Get To Know Jerusalem Guide Alex Stein

With a first-class honours degree in History from the University of Manchester, and an M.Phil in International Relations from the University of Cambridge, transplanted Londoner, avid reader and hip-hop enthusiast Alex Stein has become a very popular (and knowledgeable) tour guide in Jerusalem.
Did you have a job/career before tour guide?  What brought you from London to Jerusalem?

I moved to Israel because I fell in love with the country growing up, and I also felt it would be the most interesting and exciting place I could live. I was extremely active in my local Jewish youth movement, and I frequently visited Israel, including a year in Jerusalem before and after university. I’ve been living here for nine years, and I think it’s one of the most fascinating, varied, and stimulating countries in the world. Since arriving, I’ve worked with NGOs and as a freelance writer and translator, but I’ve been a tour guide since 2014.

How did you make the transition to becoming a tour guide?

In Israel, there is a very intensive two-year course to become a tour guide, which culminates in a written and oral exam. The course includes 80 day-trips around the country, and six hours of lectures a week, on anything from history to geology to religion. I even met my wife on the course – she was one of the examiners on my midterm oral exam! Luckily she was impressed….

What does a typical work day look like for you?

A typical workday for me is atypical. If I’m guiding in Jerusalem then I normally walk to the Old City to meet my tourists, and from there we explore everything on foot; if I’m guiding outside of Jerusalem then I’ll be with a driver for the day. And of course, there’s lots of preparation work – doing research for tours, responding to emails, and keeping my website updated.

Is there something you can describe that depicts contemporary Israeli life to you?

I love having a beer at a bar in the Machaneh Yehudah market on a late Thursday afternoon. Over the last few years, the Machaneh Yehudah market has turned into Jerusalem’s favourite nighttime hangout, but it’s still a working market, and it’s a great place to see all Jerusalemites – Jews and Arabs, religious and secular – do their shopping. There’s a tremendous warmth and energy to the place, and having a drink while watching everyone get ready for the weekend is always a pleasure

How would you describe your style as a guide?

Passionate about the places I’m guiding, interactive and fun! I don’t like guides who recite a series of facts. I love talking about history and contemporary life in Israel, and helping people understand all the complicated debates which aren’t always easy for outsiders to follow. I also strive to encourage my tourists to think for themselves about what they’re seeing, while always giving them the information and context they need to understand everything.

What is the best part of your job?

Building connections with such a variety of people and going to such a variety of places. I love the fact that everyone reacts differently to Israel, and I love engaging with people’s perceptions and helping them to enjoy and understand everything they’re seeing.

What’s the most bizarre experience or odd request from a client you’ve had on a guided tour?

When they hear I like hip-hop, some clients ask if I can rap a part of the tour. Unfortunately I’m not as good at rapping as I am at guiding!

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?

If I’ve got a lot of tours of the Old City, then it often means eating hummus for lunch everyday! And I love hummus, but eating it every day can get repetitive.

As an avid reader, what books are on your nightstand (or e-reader) right now?

I’ve just read The Man Who Loved Dogs, an incredible novel about the Trotsky assassination, and I’m about to start 1929, a book by historian Hillel Cohen about an under-examined year in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What hip hop artists are currently in heavy rotation on your music devices?

The new D.I.T.C, Roots Manuva, Louis Logic, and Cannibal Ox!

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

The main reason to hire a guide is that s/he will show you things you wouldn’t see otherwise. In the Old City of Jerusalem, for example, I know a lot of great places that aren’t mentioned in guide books, and I also offer a depth of knowledge that you can’t get from the Lonely Planet.

What is the most awesome local specialty food or drink that all visitors to your city must try?

Apart from hummus, I would recommend makloubeh. It’s an Arab speciality with lots of varieties; the one I prefer has rice and vegetables cooked in a pot. I know a great place in Jerusalem which serves it, although you have to go at the right time!

Tell us something about your area/activity that only a guide would know.

I know some great underground caverns and cisterns in the Old City. People are really surprised to find them in the middle of such a busy place, and it’s amazing how quiet they can be. To find out where they are, though, you’ll need to hire me as a guide!

In your view, what makes a good tour guide?

Knowing as much as possible and saying as little as possible, as compellingly and entertainingly as possible.

And finally, have you got any tips for people who are interested in booking a guide like yourself, but aren’t too sure what to look for?

I think sometimes people are put off by the idea of a tour-guide, so I try as much as possible to challenge conceptions of what a tour-guide is there for. As I said earlier, it’s not about reciting the same spiel over and over again; it’s about engaging with the clients and making sure that their experience will be unique and transformative.

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