In Israel, History With a Whiff of Adventure

“JUMP! Just jump!” I could hear Sarah, my 12-year-old daughter, pleading. My feet were dangling in the air and my body was squeezed into a manhole-sized opening in a dirt floor, with only a flickering candle illuminating the darkness. I grappled around and held  my breath before dropping to the ground.

Up ahead, Sarah’s two older brothers were scrambling through a cloud of dust into a hollowed-out chamber dug 2,300 years ago. We were in the remains of Maresha, about 50 miles south of  Tel Aviv. Its residents excavated caves to produce limestone for construction, and then created an intricate network of tunnels to connect the caves so they could be used as workshops, storage chambers and reservoirs.

Covered with chalky sediment, we climbed up a rickety wooden staircase and emerged into daylight.Our tour guide had warned that caving wasn’t for the claustrophobic, so the children’s grandmother had remained above ground. “How was it down there?” she asked.

“Like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ ” responded 14-year-old Charlie.

“No, more like ‘The Temple of Doom,’ ” argued 16-year-old David.

My husband and I shook off the dust and smiled. This was what we hoped for when we booked the trip. Our goal was to learn as much as possible about Israel's history in 10 days without spending too many precious vacation hours in side museums, temples or churches. We wanted our children’s holiday to have a whiff of adventure. If the caves of Maresha reminded them of Indiana Jones, we were on the right track.

Teenagers thrive on action and intrigue, and Israel fits the bill. The entire country is kid-friendly, lively and colorful,  laid back and casual.  Outside of some ultra-Orthodox areas, no rigid rules or dress codes apply; you can wear jeans and T-shirts just about anywhere. You can go caving and then show up at a nice cafe for lunch without changing clothes, and nobody cares.

Israel is a young country that has been dogged by regional conflict from its very beginnings. Whethe ryou’re touring ancient archaeological sites or modern military monuments, some discussion of Middle Eastern strife inevitably crops up.  Every Israeli — from gun-toting soldiers we met on top of the Golan Heights to tent-dwelling nomad swe met in the Judean Desert — has an opinion on the contention, and few refrain from expressing their thoughts.

This continuing dialogue, heightened by endlessly televised news about the conflict, served as a dramatic backdrop for our three-generation trip. We crisscrossed the country, which is about the size of New Jersey. Few destinations offer such a vast array of experiences in such a small space — or so many educational opportunities that feel like plain fun.

We started with an open-air jeep ride up the Golan Heights, which rise steeply from the Sea of Galilee. As we bumped along the rocky terrain, our guide described Israel’s capture of the area during the Six-Day War in 1967.  He broke off to jump out and grab a gigantic pomelo  off a tree;  flicking open a switchblade knife, he served us pieces of the surprisingly sweet, juicy fruit.  Nearing the crest, we could see Jordan, Syria and Lebanon spread out below, a grid of roads and fences marking the borders between green and brown patches of land.

We disembarked at Mount Bental and toured the Israel Defense Forces bunkers used in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  “Look!” Sarah whispered as we entered the situation room. I stumbled,and found myself face to face with an Uzi sub machine gun, on the shoulder of a pony-tailed girl barely older than my boys.  A group of female soldiers were gathered around a map, conversing in Hebrew.  Three pairs of eyes took in every detail:  the olive-green fatigues, the polished black boots, the backpacks, the cell phones, the sunglasses . . . and the guns, nonchalantly draped across backs, looped through cargo belts around waists.  My children stood riveted, casting sly glances at the soldiers until one broke the ice with a broad grin. They welcomed Sarah into their fold and posed for photos, hands on triggers.

Our Golan Heights excursion unleashed a torrent of questions about the war for independence and Israel’s1948 declaration of statehood.  We found answers at the Avalon Institute,  formerly a clandestine munitions factory built by the Haganah (the main Jewish paramilitary organization in the final years of the British mandate in Palestine) under a kibbutz near Tel Aviv. Restored and opened to the public,the institute is not mentioned in many guidebooks and gets little press.  Yet Charlie, who devours detective novels and has twice toured the International Spy Museum in Washington, declared it his favorite site.

The place conveys a real sense of danger;  had the Haganah members been discovered, they would have been hanged. The factory operations were concealed by a bakery and laundry; a 10-ton oven and a large washing machine hid entrances to the shop floor, which housed as many as 50 workers who, at the peak, produced 40,000 bullets a day. Then oise of the washing machines camouflaged the din of the manufacturing process below ground.

David was especially fascinated by the sunlamps that munitions workers used to get an artificial tan. “It’s like an alibi,” our guide explained. “They pretended to leave the kibbutz each morning to work on a neighboring farm and then they sneaked backi nto the factory to make bullets. People would be suspicious if they looked too pale.”

Next we traveled to Acco, site of a medieval Crusaders’ fortress and later an Ottoman citadel. When the Turks were defeated by the British in 1918, the fortress became a high-security prison that held Jewish freedom fighters.  Today the Underground Prison Memorial Museum pays tribute to them.  A gloomy, ominous air hangs over the prison cells, with their thick stone walls, iron bars and narrow windows. Our group was mesmerized by the gallows room, with a noose centered over a trapdoor in the floor.

The Acco complex was impressive, but nothing could have prepared us for the majesty of Massada, the sprawling mountaintop fortress built more than 2,000 years ago by King Herod (and later the site of a mass suicide of Jewish defenders besieged by Roman troops). Nimble as a goat, Charlie raced straight up the “snake path” — a trail with sharp switchbacks — in half an hour.  It took me another 20 minutes,including water breaks.  Our group met at the summit, stunned by the vastness of King Herod’s vision. There were dozens of ruins, many decorated with detailed mosaics and frescoes.

Descending from Masada by cable car, we gazed at the shimmering Dead Sea, the deepest salt lake on earth,sitting 2,621 feet below sea level at its deepest point. No trip to Israel would be complete without a dip in the Dead Sea.  At Ein Gedi, one of many day spas dotting the shoreline, we soaked in warm mineral-springs pools, glopped on piles of clammy black mud and bobbed like corks in the sea’s waters.  Later, at the gift shop, Sarah insisted on buying a tub of black mud to share with her friends; she was already envisioning a Dead Sea spa party in her bathroom.

We stopped for dinner at Genesis Land a Biblical-style encampment in the Judean Desert. Here tourists can take a camel trek and eat traditional cuisine under “Abraham’s Tent.” The adults considered it the equivalent of a medieval theme park with fake knights and jousting contests.  But the children adored donning Bedouin smocks and sharing shish kebab, hummus and pita bread around low tables.

In Jerusalem,we spent the better part of four days exploring. The walled Old City is informally divided into four quarters — Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish — with a vibrant clash of languages, cultures and religions.  During our stay, American visitors were advised to stay out of the Arab market (popular for inexpensive souvenirs)at night because of tensions in the Gaza Strip.  Otherwise, we were free to roam.

The highlight was a walking tour of the turreted stone ramparts commissioned by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century.  We hiked up several steep flights of stairs and inched our way, single file, along the perimeter of the Old City.The ramparts are not for those with vertigo, but they gave us a glimpse of a wholly different side of Jerusalem: a rooftop cityscape with women hanging out wash, children playing soccer and gardeners tending their grape arbors. In the distance was the golden Dome of the Rock; up close was the gleaming marble Citadel, another gift from the great King Herod.

Our last stop in Jerusalem was at the Western Wall tunnels, a series of hidden passages — only recently opened to the public — that peel away layers of history to reveal the full length of the Western Wall from the Herodian period.  The children were amazed to learn that the same King Herod who built the mountaintop fortress at Masada had also engineered the grand expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. As we strolled the ancient cobblestone street that ran along the Temple Mount, Charlie let out a low whistle. “King Herod was the man,” he said. “Can you imagine what he would build if he were around today?”



El Al offers regular non stop flights from New York to Ben Gurion International Airport, about 35 miles from Jerusalem and 10 miles from Tel Aviv.  Round-trip fares for travel in mid-June start at around $800. Because of rigorous security procedures, passengers must show up to be screened well in advance of their flights.   Car rental desks at Ben Gurion are open 24 hours;good roads, international signage and short distances make driving around Israel relatively simple.


The Carlton in Tel Aviv (10 Eliezar Peri Street, 972-3-520-1818, www.carlton.co.il) offers sweeping views of the Mediterranean at rates starting at $300.  In Jerusalem, the King David (23 King David Street, 972-2-620-8888; www.danhotels.com) and the David Citadel  (7 King David Street, 972-2-621-1111; www.thedavidcitadel.com) are luxury hotels that regularly host dignitaries and celebrities.  Doubles typically begin at $430 at the King David and $350 at the David Citadel. For a less expensive alternative, try the Sheraton Jerusalem Plaza (47 King George Street, 972-2-629-8666; www.starwoodhotels.com),where prices start at $275 for a double.


The caves of Maresha are 35 miles south of Jerusalem in Beit Guvrin National Park (972-8-681-1020; www.parks.org.il).Fees are 25 shekels for adults and 13 shekels for children (about $6 and $3,respectively, at 4.2 shekels to the dollar). For a tour of the Golan Heights,contact one of the many companies operating jeep trips out of Tel Aviv. Booking-tours.com  (972-8-633-8361; www.Petra-trip.com) offers an all-day tour (7 a.m. to 6 p.m.)  from Tel Aviv.

The Ayalon Institute is located on the northern outskirts of Rehovot, south of Tel Aviv. Visitors must call ahead for reservations (972-8-940-6552).  The adult fee is 20 shekels; children are 15shekels.

In Akko, the Underground Prisoners Memorial Museum (972-4-991-1375)offers daily tours. Adult fee is 16 shekels; children 10 shekels.

MasadaNational Park (972-8-658-4207; www.parks.org.il) is about a 60- mile drive southeast from Jerusalem. Entry fee including cable car is 67 shekels for adults, 38 shekels for children.

The Ein Gedi Spa on the Dead Sea (972-8-659-4813; www.ngedi.com)offers access to sulfur pools, mud baths, showers and beach for 60 shekels for adults and 35 shekels for children.

GenesisLand (972-2-997-4477; www.genesisland.co.il) is about 15 miles from Jerusalem, on the Alon road, a main route. Abraham’s Feast — including dinner and a biblical presentation by character actors — costs 145 shekels per person.Reservations must be made in advance.

In Jerusalem, the Ramparts Walk (972-2-627-7550) costs 16 shekels for adults and 8 shekels for children.

Kotel Tunnels Tour (972-2-627-1333, www.thekotel.org) offers tours by guides from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, who charge 25 shekels for adults and 15for children.

Families will also enjoy the bustling, chaotic outdoor markets, offering goods like unusual spices,baked goods, nuts, candy, produce and souvenirs, in Jerusalem and other major cities.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction:May 31, 2009

The Taking the Kids column on May 17, about exploring Israel with children, misstated part of the name of Israel’s military forces. They are called the Israel Defense Forces, not the Israeli Defense Forces. And the column referred incorrectly to the depth of the Dead Sea. It is about 2,621 feet below sea level at its deepest point; thee ntire sea is not 2,621 feet below sea level.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction:June 7, 2009

The Taking the Kids column on May 17, about exploring Israel with children, misstated the history of the Haganah. It was initially the main Jewish paramilitary organization in the final years of the British mandate in Palestine; it was not the country’s “pre-independence armed forces.” (The Haganah eventually became the core of Israel’s military.)


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