Very much alive at the Dead Sea
Letter from Israel

Very much alive at the Dead Sea

Another photographer also focuses on salt crystal formations on the Dead Sea.
Another photographer also focuses on salt crystal formations on the Dead Sea.

My first stay at the Dead Sea was in 1972, on a family trip to Israel, when I was 13 years old.

The six of us got rooms in the then-new Galei Zohar, the first modern hotel on the shores of that buoyant salty lake at the lowest land elevation on Earth. (Yes, it’s a lake, not a sea, and it does harbor living microorganisms and algae.)

The climate here is unique, mainly hot and dry. My mother remembers hanging laundry on our hotel balcony and taking it in, fully dried, after just 20 minutes.

Abby Leichman stands at David’s Waterfall in Ein Gedi National Park. (All photos courtesy Abigail Klein Leichman)

The mineral-rich air contains proven healing properties for skin and respiratory ailments, a feature that attracts many medical tourists from Europe. And thanks to that special air, there’s no need for sunscreen.

Last week, on a Dead Sea getaway nearly 51 years later, my husband and I could not find any trace of Galei Zohar. But about a dozen four- and five-star hotels now offer accommodations to a steady stream of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim visitors from Israel and many other countries.

Most of the hotels pipe silky Dead Sea water into hot indoor pools where you can float around effortlessly in utter relaxation — although it really stings if you have any open cuts! The Hebrew name of the lake, Salt Sea, is not for nothing.

On the way to our destination, we hiked at Ein Gedi National Park, the largest oasis in Israel.

These hikers are headed uphill at Ein Gedi.

Here, the future King David and his ragtag band of soldiers hid out from the mentally unbalanced rage of King Saul, sometime around 1015 BCE.

It’s not hard to imagine why he chose this site, with its magnificent springs and waterfalls, flowing brooks, and abundant caves to provide shelter and avoid enemies. Today, these caves house wildlife including ibexes.

Hiking up the rocky path from the canyon, what struck me as much as the natural beauty was the beautiful assortment of visitors on an unremarkable weekday morning in March.

This partially restored fresco is in Herod’s northern palace at Masada.

Despite nationwide protest rallies against judicial reform, despite deadly terror attacks plaguing us from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, sunny Ein Gedi was filled with hikers of all ages from across the world. We heard a litany of languages, including some we could not identify.

The opportunity to walk in the footsteps of biblical characters is the main draw for many of these visitors. One American young man on the trail remarked, “Every Christian who can should come here.”

I’d add that every Jew should try to come here too. In addition to biblical history dating back to the destruction of Sodom at this very spot, the region was the setting for a lot of Jewish historical events.

One example is the caves of Qumran, the second-century BCE home of the Essene sect that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered between 1947 and 1956. You can see them at the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book, but there’s nothing like seeing the actual caves at Qumran National Park.

This is Ein Bokek beach on the Dead Sea.

Masada National Park is just a 10-minute drive from the Dead Sea hotel area of Ein Bokek. As we arrived, busloads of Christian tourists were disembarking and groups of Israeli schoolchildren were singing. In the cable car up to the peak, Steve and I were packed in with 65 mostly first-time visitors from Nashville.

Masada is the picturesque mountaintop where Herod chose to build two of his 15 Jerusalem-area palaces during the Second Temple period. This project took approximately six years, from 37 to 31 BCE. There’s no evidence that Herod spent much time, if any at all, on this peak overlooking the Dead Sea.

But about 100 years after the palaces were built, a band of Jewish rebels took refuge here with their families as Jerusalem was under Roman siege. They fought courageously against the mighty Roman Legion, committing mass suicide when the inevitable end was near.

This Hollywood-like sign graces a Dead Sea beach.

Masada, the most popular paid tourist site in Israel, has come to symbolize Jewish pride and bravery. Some IDF units hold their swearing-in ceremonies here, and many overseas bar and bat mitzvah celebrations happen here. A Torah scribe has set up shop next to the ancient synagogue where the rebels had their final meeting.

Eventually, of course, the Roman Empire crumbled, and the Jewish people prevailed. Nobody’s speaking Latin at Masada these days; all the signage is in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.

And Herod would appreciate the luxurious hotels, most of which offer spa treatments and other pampering amenities.

Back in 1972, and even in 2005 when I last stayed at the Dead Sea, there were no kosher places to eat aside from the hotel dining rooms. Today, all eateries at the Dead Sea Mall are under rabbinic supervision. There are cafes and restaurants elsewhere in Ein Bokek for those who do not keep kosher. As a plant-based eater, I was delighted to find that our hotel, the lovely Milos, had an entire section of vegan dishes on its exquisite buffet.

All in all, a perfect vacation that I’d recommend highly to anyone visiting Israel in cooler months such as November and March.

Abigail Klein Leichman, a long-time Jewish Standard correspondent, lived in Teaneck for 20 years. She and her husband made aliyah in 2007 and live in Ma’aleh Adumim. Since 2010, she’s been associate editor of ISRAEL21c, a website about Israeli innovation.

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