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Cigarette smoke Israel, Wall Street cigarettes Israel
By: Justin Jones (justin) 2012.06.11

    “I’m going to Israel next week”
    —“Don’t get blown up”

For many Americans, the mention of Israel conjures up a strange amalgam of images, a mixture of historical sites, places of incredible religious significance, and yes, war. We see a postcard of an Orthodox Jew praying at the Western Wall and we think of a newscast showing a blown out building in Haifa, destroyed by Hezbollah rockets. We see photo of a smiling tourist, floating in the Dead Sea and are reminded a newspaper headline declaring Palestinian uprisings in the Gaza Strip. The wars, the suicide bombings, the histories, and the religious sites of Israel are all old news to us.

The things we don’t know are what lure us to a place, and lured I was.
Like many traveling to Israel for the first time, I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew I would get a crash-course in history and religion, but I was also I was looking for the things not shown in newscasts, headlines, or even history books. I was looking for a bit of the local culture, a bit of adventure.

Middle East Meets Modern Chic

Bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, my fellow passengers and I were herded through the standard airport-shuffle like so many zombies. I wandered through the super-modern Ben Gurion airport, along high-tech, moving walkways, huge clean windows, and shiny modern art sculptures – all gleaming testaments to my ignorant misconceptions. There was certainly more to this country than the evening news might lead you to believe.

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Near the luggage claim area, I met my tour guide, Mike Rogoff, a lively South African transplant with a friendly smile, a grizzled, scratchy voice, and a gift for keeping guided tours interesting and fun. Mike was recommended by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, and proved to be a endless source of information and witty banter.

With bags loaded and seatbelts buckled, we hit the road for a short drive into Tel Aviv with our driver, Niso, at the helm. Tel Aviv is the Commercial center of Israel, and a major travel hub. As we drove into the city, I noticed clusters of tall, modern buildings flanking the Ayalon Freeway.  These towering behemoths of concrete, steel, and reflective glass seemed more New York than Israel. In fact, the whole scene screamed metropolitan, not Middle East.

Just a few minutes down the road, I felt like I had been transported from Wall Street to some sort of hip resort town on the French Riviera.  The Tayelet Promenade is a 2   mile stretch of hotels, cafes, and sparkling coastline. The sun shines almost year-round in Israel, meaning the beach is almost always strewn with the tan flesh of beautiful young Israelis. From where I was standing, I could see more bombshells than bombs – wasn’t this country supposed to be war-torn? 

I checked into my hotel just off the Promenade and went for a walk, in search of some jet-lag-quenching cigarettes. I took deep breath, savoring the sweet ocean air, then chased it with a drag off my newly purchased Israeli Marlboro Lights. The standard cancer / death warnings were written in Hebrew on one side, Arabic on the other. Ah, the simple delights of foreign travel.

Back at the hotel, I caught up with Mike, Niso, and my newly-arrived tour companions, and we set out for Jaffa, one of the oldest port cities in the world.  Jaffa is now considered part of the municipality of Tel Aviv, but it feels like another world – you won’t find any skyscrapers here. The narrow, cobblestoned alleyways will lead you through the restored sections of Jaffa where warehouses have become chic new restaurants and once-crumbling dwellings have been turned into art galleries and studios. 

The old-world Charm of Jaffa and the idyllic beauty of the beach isn’t all that Tel Aviv has to offer –this city is famous for its night life.  Bars and clubs range from dark, smoky dives to classy lounges and thumping clubs. The city’s wide boulevards are often packed in the evenings, as young Israelis grab a pre- or post-club snack from one of the many mid-boulevard shops. When the sun rises, a whole new group of Israelis flood the streets looking for hip fashions and strong Turkish coffee. The scene is Melrose meets Middle East. Pricey European boutiques are flanked by street vendors selling falafel, shawarma, and some of the best hummus you’ll ever try – seriously, its glorious.

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That evening, I dabbled in the local bar scene and tasted the local hummus.  The next morning, I knew  it time for a taste of local adventure, and my tour guide Mike knew just where to take me.


I was rumbling down a runway in an old Cessna airplane, trying not to freak out about the fact that I was about to jump out of an airplane from 11,000 feet. Mike wanted  to show us a bit of real adventure in Israel, and somehow this is where I ended up. My heart was pounding and my throat was dry, but I couldn’t back out, I had too much pride for that - plus I was strapped to an instructor and he was jumping no matter what.
I was at the Paradive drop zone on Habonim Beach, a skydiving center nestled amongst banana plantations just outside of Haifa. Its isolated location and its mellow vibe made it seem like a sort of Shangri-La for altitude junkies. I was no junkie, in fact, this was to be my first time jumping out of an airplane, and I was understandably nervous. As my plane rumbled towards the end of the runway, I tried to remember everything that my instructor, Itay Berashadsky had taught me during my brief training session. Cross your arms, then don’t cross your arms, arch your back, bend your knees, don’t forget to breath – got it. The engine growled down the runway, the plane lifted off the ground, and I swallowed hard, trying not to let my nervousness get the best of me.

During the pre-jump training, Itay had joked that people skydive in Israel to, “enjoy the holy skies and get closer to god.” From my vantage point at 11,000 feet, I saw that this wasn’t entirely a joke. Below me was the Stunning Mediterranean coast, just north was the city of Haifa, beyond that, the border with Lebanon, and  Mt. Hermon and the border with Syria. On a clear day, you could probably see all the way to Jordan. It’s hard to take in all that heavenly scenery while plummeting through the holy skies at an average freefall speed of 120 mph.

Needless to say, I landed safely, and was happy to have my feet back on the ground.  Skydiving may not be the first thing people think of when planning a trip to Israel, but it’s actually fairly popular with the locals.  The drop zone was full of people, some there for their first jump, some seasoned free-fallers, and some paratroopers in training. In fact, skydiving popular for Bar Mitzvahs – there’s nothing like taking your first steps into adulthood, right off the edge of an airplane. Mazal Tov!

With the Adrenaline still rushing through my veins, it was time to hit the road.

Jerusalem of Gold

No trip to Israel would be complete without a trip to Jerusalem, and no trip to Jerusalem would be complete without a trip to the Old City, a sort of nexus of cultures and religions. Within the walls of the Old City are the temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, the  al-Aqsa Mosque,  and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We were on a tight schedule, so Mike put together whirlwind tour of the Old City’s historical and religious hotspots. The Western Wall was an almost overwhelming experience, even for a non-religious person like myself. Rabbis sat rocking back and forth, reading from the Torah while Jews from all over the world came to immerse themselves in somber prayer. I stood and touched the wall, surrounded by the prayers of millions, rolled up in tiny bits of paper and slipped between the cracks in the stones.

After the Western Wall, I wandered through the Muslim Quarter and I found myself immersed in a rabble of commerce and madness.  I was in the middle of a sort of marketplace, really a narrow alleyway lined with vendors of food, spices, house-wares and trinkets. It was late Friday afternoon, and the alley was completely packed with people trying to buy their goods before sunset, the official beginning of Shabbat. Even in the cramped and hectic space, vendors wheeled large overloaded carts through the crowd with wobbling towers of too-high stacked pita bread.

As I muscled through the crowds of elderly women with children tucked into the folds of their skirts, I noticed the distinct smells of the various shops. There was the familiar smell of freshly baked breads, contrasting with the sharp smell of spice vendors and the heavy smell of fresh meat. The smells were so distinct, you could almost navigate the market with your eyes closed.

Outside the Walls of the Old City, I was surprised to find a thriving bar and club scene in Jerusalem. The old German Colony area is full of hip cafes and bars. Be sure to check out Colony Bar and the uber-hip iZen bar, part of an old train station compound.  These places are like Hollywood hipster hotspots, but without the attitude. Colony is an upscale restaurant, bar, and lounge with a cool, eclectic style – picture your grandmother’s sitting room with funky retro chandeliers and modern art interpretations of Marlboro cigarette packs hanging on the walls. iZen’s thumping beats are just around the corner, along with a few other bars and clubs, making this a great place to sample the local boozehound culture.

Besides the bars, there is obviously a lot to see in Jerusalem. The layers of history run deep in this city, and it’s hard to fully appreciate it all, no matter how long you stay.

Bikes, Camels and Mud

As Niso navigated the twisting desert highway, my ears popped, adjusting to the rapidly changing elevation. On the 20 minute ride from Jerusalem to the Dead sea, you drop from about 2,500 ft above sea level to about 1,371 ft below. The extremely low elevation is said to benefit those with heart trouble, cystic fibrosis, eczema, and it will even give a smoker’s lungs a break. The Dead Sea actually holds a few spots in the record books. It is the lowest place on earth (not covered by ice), it is the saltiest body of water (almost 9 times saltier than the ocean water you’re used to), and it is the deepest hypersaline lake in the world.

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We were on our way to the Tour de Dead Sea, a cycling tour organized to draw attention to the receding waters of the Dead Sea in recent years. The starting point for the Tour was at Lido, a part of the Dead Sea area.  There are no real towns out there in the desert, Lido is basically just a junction with a gas station. As we arrived, the sun began to peak over the tops of the mountains and out from behind the clouds.  Cyclists from all walks of life milled around, pulling bikes and gear out of their cars and getting ready for the ride to begin.

A camel  stood listlessly in the grass adjacent to the gas station-*****-Tour-starting-line. The Camel’s grizzled-but-friendly owner introduced himself as Josef: “I am a Bedouin!” he proudly proclaimed in English.  Josef said that he and the camel (named Charlie) were just there for the tourists. He explained that he charged for rides and pictures, and used a sliding scale when determining his fee. “Some $5, some $20!” he said with a smile. This was one savvy nomad. 

Charlie craned his neck around to size me up, then went back to chewing his grass.

On the other side of the gas station, 2 unshaven twenty-somethings smoked a pre-race cigarettes while leaning against their bikes, decked out in full riding regalia. Unfortunately, they didn’t speak English and couldn’t enlighten me on the popularity of cigarette smoking cyclists in Israel.
A very round, freckle-faced child trudged by while stuffing a Kitkat into his chocolate-covered mouth.  He paused to use his shirt as a napkin and then continued on, dragging a bike helmet behind him like a prison shackle. I had seen this boy earlier, pestering Charlie the camel with pokes and curious stares.

The pre-race announcements were broadcast in Hebrew over crackling speakers and the riders funneled through the starting gate (gas station driveway) and faded into the desert.

The Tour de Dead Sea ended at Mineral Beach, where riders could take a soak in one of the sulfur pools, or go for a float in the hypersalene waters of the Dead Sea.  The water is so salty that it burns your skin at every scratch or nick, and so buoyant that it’s almost impossible to completely submerge yourself. After my float I slathered myself in the sticky, black mud from the banks of the Sea.  I let it dry and then had trouble washing it off in the too-buoyant waters. Somehow this torture is supposed to be good for your skin, but between the stinging water and the sticking mud, I don’t think my skin was any happier or healthier.

You can’t put the Kibosh on the Kibbutz

Just minutes from the shore of the Dead Sea is Kibbutz Ein Gedi . Kibbutzim are generally farming communities, founded in ideas of socialism and Zionism. They were first established in the early 1900’s and have since managed to continue to exist in many forms all over Israel.
Our kibbutz guide introduced himself as Zabu.  He was a spry old Jewish man, a sort of hippy, sporting a faded long-sleeved t-shirt, and loose fitting purple sweatpants.  He had a long beard, bifocals, and carried around an unlit, half-smoked cigarette. 

“Do you mind if I smoke? Does the smoke bother you?” he croaked, “ah never mind! I’ve tried to smoke this cigarette 3 times today!”

I instantly liked him.

Zabu, whose full name is Zevulon Levyim was born June of 1941 and has been at Ein Gedi since 1961. In his years at the kibbutz, he has become a sort of fixture in the community, contributing his handyman skills, sculptures, and quirky personality.  Zabu lead us on a short tour of the kibbutz, carting us around on a strange golf-cart type of conveyance.

“hold on,” he warned us as the cart lurched forward suddenly, “it starts like a horse!”

And with that we were off on our tour of the compound. He showed us the dining hall, the large houses with modern amenities, and the beautiful botanical gardens, complete with plants from all over the world. As he showed us the around the kibbutz, I could tell that he was happy with his life and proud of his community.  He would point proudly and say with a smile, “here, I have a Baobab tree, imported from Africa.”

Everything he pointed out, he referred to as his own.  Really, everything there was his, but just as much as it was everyone else’s. His was a life of reciprocity, not material possessions.  On the kibbutz, personal achievements and individualism take a back seat to the success of the community as a whole. “basically it’s a way of life,” Zabu told me, “I think this is the best way – the correct way for human beings to live.”

Upon my return to California, the things I remembered most vividly were the people I met along the way. I can still see Zabu and his half-lit cigarette, and I can still hear Mike’s deep, scratchy voice making some witty joke, followed by a meaningful historical insight. I can still taste the Turkish coffee that I drank with Niso our driver, and I can smell the Goldstar beer and cigarette smoke of the various bars where I chatted with young locals.

I may have found the adventure I was looking for (it’s certainly out there), and I may have learned a bit about history and religion, but as with most trips I have taken, it was the people who I met along the road that made those times meaningful. These were the people who helped me to forget about the newscasts and headlines that I had seen back home.  These were the people that made Israel a place of smiling faces instead of soot-smeared military mugs on television screens.  As tourism increases in Israel, these are the people helping to create a new Israeli image – one of youth, fun, history, resorts, parties, religion, adventure, and anything else you can think of.  Until then, Israel remains at war with their image.

Justin Jones is the Managing Editor of Student Traveler Magazine and a writer / nomad / hooligan. He is also the founder of World Travel Buzz. Find out more at



Check out these sidebars for more info!

Jaffa art

Frank Meisler gallery
The Frank Meisler gallery shows off some of Meisler’s most quirky and beautiful sculptures. Many of his sculptures are kinetic, and most are fun and showcase Meisler’s unique sense of humor.
25 simtat mazal arie

Ilana Goor Museum and Gallery
Ilana Goor creates art as furniture, jewelry, sculptures, and even tableware. The museum is actually part of Goor’s home, lending it a friendly, homey vibe.
4 mazal dagim st. old jaffa


The Paradive drop zone has been in operation for 7 years. All instructors have completed at least 1,000 jumps.

Paradive is easily accessible from Tel Aviv. You can take a train and then a taxi from the station, but they recommend you call the office beforehand. Often times the instructors can pick you up in Tel Aviv and bring you straight to the drop zone.


Weekday tandem jump – 1,190 NIS
Weekend tandem jump – 1290 NIS
Get a video of your jump for just 450 NIS

Set aside an afternoon to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.  They tell the story of the Holocaust by highlighting the personal stories of individuals who experienced the events first hand. There are even videos of survivors telling their emotional stories.  This is a moving and necessary experience - Bring tissues.
Entrance free (donations accepted)

Stop by the Israel museum to check out the Dead Sea Scrolls and an incredibly detailed replica of Jerusalem in the Second Temple time period. The museum also has an archeology wing and an art wing.
Students: 30NIS; Adults 42NIS

iZen and Colony are both located at 7 Beth Lehem St. in Jerusalem. Head towards the German Colony and ask for directions –you’ll find it.
In West Jerusalem, check out the area around Rivlin St, Jaffa Rd, and Zion Square for a thriving pub scene.  The area is dotted with bars and clubs - it gets packed on the weekends, but not until late. Be sure to make a stop at Pub Stardust (6 Rivlin St), a cavernous dive with an awesomely random playlist. The Stardust is named after a David Bowie album and is popular with local students and artists.

Adam Sela offers Land Rover Desert Safaris and specializes in treks, canyoning, rappelling and ethnic Bedouin experiences.

Zabu offers guided tours of the Masada and the nature reserve. Each tour costs about $100 for a half day, depending on transportation needs.

To set up a tour, call Zabu on his mobile in Israel: 972-52-3875-022 or send an email to Danny at

Hostels in Israel

Not Your Average Hostel
Youth hostels in Israel probably aren’t what you’d expect – they’re probably a lot nicer. I visited the Yitzhak Rabin Hostel in Jerusalem and was blown away by the massive, modern building.  The rooms sleep 2 - 4 people, and each room has a private bathroom, heat, and air conditioning, all for roughly $20 per night.

Hostel as Classroom
Every year, hundreds of school children stay at the hostel, so they created a program to help educate young Israelis about democracy. They show a short film about Yitzhak Rabin and democracy, then hold a discussion. Projectors broadcast images and words on all 4 walls and on the floor while music and sounds echo through the room.  There are images of Rabin’s childhood interspersed with images of life and love and war. Afterwards, students use computers to create presentations and further their discussion on democracy.

Where / How?
The Israeli Youth Hostel Association has 19 hostels throughout the country, including locations in Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Ein Gedi and Eilat.


Compiled by Justin Jones. Justin is the Managing Editor of Student Traveler Magazine, founder of World Travel Buzz and a writer / nomad / hooligan. Find out more at

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