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Reflections on Family Vacation

I’m not complaining.  I’m happy that my children are busy with day camps, National service, schoolwork and part time jobs, but I’m frustrated.  I have not found one day this summer that everyone is available for a family vacation.  My husband Kuti and I finally decided this past Thursday that everyone will make themselves available and we’re going away.  Family vacations have always been important to us, but somehow, here in Israel, they are vital.  No holiday season or summer is complete without taking a trip together.  Perhaps it’s because I feel so fortunate that we have the chance to be here in this remarkable country and to walk its breadth and experience its beauty, and it is a privilege we are not willing to give up.

It’s not easy.  With the range of ages of my children, sons-in-law and grandchildren, from two until twenty eight, and sometimes with my mother joining us, finding something that will appeal to everyone is a challenge.  The incredible museums in this country have a certain appeal and more commercial activities like amusement parks do too, but if we want to please everyone– we do what most families in Israel do for fun.  We hike.

When we’re all together we try to keep the level family-style.  Most tour books rate the hikes, profiling them as easy, more challenging or DIFFICULT.  My big kids don’t mind not being especially challenged when we’re together because they realize that with family it’s a different sort of trip.  When they’re with school or with friends they can climb vertical slabs of rocks and pull themselves up rope ladders and cross swinging bridges over rushing rapids.  And they do.  They pull themselves up with the aid of metal rings attached to the granite- rock sides of mountains, hearing stories of youth scout groups from years ago who prepared the rings by climbing with drill guns on their backs, soldering the rings with one hand while hanging on to the cliffs with the other!

Hiking is simply a part of our culture.  When my eldest, Avigayil would go out on dates she’d pack her portable Bunsen burner, a small sauce pan, tea bags and mugs and hike with the guy until they’d find a cliff to hang out on.  Ahuva, when on break from university, would call a few friends, hitch their way to some popular trails and hike for a few days, sleeping outside and cooling themselves in natural watering holes.   When Leora, during her year of National Service had a couple of hours free before Shabbat she’d grab a couple of friends and hike through the Judean Hills.  The summer my daughter was fifteen-year-old, she went to camp for four days.  No bunks, no air conditioned dining rooms and heated pools.  This “camp” started off in a community in the Etzion Bloc one morning and the teenagers hiked… up mountains, through valleys, stopping to refresh themselves at natural springs, making camp when night fell, cooking on an open fire and sleeping under a canopy of stars and rising the next morning to keep hiking.  Four days later they ended up at the Western Wall in Jerusalem having never gotten onto a bus (or into a shower)!  But this is my kids’ idea of fun!

I love it.  Love knowing that in America when I’d go traveling I would take my family on the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. Here, every time we travel we are tracing my people’s history… I’m walking the paths our forefathers walked, stepping on spots of Biblical significance.  And the topology of this country is like no other.  The length of our small country– getting sadly smaller all the time– can be traversed easily in one day– from the snow capped mountains of the Hermon to the green green forests of the Golan to the desert landscape of Eilat!  And the distance from east to west is barely a hand’s reach.

The most popular area for the summer is up north where it’s green and lush and natural pools and springs and raging rivers abound.  The summer is hot and there’s nothing more satisfying than hiking in the blazing sun, the muscles in the back of your legs straining, forcing yourself to take another step, to get over that next ridge… and then rounding a turn in the mountain and racing the last few steps to a refreshing waterfall.

The planning takes time though our routine is pretty well set.  We pull down our collection of tour books, check maps, and ask friends for ideas that worked for them.  Kuti and I woke up early Tuesday to start the preparations.  He found an early quorum for morning prayers and was back before the kids started stirring.   We’re pro’s already.  I started slicing piles of cucumbers peppers and carrots, loading them up into big plastic bags so there would be no containers to bring home.  Then I brought down a few backpacks and started packing up containers of chocolate spread, peanut butter, hummus, tuna, plastic forks and knives and a roll of paper towels.  I wiped down the counter so I can start cutting up chunks of watermelon for dessert.   Kuti packed up our portable grill and some hot dogs and burgers for our barbecue dinner that night. Avraham drove over to the local grocery for bags of fresh rolls and the Israeli favorite- -individual baggies of chocolate milk. Netanel pulled out half a dozen bottles of water from the freezer, half-filled with water the night before, now frozen.  He filled the rest with water and we were guaranteed cold water for the day.  Drinking while hiking in this country is a MUST!  The kids taught me the mantra of their youth group counselorsand teachers while on hikes with camp and school, as they’d stop them repeatedly to take a few gulps of water before continuing:  “Better to drink now by mouth than to get your liquids through your veins later!”  Elitzur packed a bag with towels and changes of clothing and suntan lotion and strapped a car seat into the car for my grandson Achiya, Atara chose a stack of music CD’s and Avraham grabbed a few pillows for my grandson Amit to be able to fall asleep curing the long car ride.

It’s funny.  Often we’ll choose a trail from our “Off the Beaten Track” book and start off driving winding roads, the car pulling itself up steep inclines, rising above mountain ranges, plummeting down again, turning off narrow dirt paths… not seeing another car the whole way, checking and rechecking directions to make sure we hadn’t taken a wrong turn, thrilled we were going to hike a trail few had hiked before.  And then… one last turn and we arrive… to a parking lot full of cars!  Whole families spilling out of mini vans and station wagons, grabbing water bottles, backpacks and hats, heading towards the beginning of the trail to begin hiking.

By 8:45 A.M. we were packed (cozily) into our van, and on our way!  The scenery changed gradually as we left the rocky hills of Samaria and took the winding traffic-free highway through the Jordan Valley, the dramatic landscape compelling me to keep telling the kids to pull their headphones out of their ears, turn down their MP3’s and look out the window!  They humored my husband Kuti by chorusing the verse “How wondrous and many are God’s creations!”  Two hours passed and then—a turn in the road—and the Sea of Galilee appeared on our left, the blue waters twinkling in the sunlight, the calm incredible expanse of lake quieting everyone in the car.  A bit further and we stopped at a trail in the Golan Heights that we had done before and loved.  We gratefully unfold ourselves out of the car, finding wayward sandals and water bottles, itching to get started.  The track started immediately in ice cold ankle deep water and everyone shrieked in shock and delight as they stepped into the shaded stream.  We wove our way over trickling waters, stepping carefully on the slippery rocks lining the riverbed.  My big girls automatically offer an arm each to my mother who never wants to miss the hikes we attempt and is thrilled at her ability to keep up with her young Israeli grandchildren.  The girls’ experienced strong hands keep her steady and they encourage her to look around and enjoy the beauty of the brush.  Parts of the hike are a bit more steep and challenging and we grownups huff and puff, laughing when we see that my son-in-law Matan is doing the climb with his four-year-old on his back and Avraham is backtracking his easy steps to come back for my mother and me.  Soon we come out into a huge pool of water where at points we are even able to swim.  Elitzur had been running ahead and when he saw the big open pool he jumped in and kicked off after helping Amit slide the tube over his head.  Avraham and Netanel were the next to dunk their bodies completely in the icy waters and soon swam off to explore, crowding around a school of massive catfish that were enjoying the crusts of bread thrown in their direction.  The rest of us sat ourselves down in the shallow section, fully clothed, on our bottoms, cooling ourselves as the sun warmed us from above.  I loved looking around at the crowd that surrounded us.  Young families with pregnant mothers, little kids floating along in tubes, babies in backpacks… all enjoying the beauty of God’s nature.  Teenagers splashed in groups, old couples picked their way along… foreign tourists, Israelis, Haredi families in their white shirts, dark slacks and black skullcaps.

We got out, sopping wet and picnicked as we dried off.  Kuti spotted a group of men off to the side and went to join the quorum for afternoon prayers.  It’s my favorite picture of our family trips.  The one where men of all ages, their ritual fringed garment peeking out of their damp t-shirts, baseball caps perched on sun burnt heads, sway in their makeshift synagogue under the open sky as they pray.

Our next stop is kayaking and the two hours floating down the current on rubber, blown up rafts is delightful.  My younger kids don’t stay in the boats for much of the ride, pulling us and swimming alongside, finding ropes hanging from the trees to play Tarzan as they fly into the water.

When sleeping over is part of the plan, the accommodations are usually basic and clean. One big room with bunk beds and pull out cots and we’re so exhausted that no one complains when they notice there’s no T.V.

The next day we drive straight to the Sea of Galilee and spend three glorious hours communing with the blue cloud-free sky and the bluest waters of the sea.  We found our own private piece of heaven and dipped and floated and splashed until reality set in when we realized we had to get home.

Driving home is generally pretty quiet, with everyone piping in with stories of past trips through the years since we moved to Israel.  We’re very lucky.  We travel the country a lot and have seen so much.  I remember my sister visiting from America and of course we took her on a hike, to share what we love.  This time we had chosen to go down south to the sand dunes of Ashdod.   Our feet sank into the hot sand with every step and it was a true effort to keep climbing.  Atara had found a long sturdy reed, peeled off the dozens of snails clinging to the branch, and we all took off our sandals and sneakers and strung them on her makeshift pole and continued on, barefoot, the hot sand burning our feet satisfyingly.  The big girls pointed out every flower that they had learned about, every bloom with a story. The warm wind blew sand into our faces and mouths and when we stopped for sandwiches everything had an extra crunch.  The backs of our calves ached with every step and my sister laughingly kept asking why people considered this fun?

But it’s a joy when you feel history coming up through the soles of your feet.  Our Sages say that every four “amot”– six to eight steps– walked in Israel, is a “mitzvah”- a good deed.  Where else in the world does one receive eternal reward by simply walking the land?