Footprints & Falafel by Julianna Spurlock by Julianna Spurlock - Read Online



Come explore the beautiful country of Israel - eat the food, pray at the Western Wall, and cover your feet with the glorious dust of the Holy Land. This is the tale of a young and naive girl's stay in Jerusalem; it is a tale of life and learning, love and trust, self-confidence and self-discovery.
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ISBN: 9781619276963
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Footprints & Falafel - Julianna Spurlock

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In 2010, I embarked on what turned out to be the trip of a lifetime. I spent a few glorious months in the Holy Land – Israel. While there, I blogged and journaled, I took pictures, I collected souvenirs and paraphernalia, I wrote notes to remember things. As is common after a particularly momentous journey in one’s life, I felt the overwhelming desire to share my story.

So I’m sharing it with you.

Come to Israel with me.


October 2013


In which I decide, on a bit of a whim, to travel to Israel and devote some time to learning the Holy Tongue, and spend almost three months preparing for that big step.

We all know that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Such is also the case with a journey of a little over 5,000 miles.

During the first few weeks of July, I busied myself with taking said step.

For some reason, I decided to start a travel blog. On July 4, I wrote my first post, outlining my hopes for a trip to Israel sometime in the near future. I can be a little shy, so I didn’t really broadcast my online presence until much later; however, I faithfully published my thoughts, actions, and plans onto the yellow notebook paper of my WordPress theme, imagining that people from the four corners of the world were potentially enjoying my words.

During the first week of my blog’s existence, I got continued hits and referrals from various alcohol/drug rehab sites, for no reason whatsoever. To this day, I still haven’t figured out how the connection was formed, but at the time, I was simply happy that people were being directed to read my travel musings.

As for the trip itself, I hoped to spend a few months in Israel in a total immersion program to learn the Hebrew language. My goal, of course, was to come back virtually fluent. Probably a long shot…but if you don’t aim high, you will forever banish yourself to the wasteland of mediocrity.

Why Hebrew, you ask? Well, let me explain. Trust me – I’ve given it a good deal of thought. In my opinion, Hebrew is the language of G-d’s soul. That may sound a little pithy or new-age, but hear me out. Obviously, G-d has a special attachment to the Hebrew language, since He chose to have the entire Old Testament written in Hebrew. I think Hebrew is G-d’s native language.

Whenever I heard or read Hebrew, I wasn’t usually able to understand it. Not then, at least. Because of that, I got that feeling like when my dad leans over and whispers something in my ear, but I can’t quite hear him. My heart beats faster, I lean closer to listen again, and I desire to know what he’s saying - I feel special, because he’s talking especially to me, but also just a little confused, because I didn’t hear what he said.

So it was with Hebrew. No matter the words - they could be directions to the nearest bus stop - it was my Father’s Voice. More than anything, I desired to hear and understand what He said. Like my own father’s whisper, my Heavenly Father’s Voice drew me ever closer, and I felt so special, because He was talking to me. Back in July, it felt like He was speaking too softly, and I couldn’t understand or hear Him fully. But in time, His words began to reach my innermost being, and I am now able to sh’ma - hear and obey.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve taken you to the end of the story before we’ve even begun! It all started in late May, early June, 2010. I was on Facebook, wasting time (as everyone with a Facebook account is prone to do), when a friend from Wisconsin popped up to chat. Having met her a year prior to that, and not having communicated much since that time, you can imagine my surprise. We had a nice little conversation, and she mentioned her plans to head off to Israel and spend a few months there, learning Hebrew in ulpan. Ulpan is the Hebrew term for schools that teach you the language. The moment I read that comment, a whole new world of possibilities opened before me, and I knew, in a momentary flash of pure, excited desire and uncanny forethought, that I needed to go, too.

So I said, Can I come, too!?

I was half kidding, half serious. Her immediate, affirmative response surprised me. She said she was looking for someone to come with her, and I saw how perfectly G-d had orchestrated our random conversation.

It was also very obvious to me that my parents would never agree to the whole idea. But I thought I’d ask anyway, because I’ve been told it doesn’t hurt.

Before I had finished my first sentence about going to Israel, my parents were nodding and giving the plan their stamp of approval.

This is the perfect time in your life to do something like that, sweetie! my mom enthused.

I was dumbfounded, to be sure, but I certainly wasn’t going to second-guess their decision. I told my Wisconsin friend that I had acquired the green light, only to have her respond that things had fallen through, and she wouldn’t be able to make the trip herself for another year or two.

I think that’s what they call death of a vision. But I bounced back, remarkably quickly, due to the fact that I realized I could just as easily go myself, without my Wisconsin friend. To that end, I started my research.

Initially, I was under the mistaken impression that there were a handful of ulpanim (plural of ulpan) scattered throughout the country.

Not so.

Rather, there appear to be hundreds, with special concentration around large cities like Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. I wanted to be as close to the City of Gold as possible; I had heard good things about praying at The Wall.

To that end, I started researching ulpanim in Jerusalem. Weeding through all the possibilities proved to be quite the challenge. One of the biggest problems I encountered was the fact that many websites were in…Hebrew, and since I didn’t know the language yet, I found it difficult to glean any information from them.

After extensive research on helpful sites and advice from several wise advisors, I narrowed my choices down to Ulpan Milah and Ulpan Morasha. Both came well-recommended, and I decided it would all depend on the starting dates of their respective semesters. I had a very specific window of time in which I could travel, and the school’s schedule needed to fit into mine - not vice versa.

The reason for this specific window was my sister’s wedding. Earlier in the year, my older sister, Morgan, had gotten herself engaged to a fine young man by the name of Gregory. They were planning their wedding for the beginning of March, so I had to be home before then.

An important ingredient in this recipe was the travel companion. A young woman probably shouldn’t be traveling alone in a foreign country – especially the Middle East, and also especially if her hair is blonde. Therefore, I started a passive search for someone to accompany me.

The search started with my divulging my tentative travel plans to my friend, Danielle. Actually, at this point, I still wasn’t quite sure about going to Israel, so my mother started the conversation. That happened quite frequently, toward the beginning of this adventure. It’s because I don’t like to mention things unless I’m sure about them. I don’t like to be wrong.

So my mom said to Danielle and her mom, Did you hear that Julianna is thinking about going to Israel this fall??

Danielle and her mom were all encouragement and excitement. No! they replied. When? What are you doing there?

Well, things are still really up in the air right now, I downplayed. "But a friend of mine in Hudson told me about going to Israel and learning Hebrew in an ulpan, and that is SO ME."

I looked at Danielle. Want to come?

Danielle seemed to think that was hilarious, but I was dead serious. After all, I needed someone with me, and Danielle seemed like a great choice. Danielle is the epitome of capability and trustworthiness. Just the person to have with me.

That would be so cool! she answered readily. I’m not sure yet what my schedule looks like, or what my family will be doing this fall, or where I need to be…but I’ll be thinking about that!

It was a week or two later that my mom brought up the potential trip once again, this time to a relatively new friend of ours, who had just moved from Hawaii. Although I wasn’t privy to the conversation, my mom apparently waxed eloquent on how this would be the perfect opportunity for this young lady – Lori – to visit Israel, as she had not yet settled in Charlotte. Lori also promised to keep the idea in mind.

I had very specific parameters for my traveling companion. First of all, she had to be female, as it would be completely inappropriate for me to travel with a man. She also had to have a passionate love for Israel and the Hebrew language, so that she would want to attend an immersion school. She needed to have the resources (MONEY) and time (MONTHS) to commit to a long trip like this. She needed to have no pressing responsibilities or prior engagements or people who depended on her. I felt like writing a personal ad, just to see if there were any takers.

In a way, I did, because I put the above paragraph (with some slight edits) on my blog one day. It’s the Internet, right? Nothing is sacred. Very shortly afterward, I received an email from a young woman in Texas who was following my blog and interested in being my traveling companion. I was totally taken aback – I had not meant to open this up to total strangers! I had to tactfully (I hope) respond with vagueries about not wanting to travel with someone I had never met (serial killer, anyone?!), and had meant for the blog post to be kept local. It was a bit sticky.

Being the family girl I am, it seemed odd to me that none of my three sisters could come with me. I guess that just would have been too easy.

However, I decided that, even if the perfect traveling companion should never materialize, I would still go. I had heard - from an Israeli - that Israel was the safest place in the world. A traveling companion would simply make things more fun and less expensive!

Convincing a friend to put their life on hold and come with me to Israel was not the only thing on my plate, though. I also had 16 piano students waiting for my instruction that fall. To go to Israel would mean dropping every single one of them.

It took me a while to convince myself that I was ready to take that necessary step, and send out The Email. For me, that was the Point of No Return. Sometimes it passes without us even realizing it. Sometimes we see it looming in the distance, as time speeds by. In this case, I knew it was out there, somewhere along the road, but I didn’t recognize it until just before it whizzed past me.

As I prepared to hit the Send button, checking and rechecking the email for spelling/grammatical errors, I realized that this was It. The Moment. There was no turning back after this. Ok, perhaps I could have - but it would have meant a very empty few months for me. It’s not like I could send another email a few weeks later saying, Wait, wait, wait! I’m not going! Come back!

So, out it went. The real first step in this journey – ridding myself of the trappings of the States.

Next, I decided to focus on choosing an ulpan. Having already reduced the seemingly endless list to two, how hard could it possibly be, right?

Here’s the thing: communication. You see, Ulpan Milah had a very communicative website, complete with lots of information about them, their classes, their prices, how to contact them…really, everything you needed to know. Plus, the variety of Hebraic education they offered made them quite the alluring option. Ulpan Morasha, on the other hand, had no Internet presence whatsoever. Sure, their name showed up on ulpan lists, and I had heard good things about them by word-of-mouth, but they seemed to be a bit of a ghost. No email address, no website, nothing. All I could find was a phone number. A weird, Israeli phone number with some kind of two-digit area code.

I know this is probably pathetic, but…I hate making phone calls. I mean, I really hate the phone. Being on the phone with a friend is at least bearable, but not ever a truly pleasant experience. I’m not sure why I am this way. Most girls love talking on the phone. Perhaps there was some traumatic experience involving telephones when I was younger? Perhaps it stems from the time I left a message for the wrong uncle on his New York answering machine? Whatever the case may be, I have an inward horror of the phone.

After a lot of procrastinating, and – I’ll be honest with you – some ridiculously desperate searches for other options, I finally decided to bite the bullet and call them.

Even for the average human, that wasn’t as easy as it sounds. First of all, I had never personally placed an international call. I googled all over the place to figure out the correct procedure - international direct dialing codes, country codes, area codes, extraneous digits, etc (incidentally, the country code for Israel is 972). Secondly, there was a seven hour time difference between our countries. Hence, I decided to call Israel at around 5:30 one morning, so that it would be about 12:30 in the afternoon over there.

I’ve been told I over-think things. Best to be prepared, in my opinion.

So after several attempts at the correct order of numbers and such, I did finally get the phone to start ringing. Before that, I was getting messages like, The number you are calling could not be completed as dialed. Please hang up and dial again… and, You must dial a 1 before calling this number… Irritating, to say the least.

Why do some people answer their phones with silence? They just *pick up*. Way to make it harder for the person calling. Such was the case with this call. It stopped ringing abruptly, and…nothing. When someone finally did say hello (and that wasn’t until the second or third attempt), it was a flat, male voice - no accent whatsoever, which made me wonder.

Yes, after all that, it was apparently the wrong number. I tried to convince myself to try again another morning, and get an operator involved, or something, but to no avail. I can be quite the stubborn coward sometimes.

When technology fails you - and if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize that it’s more often than you care to admit - use something tried and true. I learned that from my grandfather, who came for dinner shortly after this whole telephone nightmare. After listening to my entire sob-story, he said, You know what you do? You send them a telegram. It’ll be there in a day or two, you’ll get a response, and they’ll be impressed.

I looked at him in wonder.

Wow, I said. That’s…really creative! Maybe I’ll do that.

Perhaps I should have actually done it. I didn’t, because telegrams are super-expensive nowadays, and also because I chose to shift my focus to another facet of the trip, instead – the apartment. The ulpan had proved too troublesome.

Many ulpanim offer room & board for enrollees; this, of course, means a higher price tag. The two options I was considering did not have any such answers to the allimportant question of a place to stay during my sojourn in The Land. This meant finding and renting an apartment somewhere in Jerusalem.

Now, I’m a real planner. I wanted to nail down the ulpan before moving on to the apartment, to ensure that my apartment put me within a comfortable walking distance of my school. That makes sense, right? Seems like the correct order of events, doesn’t it?

Well, I had been advised otherwise.

So I started the extensive search for apartments in Jerusalem. I was told that CraigsList was a good place to look, especially because going through a real estate agent could be expensive, with the steep commissions they sometimes tack onto the apartment price. Having never been on CraigsList prior to this apartment hunt, I found it a little confusing at first, but I always blame that on my blonde hair.

Actually, the most confusing, and slightly annoying, thing was that I didn’t know my Jerusalem-specific geography all that well. Geography was never one of my strong subjects, just in general, and I certainly wasn’t familiar with all the particular areas of Jerusalem on top of that.

It occurs to me that I was in a similar situation to someone moving to Charlotte from another state, or even from another country. Looking at places advertised as being in Ballantyne, uptown Charlotte, downtown Matthews, Piper Glen, Pineville, or Stallings wouldn’t mean much to anyone outside of this area. You can’t tell by the names which are bad areas or ethnic neighborhoods. Such is also the case with Jerusalem. Rechavia, Nachla’ot, and Talpiyot all sound lovely, but what do they mean??

Figuring all of that out on my own would have been a losing battle, for sure. Maps of Jerusalem aren’t particularly helpful, due to the fact that most of them are in Hebrew. Even the ones in English can give you little idea of the distance between the different locations – the terrain can add or subtract from your travel time significantly (provided you’re on foot). It’s important to know exactly what you’re doing before you lock yourself into a rental contract.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to get a Jerusalem geography degree to do this. I knew quite the handful of people who had been in Israel on numerous occasions, and they were more than willing to remedy my ignorance. My friend Joshua Spurlock, who had lived in Israel for years, had an excellent handle on all the different areas in Jerusalem, and was able to direct me to those that would keep me safe, save me money, and put me nearer to the necessities of life.

I was absolutely positive that the right place would come along, all in good time. I was also sure that once I dealt with the housing situation, everything would start to feel much more real – and relaxed. It was a little stressful to me, telling everyone I was going to Israel that fall, and yet not actually have a place to stay. Why was it such a big deal? Well, what do you think were the first few questions everyone asked?

1. Why? Now I did have that answer, thank goodness.

2. Where are you studying? Oops. Don’t know.

3. Where are you staying? Um…right, that’s a great question, too…

4. Are you going by yourself? Oh, another good one. Well, things are up in the air…

5. How long are you staying? Still figuring that out, because of my sister’s wedding, and…

As you can see, it was important to me to figure out SOME things as quickly as possible, so that I didn’t sound like I had no idea what I was doing. The apartment issue, however, was put on the back burner after I found out that people in Israel were not interested in talking to me in July about a rental that would start in October. It was also at this point that I got a comment on my blog from a teacher at Ulpan Morasha, which threw me for a loop.

Comments on a blog being read by only 10 people (6 of which are immediate family members) is kind of a huge deal. The fact that this particular comment came all the way from Israel, from a teacher in one of the ulpanim I was considering, well…let’s just say I was ecstatic. She recommended calling again – a suggestion I chose not to take, because I’m a wimp – and mentioned that they would have a website up within two weeks.

This new piece of information made me pause. I really wanted to attend Ulpan Morasha, but I had pretty much decided to go with Ulpan Milah, simply because it was so difficult to get any kind of information on Morasha. With the tantalizing idea of a 21st-century-worthy website on the horizon, I chose to wait to make a firm decision with regard to my ulpan.

So, with the ulpan on hold, and the apartment on hold, and then the ulpan on hold again, and also waiting for a traveling companion to appear, I found myself with very few big decisions to make. Instead, I tried to think outside of the box, about other facets of my trip.

Something you may not have realized about me is that I am a little competitive. I like to excel at whatever I do. I always want to be the best, and I don’t like doing things when I’m not good at them.

Quite frankly, I think that’s pride.

Be that as it may, it was who I was. Perhaps it still is who I still am.

That’s not the point, though. The point is that I wanted to do really, really well in Israel. I wanted to be at the head of the class; I wanted to pick that language up like it was no problem - like I’d been speaking it since 3rd grade.

To that end, I did some research on brain food. I scanned website after website, reading about the specific foods I could eat to help keep me focused and retain all the information to the absolute best of my ability.

I found the chart-toppers to be wild salmon, blueberries, coffee, and green tea – nothing horrible. Many sources recommended eating breakfast regularly, something which I didn’t do at home. Throw a few nuts and some chocolate into the mix, and that was basically it. One site listed brain drainers, such as alcohol, corn syrup, nicotine, and high-carb lunches. Fortunately, I drank very rarely – and then, only wine – and I certainly don’t smoke (then or now).

Changing your eating habits in order to stay on top of your studies may seem ridiculous, or like I was taking this way too far. But if you think about it, I was preparing to spend a sizable portion of my life, not to mention a sizable portion of my savings account, on learning a language. Wouldn’t it have been poor stewardship of my resources if I didn’t try to get the most out of my experience?

Even as I read and wrote about making the most of my time, I gradually began to see a dim picture of what I was going to miss, being away. Up until that point, I had been feeling happy-go-lucky, blindly excited, rushing headlong toward the flight to Tel Aviv. Naturally, I knew it was an incredible opportunity, and I was super-excited about going.

But of course, inevitably, reality comes calling. It dawned on me that my family and friends would not be sitting at home, twiddling their thumbs, waiting for my return to the States to continue their lives and have fun. The world would not stop spinning while I was in Israel, whether or not I wanted it to.

I’ve already mentioned the terminus of my piano teaching; I also opted out of an accompanist’s position with the local homeschool choir, which was something I very much enjoyed doing the previous year.

I realized that I would be missing some big holidays – Thanksgiving, Chanukah, New Year’s (and New Year’s Eve!) – with my family. For someone who has never, not once in their entire life, been alone…that’s pretty huge. My father and sister would both celebrate a birthday in my absence, and my parents would mark another anniversary, as well.

It hit me a little harder than you might think.

See, that’s the beauty and the tragedy of time. Because of the past, and the traditions associated with it, I knew what I’d be missing. But because of the mystery of the future, I had no idea what wonderful things G-d had in store for me. I just knew with my mind that everything was going to be fantastic - and totally worth missing out on anything - but I couldn’t know with my heart until I actually experienced those things.

Just at that rather low point of my preparation, I chose to send out another email. This one was a mass mailing to my friends and extended family, to let them know about my upcoming plans. To the best of my ability, I shut out all bittersweet emotion and wrote from the depths of my very excited soul, trying to communicate how amazing this opportunity was.

Within the next few days, responses poured in from far and wide, brimming with encouragement and love, along with promises of frequent thought and prayer. This was just what I needed. Going to Israel – potentially by myself – was comparable to stepping out of a heated home into the arctic temperatures of winter. The warm reaction from those around me was like a cozy blanket or a big hug. Comforting. Soothing.

I also used this opportunity to advertise my newborn blog, because I knew I didn’t want to be inundated with emails from friends during my trip, asking for updates, for pictures, for stories, for thoughts. Everything loses half its spice in second-tellings, and can you imagine writing the same email multiple times, as different people ask the same questions? Better to have everything in one, public place: the Internet.


Whether we like it or not, preparing to leave the country for a few months necessitates some purchases. Shoes are near the top of the list. I am not the " ohmygoodness - SHOES!!!!!" type. It may surprise you to learn that I am not a huge shoe fan. While some people might spend an entire paycheck on one pair of designer heels, there are other chasms into which my money tends to fall. Food, for instance. Looking at my bank statement every few days confirms the fact that I spend most of my money on food, in some form or another. Coffeeshops, smoothies, fun lunches, fine dining…that’s where most of it goes.

However, I did need a good pair of walking shoes, because, from what I had heard, one does quite a bit of walking in Jerusalem. To that end, my mother and I went over to The Walking Company to find some. We were both of one mind as to what type of shoe I wanted. Something very comfortable, that wouldn’t give me blisters, wouldn’t make my feet hurt, and could weather the elements.

A good, solid clog was our first choice. I had never worn those before. Very interesting feel. They’re heavy, and they don’t bend. As I clomped around the store, getting used to the clogs I was trying, something my mom said made the salesman ask where I’d be wearing the shoes. Now, I’ve been raised well: one does not volunteer personal information to strangers. So my mother and I both responded vaguely that I’d be traveling. He pressed the question. Where was I going? With a sideways glance at my mom, I answered. Israel. Oh, well that changed everything.

You don’t want a clog, he advised, pushing aside all the comfortable-looking clunkers. A clog-type shoe is made for flat ground. That’s why chefs wear them - because they’re working on floors all the time. You want something that conforms to the terrain. Something like this. He pulled another box down. These are actually made in Israel, he mentioned.

They were a Mary-Jane-type shoe by Naot (an Israeli shoe company), bendable and pretty flat, made of leather and cork. I liked them, and when I put them on and walked around, I loved them. The shoebox was also covered in Hebrew, which I thought was the coolest thing ever. Pricey, but…it costs to be comfortable, apparently.

My mother bought the shoes for me, which was an incredibly unexpected and generous gesture on her part. We’re looking at this as your college experience, sweetie, she said. We want to help you out a little!

And help they did, with a few of the more important purchases, where I might have been tempted to skimp a bit to save myself some money.

One of my father’s contributions was an article he had read in the Wall Street Journal about languages. I love languages. I love the different sounds they make, and the difference in their alphabets. I love how a language seems to match the country where it is spoken. My favorite quote from that article was, Charlemagne proclaimed that ‘to have a second language is to have a second soul.’ I thought that was a really cool way of seeing things. I began to view my trip as a quest to find my second soul.

An aside on loving languages: once in Israel, people started asking me why I was there, and I always answered that I was there to learn Hebrew. Some would ask why, and I would say that I simply love languages. At a friend’s house for dinner one night, a man from another country asked that question, and I answered with my usual gush, I just love languages! He nodded appreciatively and followed up with, So how many other languages do you know? He was genuine and sincere, but the question really put me in my place. So you love languages, huh, Julianna? And, what – you only know ENGLISH, right?? I spent five years of precious schoolwork on learning Latin, which, while it helped me with my reading comprehension and vocabulary, was generally an enormous waste of time. Because what did I go do? I went and learned Hebrew, which has no connection to Latin whatsoever, and the similarity between unrelated words can even cause some confusion. Plus, Latin is a dead language. I sat there, feeling like such a loser, wondering how I had allowed myself to waste so much time doing absolutely nothing with my innate and passionate love for languages. The man to whom I was speaking knew at least four, pretty much fluently. Way to go, buddy.

Anyway, let’s rewind. A quest does not sit passively in the mind, waiting for an opportune moment. A quest is an active pursuit of a goal. And, as days passed, my desire to learn Hebrew – and discover that elusive second soul - only became more intense. It wasn’t even the end of July, and I was already trying to find ways to pick up some Hebrew before leaving. I’m a homeschooler, and I don’t walk into a situation unprepared, if I can help it. Yes, the idea was to go to Israel to learn Hebrew, but that didn’t mean I was going to sit on my hands, waiting until I got there. Rather, I took two steps to ensure that I wouldn’t arrive clueless.

First, I switched my Facebook account into Hebrew. A few months previously, I had tried that, and it lasted all of…seven minutes. And it only lasted that long because I couldn’t