THE BLOG

My Piece in the Middle East

06/10/2013 03:08 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2013

No one told me that the Dead Sea sparkles. And I almost didn't see it.

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Wanderlust struck me, so I spun the globe and threw a dart at a dream destination. Istanbul was rioting and Prague was flooded, so I headed to a more peaceful place, Israel.

As I planned the trip from home in the U.S., I let news and friends persuade me to limit my sight-seeing to Jerusalem only, under the theoretical belief that with Muslim, Christian and Jewish holy places under one tiny sky, I'd be safe. I cancelled excursions to Petra in Jordan, Bethlehem, Masada and the Dead Sea.

Someone joked that I could float in the Great Salt Lake instead, but that's too dangerous; Utah is riddled with religious fanatics that jump out of bushes, attack your morality and your basic human right to drink Coke.

Jerusalem's buildings have an innocent look on their façades; city law requires them to be wrapped in white stone. Within a day of strolling around the historic and peaceful city, bumping into burka-clad women who said pardon me before I did, and tossing shekels into a guitar box to support the musical band of Orthodox Jews rocking it out on the street, I knew I'd misjudged this place.

I reverently walked the Stations of the Cross, the path Jesus walked to his crucifixion. Regardless of my faith, this is a fascinating documentary of a man's life, events of which were witnessed and recorded by so many that Jesus was in fact the first reality star.

I confidently re-booked Bethlehem and Masada. I had a blast in Palestine -- maybe not the right word for the region, but I'm so glad to have gone. The guards at the border crossing were as pleasant as the very nice day. I ate the gentlest prepared lamb ever.

I climbed to the highest point of palace/fortress Masada, where Jews chose to heroically die rather than remain slaves. Minutes later I was at the lowest accessible place on the entire planet, bobbing like an apple in the Dead Sea. As I effortlessly floated my way to softer skin, I looked up at Jordan's Amman mountains, where the world's longest sin was committed -- that 40-year stretch when Jewish men refused to stop and ask for directions. 

An army marches in my stomach and I expected to feed it with hummus on pita with olives and a side of baba ghanoush, but I got a reincarnated Julia Child in harem pants in swanky restaurant Mona's, pitch perfect Coq au Vin. The desert rumbled and out popped Hotel Mamilla's pastry chef, who can beat American Goddess Sherry Yard in a belly dancing contest and macaroon bake-off. I exercised personal freedoms I don't have in California by eating fantastic foie gras on a rooftop overlooking ancient walls built by men who spoke dozens of languages other than French.

This week as I've wound through the hand-cobbled streets kneeling at a Byzantine church wedged into a Greek Orthodox Church next to an Ethiopian Church that spit me out into a mosque, I've learned that there are a lot of truths. Of course a fool and his passport are soon parted, so it's wiser to remain silent and shop.

For this week, Israel has been safe and was my best travel bet. She wears a lot of beautiful hats -- and I've been embraced and hugged by them all. I was respectful in my behavior and they returned the kindness. I'm not religious, but I pray the next person finds Israel as happy as I leave it.

As the Catholics say, Peace be with you. It's now Friday evening, the mosques wail their prayers, and the sun is setting over the old city, and my trip. Shabbat Shalom.