ate at a meat restaurant called Habikta in a town called Ramot by the sea of Galilee. The restaurant offered a broad menu of smoked meat dishes, burgers, homemade bagels and a salad bar:

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In closing, I must share the incredible coincidence of finding this poster hanging in a small lodge in the northern Galilee:


This poster recalls the capture of the Jesse James Gang in Northfield, MN – the site of my alma mater. The historic capture continues to be remembered even after all these years through the annual ‘Jesse James Days,’ and I have very fond memories of attending the festival each year as a college student. 🙂

Hiking and Biking – Ein Gedi and Hula Lake

My parents’ visit to the Holy Land involved many outdoor adventures. I addition to swimming floating at the Dead Sea, we also went on a hike during our time in Ein Gedi.

The hike we chose was at the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. This Nature Reserve has an easy hiking trail as well as a longer trail that juts off from the main area and heads up one of the area’s hills.


Along the trail, we had some great views…

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…and passed some of the small pools and waterfalls that are a highlight of the trail:

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In addition to beautiful views of waterfalls and geological features, we saw a lot of Hyraxes while we were at the Nature Reserve.

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Hyraxes are small and rodent-like. But, they are actually closely related to the elephant. Amazing, I know.

We didn’t go very far up the ‘advanced’ trail, but we did hike a short distance to the first lookout point for a beautiful view of the Dead Sea:


Couples’ retreatin’

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After a couple days in the Ein Gedi area, we headed to the northern part of the country to the Galilee. One of our primary activities in the Galilee was to visit the Hula Lake Nature Reserve (I just noticed the Nature Reserve theme of this post…).

500 MILLION birds migrate through Israel twice a year during their flight between Europe and Africa. Nearly all of these birds find their way – at one point or another – to the Hula Lake. This lake, in the middle of the reserve, has become an ideal spot for bird-watchers.

In addition to bird-enthusiasts, the reserve is also a great stop for families or anyone who is casually interested in seeing (and hearing!) LOTS of birds. The lake is surrounded by a 5-mile trail, and there are options to rent bikes or a golf carts if walking that distance doesn’t fit your fancy (or time schedule!). We decided to rent bikes to make our way around the lake:

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The flatness of the valley provided great views of the surrounding mountains:

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Nearly as soon as we started our ride, we could hear the clamor of what sounded like a BAZILLION cranes! In real numbers, an estimated 20,000-30,000 cranes make the Hula Lake their home during the winter. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get too close to the area where all the cranes were gathered, but we still got some views from the pathway:


In addition to seeing a lot of cranes, we passed several of these little guys in the grass and water along the trail:


This animal is a Coypu – a water rodent that lives in the banks of wetlands. Fun fact: Coypus were imported to Israel from Argentina in the mid-twentieth century. Originally, they were imported for fur trade, but that never really took off, so they are now just one of the most common mammals in Israel.

All in all, we spent about two hours at the Hula Lake. My only regret is that I didn’t bring binoculars!

Family trip to the Dead Sea

Noah and I were SUPER fortunate to have my parents visit us in Israel during Chanukah and part of the week after. We traveled throughout the country together, and I felt so lucky to see much of the country for the first time with my wonderful parents! 🙂 We did a lot, so I’ll try to chip away at the blog accounts of our travels over the next couple weeks, but I wanted to start with a recap of what I thought was a highlight of our trip together: the Dead Sea!

During our travels, we spent a couple days in the southern part of Israel visiting an area called Ein Gedi. Ein Gedi is an oasis west of the Dead Sea, and the area is characterized by a unique mixture of desert and green – home to the lowest place on earth (the Dead Sea) and a collection of spas featuring treatments using the unique minerals found at this location. The Dead Sea lies 1,388 feet below sea level, and the salt concentration of the water is so high that people can float in the water. The collection of minerals that accumulate here in the water and mud are heralded as being particularly good for the skin, and an spa business has been built out of the attraction of the location to tourists.

Yet, the ‘beach’ front and spa at the Dead Sea are different from what one might expect at an American spa. The walkway to the sea is barren and without fanfare:

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Fortunately, the openness of the area facilitated great views of the desert mountains in the distance as well as the effect of the sea’s salt accumulation on the bordering land:

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Once at the waterfront, we read a cautionary sign about all of the ways we could potentially be injured during our visit:


Somehow, we mustered the courage to go into the water anyway:

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Maneuvering through the water was a bit challenging because so much salt has hardened on the bottom of the sea that the ground is rough and sharp – look at this salt caked onto the ramp leading into the water!:


Once we ‘laid’ down in the water though, it was easy-breezy. No need to tread water here. 🙂


More family trip posts coming soon…thanks for visiting me! I love you so much and miss you already! 🙂