Ten days ago I flew to Israel, as a guest of the non-political charity Kinetis, which is involved in a project to raise awareness of Israel beyond military issues. I didn’t know what to expect, but had a sneaking suspicion it would involve lots of machine guns and me trying desperately not to mention the war.
Well, there were lots of people with guns – most of them hardly more than kids. They were at security checkpoints, roadblocks, wandering the narrow cobbled streets in Jerusalem. Even getting on a plane to Israel isn’t for the faint-hearted. I’m never going to forget the El Al security manager’s withering expression as he swabbed my laptop and I squeaked, “Oh, it’s alright – they’re just toast crumbs.”
But spend some time in Israel and you realise that’s just part of the story. I really think Israel has something magical – a combination of fierce national pride, a youthful country (in terms of population and the nation itself) and the luxury of relative affluence.
There are amazing sights to be seen in Israel. We spent a day in Jerusalem and saw everything from the Biblical Zoo and the Mahane Yahude market to the Old City with the Church of the Resurrection and the Western Wall. It’s deeply moving to visit a city infused with the energy of so much faith and prayer – you can feel it in your fingertips.
As an aside, if you ever find yourself in Jerusalem, you absolutely MUST eat at Machneyuda – the food is unspeakably good, they serve dessert in a five foot , three-tiered platter and the parmesan, mushroom and truffle oil dish is one of the greatest things ever put into a jam jar.
Then there’s the Dead Sea – we visited the Ein Gedi kibbutz andspa, perched high on a hill overlooking the water. We were treated to a jeep ride into the desert, where we walked along a deep wadi (ravine) to a shady spot, where we sang and danced and ate sweet watermelon under the shadow of an overhanging rock. Truly one of the those moments you’ll remember for a lifetime.
Then there’s the Dead Sea itself, currently campaigning for status as one of the world’s new Seven Wonders – the hope is that this will help secure funding to address a crisis here. The Dead Sea level is falling by a metre a year, as water evaporates and isn’t replaced.
Regular readers will be reassured to hear that my natural grace, dignity and poise didn’t desert me, and I rolled around in the water like a dizzy walrus, ripping my knee to shreds on the sea bed, which is about as easy to stand on as a thousand knives. Although the ‘complete dignity in times of crisis’ award goes to Rosie Scribble, who you must get to tell you the story of HER Dead Sea dip. Classic.
During our trip we were given amazing access to meet some of Israel’s most creative and successful citizens from Shari Arison (the wealthiest woman in the Middle East) to museum directors, politicians, writers, dancers and designers.
These people moved, inspired and entertained me more than I can say, and I feel genuinely blessed to have met them. In one of those moments of serendipity, their words and insights came at the exact moment I needed them. There’s something pretty special about that, I think.
What I found in Israel is an irrepressible sense of possibility. During our stay, I lost count of the number of people who quoted the famous Zionist William Hertzl to me: “If you will it, it is no dream.”
The people we met on our travels were living proof of this idea. Joanna Landau, the founder of Kinetis, has turned a family tragedy into the inspiration for a world-class rowing facility in Tel Aviv, which is helping to develop world-class athletes in Israel as well as providing a resource for disadvantaged members of the community.
We met Tamar Hadar and Efrat Adiv, two friends who worked in marketing and who chatted one night about how there really ought to be a museum that teaches children about the Hebrew language. Rather than putting the idea to one side, they spent months approaching museums, corporate sponsors and experts to find space, funding and knowledge to create a truly innovative and exciting resource for children and their families called A-Be-See-Do.
I am sure I must have annoyed Ronit Haber, the founder of Saloona.com, by asking her dozens of questions about her website, which brings together content from 4,000 women’s blogs covering everything from parenting to politics. Ronit told us, “I don’t want a site that’s pink and talks about babies. We are intelligent women of the world and we won’t patronise anyone.”
There was Ayelet Barak, who is turning her training in cooking and social work into a career as the world’s first culinary therapist – using food to help improve life for children with communication problems and autism. And the hugely successful children’s designer Hagit Neeman Gorny, who told me over lunch at Suzana, “Why should I worry about competition? I just do what I do. They do what they do. There is room for us all.”
These women – and I can’t tell you how much I love that they’re women – are strong, inspiring, smart and creative. They have inspired me more than they could ever realise. And they made me love Israel – because a country that makes women like these – full of creativity and possibility – is a very special place indeed.
I can’t wait to go back.
Disclosure: All my expenses were met by Kinetis, who I would like to thank for providing us with such a special experience in Isreal – thanks to Adi Kaplin, Joanna Landau and the whole team.
On a personal note, enormous thanks to Tammy Lechter-Azoulay for her generosity and hospitality in inviting us to share Friday night dinner with her family, and to my fellow bloggers for making the trip such fun – please do read their blogs to hear about their experiences – Rosie Scribble, Exmoor Jane, Blog de Madre and Accidental Mente. Ladies, you were amazing companions and word is that you have made me into a hugger. This is life-changing stuff.