Vignettes From Long-Ago Travels — Part Two, Israel

Defunct railroad tunnel to Lebanon at Rosh Hanikra, on Israel’s northern border. (See below for the rest of the story.)

Following up on my December post about traveling in Italy and Burma, today I’m presenting several memories from my travels in Israel. This was on the same adventure I had in Italy with my friend Arlee. Here are a few memories that have stuck with me. For others, check out this post from 2019.

  • As Arlee and I drove around Israel, we were constantly aware of the summertime heat. One way of coping with it was to keep well hydrated. Israelis love seltzer (club soda), and Arlee and I soon found out why. When it feels like your mouth has acquired a coating of desert dust, it’s hard to beat a huge, cold glass of soda gadol — a “big seltzer.” Another popular-in-Israel thirst quencher: partly sweet yet slightly bitter grapefruit juice.
  • One time I particularly recall the need for a big drink was when Arlee and I sat down to dinner at a restaurant somewhere in the Galilee (northern Israel) and both ordered the same thing, probably schnitzel (breaded chicken cutlets, a popular Israeli dish). In addition to the meat and a starch, our plates were each garnished with a small, bright green pepper. Recognizing its explosive potential, I pushed mine to the edge of the plate and stayed well clear of it. Arlee, however, in a mischievous mood, bit right into his and chewed it for a good 15 seconds, his face betraying no discomfort, in what he later told me was a herculean effort to fool me into thinking the thing was an innocent sweet pepper that, when I finally tried it, reassured by his nonchalant reaction, would trigger a Krakatoa-like eruption. The prank didn’t work, however, and Arlee, all but billowing smoke, did his best to quench the blaze with all the water he could reach.

A Nesher Refresher

  • In those days, “thanks” to the Arab League’s boycott (today, all but defunct) of international companies that dared to do business with the Jewish state, no cola drinks were available in Israel. To satisfy their craving for a sweet fizzy drink, the Israelis came up with an alternative I quite enjoyed — non-alcoholic Nesher Malt Beer — still popular today, even though Coke and Pepsi are now also available.
  • While driving the 145-mile length of the Negev all the way to Israel’s southernmost town, Eilat, a port on the Gulf of Aqaba (an arm of the Red Sea), which is Israel’s maritime gateway to Asia, we had an astonishing experience. After about three hours on the road through a spectacular desert landscape, we topped a rise and finally saw the blue waters of the gulf in the distance. That was where we also spotted the amusing sign below. And no, it was not a desert mirage.

Who Knew! Actual distance to LA: 7,700 miles (12,400 km)

  • In Eilat, Arlee and I decided to save a little money and spend the night on the beach. The sand was warm and comfortable at first, but long before dawn it felt like cold concrete. For a more nuanced description of the experience, see this item on the three most restless nights I’ve ever endured.
  • At Rosh HaNikra, right on Israel’s border with Lebanon, where the hills plunge into the Mediterranean, we walked past the bright yellow signs with Hebrew, Arabic and English warnings not to venture farther, since Lebanon was then (and, unfortunately, still is) in a state of war with Israel.* The border itself was not visible from where we’d left our car. It was just past the seaside hill at whose foot we stood, right next to an abandoned railway line. In the years before Israel declared its independence in 1948, the railway had run through a tunnel bored into that hillside, providing a route all the way along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean that linked Lebanon (to the north) with Egypt (to the south). Arlee and I ventured cautiously into the tunnel and, encountering no sign of trouble, emerged into sunlight at the far end (actually, not very far). There we saw that the rails should have continued into a second tunnel through the next hill … but did not, since the entrance to that tunnel had been bricked over and the rails in front of it blown up, reaching skyward in grotesquely twisted steel.

Entrance to Rosh Hanikra railroad tunnel


* Lebanon joined Israel’s other neighbors — Egypt, Jordan and Syria plus Iraq — in invading the new Jewish state on the day it declared its independence (May 15, 1948). None of these nations wanted Israel in its neighborhood. When Arlee and I were there in 1965 (two years before the Six Day War of 1967 and eight years before the Yom Kippur war of 1973), virtually all the Israelis we met felt certain that Lebanon “would be the second Arab nation to make peace with us.” They based this opinion on the feeling that while Lebanon was too small and militarily weak to indefinitely maintain its belligerency, it was also too weak to dare become the first Arab state to make peace. It would have to wait for another of Israel’s Arab enemies to break the ice. History, it seems, works in funny ways. Egypt, the strongest Arab state, was the first to make peace with Israel — in 1979. Jordan followed in 1994. Lebanon, however, has since then effectively been taken over by the radical terrorist group Hezbollah (“Party of God”), which is little more than an instrument of Iran, Israel’s most implacable enemy. Iran is working to develop nuclear weapons “to wipe Israel off the map.” So for now, peace with Lebanon remains just a hope.

My hope is that I live to see the day when that bricked-over tunnel entrance will be reopened, the possibility to whiz across the border on straight rails be restored, Hezbollah’s terrorism and the Iran regime’s quest for the bomb and the prospect of a second Holocaust for the Jews be reduced to nightmarish historical footnotes — and peace will at long last prevail.

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