At Newark airport despite the Glatt Kosher food stands close to our departure gate and the large number of Charedim (Hasidim) and their families, the majority of those about to board the El Al flight to Israel were Christian pilgrims. We learned later that 80% of tourists visiting Israel are Christians and they never cancel! The week we were going to be in Israel was a break week for yeshivas so there was a large contingent of high school students traveling and the second semester students bound for Tel Aviv University program for American students. This made for a "noisy" flight. When the sun came up a minyan was organized in the back of the plane and many of the women pulled out their personal siddur to daven by themselves. As we touched down they piped in "Hayvenu Shalom Alechem" and the Christian pilgrims raised their arms and yelled Hallelujah.
When we met our tour guide, it turned out he was on the same trip to Israel as I in 1967, and now in addition to being a tour guide he runs the Israel teen program. Another person, now a rabbi, who came with us, was also on that 1967 trip. On the way to Jerusalem we made a stop at the Ramah forest to plant trees. Having been in Israel just 18 months ago, the drive was not as much of a shock as it had been, when it had been 26 years since we had last been there. We arrived at Hill 16 overlooking the narrow part of the road to Jerusalem, where we heard the story about the convoys breaking through the Arab siege during the War of Independence.
It felt good to get out and walk a little in the hills, and was a good wake up after the flight. On the way to the planting site we passed almond trees in bloom, carob (boxer) on the ground already having bloomed, and a general spring feeling. It was only two weeks before Tu Beshvat, and one can feel why the holiday celebrates the rising of the sap in trees, there where it really is happening, as opposed to in the US where it's still rainy and cold. We planted carob trees in an area that suffered a forest fire in 1995 that burned 2-1/2 million trees in six hours, trees that had all been planted, and had taken 60 years to grow! We each dedicated our tree to someone we wanted to remember, and I dedicated mine to Jane Paul Rappaport, who lost her battle with breast cancer last year. It was an interesting way of introducing ourselves to the others on the trip.
We got back on the bus, and as the sun was setting, we headed up to Jerusalem. There were two women on our trip that had recently lost family members and needed to say kaddish. We pulled the bus over on the outskirts of Jerusalem and davened mincha right there "on the bus!" We arrived at the hotel and I had a wonderful visit with Silvia Feldman, her mother (who was also visiting), and Silvia's boyfriend, Gabriel. You may remember that Silvia was an exchange student from Uruguay who lived with us for a year in 1994. She now lives in Israel, and as we are in the same hemisphere we will undoubtedly see each other more often. It was wonderful to be with her, and in Jerusalem of all places. Her mother speaks Spanish, English, and Yiddish, Silvia speaks Spanish, English, and Hebrew, and Gabriel speaks Hebrew and Spanish, so it was an interesting mix....I definitely got to use my Hebrew on this trip.
Next morning, with remarkably no jet lag, and in "ha'aretz" for all of 27 hours we got on the bus and rode out the the Tayelet (Haas Promenade) right on the green line (pre '67 border) to get an historic overview of the city, a superb panorama of both the old and new city of Jerusalem. We created a human time line of Jewish history with highlights (or low lights) from Abraham to 1948 and Israel independence. We reboarded the bus and headed to the Old City entering in through the Zion Gate, greeted by King David, complete with harp and a tin cup! We went on a treasure hunt through the Jewish quarter they called "roving the rova." Since it was only a month past Chanukah one of the things we were directed to are menorah windows. Since many of the homes have no window on the street side, they have special window niches for a menorah, as you are supposed to have your menorah displayed for all to see. It is on the opposite side of the mezuzah, so that one is surrounded by mitzvot ...
Shwarma for lunch, then to the Kotel ... put in prayers for a number of people who requested messages of healing and a wish for my own family to make another trip to Israel sooner rather than later! I missed having my family with me, whenever we experienced something new on this trip. They are still building all the time around the Kotel. I saw progress (if you could call it that) since my last visit. We went up on the roof of a Hezder yeshiva (modern orthodox) for the most amazing view of the kotel and it's surroundings. A hezder yeshiva is the place where orthodox men go who are willing to serve in the army. It is difficult to be observant and serve, so they make up units of exclusively observant men (i.e. those who want to pray three times daily, etc.) so that their tour of duty is 5 years instead of 3 years. In between tours they study at these Yeshivot. They were very nice to us, and it was an interesting place to observe this type of advanced study.
We took the tunnel tour but this time went all the way through (can't believe people died for this!)...It's totally a "non-starter". We exited into the Christian quarter but I can understand why this tunnel completion was a perceived threat. Apparently the excavations were completed long ago, it was just the exit that had been closed.
We left the old city through the Lion's Gate, in the midst of Palestinian Rush hour. Quite a scene. Back to the hotel and a walk around Ben Yehuda and the shopping district. Trying to stay on Israel time, so far so good....I think with such a short trip I'm psyched not to feel any jet lag. Spoke with my father, who just retired and immediately signed up for a volunteer stint of two months with his wife and retired folk from the US and Canada. They teach English in the morning and prune trees in the afternoon in the forest, a JNF sponsored trip. This trip, at this time, has special meaning for him, since he fought in Israel's War of Independence, and this is the 50th anniversary. He has made contact with some of his old "war" buddies. In the evening, of what I can't believe is still the first full day here, we journey to the Israel Museum, passing Benjamin Netanyahu, just returned from Washington. One of my favorite museums, we participate in another treasure hunt around the museum and see the smallest set of tefilin, discovered by Yigael Yadin. We have heard his moving account about this. He was not an observant Jew but felt a spiritual connection to this tiniest of ritual objects. It was wonderful.
Learned something new: the arches built under the temple mount and around it may have been meant to keep the high priests separated from any kind of uncleanliness, diseased people or animals down below, insects, etc. El Al has a special chamber of their planes where bodies being borough back for burial in Israel are kept with a separation (like an arch) so that if there are any "kohanim" (priests) onboard they won't be contaminated by the bodies.
On to the North ... we passed through Jericho and it gave me a good feeling to see the Palestinian police there instead of Israeli soldiers. We saw some joint patrols of Israelis and Palestinians and signs like Bank of Palestine and lots of Palestinian flags. We passed through several city sized developments and many Arab villages and Bedouin enclaves. It's amazing how green it is and how many trees there are, planted I think.
It was Rosh Hodesh and on the way north we passed the mountains from which flares were raised to let people know when to celebrate, all the way to Damascus. One of those perfect "educational moments." We stopped at the top of Mt Gilboa, where we were given some text about King Saul and as we looked over an incredible panorama of the Jordan Valley we were pointed to the home of the Witch of Ein Dor and then how Saul lost the important battle with the Philistines close to the spot we were sitting and committed suicide. We then were given costumes and a script to reenact the story of Ahab and Jezebel, also close to where we actually were. Once again a true "educational moment."
We visited the Beit Alpha mosaic, always wonderful to see, with its well preserved simplicity. Now there is a video accompanying it, that enriches the meaning of the symbols quite a bit. Lots of cats, and political signs in support of Ehud Barak, who will probably run against Netanyahu, if he ever gets the chance. A stop in Beit Shean for what our bus driver, Avi, says is the best falafel in Israel. It was very good, marinated lemons as a topping and NO french fries ... I've always thought the french fries sort of a weird addition, maybe a concession to the fast food places that seem to be overtaking falafel as the national snack. Then on to Tiberius along the Jordan Valley with the border right next to us. Amazing how Jordan on its side looks just like Israel on this side. So incredibly green and lush.
Before entering Tiberius itself we made a stop at the Kinneret cemetery where many of the pioneers who came on the first Aliyah are buried. It was quite moving and we had mincha there (we've managed to do that every day) since we have two people saying kaddish. We stood right next to the lake as the sun was setting. Found out Rabbi Akiba's tomb is probably not even his tomb, so sad...
Tiberius was filled with Christian groups, our hotel though very nice was described by one of our group members as looking like a Howard Johnsons. We met our tour operator Amsalem Tours, who so generously brought us here. They are based in Tiberius. Very hospitable and seem like they run a fabulous operation. They told us that 80% of the tourists who come to Israel are Christians and they never cancel, no matter what is happening in the country. For them a trip to the holy land is a pilgrimage. Maybe we can learn a little from them!
Our hotel is overlooking the lake, very nice and a fabulous view. During the night there was a thunderstorm of Biblical proportions ... in the morning we boarded the bus and went to Tzippori, the ruins of the city where the mishna was written (center of the Sanhedrin after Beit Shearim), a magnificent place, where they have been excavating for 15 years and are still working on it. It's huge with stunning mosaics, the most beautiful I've ever seen. Then we went to the next hill across to Kfar Kedem, a recreated village from Mishnaic times. We rode on donkeys and had a fabulous lunch. Picked herbs for havdalah, as they grow and produce everything as it was back then. Nice group of people. Back to Jerusalem, pouring rain, and very cold. Stopped in Jericho this time on the way back, bought oranges and a few souvenirs (friend of the bus driver, naturally). They were quite hospitable, naturally....
Missed Silvia who had planned to meet me in Jerusalem one more time, but the rain kept her away. Their car is quite funky, no seatbelts, etc., so it's just as well they didn't come. Spent the night with some of the others on the trip, which was nice to get to know them a little better, not sitting on the bus. Did a little shopping on Ben Yehuda.
In the morning we boarded the bus for the last time (for me anyway). The rest of the group will spend Shabbat together in Jerusalem, while I visit Silvia and my dad in Tel Aviv. Their Shabbat sounds much more "Shabbosdik" than mine will be, but I really want to spend time with Silvia. We head for the coast and Rehovot. Didn't know why this was included on the trip until we arrive there. It's called the Ayalon Institute, which is now a museum but between 1946-48 it was a bullet factory 24 feet under the ground with a fake kibbutz above ground. An amazing story and an interesting place to visit. I've asked many Israelis about this place since and the only one who knows about it is my father (who visited there the day before we did!).
On the way back to Jerusalem we detoured into the Jerusalem forest, reminding me of home. Narrow road, steep drop offs, trees all around, drizzle and fog. It was magnificent. We visited a sculpture called Megillat Ha'esh by Natan Rappaport. He is a prominent Israeli artist and a holocaust survivor. This monumental sculpture in the form of a tearing scroll has figures covering it that tell the story of holocaust to establishment of the state. It was powerful, but brings up as many questions as it answers about the relationship of the holocaust to the state of Israel.
We head back to Jerusalem in the rain, so we make a stop at the shopping mall for lunch at of all places, Kentucky Fried Chicken! What a way to leave the group ... I take a sherut (taxi) from here to meet Silvia and see her mother off at the airport a little more than 24 hours before I myself leave the country....it's been a whirlwind. On the way to Tel Aviv we see many flower sellers and many people buying flowers for Shabbat. I'm sad to leave the country, but happy I had the chance once again to be here.
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Last updated 05/15/98 (RGE)
Copyright Mina Cohen 1998