Celebrating the Beauty and Joy of Israel, Without Apologies

As you all know, it’s been a tragic and heartbreaking past few weeks in Israel. When terrorist attacks on the country and its citizens dominate the news, it can be difficult for those of us abroad to remember all that is good and joyful about Israel. The Israelis themselves are not people who like to regard themselves ever as victims. They are justifiably proud of the nation they built from sand. They are fiercely protective of it. But whenever I visit, I’m struck by how generally happy Israelis are. This isn’t simply a observation gleaned from the back of a taxicab (actually, Israeli taxi cab drivers tend to be pretty nasty… but that’s another story). In fact year after year — whether Hamas missiles are falling or its neighbors are threatening its very existence — Israel ranks high in international happiness and satisfaction indexes:

“In 2015, Israel came in a respectable 11th in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report — ahead of the United States (15th), Belgium (19th), Britain (21st), Singapore (24th) — and many other countries to which Israelis tend to compare themselves. This is not a fluke. For example, Israel was ranked sixth in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) 2012 Better Life Index and eighth in the 2013 OECD index category of ‘life satisfaction.'”

We could speculate endlessly why this is so. One reason would be familiar to anyone who has ever coped with the threat of death: you no longer take the preciousness of life for granted.

This spirit has been desperately tested over the past two weeks, with parents murdered in front of their children, pedestrians deliberately run over by cars, random stabbings in the streets, and on Tuesday, four terrorist attacks on civilians within two hours.  These attacks have taken place in the heart of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It’s surreal to see photos of stabbed corpses in front of familiar shops and sites. It was especially distressing for me to read today that innocent shopowners in the Muslim quarter are having their businesses closed or disrupted, including famed fabric dealer, Bilal Abu Khalaf, who made Fig Tree & Vine’s Moroccan sukkah kit. I know several of these vendors well. Violence is hard, upon everyone.

Here I am sourcing handwoven talit in the then-bustling ancient Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. June 2015. Photo by Eliran Dahan.

Yet I also know Israelis would hate to be defined by these murders and attacks. If you travel through Israel experiencing only its culture and history, you can get a real sense of what it would be like if peace with its neighbors could be achieved.  As with Italy, France or any other major destination, Israel has its own distinct food, architecture, tourist sites and national characteristics — qualities that can go unappreciated when a visitor’s focus is mostly on the political issues or religious tensions. I’ve noticed that when I tell my friends I am headed to Israel, they will get a troubled look on their faces; rather than the usual perfunctory “Safe travels” or “Have a great time” they will say, “Stay safe,” as if I’m headed off to a war zone rather than to taste wines in the Carmel valley.

 Two years ago, I visited winemaker Tal Pelter in the Golan Heights, which shares a border with Syria. On the drive up, we passed shells of tanks and monuments to past battles. (One was very grateful at that moment for the wall that now protects the border.) My guide was less interested in these relics than the scenery, air quality, and great wine of the region. When I asked Pelter if he was concerned about the risks of war and the effects on his winery, he shrugged fatalistically. “We don’t think that way.”
To be fair, with ongoing random attacks, the country does seem scary from a distance.  During the Hamas rocket barrage in the summer of 2014, the beach hotels were half empty. You could get a reservation in any restaurant that, only the month previous, had been booked solid for the coming year.  I don’t wish to minimize or seem to dismiss these ongoing troubles but the barrage of rockets is, obviously, not the norm; nor are the dust-ups between Jews and Muslims within Israel’s borders. Having visited the major sites on previous visits, I now enjoying visiting Israel, and especially, Tel Aviv, for itself — experiencing it the way those who live there do. From this viewpoint, the daily Israeli-Arab disagreements more often seem to be over who serves the best hummus than the settlements.

Indeed last Saturday, my eldest daughter Miranda, who lives in Tel Aviv, induced me to take her and her younger sister to “Luna Park” — Tel Aviv’s oldest (and I think only) amusement park.  I did not see any other tourists there; the quaint, small-scale grounds — equivalent to an old-fashioned county fair —  appeared to be entirely a local attraction. Two things stood out to me: First, the families of Israeli Jews and Arabs are capable of peaceably lining up together for rides and food. Young women in head scarves were untroubled by groups of yalmuke-wearing boys ahead of them and vice versa. There were no angry encounters except when — as seems to be the local custom — youths tried to cut the queue. Second, the crowds were unbelievably fit — a sharp demographic contrast to Six Flags America. Even the metal rails that herd you to the front of the line were only about 24-inches wide — if you were wider than that you turned sideways, but my suspicion was, many Americans would get stuck in them, like Winnie-the-Pooh in Rabbit’s front door. The general fitness of Israelis is one of the great culture shocks to American visitors —  the product of a society in which everyone serves in the army, combined with a healthy Mediterranean diet (at Luna Park the food vendors offered salad in addition to the usual junky stuff — never seen that before at an amusement park!).

 Luna Park, Tel Aviv.

It’s important to continue to focus on what is life-affirming and joyous about Israel. Many of Fig Tree & Vine’s artisans are based in areas now under assault, yet they continue to create their works of beauty. Eighth-generation Yemenite silversmith Ben-Zion David sits patiently in his Jaffa gallery, applying ancient filigree techniques to his modern pieces of sterling silver jewelry and Judaica. Meanwhile, Yosef Gabso is explaining to a customer in his Jerusalem shop the techniques that went into the weaving of a handmade tallit, produced by artisans in the Negev. In the historic Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv, jewelry maker Orit Ivshin is crouched over a table in her small boutique, applying tiny diamonds to surfaces of matte gold. Perhaps for dinner she and her husband Giora will walk down Shebazi Street and sit outside at a restaurant. Over in the Bauhaus district, a bartender at the Norman Hotel is mixing a pomegranate martini for a group of tired tourists.

This is how I am thinking of Israel today. One of my goals for Fig Tree & Vine is to create an experience for Jews that is entirely celebratory and uplifting. When you visit us, you are invited to enjoy what is wonderful about Jewishness, in whatever form you choose to recognize it. And when we go to Israel together, it’s to appreciate and admire the incredible achievements of that country: to see beyond politics, and to be introduced to the culture and stories of its many talented people.