Saturday, April 28, 2012

Day 7 - Shabbat in Jerusalem

The morning started out with a buffet at the hotel from their restaurant, which immediately overlooks the Old City.  There is certainly something to be said for enjoying a cup of coffee while overlooking those walls containing the hopes of two thousand years worth of prayers.

Shabbat in Jerusalem embodies both what is right and what is challenging about life in Israel.  On the one hand, the streets are almost completely devoid of cars.  And when wandering, one can hear the melodies of Shabbat emanating from buildings several stories up.  And yet, the majority observing all are of the increasingly Orthodox variety. 

However there are pockets of Reform and Conservative Jews to be bound davening and cherishing our holy day.  With this in mind, I led a small group by a very circuitous route to Har El synagogue.  It was circuitous because I am still somewhat turned around.  However when we got there, we encountered a very Reform Israeli worship experience.  Not only was the service in Hebrew, but it was being led by an Israeli born Reform rabbi, and by my former roommate and now Cantor Evan Cohen.  We also witnessed a bat mitzvah.  The bat mitzvah did a marvelous job.  However I do wonder if it is a bit easier to teach b’nai mitzvah in Israel given that they already know Hebrew.  Her drash was also all in Hebrew, and like all b’nai mitzvah students, too fast.  But all in all, it was a wonderful morning.

Sadly we couldn’t stay as we had a walking tour of Jerusalem to get ready for.  So following a quick outfit change, we met Mike, and we were on our way.  After an explanation into the history of the Old City, we headed down through Jaffa gate .  We visited the Cardo, billed as the world’s oldest shopping arcade.  

We made our way through the Jewish quarter, where many of the buildings only date back to the 1970s (due to the destruction of many of the buildings during the Jordanian occupation).  

We visited the Kotel, the Western Wall, and dropped off notes from friends, family, and members of Har Sinai Congregation.  I did and I still do struggle with the Western Wall.  First off, it is only a retaining wall built up by Herod the Great to create a platform for his improved version of the Temple.   Secondly the wall represents a Judaism whose time has come and gone with the end of the sacrificial cult.  It is also a site strongly controlled by the ultra-Orthodox.  On this day, because it was Shabbat, there were no pictures that were supposed to be taken near the wall.  There were even several gorgeous young haredi ladies politely but sternly asking tourists to put their cameras away.  On the plus side, there is no schnorring on Shabbat, which is otherwise a constant ‘tradition’ to do at the wall.

Yet at the same time, the sight is, as Mike says, “historically significant and meaningful,” and for many, religiously significant.  Yet for me, I struggle, because when it comes down to it, I still find it to be like talking to a wall.  However, everyone in our group took the opportunity to spend some time at the kotel, and I genuinely hope and pray they each had a meaningful experience.

We then left the Kotel and headed over to the Christian Quarter.  We had every intention of going to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, yet there was a mass of people all attempting to enter it that would have put Machaneh Yehuda to shame.  Most of us did not try, but I think a few brave few may have made it in.  Following this, we navigated our way through the Arab Shuk and enjoyed all the sights of a multitude of chotchkees ready for purchase at just the right price.  Or a good bagel...

The day was hot, and the sun was strong, but it felt good to be navigating the winding streets of Jerusalem.  Having lots of water also helped.  But there was plenty available for purchase if you had the right number of shekels.

I admit I have been in the Old City on many occasions.  Sometimes I went to take in the sights, and sometimes I went to shop for something in particular.  Yet each time I visit the Old City, I am impressed by how most of the inhabitants: Arab, Christian, Jew, and Armenian seem to get along.  There are times where one can feel the tension, but it does give one at least a modicum of hope that if we can peacefully coexist in such a confined space, that maybe … just maybe … we can peacefully co-exist in a larger space.  However there was a t-shirt with people all over it laughing hysterically with the tag line being “peace process.”  So … maybe not.

As I write this, I am enjoying the cool air and dimming light while sitting next to the infinity pool of the hotel overlooking David’s citadel near the entrance of Jaffa Gate.  And in this calm, I do feel that anything is possible.   Well except maybe the likelihood of me ever learning how to do the breaststroke.  But thankfully the summer Olympics are a long way off … wait they’re when?  Never mind. 

Shabbat Shalom

Day 6 – Driving the Rift

We started out the day with a visit to an ancient synagogue on the outskirts of Tiberius.  The synagogue happens to be located to the hottest hot springs in Israel.  According to legend, the source of these local hot-springs are little demons who were condemned to the depths by King Solomon, forced to heat up the water.  However the people were afraid that when the demons found out Solomon was dead, they would rise up and attack humanity.  To solve this, they made the demons deaf, so they would never learn the news of Solomon’s death.  Thankfully WiFi service around Tiberius isn’t great, so they are unlikely to find out the news from the Internet either.

Vies from my Room
One of the amazing elements of this synagogue is its mosaic floor.  This floor is one of the most elaborate in all of Israel.  However what is really fascinating about it is the use of a zodiac.  Clearly the people just walked over it, which meant it was not an object of reverence.  But its presence also indicates the pervasiveness of Hellenism in the Jewish world. 


We then headed off on a drive through the rift valley towards Jerusalem.  We saw the beginnings of the security fence.  We saw the borders with Jordan.  We encountered camels at a local rest stop, which several of our fellow travelers actually rode.  And we saw flocks of goats tended to by the increasingly less nomadic Bedouins. 


And then through a tunnel, and behold, the wonders of Jerusalem.  As Mike, our guide indicated, one always goes up (alah) to Jerusalem.  To celebrate the moment, we gathered together at Mount Scopus to recite a schecheyanu.  We also took many pictures, though we did manage to avoid the local chotchkee seller.

Jerusalem was my home for nearly one full year, so I tend to remember it, what little I do, on a micro scale.  I remember the markolet where I would pick up some noshes on my way home.  I remember the grocery store that I would go to rather than the shuk, because I am not incredibly fond of crowds.  I remember walking past the Prime Minister’s House everyday on my way to class.  Strangely enough, it’s the same Prime Minister. 

We then dropped the group off at Macheneh Yehuda the very popular shuk (market) in New Jerusalem.  The first order of business was to get some falafel in lafa which is more like a wrap, and in my opinion, much tastier than pita.  And then we took in the sites, sounds, and smells.  It seemed like everyone was there in preparation for Shabbat.  Ultra-Orthodox, ‘secular’ Israelis, however the majority of people appeared to be tourists.  However since my last time in Israel, an increasing number of tourists appear to be from non-English speaking countries.  I have heard several Spanish dialects along with German and at least one sassy Aussie.

Many of us purchased items for our hosts later that evening.  And all were impressed by the solid mass of humanity that were huddled in together in pursuit of either really tasty vegetables or just the right inappropriate t-shirt.  I was reminded equally why I like Machaneh Yehuda so much, and also why I would go there so little. 

We then got cleaned up at the hotel, and headed off with our guest driver to Birkat Shalom, a reform congregation, located in Kibbutz Gezer on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

There we were joined by Rabbi Miri Gold, her husband, members of the Kibbutz, and two HUC Rabbinic interns.  These interns and Rabbi Gold led us in a fun, lively, and in my opinion, almost camp like service.  I mean that in the highest compliment, for I hold camp services (as opposed to campy services) deep in my heart.

We then joined with various families for wonderful meals and significant conversations relating to life for liberal Jews in Israel.  Needless to say, it is not easy for anyone, and especially for those trying to live a liberal Jewish life on a kibbutz.  Many are ex-pats, though there were a good number of Israelis as well.

I think it was eye opening for many on the trip, and it was a great way to kabbalat Shabbat, to welcome in the Sabbath.  We had so much fun, that it took an extra half hour just to convince everyone to get on the bus.  Hopefully there were connections made that will last well beyond this trip.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Day 5 Part II – Tzfat and the Golan

Our day continued with a drive up to the beautiful and mystical city of Tzefat.  Though Tzefat (Safed) may have some biblical origins, it did not really become a significant city for Jews until the rise of Kabbalah along with the presence of Isaac Luria (Ari).

Kabbalah came to Tzefat following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 through a some what circuitous route.  However once it became present in Tzefat, we saw the rise of traditions like Lecha Dodi – the welcoming in of the Sabbath bride.

 The group toured a local Ashkenazic Synagogue before setting out on that most important of Jewish tourist activities: shopping.  Tzefat also houses a tremendously vibrant Artist colony of painters, glass blowers, and other artisans all willing to accept cash, credit, and first born children. 

Ari Synagogue in Tzefat
Learning about Kabbalah from Mike ... and later from me
The were many of the usual artist offerings including paintings filled in with micro-print Hebrew, tallitot, yarlmulkes, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, and so much more.  However, one of the highlights was the presentation by a local glassblower and artist Sheva Chayya.  Sheva came to Israel from Colorado after studying art at Princeton.  Sheva grew up nominally Jewish, and it was only through first a high school Israel trip and subsequent trips that she began to pursue the idea of making Israel her home.  Sheva radiates warmth and genuine affection for Israel and her rediscovered connection to her Jewish roots (by becoming ba'al yeshivah).  This was brought about by a group known as Aish HaTorah, a group that I have strong feelings about, that I will share on another blog on another day.  But lets just say that Sheva’s demonstration led to many successful sales.  Both she and many on our group left as happy campers.

Sheva Chayya
After leaving our hard earned money, we grabbed a not so quick bite along the way, as many restaurants were closed due to Yom Ha’atzma’ut.  Even the falafel stand was closed!  Oy!

Israeli restaurants are based on the European model, meaning, they want you to take your time.  This means the waiters will get to you when they are ready, not necessarily when you are ready.  And if you are in a hurry … well … thankfully we were only a few minutes late to our scheduled date.  All in all, it could have been worse.

On the eastern side of the Jordan we were greeted by a group of jeeps and guides.  After cramming in twenty-people into four jeeps, we very bumpily made our way to across the ‘mighty’ Jordan in to the middle Golan.  Many were quite impressed to get a sense of the modern history of the Golan.  This too is another area I have strong feelings about.  Basically, given what is currently going on in Syria, with Syrians killing Syrians, I have no idea how anyone can reasonably expect them to honor any peace agreement with the Israelis, let alone one that would justify the giving up of the Golan.  For giving up the Golan would result not just in security challenges for Israel, but also in water challenges.  Syria already tried once to cut off the Jordan River, whose to say she won’t try again.

(again no photos, I didn't want to risk the camera in all of the jostling)

Following our informative and very bumpy tour (as our guide called it ‘jeep massages’) we headed back quite weary and dusty to the hotel.  I for one was quite excited because I was heading out to dinner with some of my wife’s cousins, several of whom I had never met…

Israel Day 5 Part I – The Cow Patties of Arbel

The day started out so innocently enough.  A brief breakfast followed by a bus ride to a local hiking spot: The Cliffs of Arbel.  Now the use of the cliffs of Arbel date back to at least Roman times, where the Jewish community of Arbel attempted to hide from King Herod during his ‘conquest’ of Israel.  However Herod simply lowered his men in baskets down to the caves where the uprising was quickly quelled.

So fast forward a little over two thousand years when nine of us decided to take on these cliffs.  It is actually a well marked trail which does require some dexterity and exertion.  However what we were not prepared for was what was waiting for us all along the trail: cow patties.  Apparently, ever since the conquest of Arbel … ok so much more recently, farmers have given the use of the land over to their herds.  So as we were busily climbing up and down these cliffs and wandering around in the caves, we discovered that the cows were equally if not more proficient at the same task.  It was a trifle humbling to say the least.

But truth be told, it was a great way to start the morning.  Many jokes were shared, and there were only a few slips along the way.  Thankfully everyone came out unscathed and happier for having partaken of this experience.

It was one of those, when in Israel kind of excursions.  And I for one am glad I woke up early to join in the fun.  Plus we discovered that the caves are more spacious with better lighting than many Manhattan apartments.  Now all they need is a Starbucks at the top of Arbel, and all will be right with the world.

This is the cliff face looking up - I borrowed this picture from the web as
I did not want to risk losing my camera

Israel Day 4 - Moving up the Coast

As I sit here enjoying the gorgeous view from my balcony of the Galilee, I am pondering all sites we took in before arriving at our final destination for the day:

Our day started off with a visit to Caesarea, the ancient Jewish-Roman port created by King Herod to honor his patron Augustus Caesar.  The site was fascinating as were the views.  But what struck me is that the local Israelis were busily preparing for their upcoming Yom Ha’atzmau’t (Independence Day) Celebration.  So the Roman theater, usually of just stone was also filled with very modern sound equipment in preparation for a concert later that day. 

As I am coming to understand, Israel has become increasingly developed over the past fourteen years, and Caesarea was no exception.  There was now a modern theater with a cinematic presentation to help us understand the strata and history of this site from Roman times through the crusades.  With so many layers of construction and destruction, the movie was immensely helpful.  Of course, one can now understand why the Roman rulers chose this as their central place of government over Judea instead of Jerusalem.  The views alone, let alone the completely Hellenstic nature of the city must of had tremendous appeal.
Erica, Michael, Howard and Peggy
Stewart and Nadine
Alex and Nancy
Following this we scaled up the coast heading to Haifa and its scenic overlook right at the top of the B’hai Gardens.  The view of Haifa bay is a sight to behold.  One can see there the entire bay from Rambam Hospital out to the ships at sea.  We were joined by other tourist groups including a Catholic one from Argentina.  Israel really is becoming a destination for tour groups from through out the entire world. 

The Bahai Gardens
But again, I was struck by all of the development, and it’s unfortunate side effect: traffic.  There are certainly many more cars in Israel today as well.  Part of the reason for the traffic was Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, but also, there are just more cars.  I imagine this is due to Israel’s ever growing economy and sense of prosperity.  But with prosperity, unfortunately also comes congestion.  One hopes they do turn to the use of electric cars, as is already in the works.  And maybe they can also get a few of these cars off the road, but now that the genie is out of the bottle, I fear congestion is only going to get worse. 

This development caused us to be late to our very important date.  Thankfully our hosts were very understanding as we had lunch at a Druze family home.  The Druze are a religion that formed as somewhat of an offshoot from Islam around the year 1000 C.E.  The Druze, like the B’hai in some ways, are a very pluralistic community teaching the message of oneness.  These Druze are very proudly Israeli and welcome in many tourists throughout the year with a wonderful home cooked meal.  We all enjoyed and sampled just about everything there was to try.  The home baked varieties of pita were particularly impressive.  We left full of knowledge about the Druze and full of belly.

Our Druze Host
We then had a change in itinerary due to our tardiness to the Druze community.  On our way to Tiberius we stopped by the catacombs in Beit Shearim.  These catacombs were once home to such notables as Judah HaNasi, the redactor and editor of the Mishnah.  This was a site I do not recall visiting during my previous time in Israel, and I was immensely impressed by the scope of these ancient burial chambers built in a cave.  The sarcophagus weighing over four tons were impressive to say the least.  One of my favorite parts is the Menorah carved right into the wall of the catacombs.

One of the inscriptions which reads "Good luck in your resurrection"
We then concluded our travels with the oldest Zionist cemetery of Kibbutz Kinneret.  There we listened to the words of Rachel the Poet.  Serenity was easy to find both in her words and in the setting.

Our Guide Mike at the tomb of Rachel the Poetess
After another wonderful buffet dinner at the hotel because many restaurants are closed for Yom HaZikaron, a group of us headed out to enjoy Yom Ha’atzma’ut in Tiberius.  Though nowhere near as crazy as my time in Jerusalem on Ben Yehuda, it was nonetheless a fun evening.  There were fireworks, cheap chathkes, sheleg (white foam spray), and abundant laughter to be found. 

Israelis, and the many tourists, were clearly all in the mood to celebrate Israel’s 64 years.  One of the pleasant surprises was when we came back to the hotel to find a singer in the bar singing many classic tunes while some of the locals were up dancing in circles.  We Americans may know how to bar-b-que on the 4th of July, but Israelis still truly understand the meaning of what it means to be a free and independent people. 

Chag Sameach

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Day Three - Israel's Beginnings

The third day began bright and early.  For some it was their first exposure to a true Israeli breakfast.  Let’s just say even sampling a little here and a little there would keep one going until dinner … the next day.

Then we were off and running.  The first stop was Independence Hall.  For those of you not familiar, Independence Hall is not some grand location surrounded by gardens and kitchy tourist traps.  Instead it was the former home of Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor and one of the founders of Tel Aviv.  He dedicated his home to be an art museum, which it was for a period of time.  However given the hurried nature of the rush to Independence with Jerusalem under siege, his former home became the place where David Ben-Gurion declared independence on May 14, 1948 a mere eight hours before the end of the British Mandate.  The reason why it was declared at that time was because it was a Friday afternoon, and they did not want to declare an independent Jewish state on Shabbat, and they sure were not going to wait until Sunday to do it.

The view of Theodore Herzl in Independence Hall
The guide told several wonderful anecdotes to lengthy to mention in this blog, but if you have a chance, take the tour. 

We then went to Yaffo and visited the ancient port city.  The views were amazing.  Of course there was also shopping to be had.  And though Yaffo and Tel Aviv are now one municipality, with one mayor, they are still in many ways, worlds apart.

Our tour Guide Mike teaching us about Yaffo 
Napoleon was here
View of Tel Aviv from Yaffo
We continued on to Nachalat Binyamin and took in the sites and sounds of local artists who were holding their street fair.  Some of us left a little lighter in the wallet, and everyone enjoyed taking in all the arts and crafts our eyes could behold.

But in many ways the day, which is erev Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, was really dedicated to the founding of Israel.  We started with Independence Hall, but then moved onto the Ayalon Institute. 

Sign at the Entrance to Ayalon Institute 
The Munitions Factory Floor in the Basement of a Bakery
The Ayalon Institute was a munitions factory located near Rehovot.  What was particular fascinating about it was that it was built under a bakery during the British mandate when manufacturing munitions could be a capital offense.  The planning and chutzpah it took to run this factory is simply astounding.  What is even more remarkable is that this illegal factory was able to produce nearly 2.5 million bullets before the end of the mandate all while right under the watchful eye of both the British and the kibbutz residents who had no idea what was going on in the ground right beneath them.  These bullets were vital to the initial war effort, so much so, that the factory churned out another 2.5 million of them over the next year during the war for Independence.

Lastly we concluded our tour day with the recent Beit Hapalmach Museum in Tel Aviv.  This museum is dedicated to the 1,000 plus members of the strike arm of the Haganah (Israel’s early military) who died in defense of the burgeoning state.  The tour takes a page from the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles in that it is a self guided tour with video displays that captured our imaginations and really made us feel a part of the lives of those young men and women who gave so willingly of themselves.  It was a truly powerful experience to behold.

Waiting for the Tour of Beit HaPalmach
Then in the evening, we all stepped outside from dinner to go out into the beautiful air to hear the sirens at 8pm to commemorating those who have fallen in defense of Israel.  Almost all life stopped in Tel Aviv for that one minute.  It was both powerful and sublime.  I am so glad those with me had an opportunity to witness the awesome nature of Yom HaZikaron in Israel.

Tomorrow our journey continues ever onward as we are heading up north.

Israel Day Two-Ish

The second day of our trip in Israel really blended into day one.  With all of the travel, and the gaining of seven hours, its really hard to sort of keep track of the first two days.  What I can say is that it did end, as all Jewish journeys should end and begin with, which of course, is with a meal.

We gathered together at Maganda Restaurant in Tel Aviv.  Maganda is a Yemenite family restaurant filled with pictures of Yemenite Jews and Jewish culture in Yemen, which sadly today no longer exists.  The last group of Yemenite Jews immigrated to Israel between June of 1949 and September of 1950 in what was then termed ‘Operation Magic Carpet.’ 

We sat down at several tables to enjoy what we thought was a light fare of falafel, hummus, babaganoush, tabouleh, egg plant salads, and something I simply called “yellow dip.”  Pita was provided in copious amounts to help take in all of the tasty delights.  Of course, what we didn’t realize was that the dinner was a marathon, not a sprint.  Several more courses followed including chicken and beef shish kebabs, and we wrapped up with desserts and Turkish coffee.

No one left hungry.  It was a wonderful day to end all of our cross Atlantic travels.  And we all headed off to bed.  Thankfully everyone got a full night’s rest, by which, the majority woke up every hour.  But at least we all had happy tummys.