Posted by: Merrilee | April 13, 2010

Conclusion – From Marrakesh to Jerusalem

As I reflect on my recent journey through Morocco, Egypt and Israel I recall the people I met or interacted with along the way – especially the Arabs and the Jews.

There were the unveiled Muslim women in the hammams of Morocco who seemed to be quite taken with my presence there; our charming Arab Servas host in Cairo who had a hard time accepting the fact he was socializing with my travel companion who is Jewish; and our gracious Israeli Servas host who invited us to her home to celebrate Shabbat.

Then there were the Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs and Jews all working together behind the desks of our kosher hotels in Israel – and the children who laughed and played together oblivious of these differences.

Each of these people and many more contributed to enriching my knowledge and giving me a better understanding of that part of the world.

Maa’ al-salaama and Shalom

Travelogue written by Merrilee Zellner

Posted by: Merrilee | April 3, 2010

Hope for Israel

While in the old port city of Haifa one day we visited the public market in the Christian Arab section of the city. On a nearby building I found a plaque with the following inscription:

“We are part of the Palestinian People and our vital interest is to reach a just solution of the Palestinian problem that would not contradict the interests of the Israeli people with whom we live together.” (by courtesy of the National Orthodox Community Council – Haifa.)

With all my heart I wish peace and prosperity to the people of Israel and Palestine.





Posted by: Merrilee | March 30, 2010

A Day of Sympathy in Jerusalem

One afternoon in Jerusalem as we approached a museum on foot which we had planned to visit, streams of people were pouring down a hillside path next to us. I remembered my guide book had said that the museum that we were about to visit was next to the Israeli Military Cemetery.  I recalled reading the morning’s newspaper headline story about two Israeli soldiers who had been killed in action on the Gaza border over the weekend and surmised that this was their funeral service.  

We walked through the crowds up a winding path lined with lush foliage. The bright sunlight glanced through the trees as if to challenge the sorrow that was to greet us at the top of the hill.

Here we found hundreds of well-wishers of all ages. The families of the two fallen soldiers who were seated on the ground against a high rock wall were almost hidden from view by the crowds that engulfed them. People were perched in trees and standing on top of the rock wall above the mourners. Most men were wearing a “kippah” (traditional Jewish scullcap). Some were praying in a synagogue a few meters from the rock wall.  Some females in military uniform were greeted by friends with a heartfelt hug. Periodically the sound of sobbing rose above the low hum of voices.

Every couple of months a tragedy like this occurs as the Palestinian conflict continues, we were told.



Posted by: Merrilee | March 29, 2010

Matchmakers in Action

While we were having tea with our Servas Host Barbara in the lobby of our Jerusalem hotel one evening,  she suddenly motioned for us to look at an attractive young couple who was sitting opposite each other on sofas nearby.  They were dressed sharply, yet conservatively – he in a dark suit and she in a dark, ancle-length skirt and jacket.  Her long black hair was pulled back; her make-up was meticulous.  They were deep in conversation.

Barbara explained that they were an Orthodox Jewish couple who had  probably just been introduced by a matchmaker or by their respective families.  Since Orthodox women must cover their heads once they marry, it was evident this couple wasn’t married.  Tradition dictates that their first meeting be in a public place; therefore a hotel lobby area is often chosen.

The intensity of the conversation that went on for over an hour intrigued us.  Barbara said they were undoubtedly discussing marriage issues such as how many children each wanted and whether or not the woman would need to work.

If, as a result of this meeting, they are interested in each other enough to continue exploring the possibility of marriage, they will have several  more similar meetings which may then be followed by an engagement.  All their meetings until their wedding night have to be within sight of other people.

Since then we have identified similar couples in other hotel lobbies in Israel.  Judging from the lovely Orthodox Jewish families we have observed, this traditional process of finding a marriage partner has stood the test of time.



Posted by: Merrilee | March 27, 2010

Tel-Aviv’s Architectural Treasures

We weren’t particularly aware of Tel-Aviv’s architectural treasure in the form of *Bauhaus architecture until we met our new Servas Host Hagai, who is an architect.  He took us on a walking tour one evening through his neighborhood pointing out the simplicity and functionality of the International Modern style with its flat roofs, curved edges, and rounded balconies.  Some illumination enhanced the dramatic lines of these buildings.  The style reminded me of the lovely Art Deco style that is prevalent in South Beach, Florida.

These buildings were designed by immigrant European architects who fled in the wake of the Nazi threat in the 1930’s.  Making use of the experience they acquired while developing houses of  Bauhaus style in Germany, more than 4000 were designed in Tel-Aviv.

One afternoon while we were sitting in an outdoor café on a busy pedestrian street which was lined with houses of this style, we met Yuval, a long-time area resident.  He had bought the top floor loft of the four-story building which loomed above us when he immigrated from the United States 30 years ago.  He said he was a pioneer then in an area which was totally run down, similar to SOHO (with its lofts) in New York City before it became gentrified.  He was an interior designer and  shared with us a lot of his knowledge of the surrounding buildings having worked on many of their interiors.

The Bauhaus legacy was recently recognized by UNESCO giving the city by the sea World Heritage status.  We felt fortunate to have met locals who could give us some insight into this special heritage.


Posted by: Merrilee | March 23, 2010

Shabbat in Tel-Aviv

It was a beautiful, clear, windy day when we arrived in Tel-Aviv on Saturday afternoon during Shabbat.  The street-side cafes were packed with people and the waterfront area was bustling with activity.  This liveliness in the Jewish secular city of Tel-Aviv on Shabbat was a world apart from what we had experienced on the same holiday in more conservative Jerusalem where the streets were relatively deserted until sundown.

On the waterfront beach volleyball was going strong, sailboats and windsurfers were catching the breezes, sun worshippers and children were frolicking in the sea, couples played hardball on the boardwalk, and joggers were dodging the human traffic.  But what really caught my attention was a large eclectic group of mostly-middle-aged people who were dancing to lively tunes on the boardwalk.

The music which was blasting out of a couple of speakers had a “folksy” sound to it.   Line dancing  changed to couple dancing then back to line dancing.  All were welcome to spontaneously join in.   This activity was eons away from the kind of dancing and chanting I observed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I thought.  A woman visiting from Austria who was standing next to me was trying to coax her male companion to join her on the “dance floor”  She told me that whenever she visits Tel-Aviv she tries not to miss dancing on the beach on Shabbat.

We later learned that the music we heard that day was derived from the folk music of the Russian immigrants who came to Israel and founded the Kibbutzim many years ago.

This secular city swings!


Posted by: Merrilee | March 18, 2010

An Afternoon in Hebron

As we disembarked from our bus inside a checkpoint in the Biblical town of Hebron on the West Bank, we were welcomed into a pottery shop by Khaled, a congenial Arab. His shop was the only sign of life other than that of the Israeli military guards in and around the road where we had alighted.

A few meters away was the imposing ancient Ibrahim Mosque, the focus of conflicting religious-political claims  between Muslims and Jews.   The mosque was built over an ancient Jewish site by the Muslims when they conquered the country in 7th century.  Both the Muslims and the Jews believe that inside this structure lies the tomb of Abraham, their Biblical forefather. Hence today’s rivalry over Hebron. 

Before we proceeded to explore a bit of the town, we were assured by one of the military policemen that “you are safe here in the Jewish section.”

One of Hebron’s main streets which was described to us as “neutral territory now” lies vacant and boarded up. Until recently, it had been a thriving market street with shops and restaurants owned or operated by Muslims and Jews. The only assurance we had that were not in a ghost town was the housing that covered the adjacent hillside of the Jewish section. The Arab section was not within view.

We toured the Jewish side of the mosque which had partially been converted to a synagogue long ago. In order to enter the Arab side of the mosque we first needed to enter the Arab section of town at the end of the street. Because one of us is Jewish, we were advised by the military not to enter the Arab section, which was governed by the Palestinian Authority, for safety reasons. We took their advice and didn’t enter.

Just before we left town to return to Jerusalem, we stopped at the pottery shop by the bus stop again. Khaled demonstrated some pottery-making as he commented on the politics of Hebron. “In some sections of town only a Jew and a Christian can enter; in other sections\a Christian and an Arab can enter; and in other sections an Arab and a Jew can enter,” he said with a waive of his hand and a slight laugh. He is trying to tell us of the absurdity of it all, I thought. We laughed with him, even though we knew the matter was deadly serious.

I bought some pottery from him, especially so I wouldn’t forget him – the friendly Arab in the midst of the “neutral territory” in the politically-charged town of Hebron.






Posted by: Merrilee | March 15, 2010

Jerusalem – Shabbat

The Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, is THE place to be at sundown on Fridays when Sabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, begins.

Late Friday afternoon we followed a steady stream of worshipers, dressed in their finest, up a steep path just outside the Old City walls.  The gold Dome of the Rock , part of a complex of buildings on the Temple Mount, glistened in the setting sun.  It was a landmark to get us to the Western Wall.

In the open plaza of the Wailing Wall, as the Western Wall is commonly called, large circles of young people, separated by gender, were singing, clapping and dancing.  As we approached the Western Wall, the sounds in the air were electrifying – joyous singing and chanting in the open-air sanctuary competed with  the clamor of voices in the bustling plaza and the loudspeakers of nearby mosques which were calling the Muslim faithful to prayer.

The female side of the sanctuary was relatively small as compared to the men‘s side.  I approached it via a ramp, passing modestly-dressed Orthodox women with numerous children in tow.  I soon found myself next to a group of young ladies who were singing together. Women who were chanting and praying solo – some seated, some standing – surrounded us.  Taking a cue from others as I left, I backed out of the sanctuary while continually facing The Western Wall.

More reveling was going on on the men’s side than on the women’s.  A group of military men in uniform with rifles were dancing and jumping in a circle along with others.  Tables with prayer books stacked on top were scattered about.  From where I stood peering over the enclosure, the cacophony of sounds coming from the men’s sanctuary pierced the atmosphere.

Jerry and I spent the rest of the evening enjoying a quiet Shabbat dinner in the home of our new *Servas Host Barbara along with several of her friends.  Our special dinner included the reciting of prayers along with wine and “hallah” (traditional braided bread).

The following day after sunset “normalcy” returned to the streets in the Jewish parts of town.  Shabbat was now officially over until the following  Friday evening.  Buses started running again, and shops and restaurants opened up for business. Watching this transition take place was somewhat like watching a city come alive after a blackout.

That evening we ran into a well-attended protest.  It was against a new unwritten concession given to the ultra-Orthodox sector by the bus company in which all women are required to sit in the back of the bus on bus lines which are frequented by ultra-Orthodox Jews.  “This is a dangerous precedent,” stated Taffy, one of the protesters we met.

“Normalcy” in the Holy City is a relative term.



* Servas is an international non-profit peace organization of hosts and travelers.  For more information visit

Posted by: Merrilee | March 14, 2010

Welcome to Israel! Jerusalem

At the Tel-Aviv Airport the customs official greeted us with a steely gaze and pointed questions about our purpose for being here. On the streets of Jerusalem, Orthodox Jewish men dressed in black with traditional brimmed hat perched on the back of their heads shared the same street with Muslim women modestly dressed in ankle-length skirts and traditional headscarves. To enter the main bus station we passed through two metal detectors; men and women in military uniforms carrying their rifles and backpacks were eating in the food court.

Welcome to Israel!


One evening in Jerusalem the high energy of music coming from the Great Synagogue attracted our attention us as we strolled by.

A man just inside the entrance in a black suit and traditional black hat saw us inquisitively looking around. He motioned for us to come in and then continued in conversation with several other men in similar attire. We felt out of place in our casual western dress but accepted his invitation, gingerly proceeding forward. The vibrant sight that greeted us from the stairway leading down to a large social hall completely captivated us for the next hour. We had stumbled into a Jewish Orthodox wedding celebration.

The energy of the live band was only matched by the men dancing in front of it and the women doing the same on the other side of a fabric divider which separated the sexes. Men moved in three concentric circles with their arms resting on each others shoulders as their bodies moved to the rhythm of the music. At one point the groom was hoisted up on a chair and paraded above his male guests.

On the women’s side of the room the bride in her flowing white dress was striking against the background of the female guests who were dancing with and around her dressed in black. Young girls and children danced in the peripheral areas.

Moments after the music stopped a stream of men made their way to the outside courtyard where some enjoyed a smoke. Lively conversation ensued.

What a rousing welcome to Israel we had that night!



Posted by: Merrilee | March 7, 2010

Egypt, Luxor to Aswan – Land of Temples and Tombs

Aswan is a romantic, laid-back city just north of the reservoir (Lake Nasser) which was formed by the Aswan Dam.  Feluccas under full sail seem to drift aimlessly among the rocky islands that nearly dwarf the otherwise mighty river as it curves its way around the city. Cruise ships that started their journey in Luxor a couple of days before hug the East Bank, sometimes five deep, as they did in Luxor.

We took a boat ride to reach the Temple of Isis at Philae today.  The ruins of the Egyptian temple were submerged when the Aswan High Dam was completed in 1971 and later reconstructed on a nearby island by UNESCO.

…..But let me digress for a few moments back to Luxor and the Nile Valley while my memories of that land of grand temples and pharaonic tombs are still fresh in my mind….

Jerry and I visited the royal tombs of the New Kingdom period (1150-1069 BC) in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank.   Lush green fields watered by the Nile’s man-made canals gave way to dry, brown desert sands.   We descended into the burial chambers of Pharoahs which were buried deep in the sand.  Armed guards protected the site.

But our repeated joy was riding in a horse-drawn carriage at various times of day and night in downtown Luxor to get up close and personal with the splendor of Luxor Temple (approx. 1300 BC) and its surroundings.  At nighttime, when the graceful temple which sits high along the East Bank was lit up, it took my breath away.

We often forged our way through the narrow streets of the local market near the temple in a carriage.  No more horn honking here – just the sounds of a vibrant market in action, our horse clomping, and our driver yelling out when someone in the street got too close to his carriage.


Back in Aswan it’s a different world – a world where submerged antiquities are rescued and rebuilt on higher ground, and the sun sets over the dunes on the Nile’s West Bank.   We just took our last boat ride around Aswan’s islands to say good-bye to a beautiful place.

We are off to  Israel on a late night flight tonight.


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