Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Shmuel’s Journey to Jerusalem (by way of Haifa and Netanya)

We awoke Monday morning at our usual relaxed hour of 9:30 a.m. Shira had prepared for us yet another wonderful breakfast of assorted salads and cheeses. Unfortunately, I had mentioned the day before how much my father and I love the croissants in Israel (and baked goods in general), so Shira took the opportunity afforded to her by my father being busy in the bathroom and my being half asleep to run out the door to buy fresh chocolate-filled croissants at the supermarket downstairs. I, in turn, took the opportunity of her being gone to finally do something for myself, and made us all some Earl Grey tea with milk.

Over breakfast, we discussed our plans for the day, and after quick showers we set out toward Stella Maris—where we had failed in our attempt to enter the building the previous day. It was certainly worth the wait, as the several-hundred-year-old chapel boasted some beautiful frescoes and sculptures. I also learned a bit more about how to use my new camera, and was able to take very nice pictures in the dark. Just as we were leaving the chapel, a group of about 40 Polish tourists came through. We’ve been seeing Poles everywhere we go this week.

Leaving the parking lot at Stella Maris, we came upon an Arabic music CD of some kind (the title was 'Eid Al-hib, which loosely translates as “Festival of Love”) lying on the ground next to our car, which we picked up and played during our ride to Kababir, an Arab village within the Haifa city limits, to where Shira had never been. I found this particularly interesting, since Shira has lived in Haifa practically her entire life, and Kababir was essentially a neighborhood just outside the city center.

We drove to a beautiful mosque, and arrived in time for the ending of the afternoon prayers. We were warmly greeted by a younger gentleman, who is in charge of the programming and youth groups associated with the community there. He spoke perfect Hebrew and English, and mentioned that he had studied for a few years in Manitoba in college. We got to talking, and he mentioned that the mosque was locally famous for its collection of Qurans in many different languages—even Yiddish. We were ushered through a large auditorium underneath the mosque into a small museum where there was an extensive exhibit on their particular sect, called “Ahmadiyya” Islam. It is apparently a sect that originates in India, whose principal motto is “Love for all, hatred for none.” True enough, there was indeed an abridged version of the Quran in their collection in Yiddish, along with full and abridged versions of the Quran and Hadith in about 75-80 languages including many regional African and Indian dialects of which we had never heard.

From Kababir, we drove through some beautiful new neighborhoods on the ocean side of Mt. Carmel, down toward Haifa’s main cemetery, where we visited the graves of my grandfather’s brother and his wife (Shira, Eliezer, Yudit and Miriam’s parents), Binyamin and Etel. Israeli cemeteries are arranged and built much different than those in the U.S., and I remember as a child watching the horrified looks on the faces of Israelis when they see people walking straight across the grass-covered and flat American graves. In Israel, they build a stone grid with pre-laid walkways, as you can see in our pictures, and the graves are built up to about mid-calf height in marble. I grabbed a few stones from the ground near my great Aunt and Uncle’s grave in order to bring them back to place on my grandfather’s in the Philadelphia area. Shira asked why I was picking up dirty stones, and when I told her she was first overwhelmed with emotion, and then set upon finding “more beautiful stones” for me to collect.

From the cemetery, we drove back up Mt. Carmel, through Haifa and out by way of the Ahuza neighborhood and University of Haifa campus, through the beautiful vistas of the Carmel National Forest and down to two Druze villages which have grown together into one large city—Isfiya and Dalat-al-Carmel. We drove for a bit toward the shuq in Dalat-al-Carmel, where we stopped and wandered around the stores for an hour or so. We drank freshly-squeezed orange juice at a kiosk, and my father and I fretted silently over the abundance of shawarma we could not sample, as Mark was expecting us back for a special lunch he had prepared for us. As we returned to our trusty rented Isuzu Liana, we passed two small kiosks where local Druze were displaying the special flat, round griddle-like ovens they use to make fresh laffa. Dad asked the woman in the first kiosk if he could take video of her preparing fresh laffa, but she refused politely, as Druze are one of the many cultures with superstitions about photography’s implications on the soul. The older man in the kiosk next door also refused, not because of the Druze taboo, but because he already had baked 25 laffot that morning, and did not want to waste the fuel to heat up the oven again.

So the three of us packed ourselves back into our little white Liana and headed back to Haifa, stopping once in Isfiya on the way to take pictures of a number of old, burled olive tree trunks at a landscaping store and again at a scenic overlook, where the gathering dark storm clouds added an ominous but beautiful quality to the Western Galilee spread out before us below.

When we returned to Mark and Shira’s, we saw a beautiful table laid out with various salads, cheeses, salted salmon and herring with sliced onion and lemon, and boiled potatoes (Mark—though he’s been in Israel since the 70s—is still very Russian in many ways). We had some more of Shira’s delicious vegetable soup which warmed us all up from the moist, cool weather outside, and I struggled with many herring bones. We then had salmon fillets, and finished off with some tea and coffee.

Afterward, we had a few Skype sessions and learned of a freak blizzard back home that had apparently brought a considerable amount of snow to Philadelphia and Washington. Shira and Mark got to say hello via webcam to Sami and Izzy for the first time, which everyone enjoyed, and I got some of my loose ends at work tied up while Dad chatted with Mom and Aunt Adele on Skype.

Around 5:40 p.m., we changed and packed up our things to prepare for our drive to the second leg of our journey, to be hosted by Moshe, Sylvia, Meytal, Eli and Adi Wasserman in Netanya. We set out a little after 6 p.m. after a minor debacle with a locked electronic gate in Shira and Mark’s parking lot that did not want to let us go, and arrived at the Wasserman home a little after 7 p.m.

At this point, a little background information is in order. My father and I chat on AIM and Skype regularly with our cousin Sylvia, and with her daughter Meytal. Though we had made plans for our trip to Israel weeks before, we found out days before our departure that Meytal was to be engaged to a wonderful guy, Eliashiv. Eliashiv grew up on a religious Kibbutz called Ma’aleh Gilboa, which is very close to Kibbutz Beit Hashita, where both Jessica and I spent a year of high school. The official engagement was to occur at a large party which was to be the same day we had planned on arriving in Netanya. Sylvia, had invited us to attend a pre-party dinner for the immediate family (parents, siblings, aunts and uncles), which was just getting underway as we arrived.

Click here for additional photos.
It was a beautiful event, with abundant and wonderful food. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, as I am not the foodie my mother is in having the need to break down every meal into individual dishes—especially since there were probably over 20 different ones to list in this case. At 8:30, guests began to arrive for the larger event. Tables were moved, guitars and drums were brought out, and the singing and dancing began. Speeches were made, a plate was broken by both mothers (as is tradition), and the party went on until about midnight (not bad for a weeknight). Afterward, Dad and I helped with the cleanup efforts as best we could, and spent some time on Skype catching Mom up on the party. Thanks to the miracle of WiFi, Mom was even able to join us in the living room (via my laptop camera) for the opening of some of the gifts by the bride and groom-to-be.

Sylvia, Meytal, Dad and I stayed up chatting over tea and leftover cakes and cookies from the party until almost 4 a.m., at which point we trudged up to bed.

Dad and I slept in until our usual 9:30 a.m., but by the time we had gotten up, all the furniture from the living room had been brought back from the neighbor’s house, and both Sylvia and Meytal were up and about. We had some breakfast, and the four of us were shortly on our way to Jerusalem.

Though we have been here for a few days, this was actually the first time Dad and I had been on a longer, inter-city drive since we arrived. I pointed out various spots of interest to him, like the whole new city of “East Netanya” on the other side of the coastal road, the massive Ikea right behind the old Tempo factory, and so forth. Though we did not stop, I could see his amazement that his childhood stomping grounds near Givat Shmuel and the area around Bar Ilan had grown into a land of skyscrapers, stadiums, and high-speed rail. We drove along the Ayalon freeway through the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, which looks as modern and urban as any American or European city. Dad has not been in Israel for 18 years now. In 1991, Israel boasted one “skyscraper,” which was about 22 stories high.

We turned eastward on Road 1, which begins as a flat, wide, 8-lane freeway before it begins to narrow and wind through the Judean hills climbing higher and higher toward Jerusalem. We stopped at a small exit near Sho'eva to fill Liana with gas (I thought she was a guzzler, but it turns out that she just has a really small tank), which turned out to be more complicated than it needed to be. Apparently pumping gas in Israel requires you to enter both your license plate and identity numbers into the computer! I had always before only seen full service stations, so anyone who truly knows me would know that I was eager to find the self-service pump. With some help from the attendant, Meytal and I managed to get it done, and we continued on our way.

Sylvia often jokes about my incredible sense of direction in Israel, and her need for GPS in order to find anything. Truth be told, the country is small enough to figure out how to get pretty much anywhere you need to go if you are familiar enough with the simple topography. By simple topography, I mean as in, “I’m on this hill here, I need to get over to that hill over there,” or “the ocean is on my right, so that means I’m going south.” Really, it’s not that hard.

Jerusalem is a pretty big city though, with lots of traffic. We got a little lost finding the Old City once we got there. To my own credit, though, I can say that I did get us there after only about 15 minutes of not knowing exactly where we were. And, to my own credit, I can also say that we did not need to ask a single person for directions, nor was the map of Jerusalem we had with us any help. We found a parking spot not far from the entrance to the Kotel, and went through the airport-like security entrance. Since there are separate sections for men and women at the Kotel, Dad and I parted ways with Sylvia and Meytal, to meet back on the plaza after 20 minutes.

I am not a particularly observant Jew, nor do I particularly understand the fascination of modern Judaism with the Kotel itself, but that is a much larger philosophical topic than I can handle here, though I’m happy to talk about it in another forum. I am a spiritual and highly sensitive human being, however, and I still get an overwhelming charge of emotion and feel an almost tangible connection with something much larger than the mundane (perhaps it’s God or whatever you want to call that higher power) from close contact with the Wall. That’s all I’ll say about it for now.

We took some pictures, adeptly avoided the beggars and t’filin pushers, and met back up with Sylvia and Meytal as planned. We headed up the long flights of stairs toward the Jewish Quarter for a lunch of shawarma (FINALLY!), but it was an overall disappointment. I’ve never considered Jerusalem to be a particularly “Israeli” place, and especially not the Jewish Quarter. To hear more English spoken than Hebrew, and to see more English signs than Hebrew is always a major letdown. I hope to have some good shawarma later in the trip, back in the “real” Israel.

We parted ways again after lunch, as Meytal and Sylvia wanted to take a tour of the newest attraction at the Kotel, which is called Sharsheret HaDorot, or “The Chain of Generations.” I declined this particular tour, as it looked to me like a bunch of names etched in glass tablets by people who forked over money to have their names etched in glass tablets near the Kotel. My understanding from Meytal afterward was that this was not particularly far from the truth.

Dad and I instead went through the Arab shuq toward the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where it is said that Jesus was crucified and/or buried. The “and/or” depends on the sect of Christianity, I suppose. We are far from experts in the symbolism of the stuff in the church, but went mostly in order to bring back photos and mementos for Dad’s co-workers at the Catholic private college where he teaches, Chestnut Hill College. Though it is very dark inside the church, my new camera has some wonderful settings for such situations, and I think I was able to capture a good amount of great pictures while we were there. Before we left, we bought a number of olive-wood Jerusalem Cross rosaries for him to bring back as gifts.

Afterward, we returned to the Kotel for a tour of the Kotel Tunnels. Sylvia, Meytal and I had all done this tour at least once, but it is something that should NOT be missed if one ever finds oneself in Jerusalem. We took the Hebrew tour, which at least made it more interesting for me as I had previously only done the English one. At this point, Dad’s strength for more walking was really fading, but he soldiered on in immense awe of what we were getting the chance to experience. Essentially, the tunnels run under the Arab Quarter, along an upper part of what was the original outer Western Wall of the Temple Mount from the Second Temple. The Kotel is really just a small part of the larger wall, and most of the Kotel stones are not the original Herodian ones that had been there in the times of the temple. The stones we saw were amazing, and cut like none others I have seen. We walked along the narrow tunnel along the wall all the way to the edge of the Temple Mount, passing through a small point that is the closest one can get along the walls to the original Holy of Holies. We continued along the wall along a path that was once an ancient street teeming with vendors and pilgrims, through an ancient aqueduct that brought fresh water to the Temple, to the Northern boundary, then around and back up into the Arab Quarter.

We dragged ourselves back through the Old City to our car and drove back to Netanya over some cookies from the party and Mei Eden bottled water. When we got back, we had a light dinner of leftovers, and I called Efrat to arrange for the next two days of our adventure at Beit Hashita and Northern Israel. Everyone went to bed early, and I stayed up to finish writing this entry, but will come to a finish now as it is 1:30 a.m. here and I still need to upload our pictures for you all to enjoy.

So goodnight to Sami and Izzy, who will be having this read to them as a bedtime story tonight. Saba is surely getting in better touch with Shmuel this week, and I’m sure he’ll have a whole bunch of new stories to tell you soon. Lilah tov, v’nishikot chamot!

1 comment:

Larry782 said...

Collecting the stones for Samuel's grave brought back some memories. When Susan, Ted and I were joined by cousin (Rabbi) Steve and his older son David for my fathers unveiling. Ted pulled out of his pocket stones with small scribble marks on them. As he placed each on the grave stone, he was telling 'Dad' about where he found these stones, Australia and New Zealand.
I am definitely enjoying Ari's descriptions of the places he is visiting. I am looking forward to more Shmuel stories.