South Charlotte

Visit to Israel an eye-opening experience

The sun was setting. The water felt cold around my waist. Fish nibbled at my heels.

I was baptized in the Jordan River at the Yardenit baptismal site in Israel.

It was the perfect, personally meaningful ending to our day spent visiting biblical sites and eating an authentic local lunch on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

My husband and I were thrilled to take the vacation of a lifetime to the Holy Lands with my in-laws. Of the several destinations our cruise included, Israel was where I most looked forward to visiting. As a Christian, I was thirsty to learn more about the history, people, current situation and culture in the land where it all began. I also yearned to see the places I read about in the Bible. Day one in Israel was spiritual and serene. Our guide took my husband, in-laws and me to the Tabgha area along the Sea of Galilee. We visited the Church of the Seven Springs, built upon the rock where Jesus multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish into enough food to feed 5,000 men and their families. This was the first stop on the day's tour where I realized that I was walking where Jesus walked.

Our final stop before lunch was the Mount of Beatitudes. My father-in-law read the Sermon on the Mount while we sat on rocks and looked out at the sea.

Our Jewish tour guide shared the feeling of peace she feels during each visit there because the sermon addresses the question of suffering on Earth and the heavenly rewards of the faithful who suffer.

Standing upon the Mount, I looked right and saw Tabgha; I looked left and saw Kfar Nahum, which English-speakers call Capernaum, where Jesus lived with his disciple Peter and taught in the synagogue during his ministry. Looking at the Sea of Galilee, I was struck by the proximity of these sites where Jesus taught and performed so many miracles, including calming the storm and walking on water.

The day's lunch was a culinary delight.

Our guide took us to a local restaurant, Fish Restaurant Kfar Nahum, on the seashore. We ate whole fish, a type of tilapia unique to the Sea of Galilee. To my surprise, the skin was the tastiest part - crisp with a seasoning of sea salt and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. The salads were vibrant in both color and taste: Raw red and white cabbage, hummus (both creamy and with added whole garbanzo beans), grilled zucchini and squash, pickled mushrooms and spicy tomato puree, all served with fresh pita bread. Everything was local and fresh.

In contrast to the spiritual and serene nature of our first day in Israel, day two was culturally educational and intense.

The segregation between Israel and Palestine is complex. We visited Bethlehem, which meant we needed to enter the territory of Palestine. We had to part with our guide for a while, since Israelis are not permitted in Palestine.

We had four different Palestinian handlers along the way, and traversed the gates, security checkpoints and walls that separate Israel and Palestine. Through this experience and many questions answered by our guide about the history and current situation, I now have a better understanding of the events we read and hear about in the news.

The dichotomy of the religious tension and co-existence also was apparent in the multicultural Israeli cities of Nazareth and Jerusalem.

In Nazareth, next to the Church of the Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to the virgin Mary to announce her immaculate conception, stands a billboard that states, "And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers."

Yet the cultural webs were woven together tightly. We knew it was noon when we heard the Muslim call to prayer while visiting Christian sites in a country founded for the Jews. Road signs were in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Mosques and churches stood in the same square.

And in Jerusalem, the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters intermingled like interlocking fingers.