Holy Land Pilgrimage with Gila



PSALM 126:1


About Gila Yudkin

  • What was it like going back to work after a two-year shut-down due to the covid pandemic?
Exhilarating!!  My first tour, in January 2022, was for me as adventuresome and challenging as traveling solo abroad.  I never knew what would happen from one minute to the next.  Which site would be open, which would be closed; whether any site would be crowded. (None were!)  My group of 28 participants from Ohio was the largest group of pilgrims in the country at that time.  By far!

Gila outside the Caesarea theater by the huge sculptured foot

Gila reading the Bible by the House of Simon the Tanner as the sun is setting

Photo: Julie Wise on tour with Gila Jan '22 Photo: Jim Love on tour with Gila Jan '22

Gila outside the Caesarea theater guiding her first group after a two-year break

Gila reading the Bible by the House of Simon the Tanner as the sun is setting

We were greeted with astonishment and glee by the locals  We were the only group up on the Temple Mount.  The only group visiting the tomb at the Holy Sepulcher church where my 2019 groups had spent one to two hours waiting in line.  At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem I was able to speak in the grotto, for the first time in more than three decades.  We had the church in Shepherds Fields all to ourselves and sang not one, but three Christmas carols, enjoying the resounding echoes.
My tour leader, Dr. Jim Colledge, his fifth time with me, was able to teach as much as he wanted wherever he desired without any interference.  There was no rush.  No jostling.  With plenty of time for silent prayer and contemplation.  It was simply a thrilling holy land experience!
  • Why did you become a guide?
The first couple of years after I came to Israel from Connecticut, I taught English in a kibbutz school in the Beit Shean Valley.  During school vacations I would go to the Sinai on 8-day trips organized by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Every trip we would climb a different mountain reputed to be “the” Mount Sinai from which Moses descended with the Ten Commandments.  One trip was particularly memorable – we walked for three days straight, with camels carrying our food and sleeping bags.

I fell in love with the Sinai – with its umbrella-shaped acacia trees and sudden oases, the Beduin with their vibrant folklore, the ragged granite mountains and so many theories about where the Israelites actually did their 40-year wandering.  Enthralled by all the stories and adventure, I fell in love with every guide I ever had – and I wanted to be just like them.  So I applied to become a guide myself.

It's Gila Yudkin on tour

Photo:  Peter Giordano on tour with Gila in the 1990s

It's Gila on tour

Ironically, exactly one month after I began the guide course, Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, unexpectedly came to address the Israeli Knesset (Parliament), which set in motion the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.  Despite three decades of guiding experience throughout Israel, I have never guided the Sinai!

But during the guide course, I discovered the rest of the country.  South of Bethlehem we swam through a grotto of springs channeled by Herod the Great to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  By Mount Sodom, on the shores of the Dead Sea, we crawled through a flour cave in total darkness.  In the Galilee, we climbed down the face of the Arbel cliff before there were ropes to hold on to (that was scary!) and
we hiked every major dry river canyon between Dan and Beersheba.
  • What is your favorite site today?
Without a doubt -- Tel Dan, in northern Israel.  Guiding biblical sites is today my passion.  And there are so many biblical passages that can be discussed and illustrated at Dan.  As we walk along the roaring Dan springs, we make a detour to reach the altar to the Golden Calf, King Jereboam’s religious shrine established to rival Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.  The archeologist Abraham Biran was amazed when he realized that this altar – to the golden calf we think – was built with three layers of dressed stone followed by a layer of cedar wood, apparently to cushion against earthquakes – exactly the description of the building of Solomon’s Temple in First Kings 7.

As we sit on the 8th century BC steps leading to the high altar and ponder the First Kings chapter 12 story, discussion inevitably leads to the issue of whether we have embraced the worship of modern-day idols in our own lives.


ItsGila stepping out of Dan's 18th century BC mud-brick gate

Photo:  A. Pilgrim

It's Gila in front of Dan's 18th century BC mud-brick gate

By the triple-arched 18th century BC mud-brick gate, we read about Abram’s chase after his nephew Lot, the world’s first recorded hostage.  Archeologist Abraham Biran has said that he imagined the king of Dan (or Laish as it was called by the Canaanites) stepping right out of this gate to greet Abraham!

And at the 9th century BC city gate complete with the king’s “throne-seat” we recall how David mourned his rebellious son Absalom, until he took his “seat by the city gate.”  And there are a lot more Bible stories connected to Dan!


BOOK GILA for a customized private tour

  • Who’s your favorite Bible character?
David, the shepherd, musician, warrior, outlaw, and king!  I once planned and guided a tour in the Footsteps of David.  Was it ever great.  Original, too.  We sat below Gath, Goliath’s home town, and talked about David burying his sword before going into the city, pretending to be insane.  It could have been right below the picnic benches where we were sitting.  That was a thrilling thought.

It’s great fun to reenact “David versus Goliath” in the Valley of Elah, where the battle actually took place.  I narrate the story from First Samuel 17 while the biggest fellow in our group plays Goliath and a small redhead or a kid with freckles plays David the Bethlehemite.  I even bring a slingshot along which “David” gets to take home as a souvenir.
  • What was your first dangerous dilemma as a guide?
It happened on July 26.1983 while I was guiding a group of students at Sebaste/Samaria.  It will be a chapter in my upcoming book, Holy Land Haunts:  Forty Years of Guiding Adventures.  Read the chapter Spooked in Sebaste.
  • What’s your favorite site in Jerusalem?
The Temple Mount!  I love imagining David, Solomon, Jesus, the money-changers, Abraham, Isaac, and even Mohammed and his whimsical horse, all on the Temple Mount.  Not all at the same time, though!  The spaciousness of the huge Temple Mount courtyard and the symmetry of the Dome of the Rock topped by all that dazzling gold provoke my photographer's eye.  I truly believe that the Temple Mount lies at the center of the universe and thus charged with emotion for people of all faiths.  The most challenging tours of my entire career have been when I have taken inter-faith groups of Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy up on the Temple Mount.
I have just released a one-hour audio tour where I recorded my favorite stories about all the real and legendary characters connected to this magnificent site.

One of my favorite photos, view of the Dome of the Rock on Mount Moriah

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

I love to visit and photograph Mount Moriah / the Temple Mount

  • What was the biggest surprise you arranged for a group?

Church of the Holy Sepulcher entrance

By pulling many strings, I once managed to arrange a 7:00 a.m. mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for a group of 99 American pilgrims, of which I was chief guide.  It was difficult, for there is a very strictly enforced “Status Quo” agreement of several centuries which dictates which denominations can celebrate mass at what hours in which chapels.

My group of 99 pilgrims had the extraordinary privilege of celebrating mass just outside the Tomb itself. Unexpectedly, as the mass ended, the organist, whom I had been schmoozing with earlier, burst into a glorious rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.”  There wasn’t a dry eye

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

by the Tomb.  Afterwards, every single

Entrance, Church of the Holy Sepulcher

member of the tour hugged me for that

Coming to Jerusalem soon?  Are you coming from very far away and want every minute to matter?  Would you like to experience both the authentic and the traditional sites, yet you are most interested in finding the venues where you can quietly be transported back in your imagination to the time of Jesus?  David?  Abraham?

"Explore Jerusalem's Soul" with Gila's Unorthodox Guide comes to via email as a PDF (Adobe Acrobat) 46-page guide giving you the top ten places to meditate on the Bible, visit lesser known churches, get a roof-top view and sample Middle Eastern food.  More...

  • What was your most embarrassing moment on tour?
Tripping over a knee-high pillar in the courtyard of the church commemorating the Feeding of the 5,000, I fell on my face in front of 50 Malaysian pilgrims.  Whoa – that was a humbling experience.  My nose was broken in three places and I required 17 stitches on my face.

But, after only five days, when the cast was taken off, I greeted my next tour at the airport, shiners and all.  The group joked that I looked like a cat with whiskers, for some of the stitches were sticking out above my upper lip.  It was hard for me to sing, and that was one of the few tours that I waited till the very end to teach “Hava Nagila,” my groups’ favorite Israeli folksong. 
  • What was your most difficult tour?
When Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, I was with a group in the Galilee.  I had gone to bed early and was only half listening to the TV, while I was getting dressed the next morning.  When I heard that the prime minister was dead, I screamed and dropped on the bed in disbelief.  That day was so hard – I insisted on carrying out our planned itinerary, but my tour leader, Dr. Randall Lolley, senior pastor at the First Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, asked that we stop somewhere along the way to watch the funeral broadcast.  So I called a kibbutz and asked permission for our group of 44 pilgrims to stop by their clubroom, where they had a TV and a large enough space for everyone to sit.

Dr. Lolley asked that we watch it in the Hebrew original, (not the CNN translation) so that we all would “experience” the funeral.  We were with kibbutz members, and I stood to translate for the group.  When Rabin’s granddaughter Noa gave her eulogy, it was so beautiful that I broke down in the middle of her speech.

We arrived in Jerusalem the following afternoon and after depositing the group in their hotel, the Palestinian driver and I bought a wreath at a florist shop in East Jerusalem. The next day we all visited Yitzhak Rabin’s grave on Mount Herzl.

Two years later to the day, I sent Dr. Lolley a postcard, saying that I had just visited the grave. Here’s what he wrote me in response,

"Thanks for thinking of us as you visited Mr. Rabin's grave site on the second anniversary of his death.  We will NEVER forget your poise, pain, and confidence in the peace process which shined through your grief.  We all mourn his death and hope every day that the principles for which he worked (and even died) will prevail.”

Shalom Haver bumper sticker

Above, a bumper sticker in Hebrew which reads, “Shalom Haver,” meaning “Goodbye, my friend.”  President Bill Clinton concluded his eulogy for Prime Minister Rabin with these Hebrew words which touched the heart of every Israeli.  Soon afterwards a majority of cars in Israel displayed the sticker.  I sent one to Dr. Lolley, and he put it on his car and drove around Greensboro, North Carolina.
  • Can you give us an example of a historical tale you relish telling on the bus?
Anyone who has been on my bus knows my favorite story -- Cleopatra.  I find her absolutely fascinating.  Cleopatra’s contemporaries claim her allure was in her charm, not her beauty.  In fact, there’s a coin with her portrait on it in the British Museum which shows her with a beak nose!  One historian says the essence of her nature was a “combination of female charm and a masculine brain, both bent on the pursuit of power.”

Her story is connected to a number of sites on our pilgrimage route – Caesarea, Masada, Ein Gedi, and Jericho.  She delighted in exotic perfume, especially balsam grown in Jericho and Ein Gedi.  On her birthday, Mark Antony surprised her with the deed to the balsam plantations.  Herod the Great was definitely not a happy camper when he heard about this!

ItsGila at the guard station at the entrance to Masada

Photo: A. Pilgrim

Entrance to Masada from the Snake Path

In the guardroom at the entrance to Masada, above, I’m telling the group why
Herod went to all the trouble to build this fort in the Judean Wilderness.

Remember that this is the same Herod, mentioned in the gospel of Matthew, as responsible for the death of the infants in Bethlehem.  He, of all people, was so afraid of Cleopatra that he built the fortress of Masada as a refuge in case she ever succeeded in fomenting a rebellion against his rule.

  • Who's your favorite holy land humorist?
Mark Twain!!  His dispatches to New York and San Francisco newspapers chronicling his European and Holy Land misadventures are hilarious.  Many of them poked fun at his fellow travelers, the hapless locals and particularly his loquacious guides who never shut up!  I had a blast writing a tongue and cheek Mark Twain's Tips for Holy Land Pilgrims

Very recently while researching a highlight on the witch of En Dor, I discovered that Mark Twain had actually visited En Dor and had haggled with a Beduin over what he calls a curious, ancient pipe which was supposedly smoked by the sorceress at the séance with Saul!  The village of En Dor has subsequently disappeared, as have all other relics belonging to the infamous witch.

  • What new species did you introduce to the landscape of the Holy City?
I was the first to bring a Smart Passion city flame to Jerusalem.  Her name is Bumble (as in bee).  In Hebrew we call her d'vorah.

Gila driving Jerusalem's first Smart Passion City Flame

Photo:  Barbara Kreiger

Gila driving Jerusalem's first Smart Passion City Flame!

  • What’s your favorite music?
Blues and gospel.  I love singing spirituals on bus rides.  I surprise my groups with funny stanzas they have never heard for “Go Down Moses” or “Down by the Riverside.”  I connect songs with places they didn’t know the songs were about. Everyone knows “Joshua Fit the Battle” goes with Jericho, but do they know “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is also connected to Jericho?  I even teach Hebrew songs, and we establish a repertoire of Israeli hits.
  • What’s the most unusual praise you ever received?
This took place in a period when groups were being pestered by hawkers and pickpockets.  The thieves knew that if they stole from anyone in my group, I would report them.  (Wallets picked out of pockets of my pilgrims were nearly always returned.)  A big, husky guy on tour with me told the group, “If I were President of the United States, I would want Gila to be my BODYGUARD!”
  • What are your hobbies?
Travel and more travel.  Especially safaris.  I love observing the drama between the animals in the bush.  My first safari was in 1995 -- to Kenya -- where I hoped to see a leopard.  Nope.  FINALLY in Zambia in October 2021. 

Finally spotting a leopard not in En Gedi but in Zambia

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Finally but finally spotted a leopard in 2021, but not in En Gedi!  In Zambia

When I first started to guide there were actually leopards roaming the Judean Desert in the area of En Gedi.  We were forbidden to hike with less than eight people.  But I never saw one.  It's my wish that leopards would return to the holy land, to the area where David once tended his father's flocks of sheep.
  • What’s your hope for Jerusalem?

Jerusalem as seen from the Mount of Olives, the Church of Dominus Flevit

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

View of Jerusalem as seen from Dominus Flevit on the Mount of Olives

That Zechariah’s prophecy (chapter 14) promising the eternal security of Jerusalem will be fulfilled in my day.  And I wonder where I’ll be and with which group when the following comes to pass:  “On that day His feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward.”
Are you considering leading a tour to the Holy Land?  Everything you would want to know -- from A to Z so your tour will be a rave success!
Read what Tour Leaders say about Gila.
Gila's pilgrims often joke that they are on safari with Gila as she shows them herds of seemingly wild camels, families of ibex from grandpa with ferocious horns to babies taking their first steps to sun-bathing rock rabbits (or conies) by the shores of the Sea of Galilee or on the cliffs of Caesarea Philippi.




Copyright © 2005-2024 Gila Yudkin. All rights reserved.
Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin