Israel 2017

Israel 2017-Day 1

Wednesday, May 10th, 2017

We’ve been planning a first trip to Israel for ten years.  On two previous occasions we’ve had to cancel in the last minute because of family emergencies. Last November,  I received an email inviting me to  present a paper on something having to do with Shakespeare and the Bible at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem during a conference on “The Bible in the Renaissance.”  They would pay our hotel bill.

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I’d long ceased to stay current, let alone work in this field, but there was one piece of unfinished business that remained after I completed writing Shakespeare and the Bible in 1998: an investigation of the relationship between the faked resurrection of Hermione staged by Paulina at the end of The Winter’s Tale and the Biblical figure of Paul, who makes belief in the resurrection the defining feature of Christian faith. I’d stayed away even longer from any concerted engagement with my childhood and early adolescent identity as an observant Jew. So this was a call to “return” in two senses.

The invitation came at a particularly auspicious time for both of us.  It coincided with Jan’s surprise loss for reelection to a fourth term as Mayor of San Luis Obispo and with a change in family circumstances that relieved us of the long-time responsibility for raising two of our grandsons, now aged 15 and 10. These changes would allow us to prolong the trip to include an 11 day tour of Israel before the beginning of the conference.

Our preparation involved my slow and hesitant work on the paper,  Jan’s research and discovery of  personal contacts for us in Israel, and some background reading, including My Promised Land by Avi Shavit, Black Box by Amos Oz, and Jerusalem by Guy DeLisle.

The trip from San Luis Obispo to Tel Aviv took 30 hours, mostly on Turkish Airlines, enlivened by conversation with Devin Troy, a famous artist, in the seat next to us, surprisingly good airline food, and enjoyment of Turkish classical and traditional music on the headset.

We switched flights to Tel Aiv at Istanbul airport, a sprawling new  facility located in the largest city in Europe, population of 14.7 million. I had my first encounter with Haredi, the ultra-orthodox Jews identified by black and white suits, big hats, beards, sidecurls and cell phones, who gathered a group of men to pray together conspicuously at the gate before departure.

Israel 2017–Day 2

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

Picture Gallery for this entry

We’re staying at the boutique Melody Hotel across the street from a park that fronts the Mediterranean.

After a sumptuous breakfast, our amiable guide, Gabi, ushers the group of 12 Gate 1 travelers under her care to the bus. Six are Russian speakers from New Jersey.  Our first stop is to be the Ayalon Institute, an “armaments factory” near the Weizmann Institute of Science and a big high tech park.

We enter a treed compound of tin sheds surrounded by old machinery and watch a movie introducing the facility. During the last years of the British Mandate, the Haganah, or Israeli underground army, was preparing for a war of independence against the local Palestinians and their allies, the surrounding Arab states. In order to placate the Arabs and keep the peace, the British were trying to severely limit immigration of postwar Jewish refugees and prevent the purchase or production of arms.

The Haganah recruited a select group of young people to secretly manufacture bullets at a factory hidden near a British military outpost. It was located underground, 25 feet below the laundry room of a school teaching agricultural skills to kibbutz newcomers.

The young local guide leads us down to it via a spiral staircase that opens under the communal laundry’s washing machine. In thickly accented English, she relates stories of hardship and heroism with an enthusiasm that eventually I cant resist sharing.

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Back on the bus Gabi says that the War of Independence’s solidarity is hard to find these days in Israel. Nevertheless, some patriotism in young people still remains due to the draft, which requires 3 years’ military service for men and two for women immediately after high school graduation.

She herself benefited from it, rising to the rank of Captain in the Air Force, and so did her children.  That service provides the education, discipline, and sense of identity required by people of that age as well as the military strength needed by a nation surrounded by enemies.

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Now I’m drawn in further.

Next stop is the old port city of Jaffa, where we walk around the hilltop offering impressive views of the ocean and of the new city of Tel Aviv.

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Jaffa’s buildings and streets have been turned into a tourist park of boutiques and galleries, oppressive in the crowds and heat of midday. We walk down the hill to a funky local market and a cavernous restaurant, where we order Shakshuka, a dish of tomato, eggplant, cheese and fried egg served by a lively young waitress in short shorts.

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As opposed to Tel Aviv, which is almost exclusively Jewish, Jaffa has a mixed population Jews, Arabs, and other ethnicities and religions.

The bus takes us on to Tel Aviv’s City Hall plaza and the memorial where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish fundamentalist at a massive rally celebrating the handshake with Yasser Arafat. Gabi tells us that she was there when it happened and is still traumatized by the memory of the tragedy.  For many Israelis it was the end of hope that a real peace between Israelis and Palestinians could be achieved.

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After a welcome nap, we get ready for the dinner engagement Jan prearranged with her undergraduate friend, Cheryl, now named Shira, and her husband, Baruch, a retired surgeon who grew up in rural Texas. Knowing that they are Haredi makes us apprehensive. She has borne six children to a previous husband and is strictly observant to the extent of wearing a wig. Before getting into their car, we’re told that men sit in front, women in back and that there are no coed handshakes. But despite the religious and cultural gulf, within a few minutes we connect, first on the basis of University affiliation and then through sharing some of our life stories. Shira has brought along her book on the Bible and science and articles she’s written in English for an orthodox newspaper, and they are interested in my conference presentation and Jan’s experience as Mayor.

Baruch drives through horrendous traffic to Bnei Brak, a poor section of the City where streets are packed with men of all ages in various variations of the Haredi black and white uniform.

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We end up at a Yemeni restaurant attached to a large gas station where they treat us to a simple dinner of grilled chicken and french fries. The atmosphere is loud, exuberant, and friendly among workers and large families. We linger in conversation for three more hours before a bittersweet farewell back at the hotel.

Israel 2017–Day 3

Friday, May 12th, 2017

24 Pictures

At 6:00 AM I go down to the big public swim area and join wetsuited surfers and guys with beards and moobs jumping in the water.  In the locker room on my way out, I see their tzitzit and big hats hanging on hooks.

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After breakfast we travel north through areas of high rise condos under construction, the average one costing about  1.5 million dollars. Gabi tells us there’s a serious housing shortage throughout Israel and especially in Tel Aviv.  Young people staged massive protests about it in 2011. The government makes efforts to promote affordable housing but cant accomplish much. Israel, she said regretfully, is changing from a socialist, egalitarian society to one of extreme capitalism and deepening separation of rich and poor.

Riding north, we notice Arab communities recognizable from “organic” growth and building patterns, families making additions to houses without observing strict planning guidelines in effect elsewhere in the Jewish areas. Though all Israeli rooftops have solar water heaters provided by the government, just before Caesarea, we pass an immense coal-fired power plant, the country’s biggest source of electricity.

King Herod built the port of Caesarea in tribute to his patron, the Roman Emperor Augustus.  At the visitor center we watch a movie with archaic special effects taking us “back through time,” and then walk quickly through the large archaeological site, featuring an amphitheatre now used for rock concerts, a hippodrome, ancient public toilets, a submerged port, and chunks of carved marble imported by boat 2000 years ago.

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The Roman ruins were covered by those of a Byzantine city, later destroyed and rebuilt by Muslims, then Crusaders (11-12 centuries) and finally by Turks.

Next stop is Atlit internment camp historical park, like Ayalon, preserving a heroic national memory with original artifacts, restored buildings, multimedia presentations, and the lectures of youthful guides.  Here the story is of smuggling Jewish World War II refugees into the country in violation of the prohibitions of the British Mandate.

We proceed to the village of Izfiya at the top of the Mt. Carmel ridge. We’re welcomed to a private multistory home with ocean views by a local guide who tells us something about the Druze culture of the village. It’s a variant of Islam that’s feminist and tolerant, restricted to descendants of families evicted from Egypt in the 11th century. They believe in reincarnation and are certain that the population of the world has not changed since the creation. The Druze are supportive of and favored by Israeli society.

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Our guide helps serve a delicious meal of dishes prepared by the woman who owns the house.  Around the table, we start getting to know some of our fellow tour members. I find common ground discussing chain saws and chippers with Bill, an arborist from Kentucky, and Jan discovers a fellow Rotarian in Milton, a Korean war veteran, who has spent most of his life in the foreign service.

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The road down to the sea from Mt. Carmel winds through neighborhoods of elegant colonial houses and gardens. We stop for spectacular views of our destination, Haifa, and of the Bahai Gardens.

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Our hotel, “The Bay Club,” a former private mansion, provides a generous happy hour.

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Afterwards I walk around the neighborhood in the dark, stopping at the big playground across the street now filled with Arab families replacing the Jewish ones who occupied it earlier in the day.

Israel 2017–Day 4

Saturday, May 13th, 2017

26 Pictures

After the tour bus heads north without us, we are picked up at the hotel by Yair Caro. Before we left the States, Jan searched the internet for people we might meet in Israel and discovered that he was a second cousin of mine whose brother Gustave we had met in Grenoble in 1969 and whose grandmother, Ida Blum, was the sister of my grandfather Adolf Gruenwald. Ruggedly handsome, deep voiced and fluent in English and authoritative in manner, he drives through the Arab part of the old city, where elegant but dilapidated buildings are now being renovated, gentrified, and repurposed by the municipality.

On a new freeway, we pass through a vast petrochemical complex producing a brown cloud spreading inland. Caro points out one of the campuses of the University of Haifa, where he teaches mathematics and education.  I had googled him earlier and learned that he’s published 150 papers in the theoretical field of “combinatorics.” We stop briefly at the mound of Megiddo, a seventeen-layer architectural dig also known as Amageddon.

We arrive at Kibbutz Geva, the home Caro’s mother Rachel found in 1938 after her own heroic escape from the Nazis who had murdered her parents and grandparents, including Ida Blum, the sister of my maternal grandfather.

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He points out cowsheds, horse corrals, and factories where the industrial control mechanisms invented by the kibbutz are produced. In the distance we see the kibbutz’s cropland, vineyards, and orchards. He refers to the vista as “Toscana.”

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Shaded by large cypresses next to the road lies the cemetery where his parents are buried, a favorite place, he says, where he’s now headed. On the opposite side of the road teenagers hang out in another shady grove. Across a deep ravine, he points out a village organized as a cooperative Moshave rather than a communally owned kibbutz, the home of his brother.  We walk by a group of semidetached residences surrounded by flower gardens, to his house and are welcomed with food and drink by Rachel, his wife.

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She brings out scrapbooks of genealogical charts and pictures of relatives that trace our blood ties.

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More people of all ages start arriving: Yair’s brother and his wife, their kids and grandkids, Yair and Rachel’s son and daughter now living in Berlin but here for a visit, and his sister. It’s hard for me to keep track of who’s who, but I bask in the feeling of being surrounded by family, since I grew up without any aunts or uncles or cousins in the United States.

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After the younger folks go their various ways, the discussion turns to life on the Kibbutz.  We learn that Yair is the Mayor of Geva. He speaks with sadness about his difficulties guiding the older members in the direction of privatization that’s necessary for the community to survive–a process going forward in most kibbutzim for better and for worse. When he learns that Jan has been Mayor of San Luis Obispo, our home town, he asks about the political currents there and finds it hard to believe that she loved the job.

On the drive to Nazareth where we’ll rejoin our tour group, we learn that Yair was President of his University and is now relieved of the onerous duty of having to crawl on his knees and beg for money. Stuck in the city’s chaotic  traffic, he says, “Now you see what it’s like in an Arab City.”

After another goodbye Jan and I wander in the heat and press of crowds of pilgrims searching for the entrance of the Basilica of the Annunciation. The building was constructed by the Catholic Church in the 20th century amidst ongoing territorial rivalry among Jews, Muslims and various Christian factions. It’s mercifully cool inside, but the massive, fortress-like structure leaves me cold.  On the way back to the bus, at the site of a small mosque adjacent to the Basilica, Gabi points out a sign with a quotation from the Koran that recently replaced another much more hostile and provocative passage.

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A bedraggled beggar mingles with our group, one hand extended and the other pulling up his pant leg to reveal what looks like an immense running sore.

A short bus ride takes us to our next lodging, Kibbutz Kvar Blum, located in the Hula Valley, a lush green paradise of nature preserves, orchards and cropland situated in “the finger” extending north between the mountains of Lebanon to the west and the Golan Heights, annexed from Syria, to the east. This is one of the most prosperous of Kibbutzim. In addition to a large international business in drip irrigation devices and extensive agricultural production, Kvar Blum runs a five-star luxury resort named “Pastoral.”

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We walk through the manicured gardens leading to our palatial room. I swim in the Olympic sized pool, graced with bar and bikini-clad guests. In the lavish dining room, the walls are decorated with black and white photographs of the original settlers eating around stark tables after their hard day’s work. I wonder how they would regard its present stage of evolution.

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