16 June 2011 9 Comments

The Honest Tours Guide to Jerusalem

The New York Times ran a travel article last weekend about things to do in Jerusalem during the Jewish Sabbath when most things are shut. The article was fairly typical of shorter travel writing in that all the experiences described were unlikely to surprise anyone. Eat hummus at the restaurants. Browse for ceramic bowls. Take a hike through lackluster scenery. Yet each item, through no fault of the writer who is a noted foreign correspondent, had to be described as though it would all add up to a thrilling afternoon.

It got me thinking about all the guff that tourists have to swallow. How often do visitors stream to must-see attractions which are actually unattractive – and which are only worth seeing so you can tell other people you’ve been there. I decided to apply this theory to Jerusalem, a city that’s a major tourist attraction and where I’ve lived 15 years. Here’s the Honest Tours guide to a selection of sites all of which are listed in most guides as delightful spots for tourists:

The Israel Museum: Just completed a $100 million renovation. Ho-hum. Makes you wonder what at least $90 million of the budget went on. But the donations included a major one from the Marc Rich Foundation, so perhaps the whole thing was just a money-laundering scheme. Though the museum has some interesting archeological bits and pieces, give the art galleries a miss unless you thinks a pile of old school desks nailed together in a white room ought to be called contemporary art.

The Old City: I felt deep sympathy for businessmen who suffered during the economic deprivations of the second Palestinian intifada during the last decade. Except for the nasty traders of the Old City. They’ve been fleecing tourists in a particularly mean manner for years and it was time they got a dose of karma. If you like bad hummus and surly service, try the couple of hummus restaurants listed in all the guides as “the best hummus in Jerusalem.”

The Western/Wailing Wall: Prepare to have your mystical communion with the ancient stones interrupted by a guy who looks like he stepped out of Vilna circa 1822. He’ll shove his hand in your face and ask for charity. Not for nothing does Yiddish (which many of these guys speak) have the best word for “sponger” in any language (“schnorrer”). The place is a Mecca for them.

Yad Vashem: Who doesn’t want to relive the Holocaust when they’re on vacation? A relatively new addition to the site of Israel’s “Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority” has made it at least an interesting museum. But unless you’re determined to shed tears the eternal flame and the older elements aren’t worth schlepping out to Mount Herzl.

Dome of the Rock: Now this is a genuinely unmissable experience. Too bad you’ll have to miss it, unless you’re a Muslim. At the start of the intifada in 2000, the Muslim authorities closed the Temple Mount to all non-Muslims. A big yah-boo to the whole world, which they thought was ganging up on them, like a bawling kid taking his ball home to spoil everyone’s game. Some years later they opened the platform of the Temple Mount during certain hours. But non-Muslims can no longer enter the Aqsa Mosque or the golden Dome of the Rock. Of course, you can hang out at the doors to catch a glimpse inside and be told (often rudely, as if your intention was to burst inside and desecrate the place) that you mustn’t enter.

Mea Shearim: Talking of rude, Jerusalem’s main ultra-Orthodox neighborhood has become increasingly a law unto itself. One Israeli newspaper reported that yeshiva students have been chasing the police out, thus making it a no-go district patrolled by gangs of weedy little men in black hats who think that spitting on a woman because they can see her shoulders is a good way to protect the Torah.

Jerusalem Forest: If the Norwegians knew that the hardy Norwegian pine would one day spread across the hills of Jerusalem and destroy all the natural undergrowth, they’d surely have chopped down every last one. Don’t worry, though: Yad Vashem is expanding its “campus” and eating into the forest, and there’s a housing/land shortage in Jerusalem, so this particular “attraction” won’t be around much longer.

If you have suggestions for the Honest Tours Guide to World Travel, drop me a note. I’d like to formulate a post featuring all the top worthless or disappointing sites in the world. I think it’d be a very popular feature. Let me know.

9 Responses to “The Honest Tours Guide to Jerusalem”

  1. Rabbi Issamar Ginzberg 16 June 2011 at 5:47 am #

    Meah Shearim is a wonderful place to experience. Dress appropriately (just like you would put on a kippah on the kotel, if only out of respect) and you’ll be fine.

    Find one meshuganna spitting and attack a whole group of people? Tsk, Tsk… that person is nuts, I agree! but a few loonies is not what makes anyone wearing a black hat a “weedy little man.”

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 20 June 2011 at 4:54 am #

    I claim the humorist’s exemption to all tsk-tsking. And, indeed, I’ve had great times in Mea Shearim. I still think I ought to be able to get a sex change, wear slinky clothing, and walk through there showing some flesh if I want, however.

  3. Annemarie 7 August 2011 at 11:13 pm #

    Thank you – you have made me chuckle (which doesn’t happen a lot in Jerusalem) both in your accurate HTG and when replying to the Rabbi.
    The fact is that the ‘weedy little men’ are a fact of life here… they are painfully thin… and scary at times.
    I just hope he was using a Kosher PC when he was writing to you.
    Really enjoying the wealth of info your blog offers. Thanks

  4. Matt Beynon Rees 8 August 2011 at 8:04 am #

    Glad it gave you a chuckle, Annemarie. I’ve always found the Middle East deeply humorous. Which must be why I ended up writing murder mysteries about the place….

  5. Rabbi Issamar Ginzberg 19 September 2011 at 6:07 am #


  6. Jeff Wheelwright 11 October 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    My wife and I visited Jerusalem this summer, focusing on the Old City. The merchants can be nasty, as you say. Near the Lutheran Church we had squeezed orange juice and a felafel. Paid way too much, I thought. The next day I went back and sought the owner. I asked the cost of the items of the day before. When he gave me the new (lower) price, I showed him my accounting of the day before. “I’m not happy,” I said. Grudgingly, he gave me a free OJ. “Happy now?” he said. I still think he came out ahead.

    A writer myself, I have just come across your deft reporting, including your piece on the East Jerusalem sewage problem. Please see: http://jeffwheelwright.com/blog3.htm

  7. Matt Beynon Rees 11 October 2011 at 11:30 pm #

    Great shots on your link, Jeff. And good for you for standing up for yourself in the Old City!

  8. kat 19 November 2011 at 3:50 am #

    LOL, I love it.

    Travel guides are subjective, aren’t they? One person’s perspective is a lot different from the next, and charm is quickly lost when you know a place well. I guess that’s why ignorance is bliss.

    Most of what I do is dispense practical advice, and people get mad when I don’t promote a sight or service, accusing me of hurting tourism and being disrespectful to my adopted country of 13 years. You know, as if Greece isn’t destroying itself pretty well on its own.

    If you made a list of most disappointing sites in the world, no doubt there’d be a niche of people wanting to see them for that reason.

  9. Matt Beynon Rees 20 November 2011 at 1:32 am #

    Right, Kat: I had a few people who’d say they were “lovers of Israel” criticize me for writing about some of the downside of Jerusalem. Of course, I think that critical thinking (as opposed to negativity) is very important in improving anything — whether it’s a tourist site or one’s own life. Keep enjoying Greece!

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