30 March 2009

Israel - The Western Wall

A little bit of Jewish/Old Testament history for you: The Temple Mount, also known as Mount Moriah, is said to be the spot where God gathered the dust he used to create Adam. It is the holiest spot in Judaism and one of the holiest in Islam and has thus been a contested site for a very long time. In the 10th century B.C., King Solomon built the first temple of the biblical Israelites on the holy site. It stood for around 400 years before it was destroyed by the Babylonians. A little before 40 B.C. Herod the Great came to power. He was a Roman client king, a converted Jew, insecure as a result and many of his actions were designed to curry Jewish favor. One such action was massive expansion on the site of the Temple Mount and the construction of the Second Temple. About 75 years after it was built, the Second Temple was destroyed in the first Jewish-Roman War. The Western Wall is the sole remnant of that holy temple. Over the next 2000 years, the Jews did not control the area surrounding the Wall and their activities there were regulated by the Romans, the Arabs, Muslims, Christians, etc.; they were sometimes even banned from the site outright. It was not until Israel won the Six Day War in 1967 that the Wall was once again wholly accessible to Jewish people. And it is a several hundred-year-old Jewish tradition to leave written prayers in the cracks of the wall.


On the bus ride back from the Judean Hills, one of our American trip leaders let us know that it would be a good time to write our notes for the Wall. Just about everyone around me took out a notebook and began scribbling. It took me a second to remember the whole deal with the Wall, but once I did, this seemed strange. I am not in the habit of asking God for things. I asked for one thing, more than ten years ago, I didn’t get it, and that was pretty much that. And this wasn’t a religious trip. In fact, as far as knowing Jewish history and tradition went, I was probably in the top quarter (which is saying something, as I have never been to temple other than for the bar/bat mitzvahs of others). And here were all these people that had tattoos*, that didn’t observe Shabbat, didn’t keep Kosher, stopped praying the second they weren’t forced that were going to walk up to that Wall, the holiest of holy places, and ask God for a favor. So I didn’t write a note. And though I was anxious to see the Wall because of its place in history, I didn’t expect much personal significance.

Once we got inside the old city and had our fill of shopping and falafel, our tour guide asked us to trust her for a little activity. All 40 of us closed our eyes and joined hands. Our guide led us down a flight of stairs and around a couple of corners and then arranged us in several lines. All at once, we opened our eyes, and there was the Wall from afar. It was beautiful, huge limestone blocks, a sort of hush over the area, very still people in front. A beautiful reminder of what once was. We walked down further, went through a metal detector (ancient ruins vs. modern reality can be a striking coincidence), split up into men and women and entered the approach to the Wall.

I was (relatively) alone for the first time in days and it felt very, very quiet. The women’s side is small, much smaller than the men’s side (don’t get me started…), so I had to wait my turn behind a kneeling woman. The extra time was nice - I still wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do at the Wall. I hadn’t brought a note and I wasn’t about to pray. When she backed away (you’re not supposed to turn your back on the Wall), I walked up and put my hand on a particularly large stone block about at eye level.

It was a relatively warm afternoon, probably in the 70s, but the stone was wonderfully cool. I stood there for probably about 90 seconds (hard to say) without thinking anything at all, just tracing the cracks and dimples in the 2000-year-old stone. Suddenly, without warning, all I could think of were both of my grandmothers, one of whom died in 1996, the other last year. I don’t generally have the imagination for things like this, but I swear I could feel them, almost see them. I put my head down on the hand against the Wall and thought of what it might mean to them, to my great grandparents, how significant it was to so many before me that I could be at the Wall at all. There, on our second full day, I started to get an inkling of what Israel means to the Jewish population, past, present, and future.

*When I was a senior in college, I considered getting a tattoo. Most people say they can’t think of something important enough, but I had one I wanted. It was a (casually observed) rugby tradition for the seniors to get a permanent reminder of the club logo and since we had more than 20 rugby players in my class, we thought pretty seriously about it. Jewish law prohibits the intentional defacement of the body, which I knew, but didn’t particularly care about. But I kept coming back to the fact that there are an awful lot of Jewish people (and others!) in pits in Eastern Europe with long since decomposed tattoos on their arms and in the end, it felt disrespectful and I couldn’t do it. I certainly believe that your body is your own and it is your decision what you do with it – not a rabbi’s, not religious law, and not the ghosts of the past. But I am willing to posit that anyone with a tattoo does not feel particularly Jewish (or did not at the time). Arguments welcome...

16 March 2009

Israel - Intro

It’s strange to be back from Israel. Or more accurately, it’s not strange, and that’s strange. It’s actually pretty easy to be back. Wonderful to see my friends and the cat and especially my perfect American shower (what is the rest of the world thinking??), and not even too bad to go back to work. But Israel was such an incredible experience that I don’t want everything to go back to exactly the way it was before. So I’m working to find little ways to keep what I found there with me in some way. Writing things down is at least a start.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but here are some questions I got quite a bit of before I left and answers from the heart of the beast. A summary of my itinerary in Israel is also below.

Is it safe?
This is a pretty definitive yes. Though I wasn’t as worried as some people, I did expect to find something of a war zone. Couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, there is ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. And yes, the security in Israel is more visible than in the United States. There are checkpoints with uniformed soldiers on the road (particularly into and out of Jerusalem) that would be difficult to miss. And military weapons are very visible, often in the possession of soldiers out of uniform, which is certainly something to get used to. But kids play baseball in beautifully landscaped parks in Jerusalem, Bedouin nomads serve coffee and play music safe and sound in tents in the Negev desert and people laugh and float in the Dead Sea – in short, the majority of Israel is peaceful, happy, sometimes even idyllic.

Isn’t it just a desert?
Not at all. This is another thing I was surprised to find. The south end of the country is overwhelmed by the Negev desert (beautiful in its own way, but certainly a bit of an ecological wasteland), but Jerusalem is surprisingly green, Tel Aviv is on the Mediterranean and even a bit humid and the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee are absolutely gorgeous - rocky and green and a little reminiscent of Ireland. Overall, I’d say the climate is somewhat like California with a really hot summer.

Is everyone a Superjew? Do I have to be religious?
Nope. It’s pretty neat to be in a place where most people are Jewish (if you think about it, places in the United States are considered to be “very Jewish” if the population reaches 15% or so), but Israel mirrors the world Jewish population in its lack of religious fervor. There are large populations of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, but in general, the country is fairly secular. That said, it is a very noticeably Jewish state. The weekend is Friday-Saturday and stores are closed on Saturday in observance of Shabbat. And I doubt anyone knew it was Lent, which is pretty hilarious to any Jew from the US…

Do Orthodox Jews spit on people?
I’ve heard this can be a problem for those who are not respectful of holy places. For instance, those who are not dressed modestly at the Western Wall have been known to have altercations. But I behaved myself at all times (of course!) and though I think that as a culture, our interpretation of modest dress can be a little…loose…we had no problems. The Orthodox went about their business and we went about ours.

Why do we work so hard to preserve Israel? I’ve heard it’s a terrible place to live.
I actually only heard this question twice (and not in so many words), so this is a bit of an excuse to get up on my soapbox. But it’s important. Israel is a beautiful, fertile, happy place. The people who live there are proud, grateful, and determined to keep the land they love. I would encourage anyone who doubts it to go – you’ll fall in love too.

March 1-11, 2009

Day 1 & Day 10

Day 2: Jerusalem/Judean Desert
Hike through the Judean foothills – Biblical Israel Plant a tree in Jerusalem

Day 3: Jerusalem
The Old City and the Western Wall

Day 4: The Negev Desert
Desert waterfall hike
Floating in the Dead Sea
Camel riding
The Bedouin experience

Day 5: Negev/Jersualem
Negev canyons hike
Israeli soldiers arrive
Mahane Yehuda (Jerusalem's marketplace)
Shabbat candle ceremony and return to the Western Wall

Day 6: Shabbat in Jerusalem
Walking tour of Jerusalem
Havdallah ceremony to welcome a new week

Day 7: Jerusalem/Galilee
Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum)
Har Herzl (Israeli military cemetery)
Overnight on a Kibbutz

Day 8: Galilee/Tzfat/Tel Aviv
View of the Sea of Galilee and Tiberius
Kaballah - Jewish Mysticism Purim in Tel Aviv.

Day 9: Tel Aviv
Independence Hall and Rabin Square
Mediterranean Sea
Quick tour of Jaffa (ancient seaport & artist colony)