Jerusalem Photographs

Deviating from my usual posting style, this post is mostly about the pictures – of various places within and around the Old City (Ir atika) of Jerusalem.  Until about the mid 1800s this was Jerusalem with very little permanent settlement outside the walls.  Today, the new city eclipses the old in size many, many times over but for the center of spiritual Jerusalem you have to head to the Old City.

First, here’s a night panorama of the Western Wall / Kotel plaza.  The kotel is directly in front – this was a ‘regular’ weekday night.  There’s no special holiday or event but one can still find thousands of people coming and going, mostly to pray at the Kotel.  View the panaroma in it’s full 360 degree glory here: https://goo.gl/photos/vZVmp57mLU89PCsm6

Here’s today’s Mamilla mall, just outside the Old City (Jaffa Gate / Shar Yafo). In the 1800s it became a place for tradespeople and then declined after 1948, being on the border with Jordan and Jordanian snipers. Today, it’s very high priced real estate and has been taken over by western clothing brands and the like and placed mostly under a road and next to a parking lot.

Here’s a typical Old City street at night. People tend to be out and about at all hours, though the side streets (which don’t connect gates of the Old City to central locations, etc.) are usually fairly quiet and empty. This street passes between Shar Yafo (Jaffa Gate) and the Jewish quarter so it tends to be filled with people.

Not far from the Old City is an entirely different area – the Ben Yehuda Triangle where mostly tourists fill the restaurants, shops, and bars especially on Thursday and Saturday nights (but not on Shabbos when everything is closed for the holiday). Here, there’s some live entertainment from a local.  Here’s the link to the big picture: https://photos.app.goo.gl/tNg4coVIyT1jdnj33

Back in the Old City, here’s the inside of Bircas HaTorah, a yeshiva where they’re quite serious about attendance. An electronic key card check-in and checkout system is next to the door and every seat is full. They bought the adjacent building and are looking to expand.

Beneath the building adjacent to Bircas HaTorah a hidden room has been discovered during the excavation. It’s not too clear (at the time of this writing) what was here, but it might have been a bakery with ovens. The Old City is built on top of … older old cities. The further you dig, the more back in history you go. It’s hard not to find history wherever you dig in Yerushalayim.

Here’s the southwest corner of the temple mount platform, looking out. The temple mount platform, the large structure built in a mountain by shaving off the top and placing rows of arches over each other in the size of about 28 football fields still stands today. The Western Wall is on the right, though the place where Jews gather to pray today is further down the wall closer to the Kedosh HaKedoshim (holy of holies) where Abraham almost took a knife to Yitzchok [Isaac] and the offerings were brought among other things. The stones are said to have been knocked down by the Romans on what was a street full of commerce right here. One would buy their sheep, goat, or the like here before ascending to the temple mount.

Again looking from the southwest corner outwards one can see the ancient “upper city” where the rich people lived. There used to be a valley in between with large bridges to get from one place to the other, but over the past 2000 years it’s more or less been filled in though the upper city is still high enough above that there’s quite a lot of stairs.

Here’s the Western Wall from underneath in the “tunnels”. Actually, we’re still above ground by quite a lot, it’s just that the marmalks (Muslim conquerors) raised the level of the city about 1000 years ago to the height of the platform but had the foresight to leave a nice space between the wall and the buildings so tours could pass through nicely. You have to plan ahead for these things… That stone – it’s huuugggeee. See it huuuggeee here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/cf3RujNX27aH7OG53 – The tour guide had one of my daughters walk to one end and the other to the other end. Then they screamed to each other from each end. How did this stone and many like it get quarried and brought here with technology from 2500 or so years ago? No one knows. 

Inside Shar Yafo (Jaffa Gate) a woman plays the harm in a white robe. Why? I don’t know. She wasn’t even collecting money. Maybe she’s paid by the city.

Back to the Kotel tunnels – those are paper yarmulkes that fell to the bottom. Tourists sometimes wear these out of respect but nevertheless … amateurs.

Here’s the mixed quarter of the Old City. Before 1948 it was mixed with Jews and Muslims. In about the 1930s with Muslim riots, the British segregated the Jews to the Jewish quarter kicking many Jews out of their homes, some of whom had family there for centuries. After the 1967 war when the State of Israel took control, some land was returned to the Jewish owners outright (e.g. what is now Yeshivas Cohanim), some was purchased (with the sellers often taken by armored bus for their safety and resettled in Paterson, NJ where they can live comfortably on millions of dollars just received), and some has been taken back through legal battles. The home at the end of the street with the big Israeli flag and menorah was owned by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Apparently it’s about as inhabited by him as it was when he was alive – the main residents are mostly soldiers guarding the place.

Still in the mixed quarter, here’s a little hole in the wall perfume shop. Note that the writing is in English and Arabic … no Hebrew here. There are actually many places where Arabs do use Hebrew … I saw much of it on the route from Jerusalem to Hebron, but alas, after two Arab uprisings very few Jews shop among the non-Israeli Arabs anymore. Arabs in Jerusalem can get full citizenship in Israel should they choose it, but most don’t while instead shooting themselves in the foot through uprisings and terror rather than noting reality – we all have to live together.

The light in the tunnel is Shar Yafo (Jaffa Gate) with the Old City wall lit up for the once a year Jerusalem Light Festival. With really, really bright projectors an entire show is put on and one can walk around and through much of the Old City for various light-based entertainment from seesaws to video projection to artwork.

Here’s the men’s section of the Kotel . . . the outdoors part. The women’s section is on the right. Occasionally, you even spot Arab women in hijabs who come here to look around or maybe pray. Should a Jew go up top where the Jordanians were given de facto control, they actually have paid hecklers to scream at Jews and a security force is needed. After my last trip to Israel, I stopped believing in giving Arabs any more control of Israel. They have autonomous rule of their own cities with large signs saying Israelis can’t even enter. That’s the real apartheid in Israel, but meanwhile, there are Arabs everywhere in the country and some major Israeli universities are actually a majority Arab. Meanwhile, when given control, the terrorists and authoritarians take over – criticize the Palestinian Authority and you’ll find yourself arrested and probably tortured in a totalitarian government which will probably never hold another election. … and I haven’t even mentioned Hamas, where they put their money into terror tunnels and missiles launched indiscriminately on cities while their population has 60%+ unemployment and 2-4 hours of electricity a day. If I was an Arab, I’m pretty sure I’d rather be ruled by Jews.

Here’s the Kotel looking from the women’s section over to the men’s section. View the larger panorama here: https://goo.gl/photos/r8FsTgdPAoBKata78

This is the tunnel under Robinson’s arch (one of the former bridges to the upper city from the Temple Mount). Today, it’s part of the men’s section. Again, just an average night and filled with people praying and learning Torah.

This is a 360 of the tunnel section of the men’s area. View this in it’s full glory here: https://goo.gl/photos/toaWniYVY7ZLtpmv7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is part of a series of articles on kosher travel in Israel.  For the map with all places discussed and links to other pages in the series go to the main page at Israel Kosher Vacations for Tourists.  

In no particular order . . .

The Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, Rehavia

Located at 55 King George St, this modern synagogue was built in 1982 at a cost of $18 million (in 1982 dollars) and holds 1400 people.  What’s amazing about this synagogue is the choir.  We’re talking about a huge synagogue built with professional acoustic design and a live choir of about 12-20 singers.  I can best describe it as a cross between 18th century baroque, 19th century Poland, and 20th century Carlbach … it was like going to a classical music concert complete with a conductor and “instruments” (only voice) with impeccable sound quality since there’s no reproduction of the sound. You’re hearing the actual voices in a “concert hall” which is built for sound quality.

The difference between this and say, a classical music concert is you’re not a spectator at this concert – well, assuming you know the davening [prayers], probably as a Torah observant Jew.  Here, even the conductor takes part as he too is answering “amen” because he’s actually praying while conducting.

It’s not something I think I’d do every week (I usually prefer little to no singing synagogues that move along), but wow is it amazing when it’s done right.  I imagine it as the closest thing to praying with Leviim singing in the Bais Hamikdash (Temple; though they had instruments too).  On Shabbos morning, the synagogue starts at 8:30am but you’ll be there while a while (probably about 3.5 hours) if you stay for everything so it might be advisable to daven someone else early and then come over here for the second half of davening – e.g. f you can, go there when they sing Hallel (Rosh Chodesh, Chol HaMoed, etc…) and get the full experience. … and don’t worry what you look like.  There are people with kippa strugas, black hats, streimels, probably some tourists … you have everyone attending here.

The Hurva, Old City

Those who are used to walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, until recently, were used to passing through a square with a small platform where musicians gather, people make calls from the bank of payphones, and an arch stands in what everyone knows is a synagogue which was destroyed by the Jordanians in the 1948 war.  Well, a blank wall now greets you were the payphones were and the platform is still there, but the arch that you see is now part of the rebuilt Hurva synagogue.  Once the headquarters for Ashkenazi Jewish practice in Jerusalem in the 1700s, it’s been built and destroyed (usually by the Ottomans or other Muslims) and rebuilt more times than it seems history has kept track of.  There are historical mentions of the synagogue in 2nd, 13th, and 14th centuries and is also known as the Ramban Synagogue as the Ramban is one of the builders at one time.

Today, it’s fully rebuilt as exact as possible based on the pre-1948 plans.  The only difference I could find were the wooden blocks surrounding the air conditioning units.  You can find minyanim here every day and two Shabbos morning in a ‘yeshivish’ style, the later at 8:15am.  Minyan proceeds quickly and without talking or a break for a Rabbinical speech, but be advised that modern acoustics are not something you’ll find in the multi-story many shul built of stone.  There’s quite the echo making for a very different experience from the modern Great Synagogue described above.

Seeing this synagogue rebuilt is a very positive change for those of us who walked through this courtyard numerous times on our way to the Kotel only to see an arch where a shul should have been.  Now, there’s a shul there and it’s emblematic of much of Israel which is constantly growing, being rebuilt.  It’s not the country it was when I lived there in 2002.  As I write this article in 2017, only 15 years later, the roads have been straightened, incomes have gone up 50%, ruins are often active places of worship.

Belz Great Synagogue

Unintentionally, the article covers a Mizrachi, Yeshivish, and Chassidic great synagogue.  Belz, as one would probably guess, is the chassidish synagogue of the Belz Chassidim from Belz, Poland/Ukraine.  The flat fur hats that they wear are quite stylish, but when you see this synagogue … wow.  It’s the largest synagogue in Israel and can seat over 10,000.  You enter on a floor that looks like a never ending lobby of a hotel complete with granite, marble, and stone work.  Go up a floor to the synagogue, or if you’re going to the woman’s section, you can go up to one of three floors, and you’re greeting by an Aron HaKodesh (where the Torah’s are stored) which is, I’m told, a full size replica of the Heichel – the front of the Temple.  It’s huge, as is this room.

It’s worth a stop to see how the Jews have finally returned to Jerusalem in huge numbers.  Belz had two main synagogues back in Poland which were destroyed by the Nazis.  It amazing to think that in 1945, between death and rebirth, chassidim like Belz had no great synagogues and were largely wiped out but you come to Jerusalem today and see that the synagogues have been more than rebuilt where they’re supposed to be and now accommodate crowds praying to G_d within which haven’t been seen in Israel since before the last Temple was destroyed.

Bonus: The Little Synagogue On Agripas St

Bais Tzvi is it’s name – at approximately 26 Agripas St (see picture on map) this humble synagogue sits at the end of the drive-able part of Agrippas St which extends from the shuk, and what begins the pedestrian mall from here through the King George triangle.  It’s not huge like the rest discussed in this article, but it has it’s charm.  Hidden behind a plain looking doorway between restaurants and clothing stores, this small synagogue has regular Ashkenazi minyanim three times a day with well posted times inside.  It’s small enough and the Rav is friendly enough that he’ll notice you when you walk in and help you feel comfortable (he only speaks Hebrew though).  The Gabbi is an American Jew from Baltimore who moved to the area, and many who stay in the hotels in the area frequent this synagogue.

On Shabbos morning, they start at 7:45am and finish by about 9:15am but the reason this gets mentioned in the kiddush.  You’ll find an “authentic” Jerusalem kiddush here.  It’s not over the top, it’s not huge, it’s just some yerushalmi kugel, cholent, and a small amount of baked goods.  It’s just not something reproducible outside of Israel.  Then, you can head off to experience the bigger Great Synagogue of Jerusalem discussed above.

 

This is part of a series of articles on kosher travel in Israel.  For the map with all places discussed and links to other pages in the series go to the main page at Israel Kosher Vacations for Tourists.  

Geography of the Dead Sea Region

The Dead Sea Region is low and hot.  Excepting for the middle of winter, plan to head out early.  It easily reaches temperatures of 100 Fahrenheit / 40 Celsius in much of the year.  It’s a desert with not too much habitation – it’s South of the “green line” in “Israel proper” and solely a Jewish area, but the quickest route to get there from many places is by driving west from Jerusalem through the Judean Hills.  It’s well worth the trip, but highly recommended to plan your activities in advance (and go with a full tank of gas if you drive) because stops are some distance away from each other.

Panorama of the top of Masada

Masada

Sunrise at Masada

This is the place where the Jews who chose to fight to Romans rather than compromise held up in Herod’s fortress almost 2,000 years ago.  Large cisterns were dug to hold water and donkeys traversed the “snake path” (so named by Josephus, and as named today) to bring water and supplies to the top.  Numerous ruins have been uncovered including many buildings and some dyed tiles with the dye faded, but clearly visible.  It is a common place for bar mitzvahs in what was, or well, is again a synagogue.

There are two paths up Masada – make sure you know which one you’re going up.  There is a different road to each, and the roads do not connect.  Google Maps / Waze will take you to the “snake path” which is about a 1,300 foot / 400 meter climb.  It winds back and forth alternating between hilly traverses, stairs, and inclines.  Near the top, railings are more common but it’s a long way down.  We did this hike starting out at about 5 am, not because we wanted to see the sunrise particularly, but because it was July and by about 8 am it’s simply too hot and they close the path entirely and the gondola opens.  If you’re like us and climb this path in July, no need to speak Hebrew.  It was all American (and a few British) at this hour because Israelis do this in the winter months.  The river of sweat on my back might have had something to do with it, and once again my now 8 year old daughter had no trouble beating me to the top (see Tannersville trip where the same thing happened at Hunter Mountain).

The cable car at Masada

The other hiking path, if you can call it that, is a the Roman ramp.  The Romans couldn’t take the fortress by way of the snake path, and if you climb it you’ll see why.  Instead, the built a road and a ramp up the other side.  It’s a rather large engineering project which now serves Jewish tourists well.  Thanks, I guess, Romans.  It reminds me of the passage in the Gemora Succos about the end of days when the nations of the world will be asked to defend their ill treatment of the Jews and they’ll say, “we built great roads for the Jews which they used” and the response will be, “no, you built them for yourself.”

The third way up, opening at 8am, is the gondola.  Seeing the top of Masada just isn’t nearly as rewarding unless you do the 1,300 foot climb … it’s something everyone should experience once in their life.  Then you arrive at the same gate that the inhabitants arrived at 2,000 years ago . . . and you find the water faucets waiting for you at the top.

Dead Sea Swimming

The Dead Sea is another thing everyone should experience once in their life.  It has among the highest salinity of any body of water in the world (it’s beat by a recently appearing lake in Ethiopia, but that lake is near boiling hot with deadly amounts of sulfur and will kill you).  In your typical unsalted or even ocean water, you sink to the bottom and have to treat water to keep afloat.  In the Dead Sea, it’s the opposite – you kind of bob there with the water level just beneath your shoulders and have to struggle if you want to touch the bottom.  It’s loads of fun.

Kalia Beach – Dead Sea

As of the time of this writing, it’s difficult to find a beach at the Dead Sea.  Many of the public beaches are closed due to sink holes which is apparently a thing in this area.  The one separate beach that is open is Ein Bokek at a hotel.  It’s south of Masada, so the “wrong direction” if you’re planning to travel back North to where most of Israel’s population centers are located.  We found out the hard way that Mineral Beach was closed due to sink holes but some of us really, really wanted to go in the Dead Sea and the rest of us were glad we dragged them along.  We ended up at Kalia Beach which is at the intersection of routes 1 and 90 at the northern end of the Dead Sea.

A few notes about Kalia beach – first, at the intersection is a gas station.  Fill up here if you need it because you won’t find another gas station along route 90 for a long, long time.  We drove back on fumes, stopping at every place and being told, “no gas station here… go maybe [5/10/15/20/other random number] kilometers up the road” to not find a gas station there either making me wonder if Israelis can estimate distance.  Second, Kalia beach is a bit less than an hour out of Yerushayim so if you just want to go to the Dead Sea to swim, it’s a pretty easy trip.  Third, it’s a mixed beach.  That being said, most but not all women were fairly covered up to protect their skin from the sun.  In fact, while we didn’t go to mixed beaches on the Mediterranean, women in Israel seem to tend to be more tznious than women in the United States.  Kalia beach was actually filled with Chinese tourists, many of which covered themselves head to toe and one with a face mask as well <shrug>.  Fourth, Kalia beach is expensive – we heard after the trick is to say you want to go to their store and by some mineral oil and rocks that people apparently rub on their skin for some reason (we got a demo, and I can’t say I understand why you want to rub scratchy rocks on yourself).  Then, you go to the beach after and the cost of the silly products is less than the cost of the beach.

Other Dead Sea Attractions

An ancient cistern at Masada

There’s the Ahava factory … not much to see.  Just an assembly line and gift shop.  There’s Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were found.  There’s no gas station there (as me how I know), but there is a pretty big gift shop because, you know, the Essenes put the scrolls where they’d be safe for 2,000 years so the Pharisees could profit later.  My group didn’t seem to want to see past the gift shop, but I’m sure there’s other things there today, too.

There’s Ein Gedi which is one of a few Jewish settlements in the area.  By day, the residents aren’t really to be found presumably all in their houses while it’s hot.   There is a fresh water spring here and apparently some great hikes.  If you’ve been, please elaborate more in the comments for the benefit of others.

In Conclusion . . .

This region of Israel is not to be missed.  There is unique Jewish history here to be experienced!  Even if you’re not Jewish, the hike up Masada and Dead Sea are well worth the trip.  Some final pictures are below.

Looking out at the Judean Hills from Masada

Hiking up the Snake Path at Masada – the starting point is all the way down there . . .

Looking down from the Snake Path to the desert floor (where the hike starts) and Dead Sea

Introduction

Click to Enlarge

For our latest trip, we took an epic vacation to Eretz Yisroel (Israel).  Unlike previous posts where there is one per place, this one has to be split out into many, many posts.  In this first article in the series we’ll be discussion an overview only.  Later articles (which will hopefully be linked from this one) will get into details on each place we visited on our trip and some we planned to visit, as mapped out by my son’s beautiful picture to your right.

Please also view the Israel Kosher vacation map we made on Google which covers all the places we visited or had planned to visit.  With pre-planning, you can make the most of your trip to Israel.

Geography & Language

It doesn’t rain in the summer in Israel.  From Pesach to Sukkos, you can leave your car windows open, but expect it to be pretty warm in the summer, and rainy or even snowy in the winter.  Israel is at the midst of different weather regions of the world, and on the coast one finds a “Mediterranean” coastal water climate, in the North one finds mountains and lots of water with some of the most amazing hikes in the world, and in the south a desert.

While much of the country speaks English, they do so with varying degrees of knowledge and far from everyone does so.  it is helpful to at least some Hebrew so you know when the lifeguard is screaming at you, so you can negotiate in the Machane Yehuda shuk of Jerusalem, or pay for monthly parking.

Expense

Customer service is getting better along with the income level.  Per capita income, at the time of this writing, is about US$39,000/yr categorizing the country as the 24th richest (per person) in the world, on the level or above much of Europe at this time.  In 2000, the rate of the shekel to dollar was almost 5:1.  Today, it’s 3.5:1 due to a very strong Israeli economy based on high tech and tourism.

Food seemed to be less expensive in Israel, but hotels and vacation apartment rentals appeared to be on par with American rates.  Even Judaica, which used to be much less expensive in Israel, is often not so.  Sure, you can find a yarmulke on the street for 10 shekels, but even a good pair of tzitzis in Israel is on par with U.S. prices these days.

Driving In Israel

Americans love our cars and the country is setup for driving.  Israel . . . not so much.  At the time of this writing, gas costs about $6.50/gallon (of which 2/3 is taxes) while it was $2.15 in New Jersey and car rentals cost close to what they do in the United States.  The newer highway 6 which goes North to South is as nice as any three lane highway in the United States, but much of the rest of the country has poorly timed traffic lights.

In Jerusalem in particular, main roads have been replaced with pedestrian walking areas and recently one of the main roads (Yafo) has been almost completely replaced by a light rail.  Just crossing from one side to the other can take ten minutes so what used to be a five minute drive to the zoo is now a 10 minute drive without traffic and a 30 minute drive at most times.

The country has few stop signs, instead preferring the much more efficient round abouts or traffic circles.  These are great – after your fifth one in five blocks in Ashdod, they can get tiresome but it sure beats completely stops at every block in American traffic.

Car Rental In Israel

From reading reviews, it appears that car rentals go fairly smoothly in Israel and that was our experience too.  The major companies are all fine and Budget / Hertz in Israel are actually run by the same company.  We did seem numerous negative reviews about Sixt, so you might want to avoid this company.  I also avoid Thrifty with a passion after getting royally ripped off in Tampa while they company that owns their website blamed the car rental company of the same name, and vice versa.

We used Noach Car which acts as an agent.  In our case, they got us a Hertz rental and helped us choose the exact car we wanted (8 seats, which car rental companies don’t advertise as a choice) while not charging basic insurance for Shabbos.  It came out cheaper and when there’s a problem, they’re very responsive.

One thing to be aware of: many credit cards do not offer collision insurance coverage in Israel / have exclusions for Israel.  It is very expensive to pay for insurance out of pocket.  Chase (and Amazon’s Chase card) do have this coverage but you will need to get a letter from them specifically stating that they cover the CDW insurance.

Cellular Phone Service in Israel

Your best bet seems to be a T-Moble plan.  Your American phone will work flawlessly in Israel with calls at 20 cents a minute and data included.  Project Fi, Google’s plan which uses the T-Mobile network, also works in Israel at 20 cents a minute and $10/gigabyte.  Using this for Waze while driving around Israel for a month shouldn’t even have you hit one gigabye, but service was less reliable.  It did not register properly on the network for two days and then every few days, I had to fiddle with the settings, toggling between 3G and 4G, turning it off and on, and then it would work again.  Google credited us for the month of service because it’s supposed to work.

We also tried MintSim which is supposed to work internationally – it didn’t.  Service with this company is a call center in India reading off a call script so just forget it.

Others have recommended buying a Golan telecom sim card was in Israel for 100 shekels a month and then canceling after a month.  That might work.  Then there are sim card rentals and cellular phone rentals but these are typically at 4x the price it costs for normal service in Israel.  That’s quite a profit margin!

Choosing an Airline to Israel

They’re all just as bad/good.  People like to rag on El Al but it was no better or worse, in our experience, than anyone else.  The major advantage is they like to feed you and you can go to the ‘kitchen’ and find more food whenever you’d like.  All the food on the plane is kosher, though some/many (depending who you ask) will request/eat only food which is double wrapped (or pre-packaged) as there are concerns that they use leniencies one wouldn’t use in their own home such as using ovens for meant and then dairy without waiting 24 hours because, you know, it’s a plane.  Further, there’s no guarantees that something non-kosher wasn’t put in the oven by flight staff during a flight.  Flights from the U.S. to Israel have meals double sealed with an OU and they were quite good … olives, mozzarella, etc.  Flights from Israel are rabbinute but you can request (beforehand) meals with mehadrin hechsurs (and get fed first).

One tip with El Al – don’t bother calling their helpline for help.  They can’t help.  Post on their Facebook page and you’ll get someone responsible who may be able to help.

Kosher Food in Israel

This one gets a section because I’ve spent much time talking to Rabbeim who do it regular rabbinute and those who don’t.  “Rabbinute” is the “stam” or base hecshur run by the Israeli Rabbinate.  Haredi Jews won’t touch it . . . but also, in my experience won’t really say that you can’t or it’s not kosher.  There are problems with it, including those reported in the Jerusalem Post, for example, about a meat factory packaging traif meat in the same factory and the mashgiach failing to report this for months, and other places where the mashgiach would have to work 100 hour days to inspect everything he was supposed to inspect.

In any case, in Jerusalem it’s not a problem to find better hecshurs – they’re all over.  In other places, it can be more spotty.  On the flip side, finding Rabbinute is easy seemingly anywhere in the country.  A cafe in Tel Aviv University is kosher dairy, as are fish restaurants in Ashdod.

Types of Places to Visit, and a Little Planning

Israel has some of the most amazing hikes in the world – desert hikes, hikes up historical sites (Mesada), water hikes, forest hikes . . . it’s got them all and they’re great fun.  Museums in this country are also very nice from the Israel Museum to living in the past museums, to the holocaust museum . . . they tend to be well done and tasteful.  Then there, of course, the historical sites.  Jerusalem has plenty of these centered around or in the old city, but you can find Jewish history throughout the country from a reconstruction of the mishkan in Shilo to ancient (well, often rebuilt) historical sites in Tzvas and elsewhere.

Many of these places are covered (or will be covered) in the plethora of additional articles on visiting Israel.  Enjoy.

 

 

Introduction to Jewish Tannersville and Hunter, NY

Hiking above Kaaterskill Falls

Hiking above Kaaterskill Falls

I wrote about the Hunter Kosher Bed and Breakfast previously when I visited a few years ago for a weekend – I finally returned to really check out the Jewish community which was hiding in plain view.  The secular world knows the town of Hunter for the Hunter mountain ski slope, but it turns that for more than a century it has been home to a large Jewish community.  In fact, Hunter mountain was owned by a Torah observant Jew and it’s still in his family today.

Hunter, NY is a actually a city in New York made of two villages – Hunter and Tannersville.  The respective village centers of Tannersville and Hunter are about five miles apart along the same one-lane highway.  The population of the 91 sq mile town today (2016) is about equal to what it was in 1840.  While founded in 1790 with a tannery, since the arrival of railroad in the late 1800s (demolished in WWII because the metal was needed) there has been a large and continuous Jewish presence.  It is “the other Jewish catskills.”  While there a ridiculously large summer Jewish community in the Woodridge-Monticello area (about a two hour drive away; ask me how I know that), there is a smaller, but still quite large summer Jewish presence in the Tannersville area.

Where to Daven / Synagogues of Tannersville and Hunter

Anshei HaSharon in Tannersville, NY

Anshei HaSharon in Tannersville, NY

Tannersville has about four fully functioning synagogues, with one having daily year round minyanim.  You can find Tannersville, NY minyan times here.  Basically, Shachris is at 8:00am – you won’t find earlier or much later; Shabbos is always a late Shabbos.  Tannersville is the summer retreat of the Washington Heights / Breuer’s community.  Anshei Sharon (pictured to the right) is a 100+ year old synagogue which was and is still the place of famous Rabbeim from Washington Heights.  Right behind it, one can find a new synagogue,  Bnai Hayeshivos which, as one would expect, is yeshivish.  The building is very modern, large, and could be straight out of Lakewood.  I didn’t get to the chassidic shuls, but there are those too.

In nearby Hunter, there is one shul – the Hunter Synagogue, situated very close to the entrance to Hunter mountain.  There you’ll find Shachris at 8am as well as a daily Minchah and Maariv, though we had to get some people together for a zman Maariv minyan rather than wait for the late one.  Every one of these shuls was very well attended.

Where to Get Kosher Food / Kosher Restaurants

Country K Supermarket in Tannersville, NY

Country K Supermarket in Tannersville, NY

Kosher food is limited to Tannersville where the much larger Jewish community exists.  There are now not one, but two kosher supermarkets.  You can find an interesting assortment in these supermarkets, both just off the main street.  There’s cholov yisroel milk, kosher meat, and a variety of other products including non-food items such as yarmulkes and tzitzis.  Country K has tables with service where you can order pizza, ice cream, and some other foods.  In the same area they have pool table and ping pong table.  All this, including the “supermarket” and “restaurant” are on carpet for . . . a country experience.

Down the road a bit towards the edge of Tannersville and towards Hunter is the Tops supermarket.  This is more of a standard supermarket with everything you’d expect from a supermarket minus a specific kosher section.

What to Do with the Family in Tannersville, NY

A house with a pool is all my kids really need for happiness, but it turned out to be too cold on or trip most days … this was in August!  It’s in the mountains.  In other places we’ve rented houses, they were immaculate.  Here, we’re dealing with a rural area full of ‘for sale’ signs making it a clear buyer’s market and an area of relatively low industry and income so the houses seem to be more … rustic and full of character.  Still, that has it’s charm too.

Kaaterskill Falls after the 1/2 mile hike

Kaaterskill Falls after the 1/2 mile hike

Kaaterskill Falls was, by far, the highlight of our family activities and we think it will be yours too. Detailed information is available over here.  You can enter on the upper side [GPS coordinates] or lower side [GPS coordinates].  From the upper side you can take a back and forth gravel path (stroller accessible) to a viewing platform, looking down the top part of the waterfall.  It’s nice and enjoyable . . . but from the lower side, that’s where the fun is.  You have to park in a too small parking lot about 500 feet up the one lane road (I dropped the family off at the entrance first – recommended).  Then you see some of the waterfall, but a 1/2 mile trail up and down steep hills, trees, rocks, and stairs brings you to a pond being fed by a high waterfall above you.

It’s really a trail for, say, six years and up but let’s just say with some help and carrying at parts, even four, two, and one year olds love it.  (Ask me how I know that.)  Further between the top and bottom sides of the falls are a very steep set of staircases and other paths with large “danger” signs where people really have died, including quite recently.  We didn’t do that part for some reason.

Hunter Mountain in the winter of course has skiing.  They also have year round zip lining.  We did the dinky zip lines (100 to 600 feet or so) so the kids as young as eight (60 lbs) could join.  They’re short and there’s a lot of waiting.  For adults there are 3000+ foot zip lines with 65 MPH travel which are probably amazing, but I couldn’t tell you because I decided to spoil my kids instead.

Hiking Down Hunter Mountain

Hiking Down Hunter Mountain (note how far I’ve fallen behind my daughter, 1/5th my age)

Hunter mountain also has hiking.  There are two ways you can do this – well, three.  You can walk up the mountain (ouch).  You can take the chair lift to the top of the mountain and hike down.  Double black diamonds, it turns out, are easier to ski down than walk down . . . unless you’re a seven year old girl, in which case you’re way out in front of your parents the entirety of the hike.  (Ask me how I know that.)  So yes, I can say I’ve actually walked down the entirety of Hunter mountain . . . and that my seven year old can do it faster and would have gone back up and done it again had we let her.  There are also higher points to start from along the road, such as this five mile hike which was second on my list.

Howe Caverns

Howe Caverns

Howe Caverns is about an hour fifteen minutes away.  It’s a big cave with walking tour (stroller’s not allowed) and boat ride.  It’s worth seeing once and really fun if you’ve never been there.  It’s in the middle of no where even by our tour guide’s assessment.  Once, I went from there to an Eerie Canal boat ride where they take you in a loch and lower your boat down, and then do it in reverse.  The kids loved it, but that’s an extra hour to the northwest.  (If you’re on your way between New York and Ontario, however, both are good choices to breakup the car ride.)

Balliwick Ranch is about half hour from Tannersville.

Camel at Balliwick Ranch

Camel at Balliwick Ranch

Here they have horseback riding ($65/hr; a bit steep but no reservation required), a farm, and paintball.  While the older kids and some adults go horseback riding, the younger kids can see the camels, lions, turtles, goats (lots of goats), and play in a very nice playground with a trampoline and huge sandbox.  Be warned – they only take cash and the staff, both times I was there, had something of middos issues but the number of animals and proximity to each other is great, as was the horseback riding.

North-South Lake, right next to Tannersville, is a state park with great camping, swimming in the lake, and boat rentals.

The playground in Tannersville is also known to be quite nice with a lot of fun toys for kids.

Ziplining at Hunter Mountain

Ziplining at Hunter Mountain

One thing we want to do but haven’t had a chance to yet is inner tube riding which can be found in nearby Phoencia, NY, about a half hour away.  Problem: minimum age is 12.

Bear in our Tannersville, NY backyard

Bear in our Tannersville, NY backyard

There is also a train ride on weekends on a stream train right next to the world’s largest kaleidoscope.  I drove past, but sure…it’s… something.

That should be enough to keep you and your family busy!  It’s a trip we would certainly do again.

 

Introduction

No shortage of mangoes in South Florida

No shortage of mangoes in South Florida

Miami – a city full of New Yorkers who hate winter.  Well, that’s not all.  There are also New Yorkers there who don’t like the intensity or taxes of New York.  Combine this with a mix of people from Spanish speaking countries who came to the United States, and you’ve got yourself a very beautiful city, albeit with some interesting cultural nuances.  For example, people there think it is perfectly normal to have a front lawn full of crabgrass, supermarkets that don’t sell fruits and vegetables but have excellent wine selections, and instead of squirrels filling the trees, they’ve got lizards.

We almost went back to the kosher resort in the Dominican Republic again this year, but you know, I already wrote that blog article.

Where to Stay

Our house rental in North Miami Beach - not much from the outside, but beautiful inside with 3 bedrooms, kosher kitchen, pool, seforim, game room, and central air.

Our house rental in North Miami Beach – not much from the outside, but beautiful inside with 3 bedrooms, kosher kitchen, pool, seforim, game room, and central air.

We no longer stay in hotels if we can avoid it.  Thanks to the internet, you can find very reliable information and ratings about houses for rent which usually cost about the same or sometimes less than a hotel with the same number of beds.  Plus, in many rental houses you get your own pool.  It turns out that in the Miami area, there is a conspicuous absence of house rentals near/in Jewish communities on sites like Homeaway and AirBNB.  This is probably because housing is more expensive in these areas.  No problem – you can either choose to stay in a hotel, say, in the Bel Harbour area where there is a Jewish community very close to the beach or rent a house from the Jewish equivalent of Homeaway in Miami.  If you’re into Bel Harbour / Surfside and being in a hotel near the beach, then there’s a Young Israel in the area with daily minyanim and some Chabads.  Young Israel and Chabad both seem to be very big in the Miami area.

Renting a House in North Miami Beach

Pool at our house rental in North Miami Beach.

Pool at our house rental in North Miami Beach.

Instead of a hotel, we rented a house in North Miami Beach from “Florida Kosher Villas“.  There are others who do it, but this person had the largest selection of houses and most professional website.  I don’t do ‘heimish’ on my trips – I want professional.  It’s the same idea and same feel as HomeAway – you get the whole house with a pool, the garage is converted into a game room, washer, dryer,  . . . it might as well have been a Homeaway.com rental.  There were two important differences: 1) price, 2) Judaism.  You pay a premium over the same sort of house that you’ll find on Homeaway, but the service was just as excellent as we experience renting on Homeaway.com and you can’t match the location.  We were right in the middle of the North Miami Beach Jewish community with a synagogue across the street and four more within five blocks of the house.

Beach in Miami at Dusk

Beach in Miami at Dusk

The house was further equipt with a kosher kitchen (and cameras, not on when you’re there, to ensure it stays kosher), everything you need for Shabbos (candles, kiddush cup, benchers, hot plate, urn …), washing cups, seforim, and the whole deal.  The house was just redone and the experience was great.  You don’t have to feel like you’re “compromising” on your Judaism when you’re there and get all the amenities of a typical house rental.  I’d highly recommend this option to anyone.

The North Miami Beach Community

North Miami Beach is one of many different Jewish communities in South Fliorida, all in the right 1/4 of the state.  The left 3/4 is reserved for the birds – the Everglades is huge.  It’s a non-pretentious community of almost exclusively one floor, three bedroom houses.  They’re kind of like Jerusalem apartments in house form.  Originally, it was a winter retreat for Northerners.  (Now it’s an all year retreat for Northerners.)  The community hasn’t quite figured out the internet thing yet, but walk into a few shuls and have some conversations with people and you can figure out most of the minyan times.  The North Miami Beach Kollel website is the only place I have found many minyan times for the community listed together.

Gangster, Meir Lansky treated his shul in Miami well. (Now a museum.)

Gangster, Meir Lansky treated his shul in Miami well. (Now a museum.)

The community is made up over about seven different kehillas, almost all right near NE 10th ave.  Here’s a link to a map of Sharray Tefillah, one of the synagogues in North Miami Beach which I point you to because it’s about in the “center”.  To the South, is the Young Israel and to the North is Torah V’Emunah and soon to be the Kollel.  As an over-generalization, the further south, the longer the mishaberachs and shorter the shemonei esrei.  As you go north, the shorter the mishabereachs and the longer the shemonei esrei to give a sense of the nature of the different synagogues.

What to Do?

Surfside, Fl – After you get done basking in the fact that you have your own house with your own pool, it’s about a 20 minute drive from North Miami Beach to the beach in Surfside, Fl.  The beaches are beautiful with high rise buildings lining the shore.  North of the high rises are some parks with beach access as well.  Midweek, the beaches were not very crowded and we were able to find places where immodesty wasn’t so much of an issue.  Florida is literally flatter than a pancake so you have to go quite far out in the water until it covers you. Further, Surfside, which the local Jews consider part of the Bel Harbour Jewish community, has a plethora of kosher restaurants (see next section).

Anhinga trail, Everglades.

Anhinga trail, Everglades.

Parasailing @ Caribbean Water Sports, Key West, Fl.

Parasailing @ Caribbean Water Sports, Key West, Fl.

The Florida Keys – Drive south until Rt. 95 ends, then keep driving south down Rt. 1 until it turns into one lane and cross some bridges and you’re in Key West, the first key.  That’s as far as we made it, where we found more beautiful beaches with water so calm it was warmer than a bathtub.  To cool off, you had to get out of the water, not in it.  We also found Caribbean Water Sports, behind a beautiful Hilton Hotel.  There they have parasailing (see our picture above), jet-skiing, snorkeling, and so forth.

Walking/Biking Trail in Oleta River Park, Miami

Walking/Biking Trail in Oleta River Park, Miami

The Everglades – Go to Anhinga trail, the internet said.  It’s the highest rated trail in the everglades, the internet said.  So we went the 1 hr 50 min drive to find it.  It’s I’m sure it must be great but i couldn’t tell you – it was almost all closest for construction so we went to the adjacent trail – the Gumbo Limbo trail.  This is a short paved path trough a part-jungle/tropical forest, part-Northern forest.  Tropical trees and rhododendron grow next to each other.  That’s kind of interesting until we ran out as fast as we could watching a Berenstein Bears / cartoon style cloud of mosquitoes chase us out and bite us.  We were still finding and killing mosquitoes in the car an hour later.

Beach at a picnic site in Oleta River Park, Miami

Beach at a picnic site in Oleta River Park, Miami

Fine, so we went to the visitors center to see what else we could do.  We could drive 35 miles in the wrong direction from where we wanted to go to take a pontoon boat (we’re the hiking type, no thanks) or a few more miles to find another trail where we were warned the mosquitoes were much worse.  Wait, what?  Now I know why Spanish explorers had so much trouble making it the Pacific Ocean and the Panama Canal was delayed for hundreds of years, largely due to mosquitoes and disease.  So much for the Everglades.

 

We saw the best wildlife found next to the everglades in some animal havens.

We saw the best wildlife found next to the everglades in some animal havens.

Animal Rehabilitation Clinics – I didn’t drive 1 hr 50 minutes to the Everglades to just give up on having fun.  It turns out there are interesting things outside of the Everglades.  It’s mostly a sparsely populated area with large farms, but along the route a small tourist industry has popped up.  We stopped in one of a few “animal rehabilitation” places – where they take in wounded animals from the wild or which have been confiscated from people who acquired them without permits and didn’t know how to take care of them.  E.g. they had two lions that a female dancer thought she was going to use in her routine.  I can think of worse ideas, but this one goes in the top 10%.  I went to the Everglades to see animals (not just mosquitoes, thanks) so I got my fix in – lions, turtles, bears, birds, cats, snakes, and of course lots and lots of alligators.  It was $12/person to enter as a “trial member” to this “members only” place and I’m pretty sure the worker just pocketed the money after the “credit card machine was down” but whatever.  We liked it.

 

Robert Is Here – This is a fruit stand which started out when a kid was sent to sell vegetables along the road.  The story goes that it didn’t work until the father added big signs saying that his son “Robert is here”.  Anyway, today it sells tropical fruits.  Looking to get your schechiyanu fix [prayer connecting with G_d for the opportunity to experience something new, such as a fruit you haven’t eaten]?  There’s plenty here – raw guava are amazing!  I had no idea.  Sapote are interesting – it’s like if sweet potato were a fruit.  Warning: the place isn’t

If sweet potato were a fruit, it'd be this.

If sweet potato were a fruit, it’d be this.

cheap . . . but the fruit is excellent.

 

State Parks with Activities – There are a lot of these with kayaking, boating, and the like.  We made it to two – one in Key West and one in Miami – Oleta River Park was recommended to us by a local (well, a NY transplant) with some nice hiking, biking, and kayak trails (not the same trails) as well as a beach and camping sites.

 

Jewish Museum – The Jewish Museum is n downtown Miami (read: traffic area), converted from a synagogue dating back to the 1930s.  Upon entering, I noticed the stained glass window with the name of Meyer Lansky, a famous member of the mob.  Apparently, he treated the shul nicely.  The Jewish community has moved to other areas of town and is huge, but this shul has seen better days.  Shuls have turned into better or worse – this one now gives some history of Jewish settlement in the area and when we were there, the adjoining building had two things: an empty aron hakodesh and idolotry – naked statutes of ‘biblical’ women as interpreted by a local sculptor having no respect for the women represented or the place this building once was.  It was … no, is, painful.

Where to Eat

Not to be confused with "Amazing Savings" supermarket, also in Miami. (This is why you should file trademarks.)

Not to be confused with “Amazing Savings” supermarket, also in Miami. (This is why you should file trademarks.)

The Miami / Fort Lauderdale area an absurd number of kosher restaurants.  I’m told most of them are fairly new and this hasn’t been a long-term phenomenon.  We made the most of it, trying as many restaurants as possible. We only covered a small fraction of them –

At the corner of 95th and Collins Ave in Surfside, Fl is “Isaac Bashevis Singer Blvd” with mostly Jewish stores.  This includes about eight kosher restaurants – the cafes were decent, especially Cafe Vert which has many gluten free options.  The restaurants vary from Asian to italian and are more ‘up scale’.  We always found good service, but the food didn’t always match. Kosh was the priciest of them.  For $28 the “linguine beef” was hamburger meat and plain pasta with no spices and no salads et al if that’s your sort of thing.  For desert, head over to Kosherland supermarket on the same block.  Five dollars buys you a paerve pastry better than any deserts we had in the restaurants.

$28 "Linguine Beef" (plain noodles and hamburger meat) at Kosh Restaurant.

$28 “Linguine Beef” (plain noodles and hamburger meat) at Kosh Restaurant.

In North Miami Beach you can find a Carvel which was a whole a lot better than we have up north – I bought the same thing in both places to test it.  Florida’s Carvel had real strawberries and better ice cream.  The one in New Jersey used syrup.  Pita hut, a middle eastern style shwarma place was very professional and the food was pretty good and at 2:15pm on a Friday it was packed … with non-Jews.  That’s always a good sign for a kosher restaurant.  Holy Bagels and Pizza was our breakfast choice one day.  It was a pretty solid breakfast in a sit down restaurant and not expensive at all.

In Hollywood, Fl, we only hit up one restaurant on our way to the plane – flying into Fort Lauderadle is much less expensive than Miami and the airports are all of a half hour drive from each other.  The restaurant was Levy’s Kosher, another solid choice with pita/laffa-type foods.

 

Walk Into New York City for Free

Want to pay no toll and no bus or train fare into New York City?  There is a way – walk.  There is only one way to walk from New Jersey, however.  This is over the George Washington bridge.  There is actually a decent amount of parking to be found in Fort Lee right near the bridge on many of the side streets.  Don’t worry about having to park 0.2 or even 0.5 miles from the bridge itself, because you’re about to walk a little under a mile across the bridge itself and then about another mile for kosher food.  This is actually quite short – compare to the Verrazano bridge (connecting Staten Island to Brooklyn) at about 2.7 miles long and the Tappan Zee bridge (crossing the Hudson 25 miles north of the George Washington Bridge) at over 3 miles long.  Fun facts: The Verrazano is a suspension bridge for which the towers at each end take into account the curvature of the Earth which is a factor at this length.  The Tappan Zee is actually at the widest spot on the Hudson river which is a silly place to build a bridge … but it just so happens to be just over 25 miles from New York City which is just outside the jurisdiction of the Port Authority which refused to build another bridge in order to protect their tolls and investment in the George Washington Bridge.

walk-over-george-washington-bridge_imagelargeDetails of the Walk

After finding a parking spot near Fort Lee park on the one side, you follow the signs up to the south side, upper level of the George Washington Bridge where there is a foot path.  This is the only foot path that is open and traffic goes in both directions.  It’s about the width of four people comfortably walking … though bikes come at you from both directions.  It’s closed from midnight to 6 am and it’s a very straight path … except for slight detours around the side of each tower.  Along the way, the bridge will give you the bright idea of committing suicide with frequent reminders that if you’re going to do it, here’s a good place to try.

At the other end you enter New York City and upper Manhattan … well, Washington Heights to be precise.  You can now enjoy the park on the other side of the bridge – Fort Washington Park.  Both of these parks have significant revolutionary war history where taxation was seen as a pretty good reason to characterize a few very provoked deaths as a “massacre” and in turn, cause death and disease (causing more death) in hundreds of thousands of people through a war.  (Ends justify the means?)  (Now Hamilton is an amazing musical, but I’m the side of Rabbi Avigdor Miller and lean towards Bishop Samuel Seabury on this one – fight for your freedom without, you know, killing people.)

You Can Walk All the Way from New Jersey to Brooklyn

gwbKeep on walking to the East and you soon encounter a subway.  The 175th street station has the A line which will take you all the way to Far Rockaway as well as Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan including Penn Station where you can change to a myriad of other train lines.  You might think it’s pretty brave of you to do this trip and arrive at your friend in Far Rockaway, telling him you walked from Fort Lee but you’d be mistaken.  True story: we were out for a seudah on the last day of Passover so my friend, a recent ba’al teshuvah instead accepted an invitation in Brooklyn.  Leaving at 3am from Passaic with plans to arrive at the bridge at 6am opening, he made it there at 7am.  It was also Shabbos so he wasn’t carrying a map and we’ll let it slide that he didn’t yet know the laws of techumim.  Then he walked down town, stopping to pray Schachris in the upper west side being the 10th man for a minyan.  I have to find which minyan this was because they’re probably telling stories about how Eliyahu HaNavi came to complete their minyan on Passover before disappearing right after they were done.  Then he arrived in Brooklyn in time for ‘lunch’ by 2pm.  Can’t make this up.  (Maybe he can, but I don’t think so.)  His chief complaint?  When he took the bus back after Shabbos, it dropped him off two miles away.

Kosher Restaurants in Washington Heights

Suppose you don’t decide to take the subway (or walk to Brooklyn) – keep heading east and go about half a mile north, up to 181st and you’ll hit Yeshiva University.  There, you’ll find the famed library where so many matches between young Jewish boys and girls are made and some college-style kosher restaurants.  (As opposed to kosher-style college restaurants, these are, in fact, college-style kosher restaurants.  I don’t think you’d have a business meeting in these places, but if you want to find oil for your menorah, it’s all here)  You have your choice of:

Meat – Golan Heights – Shawarma, falafel, Israeli-style salads & more in a kosher storefront setting with counter service.”

Pizza – Grandma’s Pizza (?!?! Don’t grandmother’s make kneidel?) or Lake Como

Chinese – Chop Chop – “Classic Chinese dishes & sushi with kosher modifications, all served in a colorful space.”

Then you enjoy your 2.5 mile walk back to New Jersey . . . or hail an Uber.

 

 

The description of my Orlando vacation from five years prior is over here.  This is an update in 2016.

Introduction

Orlando is a great place for a family vacation – we love it.  It’s designed for vacations with typically great weather around the whole year and lots of inexpensive flights and places to stay.  Plus, the people seem to be mostly transplants from the New York area so their ‘cultural’ ways are familiar to many of us.  They drive a whole lot slower though and their traffic lights are long.  The downsides are that there’s not much to speak of for kosher food and minyanim and the entertainment is expensive.

Where to Stay

If you want to be near a minyan, Chabad of South Orlando recently moved to a new larger building down the road from where they used to be.  Their at 7347 W Sand Lake Rd, Orlando, FL 32819 and their website is www.jewishorlando.com.  They have regular Schachris, Minchah, and Maariv minyanim.  They are no longer as close to the hotels but if you’re willing to walk .5 to 1 miles, there are plenty to come by.  It’s in the ‘north’ with respect to the parks, near SeaWorld and Universal Studios.  Update: It turns out also near this area is the Orlando Torah Center which is in a residential area with vacation house rentals, is building an Eruv at the time of this writing, and also has three minyanim a day.  I did not know about this before my current trip but a comment below informed me.  There’s always next time!

The heated and fenced in private family pool with jacuzzi was the star of the vacation.

The heated and fenced in private family pool with jacuzzi was the star of the vacation.

That’s what we did on our earlier trip.  However, it no longer makes sense for us to stay in hotels and I’m not sure it makes sense for most people to do so . . . especially not in the Orlando, Fl area.  About a half hour drive to the south in Kissimmee are hundreds of houses for rent – they’re within 30 minutes of the larger parks and for the same price as a hotel room, you get an entire house with kitchen that you can kasher and your own private family swimming pool and game room.  Our kids liked our house better than the Disney parks.  (One child said it tied with Magic Kingdom – only a ticket just for one child at Magic Kingdom cost about the same as the house rental per day).

I know people who’ve stayed at Disney hotels and get packaged Kosher food brought to them … there are no minyanim (well, see below) and it’s quite expensive but you can hop on a monorail to get to the parks.  If you’re only going to Disney parks and can fit everyone into one hotel room, maybe it’s worth it to you.

Where to Buy Tickets

This is what I found – Walt Disney World tickets are no cheaper anywhere else.  There are no discounts that are worth it.  Just buy your tickets at the gate.

SeaWorldUndercovertourist has the best deal – about 20% off.  They are also a pleasure to do business with.  They have a calendar telling you how busy a park is on a given day, presumably based on ticket salses and if you don’t use your ticket, they’ll refund 95% of the cost.

Universal Studios – Chabad of South Orlando had the best deal here.  You can pick up your tickets when you go to daven there, or you can pay to have them mail you your tickets.  I do not think they are refundable.

Where to Get Kosher Food

The British section of Epcot - sadly, my kids didn't know how to hang up a pay phone when they were done.

The British section of Epcot – sadly, my kids didn’t know how to hang up a pay phone when they were done.

The Publix supermarkets have some amount of kosher food.  Each Disney park has a restaurant with pre-packaged kosher food.  It’s gotten a bit better in quality, but still nothing too great.  If you call ahead at least two days, they will have kosher food brought to any restaurant in the parks for you.  Warning: I moved a reservation from one day to another and the kosher food request did not transfer.  I did, however, get a free dessert ticket for all of us (the pre-packaged Mickey Mouse ears ice cream around the parks is kosher) and a “fastpass” to cut the line.  Totally worth it.  Lines were up to two hours at some rides that day!

Medieval Times – you do not have to call ahead your kosher food order.  Just show up and tell them you want kosher food and they’ll heat up some double-wrapped kosher food for you.  We did not end up going on our trip, but this is what they told me on the phone and is the same for any of their locations, including East Rutherford, NJ.  (See what Tosofos says about jousting at Jewish weddings in the middle ages – it’s quite interesting.)

There is no kosher food (beyond the typical pre-packaged sodas, et al.) at any of the other parks for which I am aware.  However, Orlando parks do actually strive to not give you a hard time – despite signs at various parks, we had no trouble anywhere bringing our own food in.

During yeshiva break week there are also sometimes more kosher options at some hotel or another or a food truck at the Chabad.  There’s also one restaurant http://koshergourmet.biz/ but I have not been there to tell you about it.  The restaurant next to the Chabad’s old location lost it’s hashgocha.  I have no further information on this. It is certified by the Orlando Vaad which is recognized by the CRC

Where to Find Minyanim

See the first paragraph of ‘Where to Stay’ above.

The nod to Jews in the "It's a Small World" ride.

The nod to Jews in the “It’s a Small World” ride.

Further, you can usually catch a minchah/maariv minyan in Disney parks.  Someone has apparently been reading my blog because on my post of five years ago, I told how three of us with yarmulkes were in the same place at Epcot and we decided on a time and place for minchah and every frum Jew we saw (man or woman) we told about the minyan and so it spread.  We had about 50 people show up for minyan based on that!  During yeshiva break week, there’s no shortage of Jews for a minyan at the parks.  This past time, sure enough others were doing same and I heard from every Jew I passed “5:40pm in Mexico for minchah/maariv”.  Until someone comes out with a “minyan app” to start these electronically (maybe it’s a security problem?) just use this word of mouth option to start or promulgate a minyan at Disney.  It works really well!

When to Visit

Go during yeshiva break week (late January).  Your kosher food options are much greater and, as above, you won’t have a hard time finding a mincha/maariv minyan.  Another benefit: January is the slowest month for Orlando tourism.  The rest of the country gets off from school in late December and then not again until mid-February.  In January, it’s a bunch of Jews and Europeans (including some Jews we heard speaking French) in Orlando.  The lines are also shortest.

Where to Visit

Random outbursts of song - just like the movies.

Random outbursts of song – just like the movies.

Walt Disney World – Your number one choice is Magic Kingdom.  This is the epitome of theme parks.  It is the best in the world and people come from all over the world.  It’s Disney’s first and main park with the iconic castle.  I find reading about it’s construction (you’re actually on the second floor above tunnels) and design (vacuum cleaner garbage cans) and thoughts about everything (point only with two fingers because some cultures consider one finger rude) to be the most fascinating part.  They really strive to make you happy.  If a child drops and ice cream cone, they replace it free of charge.  If they mess up your kosher meal, they give you free food tickets … and in my case, a “Fastpass” to cut the line.  They want no one to leave unhappy, no matter the cost.  You will not find a crack in the pavement anywhere and everything is bright and immaculate.  It’s also huge.  I’ve never been able to do the whole park in one day.  (Some of that has to do with the long lines, but…).  There are live shows all over the place and the rides are just professional.  There are flume rides and roller coaster rides all over, but there’s something just better about Splash Mountain and Space Mountain – there are no jerky movements and everything flows.   It’s best for ages 3-9 an then 30-90.

That's the Epcot.

That’s the Epcot.

Epcot Center – This is Disney’s #2 park meant to showcase new technology and worldwide cultures.  I have to say it’s lost it’s luster for me.  My favorite ride, Test Track, has been neutered.  No more extreme heat and extreme cold and going fast into a door that only opens at the last second.  I don’t know what they did to it.  The fast outdoor part at the end is still good, but everything up until there … I’m just shaking my head.  They’ve replaced a lot of the indoor amusement with very young kid things and I have some of those but it just wasn’t that appealing – I expect more out of Disney than put the right shape in the hole or spin the shape until it fits right.  My 3 and 5 year old do more sophisticated things with our own building toys and computer games.  Then the world showcase … well, my son ruined that for me when he pointed out that you go to Italy, Germany, Japan, wherever … it’s all restaurants and gift shops.  Canada has a 9-screen movie advertising itself and there’s some live shows at the United States area (where the kosher food is, by the way) but eh.

Hollywood Studios – Haven’t been there.  This is on my list for the next trip instead of Epcot.  Have a review of it?  Please add it to the comments.

Magic Kingdom Parade - that's Merida who doesn't turn into a bear.

Magic Kingdom Parade – that’s Merida who doesn’t turn into a bear.

Characters are also at the Disney World theme parks … my sons don’t really care but one of my daughter’s does to an extent.  You wait on line so they can meet the character.  Some mother’s make a religion out of it with their daughters … they know where every character is and when and have an autograph book where they collect as many autographs as possible.  My daughter’s best friend doesn’t even let her watch princess movies!

(Fun side note: At one of these I asked people, “Which princess is this?”  They said, “Merida” and I turned and said to my daughter, “Do you want to see Miranda?”  Everyone in line gave me these looks of disgust like I just committed some terrible sin of not only not knowing who I was looking at, but speaking words of apocrypha to my daughter.  Like I’m supposed to remember which one’s the bear and which one’s the mermaid.  Whatever.)

One of the aquariums at SeaWorld.

One of the aquariums at SeaWorld.

SeaWorld – Our visit the first time during great weather was amazing.  This past time it was raining and the performances were very off.  The girl didn’t make it onto her dolphin and worse, they’re no longer allowed to go in the water with the killer whales making the show pretty lame now.  I’d still go back, but only in better weather!  (This is how I know undercover tourist will refund 95% of your unused ticket by the way … I was a die-hard and went in the rain, but not so for all of my group.)

Universal Studios – I loved it twenty years ago.  This was my first time back since then.  Eh.  I did the entire park with one of my daughter’s after the rest of my family went back to the swimming pool (thank you Uber).  It’s broken up into sections by movie which is sort of problematic because my kids don’t know many of the movies and some of them are really dated … Men in Black … ugh.  Some are just stupid … they took out the stunt show and put in a physical game show where they catch squid and dare people to eat sheratzim.  Why?  That’s better than a stunt show?  I come to a movie studio for explosives and you took that away from me!  There’s not even a studio tour anymore and Nickelodeon Studios is completely gone for some guys pained in blue with no entertainment there the entire day when it’s just dead space.

Line to the Harry Potter ride.

Line to the Harry Potter ride.

My kids wanted to see Harry Potter world so we went there first.  At first, it is really amazing … you walk through a wall and there’s the entire set of the Harry Potter movies.  Then you realize it’s all just traif restaurants and over-priced gift shops – $50 for a thin little plastic wand.  I’m waiting for mine to come from Malaysia for $3 off Ebay.  There’s one … count it … one ride in Harry Potter world.  It was a good ride, I’ll give it that … just very short.  They take you from one large screen to the next in your roller coaster thing.

The rides in general are really good – they really are.  The problem is that you only need to go on about two of them.  After that, they’re just variations of the same … mostly some type of individual coaster through movie scenes except this one is on rails, that one is held from above, this one can spin, that one can spit water at you.  My favorites were probably the Mummy (neat effect with the roof being engulfed in fire) and Harry Potter (more neat fire effects – maybe I just like fire and explosions).  The ET ride had the best line – it’s pretty dark and you’re between redwood trees, but it’s not clear to me which rides they decide to keep and which they decide to update.  ET is incredibly out of date with a video intro by Steven Speilberg about how great the ride’s technology is … they type your name in and ET speaks it out at the end of the ride … it’s so 1990.  I showed the movie to my daughter once we returned home so she got it.

Other rides, they changed out.  They changed Back to the Future for the Simpsons?!  That was their best ride!  It’s now corny as anything with not a memorable thing about it.  It was far from canonical making me further cringe.  (The ride outside, the “non-threatening time waster” that spins around in circles was cute.)  Clearly they did not realize what a big deal “Back to The Future Day” would be in 2015 (my birthday).

My daughter got to "control the weather" at this show.

My daughter got to “control the weather” at this show.

They had a cute Curious George section for the real young kids where you walk through as you read pages of the book.  Otherwise, if the trip is for your kids, I’d say skip this park.  Most frum kids, and for that matter, many non-frum kids won’t know most of these movies and the park is just not staying in the present.  It’s an answer to Disney for older kids, but Disney has this way of making movies and entertainment which much better stand the test of time.

Gatorworld – I didn’t make it here, but it was on our short list.  It’s far less expensive than the big parks but probably also only a half-day activity.  You see alligators and stuff like that I think.

Kennedy Space Center – I went on my last trip.  Don’t bother unless you have a child really interested in seeing space shuttle history and that sort of thing.  Nasa isn’t doing the kind of interesting cutting edge stuff they used to be doing either.

Medieval Times – I loved this as a kid.  I’m not sure how kosher this is, but they do serve pre-packaged kosher food.  It’s a live jousting show with a lot of different teams.

Legoland – This was on our list but was quickly cut.  It didn’t get such good reviews and was largely described as being like any other smallish amusement park with the same rides, just Lego-themed.

Conclusion

My kids liked the private house with heated pool best.  I wasted a whole lot of money on tickets!  Our next vacation: a house with a private pool anywhere in the United States and I take day trips only with the kids who want to come with me.  The house and Magic Kingdom were the biggest hits this trip.  On our last trip, Seaworld probably impressed us most.  When you go during yeshiva week break, you’ll find plenty of frum Jews, more kosher food and minyan options, and shorter lines.  If you read this whole article – sorry about my Universal Studios rant.

Comments are appreciated.  Please also feel free to use this as a point on the internet to discuss the topic in general.

Hotels Have a Problem – Internet House Rentals

A few years ago, there was only one answer to this question – get a hotel room.  You know, more or less, what you’re getting.  If it’s a Hilton or Holiday Inn or even just a single local hotel, you can figure out roughly what they have to offer and expect to get that more or less.  Does it have a pool?  Does it have breakfast where you can find kosher fruit, cereal, and milk?

If you wanted to find a house or apartment to rent instead, that would be an ordeal.  You could look at a five line ad in a newspaper (remember those?) or the equivalent on Craigslist or even websites where you can see some pictures … but you’d have no idea if you were dealing with an honest person, whether you’d find bed bugs or termites, or if you’d ever see your security deposit back . . . and it used to be very expensive.  We once ended up in a former warehouse converted into a tiny house and were expected to stay in the back room only.  It was an experience.

New websites have changed all this.  We’ve now had experience with both airbnb.com and vrbo.com / homeaway.com and our next booking in the United States or Israel is much more likely to be with them rather than a hotel.  Here’s why plain and simple: You get a whole lot more for the same price and have a whole lot more detail about what you’re getting.  Plus, you get pictures of every room, details of the amenities, reviews from others with detailed comments, and know what to expect from top to bottom.  and Here are three actual examples.

Orlando Kosher House Rental

houseorlandoOrlando, Florida – the first time we went circa. 2009 or family was smaller and we stayed at The Westgate Palace.  Don’t get me wrong, this place is very, very nice.  They give you a two bedroom suite with kitchen for, when all is said and done with taxes and fees, about $160/night.  There’s an outdoor pool … fairly shallow, but very big.  It’s also very close to Universal Studios and Seaworld as well as the Chabad 1.5 miles away with minyan.  On our more recent trip, even this wasn’t going to cut it.  We’d need two hotel rooms and still be cramped plus have to exit one hotel room and enter another to check on the kids.  So we’re talking $320/night and have to deal with crankiness over the arrangement … from us or the kids.

So instead, we looked into house rentals.  It’s not what it used to be.  We rented this house which I’m happy to share publicly and tell everyone to do it because it was so great.  Or, even go to the owner’s website – Florida Gold.  For more-or-less the same price as a single hotel room even if your security deposit isn’t returned you get a whole house.  For even just two people traveling this a better deal!

We’re talking five bedrooms with most of the kids upstairs away from the two master bedrooms downstairs and a heated pool.  On our first trip to Orlando in January, we used the pool once … after that, it was too cold.  On our most recent trip the kids literally wanted to leave the parks early to go swimming.  It’s $100/ticket/person at Disney parks, and the nice house for which we paid half price for is upstaging Disney for all except one daughter who loves princesses and said the house tied with Magic Kingdom.

in addition to having a private (heated) pool, which solves tznious issues in a major way, the house rental websites have started an arms race.  You can find houses with game rooms – pool table, shuffle puck, foos ball.  On top of this, your own washer/dryer, your own kitchen fully stocked (we kashered the oven and microwave), and in our case, complete with high chair, umbrellas, beach chairs, towels, soap, strollers, and more than I would ever even remember to think about.

There were only two downsides: 1) location – the area with the minyan and parks are about 30 minute drive away to the North and we wouldn’t stay there for Shabbos; 2) as mentioned above, my kids didn’t want to stay at the parks which I paid a whole lot more money for.

Other Experiences: Modiin and NYC Kosher House Rentals

Modiin, Israel – Here, we used airbnb.  Hotels simply aren’t near residential areas here and that’s okay … so instead we found a room in someone’s house.  It’s not nearly as fun as having the whole house to yourself and you have to, you know … be social with strangers in their house.  Like Orlando, again, the price was cheaper than a hotel.  Unlike Orlando, this was about location.  Zoom in on the map and find the location where you want to be (in this case, near relatives) and then look at the closest options, prices, and availability.  With such rentals your geographic options are much improved over zoning ordinances limiting locations of hotels.

New York City – You cannot, practically speaking, find a hotel room in Manhattan less than $400/night.  The taxes and expenses there are simply too high.  My German business colleague (he handles my patent filings in Europe), meanwhile, was in the New York City for a conference.  He found a room for $80/night just off Wall Street in lower Manhattan – we meet at Reserve Cut and each pay about that much for our two courses of appetizers we order for dinner.

Final Thoughts on Technology Making Our Lives Better

houseorlandopoolThus, if you’re like me, you embrace what technology has to offer you for the good.  Smartphones brought taxi rides from anywhere to anywhere, apps telling us the nearest minyan and kosher food on our way, and places to stay anywhere for a whole lot less than a corporation can charge.  Those who can provide the best service and most information prevail and that is what this blog is all about, besides – fostering the exchange of this information for the kosher traveler.  It has further helped me immensely in business.  Search for New York Patent Attorney or variants thereof on the internet sometime.

P.S. I don’t own a smartphone.  How do you do pay attention to life when you have one of those in your pocket?

P.P.S. One more tip: If you find a house you like, go to images.google.com and search to see if you can find the image on another website – you might find the same house advertised for a different price elsewhere.  I also saved about 40% on a bathroom vanity this way.

What’s a Live Room Escape Game?

Looking for a kosher, fun, adult activity?  The ‘room escape’ genre started as puzzle-type video games.  Very large maps with puzzles to solve actually had their beginning with text adventure games, followed by graphical games where you entered text commands, followed by more point-and-click type games.  Then with the internet and “flash games” allowing easy programming and distribution of smaller-type games, puzzle games were placed in “smaller” settings.  Instead of escaping an island, a mad man’s castle, or traveling through time to play three different time lines with three character which effect each other, the cut scenes and different settings are removed and the game is reduced to puzzles within a single room.   (Extra points given to the person who can identify each game I referenced.)  The typical “room escape” computer game (a very large list sorted by rating is here: http://jayisgames.com/tag/escape/rating) has you look at one of four walls and solve puzzles.

room-escapeThen, someone got the bright idea – why don’t we do this “for real”?  My wife dragged me to the first one where I didn’t really know what it was.  Now we’ve been to three different such rooms.  They’re a lot of fun.  Unlike the less than social video game versions, the live games are meant to be played as a team.  In some places, you bring the team – minimum of two.  In other places, the room or rooms are larger and if you don’t bring a large group, they have you join with strangers so the groups are about 6 to 10 in size.  It’s great for a couple or a family with older kids (minimum age is usually 12 or 16).  Post high school / college aged kids are often seen at these places as well, as well as younger adults.

The Rooms We’ve Tried

Having a larger group can be helpful as the puzzles can be very difficult.  Sometimes the puzzles intuitive, sometimes they’re just strange.  For example, a puzzle might require you to put dipsticks in holes and see what number aligns with the top for a code, you unlock a drawer with the code and find a radio.  You use another code to figure out the station to tune to which then gives you yet another code.  Or, in another case, you figure out that symbols tell you the position of coordinates on a map which point to a country.  That country then has pictures which tell you something else only one of the pictures is of Greece, but that’s not one of your choices.  Turns out it has to do with the actor in the picture who’s from Australia (a well known probable anti-semite which made the puzzle easy for me, and again, extra points if you tell me who I’m talking about in the comments).  Use of polarizing lenses, ultraviolet light, erasers or transparency overlaps, and that sort of thing also seem to be fairly common.

We’ve found the games vary in quality and types of puzzles depending on the place you go and who’s putting the game together.  We liked some better than others.  Our favorite so far was “The Remedy” where you search for your way out of a doctor’s office to find a cure.  The puzzles where intuitive, varied, and required both the skill sets of myself and my wife.  Different ways of looking at things help solve different puzzles (e.g. my analytic patent attorney way vs. my wife’s … I don’t know … she does this for a living … it’s something different than analytic, but I don’t have the skill set to describe it).  By working together, we were able to get through all of the puzzles but got stuck juts before the end.  Why?  Mis-communication.  I thought my wife already used a code, she thought I used it, etc, etc.  Another time (with a different room escape), we sat down all but ready to give up and I tried a code on a lock and it turned out we skipped half the puzzles and got to the end in a way we shouldn’t have been able to … that one wasn’t so well designed.

In “The Senator’s Manor” we joined a larger group in what was a fairly large space.  This allowed people to split up and the alpha males not to step on each other’s toes.  Sometimes, the others found things and others times you have to take the initiative.  This was just fine with me and I had a lot of fun (between the inevitable periods of frustration that they games bring), but that’s because I’m one of those alpha males who did everything.  My wife wasn’t as happy here, so therefore, I wasn’t as happy here.  Still, I think a variety can be nice … sometimes go with your spouse, sometimes go with others too and form a larger group, go with friends, etc.

Time, Cost, Finding Them

The escape room games usually are one hour games.  Including introduction time (5 to 15 minutes) and “decompression” afterwards, you can expect to spend about 1.5 hrs.  That might not seem long, but when you’re “on” and alert for the entire time, it’s quite sufficient.  The games usually cost about $30 – $35 per person.  It’s worth a try at least once to see if you like it.  You can find them throughout the country – Montclair, NJ has two such places at the time of this writing, New York City has one or two, Orlando has at least four . . . just type into Google “Room Escape” or “Adventure Room” or the like. Enjoy. Please add your comments below.