Visiting Israel taps deep emotions and connections to past.
By A. Lawrence Rubin
We scramble to find a vacant hotel room in Jerusalem for Christmas week – despite the intifada, which has kept tourism to Israel down these past few years, all the rooms are taken. We had planned to visit our son Ezra, who is studying at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and to give our youngest children-age 14 and 12-the kind of immersion into their 3,000-year-old heritage that only a first-hand visit can provide. But our visit takes on new urgency when Ezra called with the news that he had met his “soul mate”: “When I speak to Sivan, it’s as if I am speaking to myself.”
The new couple is planning to marry in Jerusalem in February. What does a parent do but book a trip to Israel to meet the prospective daughter-in-law? Fortunately, one week before our scheduled departure there was an opening at the Sheraton Plaza on King George Street.
We arrive on Friday at the new, futuristic-looking Ben Gurion Airport and were whisked off by van to Jerusalem in time for a Sabbath evening meal at the hotel with my son and his fiancee. Sivan is lovely, thoughtful and I strain with my one good ear to hear her speak above the uproar of joyous singing from the surrounding tables.
In fact, it does seem as if Ezra and Sivan were fated to be together. When Ezra was attending law school in New Hampshire, he prayed at a shul in Burlington, Vermont. Both the rabbi’s wife and his landlord’s wife told him of a woman, Sivan, who would be a “perfect match.” They called the woman’s mother: “We have the perfect man for your daughter.” But the woman’s mother explained that her daughter had been living Jerusalem for six years and would not be returning soon.
Two years later, after completing law school, Ezra decided to study at Or Samayach in Jerusalem. While he was there, a rabbi told him, “I know of the perfect woman for you.” She was a nurse living in Jerusalem for eight years–Sivan! It’s what we call in Hebrew, beshert (kismet). After the first date, both Ezra and Sivan called home to say that they had found “the one.”
And so we find ourselves here in a place where many people feel their particular destiny brings them.
That night Ezra leads me through the narrow streets of Me’a She’arim to a tish at the Yerushalmi shul. The small room is packed with men in black and gold striped coats and luxurious streimel–large furry pill-shaped hats balanced on their heads. The rebbi sits at the head of a large table at the center of the room running its entire length, flanked by the elders of the sect. On two sides of the room on graduated bleachers rising to the ceiling, men stand singing in unison as they sway. Men approach the rabbi, bend to whisper words into his ear and receive a spoonful of nuts that they passed around.
On Saturday evening, we walk to Ben Yehuda Street, the center of the New City, where the youth of Jerusalem congregate and people come to put on a show or demonstrate for a cause. First a young man dances with flaming torches; then a group of Lubavitch Hasidim dance a hora while holding banners proclaiming their former leader Shneerson the Messiah. We pass a man without legs begging outside the former site of Sbarrro Pizza, which had been bombed by terrorists-a painful reminder of the dangers Israelis face daily.
We stop for pizza at the new Sbarro’s built just a few doors down and cap the evening with coffees and pastry at a comfortable coffee house on King George Street. Before we enter, we are inspected by a man with an automatic rifle. Such circumstances become matter-of-fact. In Israel, even a visitor quickly comes to the profound realization that everyday life must go on.
During the next three days, we tour Israel with our guide Chava Haugan and driver, Nachshun Nachman. Our guide can coax life from the stones, and makes the history of the Jewish people come alive.
We go to the top of the Mount of Olives and gaze down on Jerusalem’s Old City, with its Turkish fortifications, built on a ridge overlooking the valleys of Gidron and Gehinnom. We see its prominent gold Dome of the Rock mosque, erected on the site of the Jerusalem Temple. It stands upon the man-made plateau at the crest of the ridge with the ancient City of David at its base.
We circle the Old City, past the City of David, site of the original city of Jerusalem, made up of small cavernous dens used for simple habitation, mikvahs and storage of animals which became the dwelling site for Jerusalem’s working poor; past the ancient stairway which led to the Temple precinct: past the Robinson’s Arch, built by Herod as the entranceway for the Cohenim from their wealthy district on the upper slopes of Mount Moriah.
We enter the Old City through the Jaffa Gate and Ezra makes a bee line for the kotel, the Wailing Wall, with my younger son Zachary and I in tow.
It is easy to be chosen a member of one of the many pick-up minions which continuously form throughout the day. We are immediately recruited: the prayers begin, then stop as I accidentally stray beyond the imaginary border of our group, then resume as Ezra yanks me back.
We visit the Herodian houses in the Jewish Quarter; the Burnt House and the remains of the mansions at the Wohl Museum around the corner. These homes were set afire when Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed by the Romans at the end of the First Revolt in the year 70 BCE. Looking down at one room, I feel as if I were a witness to the destruction. There, meticulously restored, is a vivid red and ivory wall with the stain of black smoke billowing across its surface. A burnt beam lies smashed upon a mosaic floor.
At night we reassemble at a sumptuous dinner at Primavera, a kosher Italian restaurant,
this time quiet enough for soft conversation with our enchanting daughter-in-law to be.
The following day, we drive to Masada, the formidable fortress built by Herod on the top of an isolated mountain in the Negev desert and occupied by the zealots who escaped there after the fall of Jerusalem. The day was magnificent–bright sun, temperature in the 70’s, brilliant blue sky as a backdrop to the red-brown stone of the mountains. We decide to forgo the cable car for the experience of climbing the serpentine path up the face of the mountain–the original path taken by visitors to Masada 2,000 years ago-an activity that has particular appeal for our children, 14 year-old Zachary and 12-year old Maya.
As you hike higher and higher, you look down upon the Dead Sea, the desert floor and the fortifications of the Romans ringing Masada. When you arrive at the summit you see the ramp built by the Romans up the mountainside to besiege Masada. The walls are intact except for the point at which the ramp met the wall, where a battering ram was used by the Romans to smash through. Also intact are the residences for visitors, the baths complete with mosaics, the remains of the three-tiered palace of the reclusive and paranoid King Herod and the synagogue where Ben Eliezer, the zealot leader, convinced his followers to commit suicide to escape slavery after the wall was breached.
On the way back to Jerusalem, we stop at Ein Gedi, where David sought refuge from King Saul–an oasis of green trees and cascading water, stunning in the midst of the desert and the craggy dry mountains. My wife, Reva, points out sure-footed ibex, mountain goats, leaping among the rocks high above us. Later at the Israel Museum, I spot a bronze ornament in the image of three ibex heads, fashioned 5,000 years ago and found in a cave close to Ein Gedi.
We travel to Megiddo, “Armagedon” of the New Testament; an ancient city built at the cross roads of the main road from Egypt to Mesopotamia and from western hill country to the sea. There beneath the tel (hill) lie the remains of 25 cities, built, destroyed and rebuilt over the course of 3,000 years. There is a Canaanite entrance gate and another, Israelite entrance built at a higher level by Solomon or Ahab; and a pagan stone alter used for 1,000 years.
It is here that the biblical Deborah coaxed the Israelites to fight the army of Sisera and a providential rainstorm before the battle mired his chariots in mud. Our guide, Chava, explains that even today the farmers know not to use their tractors after a heavy rain.
At Megiddo is a magnificent tunnel built by King Ahab to secure a source of water for the walled city in preparation for a siege by the Assyrian king–dug 70 meters straight down through solid rock and then level until it reaches a stream which lies outside the city walls. In the gift shop, members of the Megiddo kibbutz cheerfully sell mezuzzim, crosses and an insignia that combines Jewish and Christian symbols.
We go on to Caesarea, the port city built by Herod that became the capital city of Palestine after the destruction of Jerusalem. When we arrived in the parking lot we were greeted by a group of young Breslav Hasids. They are best known throughout Israel by their slogan “Na Nach Nachma Nachman M’uman” seen on bumper stickers and scrawled on walls, and for jumping out the back of psychedelic-painted vans, blasting techno music and dancing in the streets.
Elad Gibli is a 22-year old recruit accompanied by his companions aged 16 and 14. He has bright sparkling eyes, a beatific smile, the down of soft beard and long flowing ear-locks. He and his friends are in continuous motion, bouncing to the raucous techno beat to the chanting of Na Nach Nachma Nachman M’uman! My son, Zachary, and I are caught up in a wild, fervent hora.
After a lunch of falafel and Turkish coffee at the concession, we enter the seaside park of Caesarea and walk through the complex of amphitheater, racetrack, baths and aqueduct; all seen against the azure blue Mediterranean. The amphitheater, a mix of ancient stones and modern reconstruction, is in current use for modern theatrical productions. My daughter, Maya takes a fall in the wet sand of the hippodrome, used by the Romans for chariot races as portrayed in Ben Hur. She is covered in mud. We see an Ethiopian couple posing for their wedding pictures by the side of the sea. The bride’s white dress billows in the sea breeze. As we pass the aqueduct, the sun is setting- its brilliant fire, and the deep blue of the sky and the water, framed by the ancient stone arch.
As we drive back to the hotel, our driver, Nachshun Nachman, whose son will be inducted into the Israeli army the following day, expresses the apprehension felt by most Israelis: the sense that life is risky, that we each have our preordained time, and that we must hope for a better future since there is little alternative.
We finish the day celebrating the impending union of Sivan and Ezra with succulent fish and good wine at the Olive and Fish on Jabotinsky Street.
There is something about being in Israel that makes you feel like a bit player in an eternal saga; of belonging to something transcendent, that is intoxicating.
I want to own something tangible to preserve this feeling. I settle on a type of ancient coin–those that were struck during the two rebellions against the Romans. I visit several stores in the Old City and along King David Street, then return in the evening to make my final selections. I go to Rozen’s in the Cardo, the fourth century street in the center of the Jewish Quarter.
It is getting quite late as I return to the Arab Quarter, to the place we had bought a bracelet on a previous day. It soon dawns on me, as I walk through the souk, that I am the only tourist, and, more disconcerting, that there are no Israelis around, either. I also realize that I am wearing a kippa. The shopkeepers are closing up and the alleys are dark. I arrive at the square at the Lutheran church and ask two Arab men for directions to Dajani’s store.
“He has already closed his shop,” one man helpfully says. “Wait. I think I see him walking home. I’ll get him for you. Dajani!”
Mr. Dajani turns, returns to his closed shop, offers me tea and patiently shows me his coins- then accepts graciously when I decline to buy the Bar Kochbar coin which he offers at an excellent price. As I head back through the square the Arab man says “You will come back soon… yes?” His voice is both welcoming and doubtful.
I hurry back to King David Street. From Venus Galleries I select an impressive bronze Bar Kochbar coin with the inscription “Shimon, Prince of Israel” on one side and “For the Freedom of Jerusalem” on the other– a tangible symbol of our desire for freedom which speaks to me across 2,000 years. From Eli Ben David Gallery I buy a delicate gold necklace holding a coin displaying three ears of wheat, minted in the time of Agrippa, Herod’s grandson and the last king of Israel.
Negotiations on price with both shopkeepers are earnest, polite and prolonged. They end with an agreement, a handshake and warm affection. Riad of Venus Galleries gives me a present of a blue kippa. Eli Ben David serves Turkish coffee and presents a small coin of the First Revolt.
Haggling over price in Israel is a universal custom, a sport and a pastime. It is either disconcerting or liberating, depending on your predisposition, that virtually all prices are subject to bargaining. It is not possible to find a taxi drive willing to use his meter. The price you obtain is a function of the amount of effort you wish to expend on dickering. A typical conversation:
“How much to the Israel Museum?”
“Thirty Shekels? My wife just paid 20!”
“Take it or leave it.”
“I’ll bet if you use your meter it will only cost 20.”
“So you like to bet! I tell you what. If I use the meter and it is under 30 I won’t charge you anything. But if it is over 30 I’ll charge you double.”
Once negotiations are over, your taxi driver is sure to be pleasant, and hospitable and you are both free to commence with the favored game of figuring out how you may be related.
At the Israel Museum there are the Dead Sea Scrolls written by the Essenes two millenia ago and stored in the Q’uum R’uum caves in the Negev, close to Ein Gedi. The scrolls are a fascinating compilation of traditional Jewish sources and more idiosyncratic doctrines that received further development in Christianity.
It is marvelous to see selections from the prophets written in the same script that I read in my own prayer book and to see a shred of tallis 2,000 years old. The Israel Museum also has a magnificent collection of artifacts that span tens of thousands of years which brings to life the complex history of this land and includes fragments of signs from the second temple and an ossuary for King Uzziah’s bones.
Our stay at the Sheraton Plaza is delightful. The staff is warm and welcoming. The Russian maid kisses Maya on her forehead when my daughter greets her in Hebrew. Baruch Shiptzer, the concierge, is a Solomon of sagacious wit and advice. Each evening we find an offering of varying delicacies in our room–wine, fruits, nuts and cookies.
After my experience in the Arab Quarter and pretty much throughout our stay, my son, Ezra, points out that I have a knack for asking Arabs for directions around Jerusalem. But in fact, except for one gentleman who declined to give me directions, all the Arabs that I approach are courteous and helpful.
My future daughter-in-law Sivan grouses, “The Israelis make their own rules, they do not respect authority. The soldiers call their officers by their first names.” Sure enough, as we walk down King George Street side-stepping cars parked on the side walk. Zachary asks, “Why are these cars parked on the sidewalk?” to which Abraham Zuroff, a teacher at Or Sameach answers, “Because this is Israel.”
We wish to visit the grave of a friend, Joseph Voroba, an extraordinary young man who recently died between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. His burial place is in Bet-Shemesh, on the road to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem and we decide to stop over on our way to the Tel Aviv airport. However, we have trouble tearing ourselves away from Jerusalem. We must visit the Old City again, and by the time we reach the cemetery, night has fallen.
At the entrance to the cemetery there is a yeshiva. When I approach the study hall I see about 30 young Hasidic men in long black coats and round brimmed hats, all crowded into the small room and simultaneously arguing, rocking, nodding and gesturing in raptured debate. They kindly stop their studies to help locate Joseph’s grave. Then my wife, children and I stumble through the darkened rows of white stone tombs.
Our driver Chaim shines the taxi’s headlights upon the graves to guide our way. My wife, Reva, finds the newly etched name on his headstone. It is on a mountain slope. We can see the slim black forms of cedar against the black sky. As we approach we hear the howling of jackals.
We gather round and place our rocks on his tomb to acknowledge our visit, enter the taxi and are driven to Tel Aviv where we return to the Ben Gurion Airport for our plane back to New York.
We have all been touched in our own way by our experience. Back at home, our daughter Maya, who earlier this year celebrated her Bat Mitzvah by retelling the story of how Queen Esther saved her people from destruction, reflects that her visit to Israel “was better than I expected I liked that everything I saw went so far back in history.”
We will return to Jerusalem at the end of February to dance at Ezra’s and Sivan’s wedding.
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