Just Back From... Israel
One minute you’re looking at a sign swinging high over a Nazareth street, its tall electric letters spelling out “M-E-R-R-Y X-M-A-S.” A half-second later you notice an Israeli flag hanging almost next to it, across the front of a building just twenty feet away.
One morning you’re driving through the Judean Desert, scanning a universe of rock and sand touched only by the wind since time began. Two hours later you count 70 highrises—and 12 construction cranes—from the roof of your hotel.
One day you’re contemplating the tiny village of Capernaum, where Jesus healed the sick and toward which he walked across the Sea of Galilee. The next? You’re in a sea of shirtless men and barely bikinied women flooding its way through café-lined streets. Don’t be shy, girlfriend—it’s Gay Pride day in Tel Aviv!
Inch for inch, Israel surely delivers more cultural pileups and now-vs.-then collisions than any country on earth. It’s the size of New Jersey, I kept reading before I went. Yeah, maybe, but after a visit this summer as a guest of the tourist board, I came away thinking that no matter how different the worlds of Springsteen, the Sopranos and Snooki, Israel has enough diversity, from Bedouins to Bible followers to big-muscled beach boys, to be its own continent. And half of it is desert.
Here are ruins of ancient cities so developed you can study the layouts of not just their main streets and amphitheaters but also their bathrooms and brothels. Here are gleaming glass-box office-park developments straight out of Palo Alto and Austin—brand-new homes for the latest tech-stock bets from “Start-Up Nation.” Smooth highways ribbon past outlet stores, power stations, palm tree plantations, and low-slung villages that unexpectedly erupt from the tops of mountains in the distance. Teenage boys wear Mets-insignia yarmulkes. Teenage soldiers, some of them girls, carry an iPhone in one hand and a machine gun in the other. Images of the Virgin Madonna adorn the church where the annunciation took place and the tomb where she was buried. Meanwhile the Madonna who was only like a virgin kicked off her world tour here the week before my visit.
The upside for travelers: this is an amazing and compelling, sometimes amusing and sometimes confounding country that can multi-task for a visitor. A trip here can be a vacation, history lesson, religious pilgrimage or cultural experience—one at a time or all in one.
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