For many first-timers to Israel, it’s hard to go there without bringing something back from what is often a life-changing trip. Rightfully so. When I’m leading groups throughout the land, I often ask my travelers what they hope to bring home as gifts or for themselves. Whatever that is, I probably know the best place to find it for local prices. Local hand-crafted silver and gold jewelry. Creative mezuzahs (the narrow rectangular box with scripture inside that is nailed to the doorposts of Jewish homes). Israeli flags. Maps. T-shirts. Smooth stones from the Sea of Galilee. Occasionally, I am asked by a curious traveler what I bring back to the States or what I miss most from the Middle East when I’m not there. A wise question indeed, but an easy one to answer. I bring back the fruit of the land.
Aside from heartfelt friendships, the impatient driving, and the assertive culture, what I miss the most from Israel is the flavorful food. To me, this is a primary miracle of what has been happening in Israel since 1948. The physical land is producing in a way it never has before. For almost 1800 years and according to historical eyewitness accounts, Israel was a desolate landscape, barren and empty, with either treeless deserts or malarial swamps covering most of the region. 72 years ago, that began to change. Today, it’s the only nation where deserts are shrinking, rather than expanding. Fruit and vegetable exports are increasing to Europe, North America and the rest of the world. Israel is becoming the new culinary and wine destination for foodies around the world. Tel Aviv now being referred to as the vegan capital of the world, due to all the creative and delicious restaurants popping up. Every Ezra Adventures group that leaves Israel later laments about missing the food. Yeah, me too.
For me, I want the reminders of these miracles around me in the form of sights, smells, and flavors until the next time I return. If I am leaving Israel, there is a good chance I have at least 1 of the following 4 items in my checked bags. If you are a close friend, chances are you’ll now have a good idea of what gift I might bringing to our next dinner.
As my fellow Galileans like to say, “the vine is the sign!” The prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, and others wrote about the restoration of vineyards in Israel. Since the time they prophesied these things, vineyards have not returned to the region, until about 30 years ago. Some vineyards are on the very hillsides that were foretold. Rabbis in Israel that understand this, see the increase of over 200 new vineyards in Israel in the last 25 years as a sign of the Messiah’s soon arrival as wine is often connected with celebration and joy. Today, I often take my groups to some of these vineyards and joke about the wine be “liquid prophecy” and how we can now taste the wine that these prophets spoke of thousands of years ago. Wines from Tekoa, the hometown of Amos the prophet (Amos 9). Award-winning vineyards on the hills of Samaria (Jeremiah 31:5). Celebrated vineyards in Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant rested for 369 years, who are now producing a type of wine in the exact process as they did in biblical times. Vineyards, confirmed by archeology, that once made wine for the 2nd Temple, have now been replanted and are producing wine again. The fact that Jews are producing wines again from the very hillsides that their ancient ancestors did, is a miracle in itself. At least 1 bottle of vino that cannot yet be purchased in the states is always with me on a flight back to the US.
Like wine, olive oil tastings are becoming more popular. A few years ago, I would read something like this and wondered what is the big deal? Olive oil is olive oil, right? Ummm, no. In the Mediterranean region, where the olive tree has been a source of life since biblical times for worship practices, food, and mechanical lubrication, they know something about this process. The colors and flavors are like nothing I’ve experienced outside of the middle east. My favorite locations for the best oil are in hidden local places. From the Druze communities in the Golan Heights. From the Biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria. Probably my favorite, a little Arab village outside of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, is known throughout the Arab world as having some of the most flavorful oil in the region. There are 2 things I look for when I’m shopping locally. 1) Is there olive mush sediment on the bottom of the bottle? and 2) Is it in a reused 1-liter coke or water bottle or does it have some type of homemade label? If your western germophobic tendencies cringe at this and say “no thanks”- good. There will be more for me. And no, using this oil for salads, mixed with spices for dipping fresh bread or over hummus has never made me sick… only remarkably happy.
My favorite bad joke of our Ezra trips is to promise the singles in our group to help find them “a couple hot dates” while in Israel… Then take them to the Dead Sea date orchards! In recent years, research has shown that the more mineral-rich the soil, the sweeter the dates. There is no more mineral-rich soil than at the Dead Sea where the soil contains over 20 minerals not found anywhere else on earth. There are many varieties of dates in Israel but the Mahjool dates from the lowest place on earth simply melt in your mouth like a gloriously sweet goo. In the very area that Mark Twain once said reminded him of death and funerals, the once desolate shores of the Dead Sea are now being planted, thanks to Israeli research, development and unique desert farming techniques for this soil. The dates from this region are big and ridiculously tasty. Add a strong Turkish coffee with no sugar and it’s a match made in heaven. Take a bite of the sweet date, a sip of the strong coffee, and no sugar is needed. I haven’t tasted any date like it outside of Israel. Almost every return trip, I have a small box of dates packed away somewhere.
This is a little misleading as Israel doesn’t actually grow coffee. However, several coffee roasting businesses have been doing it for generations. One of my favorites is a small shop found inside the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. You walk in the narrow entrance, press your back against the wall so other patrons can leave, and wiggle your way to the guy at the counter where someone just stares at you until you tell him what you want. I ALWAYS get a couple bags of the dark roasted coffee, freshly ground to the powdery Turkish style with cardamom and other spices. Still warm, they put it in a vacuum-sealed bag for safe transport, keeping it fresh until I’m ready to open it. Whenever I do, I immediately stick my nose in the bag, happily take a deep breath to enjoy the scents and aromas of the Old City that come flooding back.
There are other tasty treasures I love, depending on the time of year, but these are some of the best. Join Ezra Adventures in Israel and you’ll leave the souvenir knick-knacks for the uneducated tourists and follow us to what the locals are enjoying. I’ll do my best to leave some for you.
Doug Hershey is the author of Israel Rising, conference speaker and founder of Ezra Adventures, an Israel focused travel and education company. From years of hands-on experience, cultivating unique relationships in Israel and a love for history, Doug provides a rare perspective on the connection between the Jewish Scriptures and present day Israel. When he is not in Israel, he is speaking in churches and synagogues about the prophesied restoration of Israel.