Shai Bar Ilan Trip to China




                                                                                      Here is the most up to date itinerary of our next tour to China, leaving Israel on May 7, 2012.

We will be doing a similar tour in October.  Contact me if you are interested 



One thing that Israelis like to do is travel. Go anywhere in the world that Jews can travel without getting killed (you can understand which countries are off limits) and there you will find an abundant supply of Israelis.

The first time I noticed it was when as a college student I was traveling through Europe. In Rome, I climbed to the top of the “Wedding Cake” monument to Victor Emmanuel and what did I find? Yep. Two Israelis. I have since done a lot of traveling (after all, in March of 1998, I officially became an Israeli!) and there we are– everywhere I look– at the top of the Festung in Salzburg, in the Salt Mines in Werfen, on a city tour bus in Budapest, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, on a boat on the Li River in Guilin, China. We are everywhere.

And in addition, we love to explore our own country. Many Israelis enjoy hiking and discovering all of the wonders of our land. Like us, many Israelis go three or four or five times a year to places in Israel they have never visited before to learn about the history (and every rock here has a history!), to see the enchanting views, to see the wildflowers, the migrating birds, the mountain ibexes, the waterfalls and pools. This is indeed a wondrous land and maybe the fact that Israel is so jam-packed with interesting places is what makes us believe that the world must be filled with additional places of interest.

One thing we Israelis love to do is to make contact with Jews living in cities throughout the world. There is a certain excitement about finding “family” wherever we go. Their very existence gladdens us and our visits to them strengthen both them and us.

It came as no surprise to me to find that Jews were involved in trade from earliest times, traveling the silk and spice routes, interacting with other cultures. When we were in China, many of the parallels between their culture and ours struck us as needing to have come from an interplay of the cultures. Certainly the private prayer of the Emperor in the Temple of Heaven for a good harvest reminded us of the high priest going into the Holy of Holies, the inner chamber of the Temple in Jerusalem, on Yom Kippur. The structure of their palaces and gardens was not dissimilar to the structure of the tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem.

The experience of traveling, whether in Israel or outside of it is always interesting and offers the opportunity to appreciate the vastness of creation, the beauty of the Earth, and, as Jews, our special place in the universe.

An oasis in time

I finally figured out why I enjoy traveling as much as I do. Normally, I am engaged in activities that I must complete such as household chores like washing and ironing and cleaning and grocery shopping. In addition, I work a couple of days a week teaching family therapy. I have a course I teach for women one morning a week and a course for men one afternoon a week. Even recreational activities are planned and scheduled. Then there are the telephone calls both incoming and outgoing and errands to run.

But when vacation on an organized tour comes, all of that is left behind. I leave behind most of my clothing and take the minimum amount. Everything that I have to deal with resides inside my suitcase. Once on the plane, all I am responsible for is showing up. I am taken from one beautiful place to the next. I learn about the history and art and song and dance of the place. I learn a few words of the language. I notice the people’s faces — the smiles (in China), the frowns (in Hungary). Every day is an adventure. I am constantly learning. I do what is the most human: I live in the moment.

On our recent trip to China, for example, I enjoyed every sight, every sound… even walking throught the alley with the fish market in Xian where the creepiest crawliest characters were for sale for dinner– imagining myself as a contestant on “Fear Factor.” When we were in Chengdu, I loved watching the panda stand up and greet us. I marveled at the number of bikes and motorbikes coursing through the Chinese cities and parked filling wide swathes of sidewalk. I loved the music and dance and acrobatics we saw. I was completely tuned into my surroundings. I was not preoccupied with planning or waiting for a phone call or making arrangements for tomorrow. All of that was taken care of and all I had to do was to enjoy it.

And I wondered. Is it possible to turn off all of those preoccupations we carry with us and just enjoy the moments we have when we are here at home? Can we do it for a short time?

And I began to understand that that is precisely what shabbat is about every single week. It is a time we put away the telephone, the scheduling, the household chores, the errands, and we enjoy the moments with family, with friends. We enjoy the walk to shul, the sound of our feet on the sidewalk, the fresh air, the people we see, the pets out walking, the trees and the bushes that bloom here all year long. The peace of shabbat allows us to be fully human, fully in the moment. It is an oasis in time available to all, and you don’t even have to pack your bags.

Music hath charms

I am sitting here, still endeavoring to get over my jet lag and there is beautiful music playing in the background. It is music that we bought in China with the haunting sounds of the flute. Many of the traditional Chinese instruments are different from those we have in the west. They use stringed instruments and woodwinds, chiefly. and some percussion. There is a calming feeling that this music evokes in me. As soon as I hear it, a beautiful garden appears in my mind’s eye.

There are so many experiences that remain with one far beyond their actual duration in time! How many times do we recall the excitement of our wedding and the profound joy at the birth of our children! These beautiful milestones in time remain in our memories to be called upon to lift our soul.

How lucky we are to live in a world that encompasses such beauty and so many opportunities for joy. How important it is to be among those who are privileged to increase the goodness in it!

Back from China!

We have returned from China. Our experience on this Shai Bar Ilan tour was once again fantastic! We landed in Beijing and hit the ground running. Each day was filled with beauty and wonder. From the Summer Palace to the Temple of Heaven and Forbidden City, we saw Beijing’s wonders, stopping for a most welcome foot massage. We flew to Xian and saw the wondrous Terracotta Warriors, thousands of them, each different from the others, no two the same. We flew to Chengdu and were lucky enough to see a number of pandas up close, including a look into the nursery where four baby pandas were lying in their cribs. We went to LeShan and saw the world’d largest sitting Buddha. We flew to Kunming and marveled at the beauty of the Stone Forest. Later in Guilin, we saw cormorant fishing and traveled to Yung Shuo to cruise down the Li River and see the magnificent scenery. We traveled up a 1.5 kilometer chairlift to the top of a mountain overlooking picturesque Guilin and then went on to Hangzhou to see a tea plantation and the beautiful West Lake and then we went on to Suzhou to see the production of silk and a The Master Fisherman Garden. In Shanghai we saw yet another beautiful garden, the Yu Yuan Garden. China consists of some 55 minority ethnic groups with the majority group, the Han, making up 92% of the Chinese population. We got to meet some of the people who are members of the Zhwang group (the largest of the minorities) and of the Yao group. Each group has its own language, customs, land area, and crafts. We enjoyed Chinese dance, music, and art. All in all, it was a dream vacation and one that restores one’s love for beauty and one’s sense of transcendence.

You can see my pictures at this location.


We are getting ready for our second trip to China.

Before the first trip, China was, for us, a place far off, so completely removed from our experience as to be a source of endless speculation as to what it would feel like to be there and what types of experiences we would have.

When we finally got there, we were completely captivated. Everything was so unbelievably beautiful! The people are beautiful. The architecture, the temples and gardens, the music, the shows, the minority people, the ethnic art– they were all exquisite. When we got home from China we could speak of nothing else for weeks. (If you don’t believe me, ask my children!)

And now we are returning and if anything the anticipation is even greater because we know what beauty awaits us. The more we read and study about China, the more amazing it becomes. Stay tuned for stories of our adventures!

Sunday in the Temple of Heaven

We awoke Sunday to another glorious day. After breakfast, we boarded our buses and drove through Beijing to the Temple of Heaven. The Chinese have many beliefs about what is fortuitous and some of them have to do with placement of buildings. The Temple of Heaven, to which the emperor would travel, was in a direct line six kilometers south of the Forbidden City where he resided. He would go to the Temple of Heaven every winter solstice to worship heaven and to solemnly pray for a good harvest. Since his rule was legitimized by a mandate from heaven, a bad harvest could be interpreted as his fall from heaven’s favor and threaten the stability of his reign. So, the emperor fervently prayed for a very good crop. When the emperor traveled to the Temple of Heaven to offer his prayers, citizens were not permitted to watch. Were they unlucky enough to be caught along the path when he was making his way, they had to lie prone and avoid looking up for the entire duration of his journey.

We arrived expecting to see buildings, but in fact, the most interesting sights at the Temple of Heaven were the people we saw. Each day hundreds of Chinese people, mostly over the age of sixty, come to exercise. They were doing Tai Chi individually, or in groups with fans or swords. They were playing hacky-sack. They danced, sometimes ballroom-type dancing. But the most amazing sight was the area that was most like a children’s playground. Instead of equipment geared for children were all sorts of devices designed for adults to chin, to do sit-ups, to climb, and to stretch. There were paths with rounded stones embedded in them over which they walked in thin-soled slipper-type shoes. One older woman held a pole behind her neck that stretched over her shoulders. She gently raised both of her legs and placed them behind the pole, effectively bending herself in half. Ouch! It hurt me to watch, but not enough to keep me from taking pictures.

As we walked through the gardens and structures, we heard beautiful music, either being played on instruments live in the garden or from mechanical devices people had brought with them. The people seemed very happy and content. It seemed such a wonderful way to start a day, out in nature with friends, doing healthy exercise. I asked what they do in winter and our Chinese guide told me that they are there in winter as well.

At the edge of the park there was a store that sold fresh-water pearls. We saw a demonstration where a man took an oyster and opened it up to show us the pearls inside. He had a charming sales pitch, but not charming enough to convince me to buy something that I didn’t need.

Outside we met some Malaysian women and they were so attractively adorned that I asked to take their picture. They then took mine!

When we got back onto the bus and headed straight to the airport for a flight to Xian (Shi-Yan). Xian was the capital of thirteen Chinese dynasties and is its only walled city whose walls have survived until today.

There we saw the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. We took a walk through the Muslim Quarter and saw a Muslim Temple that is said to resemble quite closely the synagogue that used to exist in Kaifeng. It was of traditional Chinese architecture in that it consisted to entrances and gardens one after the other. It was very tranquil and very beautiful.

We then visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda which is a Buddhist temple. You can read about it at

Back at the hotel, we had dinner and when we left the dining room, we saw some very lovely young women in long purple taffeta gowns with nametags and little purses. We didn’t know if they were to be in a show or if they were at some sort of conference or what. One said something about dancing. I took a picture and one looked at me and motioned not to take pictures. Later I learned that these women dance with visiting gentlemen.

We then left the hotel and went to the Tang Dynasty Show which consisted of beautiful music and dancing. The costumes were exquisite. It was a feast for the senses. A tired crew, we returned to the hotel to catch a few hours of sleep before the next day’s adventures.

Healing in China

It has taken me some time to begin to process our trip to China. One of the women on the trip said that for her, the trip was a vacation from a very stressful and hectic life which had been particularly difficult over the past summer. She thought that the trip would renew her.

I immediately understood what she was saying, for although my life was less stressed than hers, for me too the common annoyances of life were for this brief moment being replaced with new places and new people and new experiences beyond our imaginations.

My difficult summer had begun with becoming ill almost exactly when my sister arrived to visit me for two weeks. The relatively benign virus affected me so strongly that I was not able to function for weeks. My doctor had informed me that I would take months to recover. We wondered whether I would be able to go on the trip, but my lab values began to improve and I was determined to go.

When we got to the Great Wall on the first full day in China, there was a climb of what turned out to be 1200 uneven steps. Since this was likely to be my only time at the Great Wall, I made a decision to climb it. Something about that climb amid the beauty of the countryside, the bright colors of the tourists’ clothing, the optimism of people having a good time, the wonder of being in an exotic setting, gave me the energy and determination to go on and I did it! I accomplished my goal. But from that day on, I no longer felt weak or sick. Without noticing it, I had recovered my strength faster than I would have predicted.

It was not that long afterwards that we had our first walk in a Chinese garden. They are places of enormous delight. They are verdant with flowing water and rough hewn rocks and are filled with sounds of flute and other Chinese instruments. They are a place of quiet and contemplation. As we experienced these gardens and temples and as we made our way on quiet rivers and lakes, I felt a sense of peace and well-being. In the exquisite Stone Forest, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of nature in a misty rain. As we cruised along the Li River, the beauty was breathtaking. Our hotel in Guilin was along the side of a lake that provided calm and beauty to a bustling city as people walked along its paths and crossed its bridges and walkways.

Among 1.3 billion people, there was peace and solitude and well-being. There were oases of calm and quiet. And there was beauty.

Our trip was not only an adventure, but a healing experience.

Saturday in the Forbidden City

On Saturday morning, after services, kiddush, and breakfast, we set out for the Forbidden City. With such an ominous name, it was a place that I was a bit reluctant to visit. We walked about two long blocks and arrived beside Tiananmen Square, the site of Mao’s Mausoleum and adjacent to the Great Hall of the People. We proceeded down a flight of steps and into a pedestrian tunnel so that we could cross the very wide street that separates Tiananmen Square from the Forbidden City.

We were not alone. Thousands of people converged on the Forbidden City, home of Emperors of China in the Ming and Qing dynasties. The area it occupies is vast and it is representative of the style of formal Chinese buildings with a formal entrance (in this case consisting of three doors, each of which had its unique use), a courtyard (or garden) and then another building behind which was another courtyard or garden and then another and another. Each change required stepping up and down as the buildings were several steps above ground level and with each doorway of each building having a board vertically set perhaps 12 inches high that one had to step over to enter. These boards at entrances were standard throughout all of the temples and old formal buildings that we visited.

We heard several explanations for the board. We heard that it will stop enemies from charging in. They have to stop in order to step over and this literally unbalances them. We heard that the bowed stature that climbing over something inevitably engenders is a forced sign of respect. We heard that they kept the building free of mice and we heard that in places where it floods, it kept the water out. Someone even suggested that it kept the chickens that were kept inside from escaping! After a while we came to expect them and I started to think it might be an idea that would slow down the grandchildren….

The imperial palace, consisting of a rumored 9,999 buildings ( a number I find somewhat exaggerated) is quite a complex. There is a wonderful online tour at

One of the items pointed out to us by our tour guides was a huge pot which had been put there for holding water. In early times, they were essential since there was no natural water source on the grounds. There were a large number of these huge pots. Many were coated in gold. When the Japanese invaded, they literally scraped the gold from the pots and we could see the remnants of the gold among the scratchings.

The vastness of the area and the style of the structures were nothing like what I had imagined. We listened with interest to the beliefs about what the emperor needed to do to ensure the well-being of the country. We heard about the symbolism of the colors that were used in the building and decorating.

It was a hot sunny day, but everyone remained interested in learning as much as we could, and when we returned to the hotel, we had plenty to talk about.

That evening we went to the Beijing Opera. Of course it was not at all what we expected. It was, instead, a performance put on in a very small auditorium that seated our group and no others. Two men enacted to music an encounter between good and evil that included a great deal of movement and dance with them using knives to threaten and slash at each other. The movement was graceful and the timing was superb. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Some of the pictures I took in China are now available for viewing at:

Friday in Beijing

My husband and I joined friends who were taking a 17 day tour of China with Shai Bar Ilan who runs tours to China and other locations for Jewish people who observe the dietary laws and the Sabbath. In general, a Jew who is ritually observant has to be very careful in planning a trip to a place where there is no established Jewish community, so Shai had solved those problems. There was a minyan of men, kosher food, and we did no traveling on the Sabbath. Instead, we spent late Sabbath mornings and early afternoons on walks that enabled us to see sights that were close to the hotel. He even arranged for us to be able to have a drink of cold water on our way.

Our tour was to have begun on Wednesday afternoon, August 31 with a flight to Istanbul from where we were to fly to Beijing, arriving in the afternoon. Our flight to Beijing, however, was delayed by 12 hours and so were we! We flew to Istanbul and stayed the few hours we had at a hotel near the airport. Since we arrived after dark and left before it got light in the morning, we didn’t actually see anything in Istanbul.

The flight on Turkish Airlines was pleasant and we arrived in Beijing safely.

Although I knew China was a big country, I was surprised to see how big and modern the airports were. Unlike experiences in Israel and New York and Dallas and Oklahoma City, the baggage arrived quickly and within about 15 minutes, we had gathered our belongings and were moving along.

By the time we arrived at our hotel, it was dark. The rooms were clean and attractive. Shai had prepared a “snack” for us which turned out to be a full meal. With a bit more area to move around in, we began to become acquainted with the other people who had come along on the trip.

Although most of the group consisted of Israelis, we had three women from Canada and one from New York join us. In addition, at least one of the Israelis who was formerly from the US had difficulty with Hebrew, and so we were divided into two groups: Hebrew and English. The Hebrew group was larger and filled their bus. We were a group of about 23 and so we were usually very comfortable in ours. Although we were excited, we were also very tired, having missed most of a night’s sleep in Istanbul, so we all went to our rooms and slept.

In the morning, we ate and then piled into the buses for our first outing. As we drove through the enormous city of Beijing, it was hard to believe how urban and modern it looked. We arrived at the cloisonné factory and watched the women who worked to create the beautiful objects by hand. There are no shortcuts and no assembly line. Every work they produce is handmade with intricate designs and brilliantly colored enamels. A showroom the size of a US department store displayed items large and small including vases and jewelry and bells and cups and just about every object one could imagine.

After the factory, we traveled to the Great Wall (or, as one of the Israelis sometimes said, “the Big Wall”). We were surprised by the height of it, the width, and the fact that in this area, one climbed it. The wall has a long long flight of steps—perhaps ending where it ends, but being that it is 4163 miles long, we settled for climbing only part of it. The steps were not easy to climb. They were not of uniform height and some were the equivalent height of two to three steps. I was breathing really hard by the time we got to the landmark we were aiming for. We were told that the area we traversed contained 1200 steps. Of course, once up, the next task was going down. The weather was beautiful and the views were magnificent and everyone was in a mood of elation, and so it was all a big adventure.

We were taken next for reflexology treatments at an institute for Chinese medicine. There they grow medicinal plants, and the reflexology students worked their art on us. Two doctors came to check us all. They claimed to be able to tell our state of health by feeling our pulses in both our left and right wrists. Since everyone had ailments that they had the cure for and since all of the cures were only going to require a one month supply of their rather expensive formulas, we imagined that our diagnoses were all essentially the same: fat wallet.

After the rest and relaxation, we went to the Summer Palace, a magnificent estate with many buildings and a huge lake. The buildings were all traditional Chinese buildings and the lake was large enough that there were boats to traverse it. We saw gigantic lotus plants growing in the water. We walked along the Long Corridor which was painted with hundreds of pictures on its beams and its ceiling. It is simply a covered walkway. The Long Corridor is 795 yards long and parallels the lake. To have an estate so large and so green and so pastoral in a city whose metropolitan area houses thirty million people is nothing less than amazing to me.

Late that afternoon, we took a walk to Tian’anmen Square, but in a move reminiscent (at least to me) of my impressions of the square with the tank headed for the young student, police prevented our proceeding to the square citing the need to clean the area for a ceremony that was to take place the next morning. A number of police marched toward us accompanied by a police car that headed straight for us, albeit slowly. I couldn’t help wishing that someone would take a picture of my standing there with my hands held up.

We walked back to the hotel to get ready for the Sabbath.