By Norma Meyer
Oy vey, am I Zen. Now I know why Cleopatra, the Queen of Sheba and the Bible's King David all chilled in the otherworldly buoyant Dead Sea, which forcibly turns you into a bobbing human life preserver even if you can't swim.
I sit down in this famed liquid, the saltiest (nine times the ocean), lowest (about 1,400 feet below sea level) place on Earth, and suddenly my feet pop up so I'm comically floating outstretched as if on a chaise lounge reading a magazine. The mystical mineral-loaded waters supposedly cure ills including arthritis and psoriasis, although fish and plants can't survive (that's the "Dead" part). Oddly, it feels greasy, like lying in canola oil.
(All's good until I try getting out and can't stand in waist-high water because, mini-panic, my legs spring to the surface.)
Saline saturated, I soon ascend in the barren desert to the legendary cliff-top Masada fortress where in the year 73 nearly 1,000 Jewish zealots committed mass suicide instead of being captured by a Roman army. After leaving those hauntingly majestic ruins, for five bucks I ride a Bedouin Arab's languid camel in a gas station parking lot during a pit stop before motoring through the West Bank to Jerusalem's glorious, soul-stirring holy sites.
This is my first foray to the Promised Land, and it enthrallingly delivers. I visited last November, well aware the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict that brought near-daily reports of stabbings, car-rammings and shootings in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Still, 3 million tourists left unharmed last year. I felt safe from the moment I was grilled at LAX by a stern young blonde from Israel's security-superlative El Al Airlines who asked such questions as: "Has anybody given you food to bring on board because it could be..." and then boom, she says it, "a bomb!"
Relaxing in Israel may seem a paradox given the dicey politics — being hemmed in by Arab countries and intermittent exchange of rocket fire — but in this Bible-seeped, history-unparalleled destination, it is possible to de-stress. Which is why I indulge at the 37-acre hilltop Mizpe Hayamim Hotel Spa and organic farm overlooking the strategic Golan Heights and tranquil Sea of Galilee, where Jesus supposedly walked on water. How 'bout a peace-promoting Olive Branch Massage kneaded with carved sticks from the farm's olive trees?
I'm there one blissful night, and when I awake evil has triumphed. In Paris, coordinated Islamic terrorist attacks have killed 130 people and injured more than 300.
Shaken, I try to breathe in serenity as hotel employee Adi Taubenhouse leads a morning nature stroll past fruit orchards, blooming vegetable beds, and goats and cows who put out organic gouda and camembert.
Later on the quiet terrace, Taubenhouse remarks, "This is an island of sanity surrounded by chaos." He points across to a mountain he estimates is 20 miles away. "I hiked to the top of that mountain, and when I looked down I could see Syria and all the carnage down below," he says, alluding to the bloody civil war and ISIS onslaughts. Taubenhouse motions slightly left: "Over there, that's the Hezbollah in Lebanon," he adds, referring to the Islamist militants.
I soon join my tour bus and half-dozen fellow passengers as we drive through the Golan Heights, which straddles Syria, Lebanon and Israel-friendly Jordan. Our guide, noting the Golan was part of Syria before Israel seized it during the 1967 Six-Day War, points out where Israeli tanks rolled and rugged peaks from which Syria launched bombs. Syria tried to retake the Golan during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and still demands it back. Bright yellow signs along the road's barb-wired shoulder explosively warn "Danger! Mines!"
In this desolate area we stop at "the largest crocodile farm in the Middle East" that is also a pampering "spa village." For real. At Hamat Gader's complex, guests slither among 200 razor-toothed giant reptiles in a nature reserve, and then in the human habitat enjoy vibrating Tibetan Bowl spa treatments and soak in therapeutic hot springs discovered here by the Romans 2,000 years ago.
The next day, 125 miles south at the Dead Sea, I relive fascinating but tragic history at the isolated plateau-perched sand-swept Masada, a Jewish symbol of courage. Originally built as a fortified palace for Judea's King Herod, it was overtaken by 960 Jewish men, women and children who staved off Roman conquerors for three years. In the year 73, with 9,000 Roman troops approaching, "the rebels committed a communal suicide rather than be enslaved," says our guide. "Each man killed his family and then they drew 10 lots to see who would kill the rest. The last man alive fell on his sword."
Twice during my trip, our bus crosses a military checkpoint on the "Green Line" and travels through the contested West Bank's Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled zones. On the main two-lane road, we pass unending expanses of moonlike desert, Arab mini-marts selling geese statuettes in dusty lots, Israeli housing settlements and a shepherd tending his woolly flock.
Finally, we're in must-see mesmerizing Jerusalem. I savor a fantastic falafel in the sensory-whirling Mahane Yehuda "shuk," a marketplace maze of pungent spices, 100 kinds of halva, rainbow bins of dried fruit, shofar horns and more. But it's the time-warped Old City that captivates. Adherents kiss the ground where Jesus is said to have been crucified, now inside the stunning Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christianity's most sacred shrine. Outside, in cobblestoned narrow alleyways, Arab vendors loudly summon me into stalls packed with tchotchkes, Star of David yarmulkes and "Free Palestine" T-shirts. When darkness falls, the Ottoman sultan-built stone perimeter lights up blue, white and red in tribute to the Paris victims.
The following morning, in the Old City, the amplified melodic call to prayer from a Muslim mosque competes with the festive music of a bar mitzvah procession. After going through a metal detector, I stand on the women's side of the 2,000-year-old Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site and the remnant of a hallowed temple. A reverential throng of various races and colors — cloaked Hasidic women, Christian pilgrims from terror-plagued Nigeria in native garb, young jeans-clad Europeans — press their foreheads, lips and palms against this iconic symbol. A powerful spirituality overwhelms; I have a lump in my throat. Worshippers silently stuff written prayers into cracks of the wall, a centuries-old tradition; like untold others, many ask for that elusive peace between religions.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information, visit Israel's official tourism site, www.goisrael.com.
Norma Meyer is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.