Those of us who live in New Jersey like to say that Israel is the same size as the Garden State, which is true from a mathematical perspective but doesn’t quite capture the breadth of the Jewish State. While both states may have roughly the same square mileage (8,723 for Jersey, 8,550 for Israel), there is so much more diversity to Israel, a tiny country with forests, swamps, deserts, cities, towns, farms, and archeological sites.
Whenever I visit, as I did for the past two weeks, I am struck by how small the country is, but also how expansive. I was fortunate to drive all over the country with my family and experience many different places, some that I had seen before, others that were new to me. Zionist pioneer Theodore Herzl envisioned the Jewish state as an Altneuland, an “Old-New Land”, and while many of his wacky utopian ideas were never implemented, he at least understood that Israel would be a land of contrasts.
Tel Aviv, the great metropolis, is in fact the Hebrew translation, or more accurately a gloss, of the title of Herzl’s novel envisioning the new nation. A tel is a mound formed by successive layers of settlement, and aviv means “spring”. So Tel Aviv can be thought of as “a renewal of the past”, and that is what we experienced there on our recent trip. Walking the streets of Jaffa, with its flea markets selling old clothes and knickknacks as well as delicious malabi and knafeh, we could see the old coming to life.
Later, we were guided on a graffiti tour by a local street artist who lamented the soaring prices of his hip Floretin neighborhood, like any cosmopolitan victim/beneficiary of gentrification. He helped us interpret the meaning of the art we saw on the walls of homes and stores. There were political statements as well as artistic expression all blending together in a riot of color.
Just for fun we went sand surfing in the desert, sliding down dunes created by a type of sand blown all the way from the Sahara and only found in a few places in Israel. As we wandered a nearby remarkably well-preserved ancient Nabatean town on the incense route bringing frankincense and myrrh from Arabia, I wondered if residents of the area back in the 7th century also played on those dunes. From treasures buried in the sand, we drove past a station harnessing the 21st century treasure of the desert: the sun. In 2019, Israel completed a solar power plant that uses hundreds of mirrors to focus light on a tower to boil water for a steam turbine. The spooky light can be seen for miles as you drive the lonely highway.
Some of the best experiences on any trip are the chances to meet with residents, and we got to meet a lot of new people as well as reconnect with old friends. We learned how kibbutzim must reinvent themselves by renting to high end lifestyle spa resorts or turn their dining halls into bakeries. City dwellers looking to escape the congestion can find comfortable, homey living in the formerly collectivist villages.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a former chief rabbi of Israel, once said “hayashan yitchadesh, v’hechadash yitkadesh – the old shall be made new and the new be made holy.” One of his goals was to integrate the new Zionist project of renewal and development with ancient Jewish tradition. He saw the work of building a modern state as not just a necessary concession but as an act of holiness. Traveling up and down this country that is tiny but wide, both old and new, Rav Kooks words could not have been more appropriate.