Excursions

Israel 2017–Day 17

Friday, May 26th, 2017

The knowledge that we’ll be getting up at 3:30 in the morning to go to the airport and we’ll be enroute home for 30 hours makes this last day especially precious.

We enter the Old City through the Muslim quarter at the Damascus gate, where there’s been a suicide attack on soldiers a few days ago, also mindful of the recent terrible incident in Manchester England.

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Today is Friday, and crowds are already making their way to the noon worship at the Dome of the Rock inside the Temple Mount or Haram Esh Sharif.

Without a destination in mind, we turn left at the Via Dolorosa and head for the Ecce homo arch, the remainder of a gateway erected by the Emperor Hadrian in 134 CE, who was rebuilding the City after a second Jewish rebellion against the Romans, following the one in 70 CE that had led to its destruction by Titus. This is alleged to be the place that Pilate imprisoned Jesus and then presented him to the crowd.

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We enter a small doorway to the left which leads to a large complex managed by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion.  A person at a desk says that we can see the Basilica before Mass begins in a few minutes.  Though relatively small and built in the 19th century, I’m entranced by its harmony of half circles and straight lines, its proportions, colors, and textures, its pairing of the geometrical cross in the luminescent green apse with the ruins of an ancient arched wall below.

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We return to the desk and learn that this place also includes an underground archaeological site.  A slick set of stone stairs leads down to an opening 40 feet deep at the bottom of which is the entry of an aqueduct built by the Hasmoneans in the second century BCE bringing water that was stored in a vast cistern called the Struthion Pool.

Opening out from the staircase is an endless expanse of vaulted chambers arising from a stone floor which was added by Hadrian to cover the pool and turn it into a open air plaza, known as the Lithostrotos, which was later covered by the chambers.

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We could stay in this place for hours exploring its gardens, guest accommodations, and rooftop observation platform, but we need to keep moving.  Passing a group African Christian pilgrims going the opposite direction, we head for the Lion’s Gate at the end of this street through which crowds of Muslim worshipers are heading for the Dome of the Rock.

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Suddenly to the right an archway opens with a spectacular view of the Dome, and I beg the soldiers on duty for the chance to just take a look and a picture, which they grant.

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We head back the way we came, hearing the call to worship and look for a place for lunch that’s not one of the crowded noisy cafes along the main street, El Wad.  Outside of a gateway to the dazzling courtyard of an Armenian church, there’s a menu.

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We walk inside and are seated in a shady corner with all-around views of this peaceful complex and enjoy a memorable meal of salads, grilled lamb and chicken, eggplant, humous and something like pirogis.

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Reentering the street, we encounter the crowds leaving the Haram Esh Sharif. To elude them we make a quick right turn heading back to the Christian quarter and stop for a half hour of Buddhist meditation in the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer.  Then it’s back into the David street Market where Jan hones in on the spice merchant and hat seller we saw yesterday to shop for our gourmet cooking son and daughter-in-law, for inexpensive earings and for a hard bargained little Bedouin hat.

As we emerge into daylight at Jaffa gate, I cant bring myself to leave yet.  We turn left toward the Armenian quarter and are denied entry into an enticing garden. A small entrance opens again to the left into a crowded courtyard. Young men in dark robes disappear behind two heavy leather door coverings, and one of them beats a hanging plank reminiscent of the call to worship at Tassajara Zen Center.  We’re emboldened by other tourists’ slipping behind the door coverings and find ourselves in a gorgeous cathedral  bedecked with carpets, tilework, chandeliers, immense paintings and hundreds of beautiful lamps suspended on long chains from the ceiling.  Choruses of men sing antiphonally, and long bearded priests dressed in sinister black capes and hoods enter scowling through the crowd of gawking tourists to which we belong.  The combination of mystery, wonder and irreverence seems a fitting end to our Jerusalem stay.

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Israel 2016–Day 16

Thursday, May 25th, 2017

Photo Album for Day 16

The conference participants, who hail from Italy, Canada, England, USA and Israel, share breakfast in the hotel and then go their separate ways.  With many of us it’s a poignant farewell since we bonded over the rigorousness of the schedule, our  specialized expertise, the excitement of talking about the Bible in the City of Jerusalem, and the enjoyment of our generous welcome.

Jan and I feel fortunate to have another couple of days to explore the City.  We walk through the University back to the Israel Museum’s main building and study the displays of artifacts illustrating the history of “The Land” going back to its earliest hunter-gatherer inhabitants of 20 thousand years ago. It’s not surprising here that most of the artifacts seem to have been produced for religious worship.

We’re both intrigued with fertility figures

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Thoroughly drained fr0m museum fatigue but cognizant that our time is short, we taxi back to the hotel, rest, and then catch the metro within sight of the “String Bridge,” a brilliant structure by the architect Santiago Calatrava, that seems out of scale and out of place in this location.

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We enter the Old City by Jaffa Gate

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and then follow some random byways that lead upward to a rooftop passage  above the covered market of David Street.

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This is the kind of wandering I’d like to do for hours, but we need food and end up at a great restaurant called The Holy Café near the Cordo in the Jewish quarter on the busy thoroughfare leading from the Western Wall to Jaffa Gate.

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After late lunch we wander again, now through the modern residential Hush district, where children play in the labyrinthine streets and enclosed playgrounds with little sense of constraint.

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The presence of ancient excavated ruin in their midst is no distraction.

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Another entryway takes us out of this neighborhood back down to the market, where we do some window shopping for spices and hats

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As evening comes on, we pass the citadel of David and ride the packed tram back to the hotel.

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Israel 2017–Days 11-15

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

A cab took us across town to the Prima Park, a less posh but comfortable and well situated location for the rest of our stay.  We celebrated the Sabbath by resting and reflecting upon the intense and varied experiences of the last week.

Sunday morning, feeling free and a little abandoned, we walked on our own to the nearby tram stop, struggled with the ticket machine and rode the three stops to the Mehane Jehuda Market, where we mixed with local residents wandering through the stalls and found a lively restaurant for lunch.  In the afternoon we reconnoitered the path to the Hebrew University, weaving our way through a maze of construction of the new light rail line that would soon be serving it.

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Monday morning the conference began with snacks, introductory remarks by the dynamic and sorely tried organizer, Yaakov Mascetti, and a plenary lecture by John Monfasani, former editor of Renaissance Quarterly and protege of Paul Oskar Kristeller, a resident of the Columbia-owned building where we lived from 1967 to 1970.  As they did for the next three days, the plenary lectures were followed by 13 shorter papers on topics that once would have been of professional interest to me, but that I now simply could enjoy for their ingenuity and erudition. Almost all of them involved the kind of primary archival research that I never ventured into.

My presentation was on the afternoon of the second day.  After months of fretting, I felt comfortable and confident while delivering it and had the impression that it was well received, though it generated little discussion.  While most of the papers explored early modern theological issues arising out of disputes between Christians and Jews and among various Christian sects, two of them at least addressed the challenge to faith posed by the rise of modern science. My thesis implying that Shakespeare was coming at the Bible from a  consistent position of unbelief seemed somehow out of place.

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That night we were hosted at the beautiful Eucalyptus restaurant located near Jaffa Gate and were addressed by the Chef-Owner whose family had immigrated to Israel from Iraq.

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I was surprised and shaken when one of the presenters on the third day quoted two lengthy passages from my book, and in conversation afterward said that it had initiated the later proliferation of studies on its subject.

That day Jan went downtown to the famous Jerusalem YMCA building to attend a Rotary meeting and exchanged flags with the club President.

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The speaker was a vigorous 92 year old American who fought the Nazi invasion of France and was seriously wounded. Then he immigrated to British Palestine and joined the underground fighting to establish the nation of Israel.

Israel 2017–Day 10

Friday, May 19th, 2017

Photo Album for Day 10

After reading a draft of the paper about Shakespeare’s adaptation of the Bible’s resurrection narrative in The Winter’s Tale I’ll be presenting in a few days at the Conference, my friend George has suggested I provide the opening with more punch. This morning I get up early to avoid the crowds and walk through the deserted City back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to seek inspiration.

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There I find it in front of the Edicule where tall priests in splendid vestments singing Greek prayers swing smoky censers of incense, enter and leave through its small doorway, and place communion wafers in the mouths of a few early morning worshippers.

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The rich baritone harmony of their chorus is somewhat offset by the monotone chanting of Armenian priests at the back of the Edicule celebrating mass in another language.

After the Orthodox priests ceremonially depart, I hope to enter the little doorway but am stopped by a Franciscan monk who emerges from another chapel with a metal barrier and tells me brusquely that I cant do that until 9:00 a.m.

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Nevertheless I’ve found what I came for. But I’m in desperate need of a bathroom. I ask the armed guard smoking illegally in the courtyard and he vaguely directs me to an unmarked black door in the back of the church that I find only after several passes.

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After I return for breakfast at the hotel, in the bus we pass an unsettling welcome sign

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on the way to the Old City’s “Dung Gate,” so called since antiquity because of its location closest to the Temple, where multitudes of beasts awaited daily sacrifice. Since this leads to the Western Wall, the place considered holiest in the world by observant Jews, and the Jews are excluded from the Temple Mount now controlled by Muslims, it’s a tense though extremely busy location guarded by many soldiers and a checkpoint.

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Visiting the Wall requires segregation of genders. The male side is crowded with men and boys covered with prayer shawls, some of them kissing the wall and intently davening—rocking back and forth while standing and reciting from their prayer books.

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I approach the Wall, wondering whether being at that spot—the target  of “return” that has drawn people here for centuries and that was drawing the hundreds flowing through the security portals, would summon up some primal spiritual force. But it just leaves me puzzled. Throughout the last week, I’ve felt a strange confidence from being a member of a majority rather than a minority.  Yet here, I find it harder to identify with my ethnic brothers than with gentiles. In addition to the beards, costumes and gestures preserved from 19th century Eastern European customs, I don’t understand why a section of masonry built by a non-Jewish tyrant 2000 years ago should elicit such reverence.

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My puzzlement increases during an archaeological tour conducted by an enthusiastic young woman through a half-mile tunnel recently excavated along the base of the wall. She tells us proudly that she’s emigrated from Milwaukee in order to bear many children and practice orthodox Judaism in the Holy City.

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We emerge from underground onto the Via Dolorosa that winds through the Muslim Quarter. The streetside market atmosphere is loud and exotic.

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Gabi leads us through a gateway up steps to the “Austrian Hospice” and to the rooftop of the building which she says offers the best view of the old City from anywhere.

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I would like to remain here staring for a long time, but soon we descend to the café offering Viennese coffee and pastries served in a peaceful walled garden.

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I remember that this was the favorite retreat of Guy DeLisle during his hectic yearlong stay recounted in the graphic chronicle Jerusalem.

Our last night of the tour is scheduled for Shabbat dinner at the home of an Israeli family.  Jan is not feeling well and stays behind in the hotel.  We travel through the quiet streets of West Jerusalem where all public transportation, restaurants, and stores are closed for the weekly holiday and are welcomed by the couple providing the dinner, their daughter who serves in the army, and her boyfriend.  The food is excellent and the conversation is warm.  All of us got along well during the week and felt very positive about our guide and driver and the content and planning of the tour.