Israel 2017–Day 10

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.

 

Israel 2017–Day 9

May 18th, 2017

Photo album for Day 9

Our bus circumnavigates the Old City’s walls, passing the Mount of Olives, with the garden of Gethsemane at its base, and the Jewish cemetery, every inch packed with graves from 3000 years ago to the present.

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We’re left off at Jaffa Gate, the entrance to the Christian quarter, pass the Citadel that guards it and proceed carefully on the polished rock pavement of David Street, the covered market arcade that leads downward across town.

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Gabi takes us on a series of stops at significant Biblical sites. First the gender-separated tomb of David, occupied by a few praying Haredi,

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Next, the Room of the Last Supper,

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then down to the Jewish Quarter, completely rebuilt since 1967 in keeping with requirements for maintaining the irregular and narrow streets and low buildings of the old city while modern in infrastructure, maintenance, and methods of marketing.

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We pass the excavated ruins of the Cardo, the Roman pathway of columns adorned with a wall mural aptly depicting a contemporary child with baseball hat meeting an ancient girl with baby goats.

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We track back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in the world for Christians since it houses both the rock of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb where he is said to have been resurrected.

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This church is a motley collection of structures, added onto and demolished for two millennia by various Christian sects including the three who have an uneasy arrangement to share jurisdiction today: Catholics, Armenians, and Greek Orthodox. Stairways ascend to galleries and upper chapels and descend deep underground to sanctuaries and shrines. In one area, a crane reaches 300 feet to the ceiling and large stone capitals sit in storage. But despite its sprawl over time and space, the building has a feel of overarching unity both inside and out.

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It’s packed with people waiting to mount steep steps and crawl into a hole to kiss the rock on which the cross was mounted, to touch the marble shelf on which Jesus is said to have been anointed and to see the tomb covered by the Edicule, or marble shrine, that sits under the central dome.

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The crowds surge everywhere and a group of the pilgrims waiting to enter the Edicule sing together in a language I don’t understand.

After lunch we proceed to the shop of a famous fabric merchant introduced by Gabi who provides silks and brocades for the vestments of the Jerusalem clergy of three religions and the Pope. He points out the fabric, the design and the sources of dozens of them—places with exotic names like  Palmyra and Aleppo and Baghdad, now largely in ruins due to wars involving the USA and lately the Islamic State.

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We decide to purchase a pillow case woven in Kashmir.

Jan has signed up for the optional tour to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. Led by a Palestinian Christian guide, she travels by bus through East Jerusalem and a check point to the West Bank.

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The Church of the Nativity has only one small doorway and was built over a cave (not a stable) that is venerated as the place of Jesus’s birth.

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Bethlehem is a stronghold of Palestinian protest against annexation to Israel after the 6 day war in 1967.

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Israel 2017–Day 8

May 17th, 2017

Photo Album for Day 8

We start the day at the lavish breakfast buffet on the eleventh floor of The Herbert Samuel–-named for a late 19th c. English colonial governor active in early efforts to prepare the way for making Palestine a Jewish homeland.

First stop is the Israel Museum, a huge complex near the Hebrew University where my conference will take place in a few days.  Gabi leads us to a model of the City during the first century BCE centered around the Second Temple, whose massive reconstruction was sponsored by Herod the Great.

This was the center of Jewish worship, drawing populations from all over Israel for frequent festivals to which they brought offerings for sacrifice and to support the priests, who apparently were working closely with the client king.

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The Temple on the Mount was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE, reconstructed as a mosque by followers of Muhammed in 691, captured by Christian Crusaders in 1099, and recaptured by Muslims in 1187. Since then it has remained in the possession of the Muslim priesthood. Its Dome of the Rock is supposedly the site of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son–they claim it was Ishmael rather than Isaac– as well as Jesus’ Ascension. Today non-Muslims are permitted to visit the Mount only during very limited hours through a designated entrance and are prohibited from entering the Dome.

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We move on to the Shrine of the Book, whose roof resembles the top of the clay jars which held the Dead Sea Scrolls stored in caves at Qumran and now housed there.

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One enters through an elegant courtyard and passes through a tunnel-like vestibule to a circular sanctuary at the center of which the original scrolls are displayed in a round case topped by a large wooden column. It takes me awhile to recognize its shape with a sudden tactile memory.  It’s the upside-down handle of a torah—one of the two which turn the scrolls to the next portion and which are gripped tightly, angled upward and raised to reveal the writing in the sacred book to the congregation before it is wrapped and returned to the ark.  I got to hold those handles only once, on the day of my Bar Mitzvah at age 13.

Adjoining the shrine, we’re led to small chamber to watch a film about a contemporary variant on the ancient practice of miniaturizing the Scriptures.  This was done by a team of computer scientists who developed a technique for inscribing the whole text of the Hebrew Bible with lasers on a tablet the size of a pinhead.

From the Israel museum it’s not far to the summit of Mount Herzl, which houses Yad Vashem, the research center and memorial of the Holocaust.  As in the archaeological digs, this country’s massive investments in history, the arts and the sciences are devoted to strengthening and validating Jewish national identity. At Yad Vashem, the reason for the depth of this commitment becomes obvious.

Entering the sculptured gates of the huge facility occupying the mountaintop, I’m reminded of the apprehension of Aeneas and Dante entering the gates of hell.

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I’ve always been fearful of reading books, watching movies, and going to museums about the Holocaust due to my early childhood with parents who were refugees from the Nazis and stories about relatives who were their victims.  Nevertheless, on rare occasions, I’ve confronted that past and felt the consequences.  This trip itself is one of those occasions.

The site is approached through more gateways and a bridge that lead to a largely subterranean triangular chamber illuminated by skylights protruding from the earth at its apex.

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The place is always crowded–with groups of school children, with young soldiers who are required to visit it, with local residents and with innumerable  tourists.  One wanders through a series of displays opening outward from the central triangular hallway that show the progression from scenes of European Jewish life  before the coming of the Nazis to the growth of their anti-Semitic propaganda and their political power to the deepening viciousness of persecution to the outbreak of war, to the torments and deportations, the conditions in the death camps and finally to the end, which killed two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population of nine million people.

The material is presented with artifacts, murals, documentary footage, and videoed interviews with survivors.  Though that material is not as harrowing as it could be, and though I avert my eyes and ears from the most painful evidence and testimony, my body repeatedly takes over with an unwilled response.  My hand lifts to my cheek, I sob and shed tears. Next day on the wall of a  Church, I recognize the gesture and the feeling.

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The most powerful moment comes when the gradually descending slope of the central pathway turns upward, revealing an expanse of forest and sky through the opening. Having for once put my camera away upon entering this museum, I regret not being able to capture the effect of this remarkable  vista.  But I find it on the cover of a book I later purchase.

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One approaches the opening only beyond the exhibits showing the exodus of survivors from Europe and the establishment of the state of Israel as their home.

It takes a while but not very long, to recover my normal sense of self, to rejoin Jan, from whom I’d needed space while in the museum, and to return to the others on the tour, a process also facilitated by the architecture of the site.  Afterwards, we ride the new light rail train running smoothly back to our downtown hotel.

 

Israel 2017–Day 7

May 16th, 2017

Picture Gallery for Day 7

The natural fortress of Masada stands apart from the escarpment of barren mountains that rise above the Dead Sea depression.

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Our bus pulls up to the elegant visitor center at its base, all pavement and walls faced with the “Jerusalem stone” that seems both to reflect and absorb light in a warm blend reminding me of the travertine marble of the Getty Center in LA.

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We wait briefly at a landing for a gondola sliding down the 1500 foot vertical drop from from the summit on a single-span cable and then are whisked upward, above the ancient snake path now being climbed by intrepid hikers. We exit the back of the landing station and walk a narrow trail carved into the vertical cliff face that joins the snake path at the stone gateway through the wall at the top and emerge onto a spacious plateau.

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Everything in sight is the same color of the reddish tan bedrock.  Gabi leads us up and across to the western edge, passing piles of rounded rocks stockpiled by the inhabitants to defend against attackers from below.  She tells us the familiar story of this place.

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It was built in the first century BCE by Herod the Great, who’s made his dominating presence in the history of Israel already felt in Caeserea. Neither a Jew nor a Roman, he succeeded in overthrowing the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty that had ruled for a couple of centuries since the successful Maccabean revolt against Hellenistic Greek rulers and nevertheless found a way to establish an ambitious Roman client regime accepted by most Jews.  Herod was an effective politician, a megalomaniac builder, paranoid and brutal.  Known as the tyrant who ordered the slaughter of the Innocents reported in Matthew’s gospel and who had his sons and wife murdered, he built several impressive cities for his own amusement and protection.  Masada was intended as a retreat in case of revolt or attack, but it also served as an occasional party palace with fortifications, vast subterranean storage facilities and a water system that would allow it to survive a years-long siege.

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Herod died peacefully in his bed in another of his grand cities, but Masada was taken over by a group of Zealots after the Romans crushed the Jewish rebellion and destroyed the second temple in 70 CE.  The 900 members of this Jewish cult and their families held out for three years against the Roman siege.  Then ten thousand Roman legionaires surrounded the place, the remnants of their camps and walls still evident, and eventually built a huge siege ramp leading up to the fortress.

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The contemporary historian Josephus reported that the night before the end came in sight, the Zealots killed one another to avoid humiliation and defeat.

The discovery of and excavation of the ruins was led by Yael Yagdin, former general and archaeologist whose accomplishments are memorialized in the museum at the base.  Many young Israelis participated voluntarily in those excavations, ceremonially climbing to the top via the snake path. At the end of their basic training period, all new members of the Israeli Defense Forces are still sworn in at the site.

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There’s time to wander around unguided while the others go down to the gift shop.

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On my way to the southern edge of the mesa to look down into the canyon, a couple of Israeli fighter planes put on a little airshow, perhaps in preparation for the U.S. President’s upcoming visit.

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We continue north and west back through the West Bank on the way “up” to Jerusalem.  Fortified fences again parallel the road, and as we ascend, the Jewish settlements on the hilltops become more prominent and expansive.

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As we approach the city, we get a glimpse of the wall, and then we’re over the pass at the top of Mt. Scopus,  where we are granted our first view of the Holy City.

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On the hillside just below we stop at a facility where professional archaeologists join students, volunteers and tourists in processing spoil from an unauthorized excavation near the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Buckets of dirt are dumped on a screened tray to be sprayed with a hose to wash off sand and mud.  Two people to a tray comb the remains for tiny bits of pottery, bone, metal, and glass.  Jan and I are thrilled to come up with what looks like a big glittery bead.  The professional archaeologist identifies it as a piece of glass-making detritus from the Second Temple period and stashes it in his hoard.

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Afterward the bus drives up and down steep slopes through East Jerusalem’s clogged traffic, homemade buildings piled upon one another and ubiquitous trash, along the Old City walls  into downtown West Jerusalem–a modernistic metropolis filled with high-rise towers, high-end shopping malls, and wide pedestrian streets, all faced with the Jerusalem stone aglow in the westering sun.

We’re delivered to one of those high rises, the posh Herbert Samuel hotel, located within easy walking distance of the Old City’s Jaffa Gate. After a nap, Jan and I walk through narrow side streets lined with bars, art galleries, and a tattoo shop.  We stop at a recommended fish restaurant, the Dolphin, and are welcomed to a sidewalk table by the  young owner, fashionably dressed in jeans and black t-shirt displaying his physique.  He pours us complimentary glasses of wine from the bottle that previous patrons had left half full on the table. As we sit drinking and taking in the hectic street life, I notice a big revolver tucked into his belt above the back pocket.