A Return to the Northern Judean Desert

The Judean Desert. A series of undulating hills that starts just next to Jerusalem. Beautifully tranquil, it contains some of my favourite parts of Israel. Avid followers of this blog will no doubt recall that our first field trip on my tour guide course was to the Northern Judean desert. A couple of years on, it was time to return, partly to refresh my memory on some of the sites that I had not seen for a while and partly to discover some new ones. Accompanied by my friend and fellow tour guide Ori, it was time for another adventure.

Byzantine period mosaic on display at the Inn of the Good Samaritan
Byzantine period mosaic on display at the Inn of the Good Samaritan

We began our day at the site that marks the believed location of the story of the Good Samaritan. In addition to enjoying the mosaics and Byzantine ruins that we had seen on our last visit, we enjoyed the recently produced film that you can now watch while sitting in a cave that was a home to Jews in the Second Temple Period. The film was rather kitch, but still helps explain the story of the Good Samaritan fable.

While wondering around the site, we noticed some old ruins the other side of the road. The staff told us that it was ruins of a former Herodian palace. We decided to head over and take a closer look. After some rather tricky off-roading (Ori’s little Suzuki was not really built for this but it coped admirably) we passed the remains of a Crusader fortress which protected this ancient road. We then climbed a little further on foot to explore the Herodian ruins.

Remains of a Herodian bath house - in the background is Route 1 and the Inn of the Good Samaritan
Remains of a Herodian bath house – in the background is Route 1 and the Inn of the Good Samaritan

The site seemed to be in the midst of excavations, although it was unclear by whom, and when the last time was that they had been there. Still, we were able to make out pieces of 2000 year old mosaics, and part of the hypocaust that made up the hot room in the bath house. It was rather remarkable that this site was just there, almost ignored among the other archaeological treasures in the area.

Mikve (Jewish ritual bath) at Qumran
Mikve (Jewish ritual bath) at Qumran

We continued south, arriving at Qumran. After a spot of lunch we explored the ruins, and also saw the film (which is quite good) – we had unfortunately not been able to watch it during the course due to time pressures. The ruins at Qumran are a little underwhelming, given the sites importance, but the story of the Dead Sea scrolls discovered nearby is remarkable, and it is fun to see how to match what we understand about this ascetic community with the archaeological remains at the site.

Built into the cliff face of Wadi Kelt - St George's Monastery
Built into the cliff face of Wadi Kelt – St George’s Monastery

We returned north, and after a brief stop at Kalia beach, to see the facilities (it is a popular stop for Dead Sea bathers), we returned north. Our destination was the well hidden monastery of St George, built into the cliff face along Wadi Kelt and dating to the 5th century. This was certainly the highlight of the day, as we made our way along a deserted road we eventually found the cross that marked the first view of the monastery. It is a very special sight; you are in the middle of the desert but there is a burst of greenery in the wadi thanks to the year-round stream that comes from the nearby spring. And there, almost hidden in the cliff face, is the monastery. This is certainly a place that you would come for solitude.

Ancient olive tree in Wadi Kelt
Ancient olive tree in Wadi Kelt

Eventually we arrived at the monastery gate, but from there we faced a steep descent and then an even steeper climb to arrive at the actual structure. Along the way we noted the remains of a Hasmonean aqueduct that used to transport water from the spring to various cities in the area, and many beautiful, ancient trees. The monastery itself was closed (they only accept visitors in the morning) but it was enough for us to see it from the outside and marvel at its beauty. Truly one of my favourite places in Israel.

View over Jericho and its surroundings from the Dead Sea Balcony
View over Jericho and its surroundings from the Dead Sea Balcony

We returned to our car and made a final stop in the nearby Jewish settlement of Mitzpe Yericho. Here is something called the Dead Sea Balcony, a viewpoint which offers a stunning vista over the Jordan Valley, Jericho and the northern part of the Dead Sea. It was a nice way to finish off the day, before returning back north.

 

The Hebrew University on Mt Scopus

A good friend of mine is a guide who lives on Mt Scopus, in Jerusalem. When I was visiting him recently he offered to show me some of the hidden secrets of the main campus of the Hebrew University, which is based there, and naturally I was happy to take him up on the offer!

I was genuinely surprised at the range of things there are to see on the campus, and warmly recommend it as a stop for those who think they have seen all that Jerusalem has to offer.

We began with a stroll through the botanical gardens. Unlike in the University of Tel Aviv, the gardens meld into the rest of the campus instead of being a separate entity. I liked that they were much more accessible.

Tomb of Nicanor, Mt Scopus
Tomb of Nicanor, Mt Scopus

A short walk then took us to the Cave of Nicanor. Discovered in around 1902, this is a set of Jewish tombs from the Second Temple Period. The fascinating thing is that an inscription was discovered in one of the caves referring to Nicanor of Alexandria who donated the doors to the temple. The story of Nicanor, and his difficult journey to bring the doors to Jerusalem, is detailed in the Talmud, and so it is amazing to see the story corroborated by archaeological evidence.

Graves of Ussishkin & Pinsker, Mt Scopus
Graves of Ussishkin & Pinsker, Mt Scopus

In contrast with the ancient period, nearby it is possible to find the tombs of two major Zionists – Menachem Ussishkin and Leon Pinsker. The plan had been to create the Zionist pantheon here, on Mt Scopus – combining the link with the ancient times (the tomb of Nicanor) and celebrating the modern success of the first Hebrew University. However, after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, Mt Scopus was cut off from the rest of Jewish Jerusalem; an island in the middle of the Jordanian East. It was still possible to access the campus, but it was with difficulty, and so the Israeli leadership decided to create a new pantheon on Mt Herzl, which remains to this day. Unfortunately it left Ussishkin and Pinsker out on a bit of a limb!

Tilted Tree Sculpture by Ran Miron
Tilted Tree Sculpture by Ran Miron

Leaving the graves behind, we continued through the campus. A sad reminder of the terrorist attack on the campus in July 2002 is present in the Tilted Tree sculpture by Ran Morin. The tree is at an angle as if impacted by the blast.

Hebrew University Amphitheatre
Hebrew University Amphitheatre

Our next stop was in the impressive amphitheater.  It was a nostalgic moment for me; the last time I was there was for a welcome ceremony when I made aliyah four years previously. This time it was a lot quieter, and we enjoyed the stunning view eastwards over the Judean desert.

We concluded with a quick visit in the main student centre, where we enjoyed some pictures of the opening ceremony of the university (quite the event back in 1925) and then popped into the beautiful synagogue, which has a lovely view over Jerusalem.

With a big thanks to Jeremy for showing me around!

Nachal Amud and Migration in the Hula

It is the perfect time of year for hiking, pleasantly warm without being hot, and with the trees in full autumn bloom. So it made sense to take advantage of this and to head up north to hike in Nachal Amud (the Amud Stream), one of the classic hikes of northern Israel.

British police station
British police station

First, came the descent into Nachal Meiron, which flows down from the area of Mt Meiron. On route, we passed the ruins of a British police station, built to protect some of the springs in the area. We continued down the path, passing the remains of an aqueduct and also remnants of terrace farming, which has been restored to an extent to show visitors what the area would have looked like when it was actively farmed.

Nachal Amud
Nachal Amud

We continued our descent through a beautiful canopy of autumn leaves, reaching Nachal Amud, and continuing further along the stream before the trail began to loop back on its other bank.

Hanging out with Shimon Shiffer
Hanging out with Shimon Shiffer

During our ascent, we bumped into a posse of photographers; it transpires that journalist Shimon Shiffer, whose normal focus is politics and diplomacy, was doing a feature on the Israel National Trail which traverses the country from north to south; part of the trail runs along Nachal Amud. We had a nice chat and he assured me that he would pass on my regards to the British Ambassador.

Bar'am Synagogue
Bar’am Synagogue

We returned to the beginning of the hike, but our day was just beginning; having driven all the way up north we were determined to make the most of our time! A short drive took us to the ancient synagogue of Bar’am, one of many ruins of synagogues in the north dating to the Byzantine period.

We then drove along the stunning road that runs along the Lebanese border into the Naftali heights, which offers astonishing views into the Hula Valley. After a brief stop at Tel Kedesh, and a visit to the most complete example of a Roman Temple in the country, we continued our descent to our final destination of the day, the Agamon Lake.

Migrating cranes at the Agamon
Migrating cranes at the Agamon

We are in the middle of the migration season in Israel, where millions of birds use the country as a corridor between Europe/Asia and Africa in their search for food as the northern hemisphere cools for the winter. The Agamon offers the opportunity to see many of these birds, and at the moment there are tens of thousands of cranes in the area. Although it is possible to explore independently, we booked onto a guided tour which takes you into areas which it is impossible to access on your own. The noise of the cranes was deafening, and it was amazing to see so many of them and to be so close. We also saw many animals and birds during the trip, including nutrias (large rodents with vicious teeth), gulls, coots, ducks, pelicans and remarkably a wild boar. It was a fantastic trip and highly recommended, particularly at this time of year.

Sunset over the Hula and its cranes
Sunset over the Hula and its cranes

After enjoying the sunset over the valley, it was time for us to return home, after a varied and most entertaining day out.

Ein Avdat, Ben Gurion’s Hut and Mitzpe Revivim

Although the course may have finished, the exploring never stops – all I need is an excuse. My friend Ben happily provided that when he suggested we go on a trip down to the Negev desert, and I thought that this would be an excellent opportunity to check out a few places that I had been meaning to visit.

Hiking Ein Avdat
Hiking Ein Avdat

We began our day at the desert oasis of Ein Avdat. It is a popular hike, because it is quite easy, and utterly beautiful. the combination of the springs with the bleak desert scenery is really very special. Unfortunately, the only way to do the whole hike is by having a car/bus pick you up at the other side (there is a section which is only one way), so we missed out on the very final part of the hike, but we certainly got to enjoy the majority of it.

An ibex in the wild
An ibex in the wild

As we were around at a quiet time, we also had the pleasure of seeing some of the local desert wildlife taking advantage of the oasis. There are many ibexes wandering the Negev and the ones we encountered were relatively unphased by our presence. It was wonderful to observe them.

Having stretched our legs, we headed up to the nearby Sde Boker Field School, which houses the graves of David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, and his wife Paula. Nearby is the small hut to which Ben Gurion retired, famously choosing to live a life of relative simplicity on a kibbutz as part of his socialist ideology, instead of occupying a grand house which many felt he was due. He also chose specifically to live in the Negev, an area which he saw as the future of Israel; vital that it be developed in terms of agriculture and settlement for the state’s survival.

David Ben Gurion's Hut
David Ben Gurion’s Hut

His hut is quaint, kept as it was when he lived there. It is particularly interesting to see the gifts he received from other statesman (having just returned from a trip to Burma where we saw photographs of his visit there, it was touching to see the Buddah he received in a prominent position). The library is also quite amazing, giving you a scope of quite how well read Ben Gurion was, and how many languages he commanded. There is no doubt that he was a very impressive man.

Leaving Sde Boker, we popped in to a couple of small farms that were not too far away, both of which specialise in the manufacture of Goat’s Cheese. We particularly enjoyed the Naot Farm which also has options to stay, should you wish to get away from it all.

Mitzpe Revivim
Mitzpe Revivim

We then headed west as I was keen to check out Mitzpe Revivim, one of the first Jewish settlements in the Negev, in the modern period. This small agricultural settlement had a significant impact on the Negev being awarded to Israel as part of the partition plan; the stories that accompany it are perhaps more impressive than the buildings which remain (the modern kibbutz has moved slightly away from the original site).

We had a bit of time before heading home, so we briefly stopped off at the Besor Hanging Bridge, the Maon ancient Synagogue, and the Black Arrow memorial (read more about these in my previous blog post), before returning to Tel Aviv. It is amazing how close we live to the desert, and it was wonderful to take advantage of it. Thanks, Ben!

Graduation from the Taglit-Birthright Institute for Tour Educators

This week, I proudly graduated from the Taglit-Birthright Institute for Tour Educators. For those not familiar with the Birthright programme, it facilitates a short trip to Israel for young Jewish people from around the world. The mechanics involve some support from the Israeli government, wealthy philanthropists and local Jewish communities, so that the participants themselves do not actually have to pay. Since its creation in 1999, over 400 000 participants have come to Israel through the programme.

A few years ago the organisers of the project established the Institute for Tour Educators, designed to improve the quality of the guides who accompany the groups. It offers a full tour guide course, or alternatively a three week seminar for those recently qualified, or a week seminar for experienced Birthright guides. The objective is that in a couple of years, all Birthright guides will have gone through the Institute (the figure stands at about 80% at present).

I like the idea of Birthright and am keen to work with the groups; on a more practical level they represent a significant proportion of tourism in Israel (and many of the groups still ran despite the security situation in the summer). I also felt that although the Ministry of Tourism course had given me a great deal of knowledge, it had not really equipped me with many practical tools on how to guide in the most engaging and interesting way. All of these reasons led to me applying to participate in the seminar this summer, and I was grateful to be accepted.

We were a small group of around 25, a majority native Israelis but also some immigrants whose origins lay in South & North America and the FSU. I was the EU representative! There was a broad range of religious perspectives, from Haredi to ideological secularist; the political spectrum among the participants was also far from narrow.

The course consisted of three separate weeks, spread over June, July and culminating just now in September. We covered a wide range of material, from practical advice on logistics and group dynamics, to training on public speaking and leading discussions, to sessions on how to build our guiding around a theme and connect the various sites we would visit throughout the trip into a coherent narrative.

I was very pleasantly surprised. Stereotypes about Birthright do exist, but it was great to see that there is no message proscribed from the management at the top that we have to deliver. The way we as guides, or indeed educators, as we are now trained to be, deliver the content is entirely up to us. Indeed there are also no obligatory sites, although for various reasons most of the groups do follow a similar itinerary.

The seminar also included a Shabbat together, where we talked about how to manage a Shabbat on Birthright, and experienced one ourselves. It was very interesting to hear and learn from the different perspectives in the group, it was clear that shabbat was a meaningful experience for all of us, but the ways in which it was so (family, prayer, beach or hiking in nature, for example) varied significantly. The nice thing was that all were open-minded to learning from the other, it created a very nice atmosphere. The food wasn’t too bad either!

I really enjoyed the seminar. The other participants were great – energetic, thoughtful, passionate people. We will definitely stay in touch and continue to learn from each other in the months and years to come. The sessions were really interesting, and in many cases extremely helpful. I know have many new tools and ideas about how best to show this country to visitors, and to help them engage with it in a meaningful way. On a more personal note, it was a bit like a return to my FZY days, back in the world of informal education. I even had some teachers from my time on the Machon!

Not only was the seminar helpful in a theoretical way, it was also great practically. We had the opportunity to meet various organisations that operate the Birthright trips (the central staff does not actually run any of the tours), and I even have my first booking for a Birthright group over the new year. Here’s looking forward to many more!

The Eichmann in the Room

About once a month since we got married, we spend a shabbat in Holon with my in-laws. We are fortunate in that we get on very well, the food is delicious, and best of all, we always get doggy bags that keep us going through the rest of the week!

On Friday evening, I always accompany my father-in-law to his synagogue (on Shabbat morning they begin at 7am; I am yet to make it!). He is Yemenite, and I have always found the service fascinating. Broadly speaking, it is the same as any other service, but there are two main differences: nearly every part of the liturgy is chanted out loud in unison; the Yemenites have their own very unique pronunciation of Hebrew (which many believe is the closest pronunciation to the original Hebrew language). A non-yemenite, familiar with the prayer service, but not with the local ‘slang’, as my father-in-law likes to call it, would be a bit bemused on walking in, but once you learn the rules it is actually quite easy to follow; by now I am pretty much at home with the service and am doing my best to adapt my pronunciation accordingly!

My father-in-law has a fixed seat in the synagogue, and next to him is a space for my brother-in-law. As my brother-in-law now normally prays elsewhere, this has become my seat when I visit. On entering the synagogue last Friday, I saw a gentleman that I had not seen before in the synagogue, sitting in the seat I usually occupy. He was an elderly, pious looking man, in a long black gabardine and a small black hat; his silver payot (sidelocks) curled in the Yemenite style.

Shalom Nagar
Shalom Nagar

Someone must have said something (not us), as he moved, and ended up sitting directly behind me. As we approached our seat, my father-in-law whispered in my ear: “haish hahu tala et Eichmann” (“that man hanged Eichmann”).

Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi Final Solution, was famously apprehended by the Mossad while hiding in Argentina, smuggled back to Israel, and put on trial in 1961. It was a seminal moment in the history of the state, when for the first time the majority of the country really began to come to terms with what had happened in the Holocaust. It was also the first time in Israel’s history that a death sentence was actually carried out (in other cases it has been ordered but cancelled on appeal).

I vaguely remembered hearing that they had selected a Yemenite to perform the execution. This was in order to avoid any hint of this being revenge, as opposed to justice. Too many of the European and even North African Jews living in Israel were affected personally by the Holocaust, but the Yemenites were not. It was remarkable to think that this diminutive man sitting behind me had been responsible for the death of this most famous criminal.

Even if I had wanted to forget about this during the service, it was not possible. The vast majority of a Yemenite liturgy is chanted aloud, in unison, and often in a loud voice. I kept hearing his voice, with a very strong Yemenite accent, sounding in my ear. I kept being reminded of him, and thinking about what he had done. Thinking about the morality and virtues (or not) of capital punishment. Thinking about Eichmann and the horrors he perpetrated. Thinking how it must have felt to carry out this sentence.

The service broke for the rabbi’s sermon. The weekly Torah portion mentioned the obligation of a man witnessing a murder to bear witness against the perpetrator. He suggested that part of this was a sort of catharsis for the witness who had seen a terrible crime, as well as the need to bring justice. He began speaking about the large amount of violence in modern media, both theatrical violence in film and TV dramas and real violence on the news or available in the latest ISIS broadcasts. He argued that by watching this violence, one is like a witness, and one needs to cleanse one’s soul somehow.

I could not help thinking about the gentleman behind me, and what he had not just witnessed, but actually done. I was not the only one; a fellow congregant began to rib him, asking him how he had cleansed himself of what he had witnessed. I felt so sorry for this poor man. Fortunately, other congregants stepped in and ordered that it came to an end. But I could still hear the old man behind me, muttering “there were three witnesses”, as if somehow the shared burden made things easier. It was heart-wrenching.

The service concluded, we stood up to leave. Our new friend was still busy praying, reading the aleinu prayer which they do not normally recite in this synagogue. He shook my hand as we left, wishing me a “Shabbat Shalom”; the hand which shook mine was no doubt the hand that ended Eichmann’s life.

It was a bizarre experience. I was filled with pity for this man, who is famed for performing this most terrible of deeds. And yet there was something about his demeanour which was just so pure; his dress, his side-locks, his extra prayers, his elderly cracking voice escaping the gaps in his teeth. I was excited to have met this man who was a part of history, and desperate to question him on it, yet aware that this was far from the time or the place. I was horrified by the thought of what had happened.

After Shabbat, with the help of Google, I learned a bit more about Shalom Nagar. It seems that he has come to terms with his past and lives a happy, uncomplicated life. If you are interested, you can read an in-depth interview here.

In Israel, it so often happens that what would appear to be an entirely normal evening ends up being extraordinary; thought-provoking; somewhat emotional. It never ceases to amaze me.

Hiking the Zavitan Stream

The Israeli tour guide course is long, intense and covers a huge amount of information. However, it can’t possibly cover everything, so there are still parts of the country for me to explore, and I take great pleasure in doing so!

A reasonably important one is the area of the Yehudiya Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights. There are many trails here and unusually for Israel all of them have water all year around, which is great when you are looking to cool off in the heat of the summer.

With a friend arriving who has a passion for hiking, it was a great excuse to get up north to the reserve. I picked him up from Ben Gurion Airport at 6.45am and just two hours later we were slapping on our sun cream as we prepared to hike around the upper part of the Zavitan stream, a particularly popular trail that I shall definitely need to know for the future.

Small creek near Nachal Zavitan
Small creek near Nachal Zavitan

As we set off, we were somewhat unimpressed by the lack of shade (with the sun already beginning to reach high temperatures. However, we soon began to reach some pleasant little creeks which provided some respite.

Bathing in the Zavitan Hexagon Pools
Bathing in the Zavitan Hexagon Pools

Continuing further, we hit the real attraction, a series of pools surrounded by basalt columns that are in various stages of erosion. The columns, caused by physical forces at work in the cooling of lava when the basalt was formed, exist in quite a few parts of the Golan, most famously at the ‘Hexagon Pool’, a little north west of us in the Yehudiya Reserve.

Undisturbed pool along the Zavitan Stream
Undisturbed pool along the Zavitan Stream

The site was crowded although we still found some space for a quick dip, and then continued down-stream where we found a smaller but undisturbed pool which was much more peaceful and to my mind rather more beautiful.

Zavitan Waterfall
Zavitan Waterfall

Continuing down the trail led us to a lovely view of a waterfall, although no doubt it is much more impressive after the winter rains. It was possible to descend down to the waterfall and bathe in the pool into which it plunged (probably less appealing after the winter rains!) and there were plenty of people taking advantage of this opportunity to cool off.

All in all, a very pleasant option for a short hike in the Golan, while incorporating some opportunities to cool off in the stream. I am sure I will be back in Yehudiya before long to explore some of the other trails, including the water hike!

 

The Israel Tour Guide Exam Part Two: The Oral Exam

As I mentioned last week, the oral exam, the final stage in the qualification process to become a licensed tour guide in Israel, is a pretty grueling experience. I was reasonably fortunate with the questions thank goodness. The ones that I can remember are below, in case it is of interest!

Questions on my itinerary:
What is unusual about the synagogue in Zippori? Why is it built like that? What does this tell us about Zippori in the Byzantine period?

What were the reasons for the blossoming of Tzfat in the 16th century?

Names of personalities in Tzfat – provide the name of the books they wrote and describe the books:
– Josef Caro
– The Holy Ari
– Chaim Vittal
– [some more whose names escape me]

Who wrote Lecha Dodi?

Tell me about Alexander Zaid.

What is Bar Giora?

 

General questions:
How do you do a check-in at a hotel?

What is a rooming list? What sort of information is on it?

At check-in, a tourist complains that they had requested a single room and have not received one. What do you do?

What are the borders of the Golan? What type of rock can you find there?

How was the Golan formed?

Where else can you find basalt in Israel?

Is there any advance procedure you need to do in order to visit the Hermon with tourists?

I will give you years and you will tell me who was in control of the Hermon: 1950, 1969, 1975.

What happened on the Hermon in the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars?

Give two reasons for the importance of the Hermon for Israel.

You are driving from the north to Jerusalem through the Jordan Valley. Tell me about the following sites:
– Sartaba
– Qasr el Yahud
– The Inn of the Good Samaritan

Explain areas A, B & C

Give me an itinerary for a day of Islamic religion, history and culture in Jerusalem

Give me an itinerary for a day of Catholic sites in Jerusalem

Give me an itinterary for a day of Jewish sites in Jerusalem – dedicate the morning to ancient and religious sites; the afternoon to the modern period.

Describe the first Jewish neighbourhoods to be built outside the Old City walls of Jerusalem: names, order and characteristics.

Give me an itinerary for a day themed around Herod, without visiting Jerusalem

You are standing at the top of Herodion. What do you see (that is connected with the site)?

From what period is the synagogue at Herodion?

Is there a difference between Maresha and Beit Guvrin? What do you see at Maresha?

You are standing at the grave of David Ben Gurion. What valley do you see?

Tell me about David Ben Gurion.

I say a word and you tell me a place in Israel where you can go to see/talk about this topic:
– Wine
– Agriculture
– Desalination
– Science & technology

Name a viewpoint over the Gaza strip

How do you explain the current security situation to the tourists? Why are rockets being fired at Israel?

What happened yesterday in the Jewish calendar (it was Rosh Chodesh Av)?

What is this period in the Jewish calendar called?

A group in Jerusalem wants to visit sites where you can see physical signs of the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Where would you take them?

What is the history of the Egyptian border?

Launch of new website

Now that I have passed my exams, I decided that it was time to give the website a refresh, moving it from a focus on the blog to being more appropriate as a page for people to come to when searching for a tour guide. The blog is still here and I shall continue to update it while I explore the country (there are always new places to see and discover) but I have created a new landing page, updated the about section (including the details of my guiding philosophy) and have included a series of testimonials that I have received from previous participants in my tours.

The new design also automatically adapts to different size screens (for example a laptop vs a telephone) and in general looks a lot cleaner.

I hope that you like the new site and would welcome any comments and feedback!

I Passed!!

The tour guide Oral Exam. I can’t remember pressure like this. I definitely felt under pressure for my university finals; for my A-levels and GCSEs, but there was something different about this exam. It was worse even than the written exam I took back in June.

There is something about written exams. You can strategise; it is as much about technique as anything else. Making sure one finishes on time. Maybe one can avoid studying all the material and still be able to answer effectively.

The oral exam offers nowhere to hide. Sitting in front of you are four qualified and experienced tour guides, one of whom is also an travel agent, and you have only 30 minutes to impress them. And not just with your knowledge – they are testing you on your ability to be interesting and engaging, eye contact, posture, intonation etc.

The exam begins with you giving them a printed sheet of a tour itinerary that you have planned; then you have a chance to present for about 5 minutes one of the places you will visit on the tour, as if you are guiding them. So far, so good – you can prepare this and hopefully get off to a good start.

Then starts the fun. They begin to ask you questions on what you have just guided, then the day you have planned, and then the questioning broadens to cover potentially absolutely anything. You need to know the geology, geography, flaura and fauna of the whole country. Add to that the entire history from the day you are being examined (some questions are on current affairs) until prehistoric times; all the different sites including the history of their walls and water sources….it gets very tough.

On top was a sense of added pressure. It is possible to retake the exam, but only in 6 months’ time. So, if I failed, I would be unemployable for a minimum of six months. And after nearly two years as a student (with some part time work here and there), it would be helpful to work towards a more positive trend in the bank account.

I was not helped by the current security situation in Israel. After a few days of quiet in Tel Aviv, Hamas decided to fire a rocket in our direction. Not only that; it was at 2.30am – the first time we have had to wake up and head for the protected space in our pyjamas. With the extra nerves of the exam, I did not have the best night’s sleep.

View over Jerusalem from the Ministry of Tourism
View over Jerusalem from the Ministry of Tourism

I arrived at the Ministry of Tourism and briefly enjoyed the lovely view of Jerusalem from the balcony on the top floor, next to the examination room. My course coordinator was waiting, and helped keep me calm during what seemed to be the interminable wait to get in the exam room.

I entered, exchanged pleasantries, and began my pre-prepared piece on the mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue of Zippori. So far, so good. Then came the questions, which at some point soon I will publish in a separate post (at least what I can remember – there were many!). The beginning was ok, with a slightly rocky section as one of the examiners decided to quiz me on various of the lesser known kabbalists (he was soon taken off this route by the other examiners). I was then able to get into my stride.

I was reasonably fortunate with the questions to be honest. By now nearly all of my course-mates had taken their exams, and in the collaborative spirit that accompanied us throughout our stuides, they had been sharing with the group the sort of things they had been asked, in order to help us prepare.

Apart from a few exceptions, most of our group had received challenging but reasonable questions, and for me it was the same. Nothing too horrid, fortunately. And then it was all over. Time for that very nervous wait for the results, although fortunately, unlike the written exam, where we were waiting three weeks to hear, this was all over much more quickly.

By lunch time, I had received a text message from my course coordinator, containing a single, delightful word: ‘avarta‘ (you have passed).

I cannot describe my elation! Someone passing me in the street was so intrigued that he asked what had happened, before congratulating me also.

I concluded my morning in Jerusalem by taking my long suffering wife (who has loyally allowed me to practice on her, and has spent hours firing questions from past exams at me when she would rather be doing a million other things) for a light lunch. Walking into the cafe, whom did we bump into but the hadrachic legends Steve Israel and Jeremy Leigh, who had taught me 12 years previously when I was a student on the Machon L’Madrichei Chul (Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad) programme.

This remarkable coincidence seemed somehow appropriate; a closure to a loop that began on the Machon, continued with various voluntary positions I held as a student and my sabbatical role at FZY, diverged for a while with a very enjoyable 5 years at P&G, before returning to this world of hadracha.

Now that the hard work of the studies has been concluded, it is time to find some employment. Now is not the best timing – the current security situation has been severly detrimental to the tourist industry. Fortunately I am not really available to work for a while – but bookings from November onwards are now open – be in touch!