Well here it is, Part III of my travelogue to Israel. The grand finale in Part IV will contain a few surprises, so stay tuned. I admit that traveling to the Middle East had not been high on my so-called bucket list until I discovered (as you read in Jimmy Tomlin’s article) that I was half Ashkenazi Jewish thanks to my birth father. This discovery gave me an identity and a heritage that I never had before. So, I joined Jeff and Tammy Patterson as they took a group mostly from Wesley Memorial UMC on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It truly is a trip of a lifetime, no matter your religion or heritage.

People have asked me, “What was the highlight?” That is impossible to answer. It was a total awakening to a land, culture and history.

You may remember Part II left off as we left Tiberius and the Sea of Galilee and began on our way to the desert and the Dead Sea. David Aarons was our Jewish Israeli tour guide and Mohammed our Muslim bus driver. Aarons moved to Israel from Boston about 35 years ago and was incredible. We all loved him.

Our first stop along the way through the Judean desert was Yardenit, the site on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Noticeably, there were Uzi-armed Israeli guards quite visible but very approachable. They looked to be young girls, probably in their late teens or early 20s. All Israeli citizens are required to enlist in the army at 18 but can enlist at 17.

We could hear several languages being spoken as many international groups were touring, some donning the white robes for a baptismal renewal, others attending a Catholic Mass. In our group Dan Wyke (Jeff and Tammy’s son-in-law married to their daughter, Liz) played his newly purchased Shofar Kosher horn (beautifully, I might add) that echoed across the Jordan River into the country of Jordan.

Continuing on the West Bank we were on our way to Jericho, the oldest town on earth, yes on earth. Archaeologists have found evidence that Jericho became a town as far back as 10,000 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) or B.C. (Before Christ). Now compare that to what we think is old, the 1700s! Wow! It is really hard to fathom. In addition, it is also the lowest town in the world, at 1,300 feet below sea level.

We visited a wonderful gift shop there (spent some of my shekels) and also enjoyed lunch. Aarons pointed out some of the many new, large stone homes surrounded by walls being built by rich Palestinians. Throughout the sidewalks of Jericho there were outdoor markets with fresh produce of fruits, vegetables, and banana carts. Bananas are one of the area’s main crops, in fact everyone got a banana with their lunch of falafel or shawarma.

Then we were on our way to the Masada and spotted several wild ibexes along the way roaming the desert sands. I was completely mesmerized by this palatial fortress built by King Herod 1,300 feet above the Dead Sea on the edge of the Judean Desert. It was built in the last century B.C., and it is just so absolutely astonishing to me that this wondrous fort up so high in a desert could be built at all. The engineering feat of getting the water up to the fortress was ingenious in itself. There was a town up there itself including western and northern palace, a synagogue, a Byzantine church, a water cistern system, an elegant bathhouse, and innumerable rooms and observation points. Amazing!

When we arrived, the clouds were darkening so we all took the cable car (that’s my excuse) up to Masada. When we got to the top the winds were vicious. It began to rain, to pour. We were in the middle of a desert! Can you believe that?! We almost didn’t make it down because it was almost too windy for the cable car to run. But we did!

Continuing on, Aarons pointed out the cave in the vast, open desert where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The cave was in the middle of nowhere, and there were caves everywhere. The story goes that a shepherd boy was playing and threw a bottle into a cave and heard a “clink.” He went into the cave and found the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The “clink” was caused by the clay pot they had been preserved in.

Our destination for the evening was a resort on the Dead Sea. As the bus maneuvered the narrow road the turquoise color of the Dead Sea set against the mountains and the billowing white clouds was a scene out of National Geographic.

The Dead Sea is not only the saltiest body of water on Earth (8.6 times saltier than the ocean) but it also contains minerals such as bromide, magnesium and of course sodium, and that supposedly brings out the toxins from your skin! Not only that, there is so much salt in the Dead Sea that it has a natural buoyancy and one just floats. Our group had to put that to the test.

Next to our resort was the Segregated Beach. In Israel that means gender-separated for Israeli’s more religious community. There was an actual wall to separate the two. We all saw that wall when we went to the beach for “The Float” early the next morning. It was a chilly, chilly day, yet many donned a “throw-away” suit or shorts for the experience of floating. It was amazing. Then it was up to the room, a quick shower, pack and on the bus to Jerusalem!

Stay safe. Have a great week!