Leftover notes from an Israeli press trip

Back in March, I was invited on a press trip to Israel and wrote about the experience in the should-have-been-award-winning series Heathen in the Holy Land.” But the trip yielded more notes, quotes, and quips than I could ever hope to fit into a series of blog posts. After looking over my notes from the trip, I wanted to share a couple leftover gems with Gadling readers, whom, incidentally, I often refer to as my own Chosen People.

  • A quote from one of our new Israeli friends: “There are really no celebrities in Israel since we’re such a small country. Last week I went to the market and saw three contestants on Israel’s Amazing Race.
  • Our guide Ziv Cohen discussing the 2006 rocket attacks by Hezbollah on the Israeli town of Haifa: “We trust in God that it won’t happen again. And we trust in the Israeli army.
  • Ziv Cohen explaining the importance of tradition: “Sometimes ‘tradition’ is just a nice way of saying it’s bullshit.
  • The Mitzpe Hayamim in the Golan Heights region was one of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed at. In an attempt to make my friends at home jealous, I tried to take a photo of myself enjoying a bubble bath. From my notes: “I just learned that it’s impossible for a man to take a picture of himself in a bubble bath without either looking extremely dainty or looking like he’s about to pleasure himself. There is no middle ground.
  • According to our guide, the town of Caesarea is a “new” place in that it’s only 2,000 years old.
  • From my journal: “Possible title for blog post — ‘Tel Aviv: The City That Never Schleps'”

Heathen in the Holy Land: How to get your free trip to Israel

To read the previous entries in Gadling’s Heathen in the Holy Land series, go here.

Free trip to Israel, huh? What’s the catch?

Well, first off, you must be Jewish or have a parent who is Jewish. [I’ll pause while all the Gentiles find another post to read.] Still with me? Okay, you also must be in the 18-26 age range. If you meet both of these requirements, the Birthright Israel program wants to give you a free ten-day tour of Israel.

Is airfare included, you wonder? Yes. Everything is included. That’s what free means.

The purpose of Birthright Israel, according to the group’s website, is to “send thousands of young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.”

Your trip will visit major Israeli cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and take in famous religious sites such as the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Mount of Olives.

For any young person– well, any Jewish young person– looking to travel on the cheap, you can’t get any cheaper than this free trip with Birthright Israel. But be forewarned: the trips fill up early (in fact, summer 2009 trips are already full). The next trips will take place in the winter of 2009; check this site in August in order to apply.

For a full list of FAQs about the trip– including “If I meet my spouse on a Birthright Israel trip, do I get a free honeymoon?” go here.

To contact someone who has already gone on this trip, e-mail them at alumni (at) birthrightisrael (dot) com.

Heathen in the Holy Land: Kabbalah leader dishes on Madonna

For previous posts from Gadling’s new “Heathen in the Holy Land” series, go here, here, and here.

The Israeli town of Tzfat, the center of the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah, is made up of an eclectic mix of devoted Orthodox Jews and free-spirited Western expats. Rabbi Eyal Riess, a resident of Tzfat and one of the leaders of Kabbalah, seems to have a foot in each camp.

A former disc jockey in Tel Aviv who “saw the light” eight years ago, Rabbi Eyal sported a full, Orthodox-style beard and wore a long kaffiyeh when we met him for a tour of Tzfat on the Jewish holiday Purim. He says he lives an Orthodox lifestyle– kosher diet, no work on the Sabbath– and our walking tour of Tzfat mostly left me with the impression that Eyal was knowledgeable about his town and took seriously his role as one of Kabbalah’s leaders. There’s nothing like the zeal of a convert, after all.

As our walking tour wound down though, after we had been through Tzfat’s Artist Quarter, the Cave of Shem and Eber (where Noah’s son and grandson allegedly studied the Torah), and to the town’s cemetery, we began to pick up hints that Rabbi Eyal might not be the austere mystic we thought we were meeting.

It started when I asked him a question based on the only thing most people know about his faith: “What do you think about Madonna being a follower of Kabbalah?”

His answer surprised me. I guess I expected him to say something along the lines of, “I’m glad she’s brought attention to Kabbalah but she doesn’t in any way represent our faith.” Instead, he was enthusiastic about her participation and he mentioned proudly that “Montel Williams arrived here in a helicopter a couple weeks ago.”

“Celebrities can lead very unbalanced lives,” Eyal said. “They need kabbalah as much as anyone else– sometimes more.” (Curiously, he said the opposite two years ago, calling Madonna “not a role model” and “just silliness” in an article about her visit.)

Because I was visiting Tzfat as part of a press trip, Eyal asked me what publication I wrote for. “A website called Gadling,” I told him.

“Do they do sales or just information?” Eyal asked.

“Umm, just… information.” I stammered. The question confused me: Was this a Serious Religious Leader or some sort of huckster televangelist?

Eyal then lamented the fact that the name of his town could be spelled so many different ways (Tzfat, Safed, Tsfat, Zefat) because it confused people who Googled the town.

When our walking tour was over, Eyal seated our group back at the Kabbalah headquarters, asked our guide in Hebrew to give him ten minutes with us, then gave us his sales pitch: “We have many programs for tourists who are interested in Kabbalah– from one day seminars to two-week workshops,” he said.

He handed out several pamphlets listing the various programs that tourists could come and waste, I mean spend, their money on. One day-long workshop was based on The Secret: It consisted of, among other things, using a “powerful computer program” to figure out secrets about a person based on their name and birthday. The cost? About US$175.

And that’s where Eyal– intelligent, personable, former-DJ Eyal– lost me. Maybe it’s a flaw in me, but when I hear people talk earnestly about things like The Secret, I turn off the part of my brain that makes me take them seriously.

With his pathetic sales pitch, Eyal was making himself ridiculous, like a bishop who gives you a free tour of his cathedral then tries to sell you a timeshare.

In the end, although I was surprised by Eyal’s embrace of Kabbalah celebrities like Madonna, he did confirm my suspicion about one thing: Those red bracelets she wears are crap.

Check out Eyal’s Kabbalah website here. More Kabbalah workshops here.

Disclosure: This week-long trip to Israel was sponsored by the country’s Ministry of Tourism. My opinions are (obviously) my own.

Heathen in the Holy Land: Why Israel isn’t just for religious pilgrims and history nerds

For previous posts from our new “Heathen in the Holy Land” series, go here and here.

Visiting Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the last remaining part of the Holy Temple and one of Judaism’s most sacred sites, is a sobering, thought-provoking, and almost otherworldly experience. But I wouldn’t call it fun.

Sadly, many who haven’t visited Israel think that all Israel’s attractions are like this: important historically or religiously and certainly enriching to visit, but a little too much like the tourist’s equivalent of having to eat all your vegetables and not getting dessert.

So in this post we’re going to steer away from the religious and historical aspects of Israel– as much as it’s possible to do that in a country so dominated by religion and history– and instead focus on what makes Israel fun.

Whether it’s ATV riding through verdant green valleys near the Israel-Lebanon border, horseback riding overlooking the Sea of Galilee (where Jesus famously showed off), or floating in the super-bouyant Dead Sea, Israel has plenty of activities to challenge everyone from out-of-shape, potential Biggest Loser contestants to Bear Grylls wannabes.

Check out the following slide show to see what I mean. [Captions of admittedly uneven levels of hilarity provided free of charge.]

%Gallery-48458%Disclosure: This week-long trip to Israel was sponsored by the country’s Ministry of Tourism. Unlike the trip, my opinions were not paid for because, dammit, my integrity is not for sale.

Heathen in the Holy Land: How I became an Israeli pseudo-celebrity

To read part one of Gadling’s new “Heathen in the Holy Land” series, go here.

When I told a friend of mine I was headed to Israel for a week, he advised me, only half-jokingly, to look out for car-bombs. A fellow member of my fantasy baseball league suggested that if the worst should happen to me on this trip, we could re-name our league “The Aaron Hotfelder That’s-Why-You-Don’t-Take-a-Trip-to-a-War-Zone Memorial League.”

These reactions, and many others like them, reinforced what I already knew: that my friends are shit-heads. But more importantly for the purposes of this article, that Israel has a definite image problem.

Indeed, most people only ever hear of the country on TV news reports accompanied by stock footage of soldiers launching M-16s or in articles with headlines like “Israeli Soldiers Allege Indiscriminate Killing in Gaza,” or “Israel Hunts West Bank Attackers.”

The Ministry of Tourism for Israel is not blind to the country’s war-torn reputation. Last week, it sponsored a trip for a group of seven travel bloggers (myself included) aimed at improving the country’s public standing. The Ministry showed us the country’s swankiest hotels, most impressive ruins, and most breathtaking landscapes in the hopes that we’d give the country some positive coverage in the blogosphere as a result.

Press trips, those paid-for junkets that have been called travel writing’s “dirty little secret,” are actually relatively common in the print media. But a press trip for bloggers? Isn’t that a waste of money?

That’s what reporters from two different Israeli news programs wanted to know, along with one other important question: “Just what is a blogger?” To answer these questions, one of the reporters followed us around for several hours during our walking tour of Tel Aviv, while the other reporter accompanied us to Jerusalem’s Old Town. Both were followed by a man wielding a giant TV camera and another man carrying a boom mic. Needless to say, our group of seven felt a little like celebrities as we strolled to places like the “Last Supper Room” in Jerusalem and the historic Neve Tzedek neighborhood in Tel Aviv.

We got the the same look from each native Israeli who saw the camera crew following us around– a look which seemed to say, “Who the hell are these people?” To be sure, we did not look like movie stars. Our ragtag group mostly had faces for radio, if you catch my drift.

But these were my fifteen minutes of fame, dammit, and I was going to enjoy them. At a local wine shop in Tel Aviv, I could tell that our group, tired from the brutal schedule which is a staple of most press trips, wasn’t giving the cameraman much material. So with the camera rolling, I ventured a question to the rest of the group:

“So, do you think many people will decide to come to Israel after reading about it on our blogs?” I asked. “Because I do. I’ll bet people flock to Israel in droves after reading our glowing reviews!” The rest of the group stifled laughs and nodded their heads, aware that this contrived conversation was being made for the benefit of the reporter and camera man. Sure, it was a blatant attempt at getting on TV, but I didn’t get care.

In the end, that reporter’s segment on our group– and more importantly, my Israeli TV debut– was pre-empted for a three-hour press conference in which the country’s former president denied a rape charge. (This only served to reinforce my long-standing opposition to rape.) Thankfully, our group’s TV premiere came a couple days later in a two-minute segment on Channel 10. (Brush up on your Hebrew and watch it here.)

While my speaking parts were all cut out of the segment, I was featured quite prominently in several shots (see top photo, striped sweater), proving once again, as if any more proof is needed, that Andy Warhol was right about that fifteen minutes thing.

Disclosure: This week-long trip to Israel was sponsored by the country’s Ministry of Tourism. Unlike the trip, my opinions were not paid for because, dammit, my integrity is not for sale. That is not to say I wouldn’t entertain the right offer.