Get To Know Israel Guide Zel Lederman

Israel guide Zel Lederman moved to Israel from Australia more than 20 years ago and has worked as a registered tour guide for more than 10. Zel formed the Israel Travel Company in 2008 and can tell you the best times to see Jerusalem and what sight still enchants him after 20 years.
How did you get into guiding in Israel? How did you make the transition to becoming a tour guide?

It was certainly not a direct path for me nor one that was marked that clearly! I started in health sciences and shifted into horticulture and had been working as a horticultural curator at the Jerusalem Botanic Gardens for ten years. My job included being responsible for the overseas horticultural internship program which had many young English graduates from top horticultural schools spending a period of time in Jerusalem. This involved introducing them to a very different part of the world with a history going back aeons, and its own diverse landscapes, cultures and histories.

It was then that I decided to go to guide school. Our second son had just been born and I was lucky that Riza, my wife, supported my new study initiative that had me out two nights a week in the classroom (and her at home with our then two young boys – now 16 and 18 and towering over us) and one full day a week out on tour; the guide course actually involved 70 such field trip days as part of the curriculum. It got a little rough around exam time, but I managed the written and oral exams and qualified. Actually being a tour guide is much easier than the process of becoming a guide!

What does a typical day look like for you?

There’s a joke around the house that the Israel Travel Company offers private dawn tours of Jerusalem and Masada because Dad is an insomniac. It’s only partly true, but I have to admit I love to guide in the early mornings! Everything is fresh and quiet, you watch the place wake up. It’s really quite magical to share aspects of normal life with visitors of this amazing city before the tourist buses arrive. I also try to offer mid to late afternoon tours so with regards to a typical day it’s a little hard to say…other than to say I try to not to have them.

Have you got a certain style of guiding, or do you just run with it on the day?

Yes, well, we do have our own style and that’s connected to my own philosophy and that of the guides I have gathered together under the Israel Travel Company umbrella.

I am often asked: “Isn’t it boring guiding the same tour again and again?” and I must admit to having a bit of a shocked reaction to this question…Yes, I know it’s a bit of a marketing thing to speak of customized and personal tours, but I think the guides I work with go beyond the slogans as so much of our tour work involves sensing our clients’ needs and recognizing the importance of our clients’ interests, travel focus and their natural pacing – which we need to attune to – as well as knowing how to adapt and change the whole plan in a minute if necessary. So to sum up – no two tours ever feel the same!

What’s the most bizarre or craziest experience you’ve had on a guided tour?

Jerusalem is one of the great cities of the world and has both a complex history and current reality. I remember taking a couple to the magnificent panoramic viewpoint overlooking the Old City – from where you can see the Garden of Gethsemane, the Temple Mount, the Golden Dome and Al Aqsa mosque, the city walls, the ancient graves and much, much more. I looked at them looking at this view. I mean I looked at their faces and their eyes and realized that though I would spend the whole day guiding and talking to them about Jerusalem, that in these few moments they had seen more than they could absorb in a day and were overwhelmed. What was I going to do ? Not very bizarre or crazy perhaps, but very Jerusalem.

You were born in Australia – how did you come to live in Jerusalem? What do you miss about the South Pacific – and what don’t you miss?

I moved to Israel in my mid thirties, almost a quarter century ago. I came on a visit and stayed, got married, had kids, settled in Jerusalem. It’s an amazing place here, though I love Australia too. I do visit and I love showing Ozzies around Israel too.

In a nutshell: an Australian historian once described social development in Australia as the ‘Tyranny of Distance’. Here in the Middle East as a whole, and in Israel/Palestine in particular, there is what I refer to as a tyranny of proximity – lots of histories, cultures, communities, religions, and politics near each other with very little space in between.

What does Australia have that Jerusalem doesn’t? Oh, that’s simple: the sea. We have to travel to Tel Aviv for that. It might surprise you but I don’t miss the beer in Oz. There are some very good local beers here in Israel and new small boutique brewers are opening all the time too.

Ever had any odd requests from clients?

My clients had arrived but their luggage still hadn’t, so I got asked for a pair of ladies’ underwear. I was embarrassed and thought “Wow, where am I going to find a shop open today to deal with this?”  But my wife came to the rescue with an unopened new pair in the cupboard at home, saving the day, as the shops were shut.

My wife’s practical solution reminded me of the support our spouses provide. It’s really great being part of a team when guiding. I actually think that a great title for a travel guide in Israel would be “The Tour Guide’s Wife’s Guide to Israel”!

What one thing, sight or experience in Jerusalem can still enchant you after 20 years living there and why?

I think the late afternoon in the Kidron Valley with the extraordinarily beautiful light on the Mount of Olives, the sun reflecting off the cemetery-filled slopes, the glistening church facades against the eastern skies, with the Dome of the Rock both shining and shadowed.

One is reminded of one’s smallness in the multi-layered history of this great city.

What one sight should first time travellers to Israel see and why? What one dish should they taste, and why?

That view I spoke of earlier from the Mount of Olives, to see thousands of years of history spread out below you as well as to sense how Jerusalem sits on the edge of the desert.

I would have to say the traditional and classic meal of hummus – ground chickpeas, olive oil, garlic, tahini – with loads of pita bread, a fresh cut tomato and cucumber salad with herbs and fresh orange or pomegranate juice.

Every job has its ups and downs. Are there any aspects of your job that you don’t like or aren’t that keen on?

I really do enjoy the work but too much sun and large crowds don’t appeal to either me or to many of my clients – hence the search for the quieter, cooler and less crowded times of the day for tours.

As an experienced guide yourself, can you explain to our readers what the benefits of hiring a guide are?

I would sum up the major benefit of hiring a local guide as being a way to make it easier and quicker for a visitor to get oriented and gain some overall perspective of the city’s incredible timeline.

I think that today many travellers are looking for a combination of guided touring and self guided exploring in their travels, and we at the Israel Travel Company try to accommodate this new style of travel by suggesting an orientation tour upon arrival that can set up your whole visit and its options. A half day or two can introduce you to the city and include a kind of mobile itinerary planning. Having met our clients and gaining an understanding of their interests and travel style, our guides are then able to present the client with a list of self guided activities.

Many guides also have registered guide vehicles and we offer driver guide services all over the country or guide only services with our guide accompanying travellers for a day or more of their Israel travels.

Tell us something about Israel or Jerusalem that only a guide would know.

I have three early morning tours of Jerusalem booked this week so my secret is getting out!

An early morning guided half day tour is worth the value of a full day tour starting later in the morning and is offered at a lower cost.

In your view, what makes a good tour guide?

Knowledge is important but knowing when to be quiet is also an underrated talent. Certainly in the private tour guide field, a good guide is someone with the historical knowledge who can still make it fun for all participants and who is able to tune in to the clients and their interests, whether expressed openly or needing to be intuited. This applies whether with a client for a few hours or on full multi-day tours of Israel.

A Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, said it better than I can: “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” I think a good guide relates to this as well.

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