Saturday, October 18, 2008

High times in Haifa.

.טובות חיי חיפה

Happy Sukkot! After Yom Kippur, we had one day of "class," which comprised a trip to Tel Aviv with my Israel seminar group. Our primary points of interest were Independence Hall and the Palmach Museum as we explored the "New Jew" through the hundred-year history of Tel Aviv. Then, we were ripe for Sukkot break!

Many of my classmates have done extensive traveling during this break, exploring the Middle East and parts of Europe. Jessica and I, however, decided to stay in Israel and do some touring in Israel. Our destination of choice: Haifa. (For photographs from our trip, visit Jessica's Google album.)

We got a somewhat later start than we anticipated on Tuesday morning, but as we didn't have any particular plans for the trip (very unlike me!), we weren't too concerned. Since this was the first day of Sukkot, the buses weren't running - so we had to take a sheirut (shared taxi) to Tel Aviv and then another to Haifa. On our way to the place near Jaffa St. where the sheiruts congregate, a taxi driver asked us if we were traveling to Tel Aviv. We said we were, and he offered to drive us for 30 shekels apiece (roughly the same as a 10-person sheirut ride). We agreed as we figured it would be much faster to find two more people going to Tel Aviv than to wait for one of the vans to show up. After about twenty minutes, our taxi was full, and we tore out of Jerusalem. Our driver was apparently very anxious to arrive, as he was traveling at times twice the posted speed limit. We tried not to get too nervous and waited out the (rather short) ride.

The sheirut ride to Haifa from Tel Aviv was (thankfully) uneventful, and when we arrived in the city, we asked for directions to Jaffa St. (where our hostel was located). Twenty minutes and several more sets of directions later, we had found a guide to walk us to Jaffa St. and to point us in the direction of our hostel.

The Port Inn was a clean, professionally-run hostel that served a hearty breakfast and was home to a great deal of diverse travelers. It has a small kitchen, a TV room, and an outdoor patio for people who want just to relax at their home base for a while, and the staff was very friendly and helpful. We were warmly welcomed and given a terrific map of Haifa that we were to use extensively for the next 48 hours as well as a coupon book that we tried unsuccessfully to use at dinner. Overall, we were quite pleased with the hostel and would recommend it to visitors on a budget (~$27.00/night including breakfast).

Our first order of business was to visit Jessica's second cousin twice-removed, Shlomo, who made aliyah some thirty years ago from the U.S. Shlomo is very much into geneaology and has a personal family tree containing over 4,100 names ... including Jessica's! Shlomo contacted Jessica over a year ago looking for information about her family, and he mentioned that if we were ever in Haifa, we should look him up. So we did just that!

Our plan was to go straight to his house after we arrived. So, armed with our map, we set out. We passed run-down apartment buildings, empty streets, and abandoned shops. Turns out we were walking through one of Haifa's slums. After about an hour, we reached a busy intersection and, as we weren't exactly sure if our map was going to be able to show us how to get to Shlomo's house, we decided to take a taxi. It drove us up a big mountain (with which we were to become intimately familiar) and dropped us off at Shlomo's house. Good thing we taxied!

The door to the building was locked, and we knew that Shlomo kept the chag, so we didn't know what to do. Rather than shouting at the building and hoping he would hear, we decided to buzz him - what else could we do? He shouted down from the window, and we told him the door was locked. He came down, and the visit began!

We had a very lovely time with the Rapoports. They served us lunch in their sukkah (which, due to the high winds, was actually a somewhat dangerous place to sit!), and we chatted at length about family, Israel, Jewish history, etc. We met Shlomo's wife and their two sons and had the opportunity to see what a chag is like in a modern Orthodox Israeli household. After a couple hours, we bid farewell to Jessica's "new" family members and caught a taxi back to the German Colony (near our hostel).

Our friends Nikki, Rachel, Jessica, and Chad were also traveling in Haifa at the time, so we called them and plans to meet them in the German Colony for dinner. We walked around a bit, took some pictures, explored the one street of the Germany Colony, and were glad when our friends arrived. We had a great dinner and then made the same rounds that Jessica and I had made once or twice before deciding to ride the Carmelit, which is Haifa's version of a subway train, to the center of the Carmel region of town. We walked through the dark and not particularly friendly streets of north coastal Haifa to the southernmost station only to find that the Carmelit was closed. We sadly bid our friends farewell and made our way back to the hostel for some quiet reading and chatting before bed.

On Wednesday, we got an extremely good feel for Haifa. We started by walking an hour to the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum, which focused on the story of Jews trying to move to Israel despite Britain's blockade on immigration. We saw a movie about the Af Al Pi Chen and other ships like it that helped to smuggle Jews into mandatory Palestine, and we explored an exhibit about the internment camps in Cyprus, where Jews who were turned away from Palestine waited (unknowingly) for the establishment of an independent, welcoming, and needy State of Israel. Although the museum wasn't great, it definitely provided more information than Exodus, and it serves as a memorial to a crucial part of the formation of the Israeli identity.

After the museum, Jessica and I sat on the shoreline for a while and then had a large and delicious lunch. We rode a sky cab to the top of a mountain, took some pictures, and then decided to walk down the mountain. We had a lovely walk, and we saw how buildings facing out from the mountain have long bridges built toward the slope so that the straight buildings can be entered from the side of the mountain. When we reached the bottom of the mountain, we once again found ourselves in the German Colony - only this time, we were able to enter the bottom level of the beatiful Bahá'í Gardens. (I don't want to go into great detail about the Bahá'í Faith and the significance of the Shrine of the Báb here, but I recommend following up on the links - the history and religion are fascinating!) We had tried to book a tour of the Gardens and the Shrine but were unsuccessful. Still, being in only the bottom part of the Gardens gave us a taste of the intricate and brilliant beauty supported by Bahá'ís all the world over.

As we had plans to meet Shlomo for dinner and still had some time to spend, we decided to walk through another part of town, check out a pedestrian mall, and see a different perspective of Haifa. We found ourselves in a "downtown"-like area and ended up in a park full of Russian men playing Chess, young boys having fun with dogs, and gaggles of Orthodox girls walking together. Then, still having more time, we decided to walk to the Carmel area we had missed last night. And that involved going up the mountain we had just recently walked down.

Our map showed several stairways that let us avoid long, winding roads, and Jessica and I set off on our trek. With each level of altitude, we took better and better pictures, and as the sun set and the wind blew, we knew we had made the right decision. By the time we had reached the top of the Bahá'í Gardens (which include 500-700 stairs), we were tired but familiar with parts of Haifa we otherwise would never have been able to see. It was a terrific walk!

Shlomo picked us up and drove us through the Carmel area. We did some geneaology work at his house (mostly Jessica and Shlomo talked about their family), and then we went to a great restaurant around the corner from Shlomo's house. I had "blintches," which are different from "blintzes" insofar as they're rolled (somewhat like manicotti) with different fillings, and Jessica had a delicious "hot salad," the likes of which we haven't come across in Jerusalem. We also had an enormous piece of chocolate cake ... because after all, we were on vacation! After tea at Shlomo's he drove us back to our hostel, and we crashed after a bit of "debriefing" on the patio.

On Thursday, we ate our breakfast with two
Bahá'í pilgrims from Canada. Although they were very reticent during the entire meal, I wanted to learn as much as I could from them, so I tried to ask questions without being impolite. They shared when directly asked about their experiences that they had booked their pilgrimage five years ago and that they would be in Haifa for nine days. The nine day-long pilgrimage would involve about 100 people from all over the world and serves as a crowning experience in the religious life of Bahá'ís. I'd love to speak with people who have already gone - as they had just arrived, they didn't know precisely what they would be in store for. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to be so close to such a central religious experience, and I'm thankful I had the opportunity!

After breakfast, Jessica and I took to the train to the beach. It was cloudy and windy, so we decided just to walk along the shore instead of to sun and swim. There were thousands of beautifully polished rocks, and we collected about a dozen of them on our walk. After about an hour, we crossed the street to the bus station and headed back to Jerusalem.

So, our trip to Haifa didn't involve a tremendous amount of "tourism," but between our conversations with Shlomo and our walking (and a little driving) through a significant percentage of the city, we feel that we had an informative and enjoyable vacation. We have a history of doing a lot of walking in new places, but this sealed the deal: We officially love to explore places by foot! And though I was slightly sore on the bus ride back, I appreciate the opportunity to get so "up close and personal" with one of Israel's most important and well-known ports.

1 comment:

Jeff H. said...

Glad you had a chance to visit the Bahá'í Gardens. Marcia and I have been friends off-and-on over the last 20 years with James and Anita Williams (James used to work at Ferrum College), who are Bahá'í leaders in Roanoke. When we were on the community trip to Israel in March 2007, we got only a brief view of the Bahá'í world headquarters, through the windows of our bus--a great loss.