Remember Jakob, the surly tour guide played by Sacha Baron Cohen when the Simpsons went to Israel?
When Marge accused him of being “pushy,” he snapped back, “Try living next to Syria for two months and see how laid back you are.”
It’s a caricature inspired by the real thing, the tembel-hat-wearing, thick-Israeli-accented guides who once formed the cadre of specialists who led tourists around the land, showing them Masada, the Western Wall and how to stuff one’s falafel with pickled salads. But Israel’s tour guides — or morei derech, as they’re called in Hebrew, a term that could also be translated as mentor or instructor — have come a long way since their start in the 1950s.
Tour guides still bring visitors to the Western Wall, Yad Vashem and Masada, but they’re also tasting wines, visiting start-ups and navigating the local food markets.
“There’s been a huge paradigm shift,” said Mike Hollander, a local tour guide. “It used to be ‘come and cry with us and open up your checkbook.’ We’ve gone from new Jew to Start-up Nation, and it’s now about encounters that aren’t just sightseeing.”
Hollander should know. He’s been in the business for around 25 years and guides everyone from family groups and Federation missions to high-end visitors who travel by helicopter. When the former Habonim Dror member made aliya from Vancouver in the 1980s, it was much harder to enter the profession, and, not surprisingly, there was less to show off.
“It had been Masada and then the War of Independence, and nothing in between,” remarked Hollander. “It used to be the guide saying, ‘We created the State of Israel and you now have to connect to us,’ but the society is less collective now; there’s much more individualism and that’s changed how we guide.”
The numbers have also changed. In 2012, over two million Christian tourists and pilgrims arrived in Israel, representing about 60 percent of all incoming tourism — many for quick trips spent mostly in Jerusalem’s Old City. Most certified guides are vying for the smaller piece of the pie, the Jewish tourists who come to Israel for family events, synagogue missions and Grandma’s 80th birthday. And that’s where the paradigm, as Hollander put it, has really shifted.
The Tourism Ministry certifies tour guides, some 4,500 active guides at the last count, out of a total 7,500 with licenses, said Mina Genem, director of professional training at the ministry. It isn’t clear if there’s been a significant increase in the number of guides, although there’s been a healthy transition to new, younger guides as the older generation retires, said Genem. But what is important to the ministry is that anyone who calls him or herself a guide, is licensed by the ministry.
“Just like you have to learn how to be a doctor or lawyer, you have to learn how to be a guide, said Genem of the ministry’s two-year course. ”By having this course, we weed out those who aren’t good enough. This is diplomacy for the state of Israel and we can’t just allow anyone to be a tour guide.”
It isn’t that everyone wants to be a tour guide. Anyone who does want to get into this business generally has a strong desire to process a tremendous amount of historical material, able to reel off fast facts about Herod or archaeological detail regarding Masada. But it does seem like there are an awful lot of people out there turning to tour guiding.
The question is why. Perhaps it’s a desire to show off the land, for those guides who are newer to its wonders. It could be because tourism has changed so significantly, with greater numbers and a shift in focus, necessitating more professionals to navigate the land for its visitors. And it’s clear, at least to the guides, that they know more about what can be seen than the average visitor, whether a tourist or an Israeli on vacation.
“Trust me, we learn a lot of material,” said Ofer Zemach, a former graphic designer who became a tour guide two years ago. “You need to. It’s a small country but there’s thousands of sites and places to stop and look at, and it’s not the same if you do it yourself.”
For Hollander, the added value of a guide is the challenge in identifying the character of each and every client and eventually finding the place or story that moves them.
“It can happen coming back from the Kotel, or at Tel Dan or at the end of a visit to Yad Vashem,” he said. “And sometimes they might say, ‘Wow, I get it.’ But it doesn’t work all the time.”
He told of a recent day of touring with a group, which they spent at Yad Vashem and then in the Old City and at the tunnels. “Someone asked me,” ‘how do you close this day,’” he said. “So I said, it’s a powerful experience at Yad Vashem, and it isn’t just historical events of the Holocaust, it shows how our experience as Jews, and what to do with that memory and how that informs our future, which is the same as the tunnels. Where we are today is a result of all those things.”
As an informal educator, it was the educational aspect of the tourism that drove his own desire to work as a tour guide. The industry needed people who could go deeper than just sightseeing and having the usual Israel conversation, and then, he said, the conversation changed.
“It started with encounters that weren’t just sightseeing and having conversations and using texts and not just one-person narratives,” he said. “It’s the me and the we and how do the two connect.”
He likens it to a family he guided recently, in which the wife, who was more Jewishly identified, loved Jerusalem and the Galilee while her husband identified with technology companies in Tel Aviv and the great restaurants.
“Why are there wine tour guides now?” he asked. “Because Israel has gone through tremendous change and it’s focusing much more on individual creativity than it used to.”
Zemach is one of those new-fangled wine guides, a self-described foodie and wine lover who took the tour guide plunge several years ago when he was looking to do something new. Now he’s guiding full-time after taking the ministry’s course, specializing in winery tours and bike rides when clients are interested, having spent many years learning the wine business from Israel’s first wine critic, Daniel Rogov, who passed away two years ago.
“I give the experience of how we used to produce wine thousands of years ago, and then visit the winery that’s making it in the same place,” said Zemach, who likes to lead visitors down a rocky path to show the ancient wine press at Kibbutz Tzuba, pointing out the terroir terrain of the Jerusalem hills that makes it so perfect for growing grapes.
“It’s the difference between seeing and experiencing Israel,” he said. “You could do it all yourself, but guides will take you to places that aren’t always listed, or that are more off the beaten track. We share that with you.”
It’s true that guides can more easily share the lesser known aspects of Israeli society and culture, and there is a lot to see, given the incredible burst of creative entrepreneurs in the last twenty years. From the first pioneers of the high-tech industry to these latter-day design experts — the fashion designers, boutique winemakers, filmmakers, cheese makers, industrial designers, organic farmers and coffee roasting baristas — there is an entire world of new-age creators who may work in so-called collectives but bring a world of ideas to their work. They’re helping redefine Israeli tourism, moving into a new brand of pioneering creativity that is making a name for itself worldwide.
Finding those creative types, and showing off what they’ve accomplished is a big part of what another segment of guides have focused on of late. These are guides who are not licensed by the Tourism Ministry,and don’t want to be, given that they’re not retelling the history of Israel or taking visitors from tourist site to museum. At the Tourism Ministry, they’re not crazy about these rebel guides who aren’t taking the ministry’s course or following its guidelines.
Then again, these kinds of guides are all about the new Israel.
“My passion for this and knowledge of how to pick the right people to show makes it happen,” said Galit Reismann, the founder of TLVstyle, a self-styled tour of Tel Aviv designers. ”It’s about showing the conversation, that we struggle in all kinds of spectrums of life, but despite the lack of materials, traffic, customers, people create and dream and find channels to export and spread the news. And the minute I”m passionate to share the story, people get it.”
While she’s showing a different side of Israel, her thesis about how it all happened is the same as Hollander’s. He points at the melting pot from the perspective of history, explaining that the collectivism required all newcomers to be ‘Israeli’ and join the ‘we’ generation. Reismann, similarly, also points to that melting pot, but uses it to explain Israeli creativity and ingenuity.
“We’ve been around for some 65 years and we’ve been bubbling around in the same pot since then,” she said. “We all became one village, with all the differences in the cultures, and you don’t have that everywhere else. Not even in Paris, with all the classic fashion houses. There it’s just more of the same.”
A typical day with Reismann and a customer who’s filled out her questionaire — answering everything from what kind of clothing she wears, the designers she prefers and what kind of stores she frequents — can take from three to six hours or more. On one particular Tuesday, she made three stops, one at the studio of designer Sasson Kedem, known for his structural clothing style that is widely exported; another at Yaniv Baranes, a young jewelry designer working with nuts and bolts from his father’s hardware store out of his just-off-Sheinkin Street apartment; and at finally at Toosha, a mother-and-daughter team of weavers, creating second-skin sweaters and ethereal scarves from soy, bamboo and cotton.
Reismann facilitates the clients’ initial conversations with the designers, using the fluent English she learned from her years in media communication, but her customers’ wonder and excitement over what they’re seeing generally closes any remaining cultural gaps between them and the designers.
“There’s something in our DNA, it’s a crazy place and because most people who come don’t know Israel or have a different image because of the politics or soldiers, I show that in that whole thing, there’s a lot of spirit and brazenness and there’s a place for it,” said Reismann. “I’m trying to show one angle of it.”
She’s not the only one. There are other alternative guides out there; walking visitors through particular neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, leading sketchbook tours or Segway rides in Jerusalem, riding motorcycles in the Galilee, examining the proliferating stencil graffiti in Tel Aviv.
That last one describes Guy Sharett, a linguistics expert who speaks seven languages, and started Hebrew street lessons after spending five years abroad, which included one year in Jakarta.
Sharett wants to teach Hebrew, but it’s more about teaching “an ethos,” he said, as he weaves in Israeli references ranging from beloved signer Yehudit Ravitz to the intuitive concept of a frier, helping unravel the Israeli psyche to the uninitiated.
It all unfolds in a very urban tour of the streets of his own eclectic neighborhood, Florentin, a slowly gentrifying southern enclave in the city. But it started in the summer of 2011, when Israelis took to the streets, setting up tent cities to protest the ongoing rise in prices. He saw that his students didn’t understand many of the banners, which were often written in an Israeli patois of biblical phrases, lyrics and turns of phrase.
Now he leads five different tours of Florentin, turning his clients’ eyes to sewer covers, stencil graffiti, telephone pole signs and all the other signs of urban life that offer a glimpse of what’s really going on. That can include stopping in at the narrow menswear shop of an elderly Tel Avivian who also speaks Arabic, one of Sharett’s latest languages.
“The street decides what I show,” said Sharett, pointing to one favorite alley off Nahalat Binyamin Street. “It could be anything, anti-gay, racist, hateful. I don’t censor. People are used to the genetically modified, but this is not a Ministry of Tourism tour.”
For Sharett, it’s about sharing his passion for language and how language shows people and society. But what’s important to Sharett is that his tour isn’t local diplomacy or propaganda about Israel, but rather the raw street, unedited, unpolished, just as is.
“It’s my passion, and that’s very Israeli, being passionate about what you do,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for two years, but every day is like the first.”’
That sense of newness is a common theme among guides, both the more experienced ones and the more recently initiated, whether they’re leading tourists to tourist sites, wine presses or boutiques.
Hollander, the traditional tour guide, commented that there are several elements that keep his job fresh, including the fact that he’s part performer, and that each and every visitor offers a different take on what he may be seeing for the 1,000th time. And, bottom line, he’s working with people who are on vacation, and that, he said, “puts them in a totally different head-space.”
But a large part of this work involves an intense passion for what you’re showing people, as Inbal Baum, a 32-year-old attorney turned foodie, pointed out. Baum is the proprietor of Delicious Israel, leading Hummus Crawls, food and wine tours and cooking workshops in Tel Aviv. Her latest coup was guiding American chef Mike Solomonov and his chef friends around Tel Aviv, but she always thrives on her jaunts through Tel Aviv’s markets, whether showing off the more bourgeois Beer Market or pointing out a favorite bakery frequented by Tel Avivians.
One of her regular stops is at hummus proprietor Abu Hassan in Jaffa, where locals and visitors regularly crowd in to swipe hummus with pita, or, as Baum demonstrated, sections of raw onion, which is both lower in calories and offers a welcome crunch.
On a crowded Thursday morning, she elbowed her way in and snagged a table for three, ordering a plate of hummus and drinks with ease.
“I push in an American way, and I’m nice, but I treat them well, and they know they’ll get business from me,” said Baum, of her relationship with the proprietors. “It’s not that tourists wouldn’t be able to do this, but I offer the personal relationship, and I can get a table for ten people much easier than they can, and you don’t know what to order.”
And then, when client goes on Trip Advisor and raves about his day with Baum, she revels in the fact that this is the one thing he shares with his peers about his trip to Israel.
“Guides are still important in Israel because people are scared to come here,” said Baum, who has one Israeli parent and grew up in the US. “They’re uncertain about finding their way around, and that’s different than many other places in the world.”
It’s not that tourists can’t and don’t make their way around Israeli markets, whether Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda or Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, added Orly Ziv, another home cook and market guide. It’s just they’ll just skim the surface, and won’t get the full experience, she said.
“They like going with the native who shows them the real places, and it’s all about the interaction with the vendors,” she said. “The vendors don’t act the same with the tourists because they know they won’t be buying.”
“We look out my kitchen window and I point out the settlements and the Green Line out there,” she said, pointing toward the hills, past the apartment towers of her neighborhood. “And then I show them how easy it is to make pita.”
There’s more than a little of the emissary in these untraditional guides, whether they admit it or not, a new kind of Zionist zeal that demonstrates their brand of love for the land.
“I love to show that Israelis, we have a kind of chutzpah, and a lack of fear,” said Reismann of TLV Style. “It could be that I have a bit of the shaliach in me (the Hebrew word for emissary); or I’m a new pioneer. I do this because it gives me a lot of happiness.”