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Exploring Israel ó the faith & the food, the music & the majesty

Oh Jerusalem!

Flying into Israel from Jordan, the bare landscape suddenly changes to green, signalling that we have arrived. At Tel Avivís Ben Gurion Airport, families are waiting with colourful balloons and perhaps even confetti to shower on their loved ones who are coming home for Christmas.

Itís a relatively peaceful time in Israel. Now, that can be an audacious statement in Tel Aviv. A little over a month has passed after last Novemberís hostilities.

Wailing Wall near Temple Mount

Yet, itís the time of festivities. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah has just got over and they are getting Santa ready to stand beside little stalls that are being put up near Jaffa Gate of the old city of Jerusalem. Carols are playing on the loudspeaker, while across the portico, down the stairs to the road is an ultra-modern shopping complex and cafe, where beautiful people are soaking in the overcast sky over Turkish coffee and cookies. There, between the shops selling chic long coats and shocking pink blouses, Desafinado was the dominant tune. Yet, it could not drown the instrumental version of Christ Was Born in Bethlehem coming from the tall gate leading to the Old City.

With Hanukkah over, it was time for Christmas celebrations

Carlos Jobim wouldnít have wanted to anyway. If Bossa Nova and Christmas carols had to coexist anywhere in the world, it had to be Jerusalem. Oh, Jerusalem!

An hourís walk through the labyrinthine lanes of the Jewish quarters to the Christian quarters and into the Muslim quarters is by no means enough. Yet, if thatís all that you have, you make the most of it. Do not get distracted by the inviting calls ó ďhey India?Ē ó coming from the shopkeepers who line both sides of the three-and-a-half feet lanes. Ceramics, Hanukkah candle stands and fridge magnets can wait. Youíve got to soak in the history.

Itís sundown and the lights are on. At the Wailing Wall, visitors are praying. Others are holding hands and simply walking around, as if making the most of their time near Temple Mount thatís more than just holy for thousands of years for Christians, Jews and Muslims.

We, there are five of us, stand there in silence and bow to the power of Faith.

Different symphony

Kerem Shalom transit point

Rarely does a manager of a transit point think of himself as the conductor of an orchestra. But if you were Ami Shaked, the man-in-charge of Kerem Shalom (vineyard of peace), an area the size of about 10 football fields, supervising movement of trucks laden with goods as diverse as iPhones, furniture, cooking gas and animal feed, thatís about the only way to maintain your sanity. More important, it helps to maintain peace on the border between Israel and the Gaza strip, the entry and exit point of supplies that must go into the troubled spot to sustain life.

Micky Rosenfeld at the Old City police control room

He is in charge of about 120 workers, Palestinians and Jews, who do all the loading and unloading, yet donít ever get to see each other. Thatís achieved by a network of walled-in ďroomsĒ overseen by an array of CCTV cameras. ďWe work only during the day. And our most significant achievement has been that over the last year we havenít lost any lives,Ē says Shaked, one eye glued to the monitor at the control room from where he conducts this orchestra of heavy-duty trucks, workers and soldiers even as the air is heavy with tension thatís never allowed to snap, thanks to the daily symphonic order of what is essentially a transportation operation.

Shaked is like Micky Rosenfeld, the national spokesperson for the Israeli Police, who explains the working of over 320 CCTV cameras that are scouring the lanes of the Old City of Jerusalem, 24x7. ďOver two million visitors throng the holy city during Christmas right down to New Year,Ē he says, explaining the functioning of the countless monitors that make up his control room.

Not surprisingly, security is cutting-edge stuff in Israel. While the cameras can zoom into a car and hear you talk on your phone, a group of cops, some undercover, walk the lanes all the time to rush in case of emergencies.

Salmon at Jaffa

St Peter’s Church

In Tel Aviv, we were able to ward off the rain for a couple of days. In the end, we gave up. The winds swept in dark clouds and the showers saw the mercury plummet. Yet, early-morning joggers were out doing their thing. Looking out of our hotelís coffee shop, we couldnít help but admire them and the view. Much like amchi Mumbaiís Marine Drive, TAís seashore is where many of its best hotels, like our Park Plaza Orchid, are.

A 20-minute slow drive leads us to the port city of Jaffa. St Peterís Church, the town square and the jetties getting lashed incessantly by the waves conjure visions of yet another old city coming to life. Yet today, it manages to mesh in, almost seamlessly, to its snazzy cousin, TA.

The other parts of the port town have been converted into shopping plazas and eating places. A little stream runs through, a favourite of those who like kayaking. It gets too breezy. We settle down at Riva, our chosen haunt for the afternoon. Lunch is baked salmon and white wine from the vineyards of the Golan Heights. Simply divine.

Soulful tunes

Weeks after, my staple Sunday morning music session on the home stereo brought Israel into our living room. Meir Halevi Eshelís arrangements of soul melodies performed on acoustic guitars seemed to reverberate out of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem from where I picked up the CD. It happened to be late evening then. And it was bright and sunny in Calcutta. Yet, the melodies, simple and heartfelt, were about Faith, the power of which we all felt near the Wailing Wall.

The music scene in Israel is as rich as the country, a heady mix of all kinds. Jazz, Middle Eastern sounds, Turkish, Sufi and Jewish strains show up in tunes and songs when you least expect them to. Idan Raichelís haunting Mimaíamakim (From the Depths), therefore, includes excerpts from Nanu Nanu Nay, a traditional Ethiopian song: while three-member band Almaís Man Yor draws inspiration from the Jewish prayer book and traditional Hebrew poetry. Daniel Zamirís Fifteen is a bouncy celebration of jazz, whose energy would surely have the approval of, say, a Dave Brubeck no less.

There are lots more: Avishai Cohen, a Jaco Pastorius-Stanley Clarke kind of bassist composer, who continues to mesmerise one and all; Din Din Aviv and her prowess in African drumming and piano; the three girls of Habanot Nechama who are performing to packed houses across Germany, the United States and Israel; and many, many more. Try and grab a two-CD set titled Shades, a compilation of contemporary Israeli music.

Better still, go to Israel!