Report from Israel south tour (very delayed)
There is no doubt that our trip to Israel and our five weeks there were a highlight. We made many connections in Jerusalem with friends both past and new. Our Shabboses were filled with invitations and wonderful davenning. The whole country was quiet and though there were still piguim (suicide bombings) life went on. It was somewhat like being in any large city in North America after a maniac goes into McDonalds and shoots up ten people. People are shocked but life goes on. We don’t mean to invalidate or make light in any way of the seriousness of these attacks, but it was a continual blessing to see how Israelis pick up the pieces (literally) and move on. It was even weird that some tourists seem to want to see Israel as more of a victim than she sees herself. For example, when we visited the Chagall windows at Hadassah hospital, the guide told us that she had just had a group who were angry-ANGRY!- that there were no recent bombing victims to visit and cheer up. “What a blessing”she said, “no victims! But all they wanted to see was victims, not plain old Jewish people in the hospital for any number of normal troubles…””
We learned many simple lessons; perhaps the most important one was how vital it is to be able to speak Hebrew. If you are a Jew, it boils down to this: learn Hebrew-and make sure your kids learn modern Hebrew along with prayerbook Hebrew! First of all, in almost every country where there was a shul and we couldn’t speak the language (e.g. Greece and Italy) we found someone who could speak Hebrew, and there was an immediate connection. In Athens, we didn’t have our passport and the security guard wondered if he could let us in to the shul, but when the shammas came out and we started speaking fluent Hebrew with him, we were all cleared. And of course, in Israel, speaking Hebrew made us feel at home. We watched how our kids were able to integrate quickly in Israel by speaking the little modern Hebrew they had, and they learned all the necessary slang to get along with Israeli kids right away. We were able to experience real life so much more fully because we spoke the language. As simple a thing as talking to taxi drivers became a lesson in the daily life of Israel. One day we had to take two taxis; the first one was a left wing Israeli Arab who was desperate for peace so he could get on with it and make a decent living. The second was a right wing Israeli also desperate for peace. Neither one supported Arafat, interestingly, and both were ready to make any concession necessary for the road map to work. Both conversations could not have happened in depth except in Hebrew. We were able to shmooze with shopkeepers and found the average Israeli so much friendlier and warmer than we remembered from just a few years ago. The lack of swells of tourists seems to have mellowed the tourism sector, for sure, and we felt overly appreciated all the time. Taxi drivers, hotel receptions, shopkeepers would assume we were from Israel because there just were no other families with kids hiking around! But when they found out we were tourists, they inevitably all said “kol hakavod”- meaning, how great that you came. The economic despair is palatable, because the economic situation is terrible, and people fear for their daily bread. Everywhere the best stores and restaurants have closed and gone out of business temporarily. We heard of two terrible double suicides of flower growers while we were there because they were in debt of millions of shekels. No volunteers on the kibbutzim means having to hire foreign workers everywhere. It is as bad as the fear of a bomb in its own way, this fear of never returning to the “good old days” of booming tourism. We felt lonely for other tourists, to tell you the truth, though the attention we received was certainly gratifying! The general spirit for peace in Israel was hopeful, more hopeful than in the last two years. Maybe this road map will work, despite the extremists on both sides. The average Israeli is behind it and just wants to get on with life. And life is certainly beautiful there- the hills, the Kinneret, the desert- there is no place like it on earth for sheer pleasure in all the ingredients necessary for touring: hiking, art, culture, archaeology, history, and relaxation all in one place easily toured from top to bottom in a few weeks. And we saw it all- especially the south, where few ten-day tourists get to go. We spent a wonderful week with Tzvi Levran, Elyse’s old college friend, and one of Israel’s best tour guides, hiking in the desert. We started in Ein Gedi and did a sunrise hike up Masada, rewarding ourselves with the rest of the day at the Dead Sea spa, wallowing in Dead Sea mud and playing by the pool. We hiked in the flour caves in the dark, saw Lot’s wife and many other pillars of salt, and hiked the Mitzpe Crater, a majestic crater of many hues and many facets. We ended in Eilat, the “Hawaii” of Israel! We loved the silence of the desert, and really understood the Bible better with its allusions of G-ds power being like flash floods in the wilderness. We left Israel sadly, resolved take a group tour in the coming year. Anyone ready to reserve now to come with us?
We have spent two very full weeks in Jerusalem (the week of Pesach and 3 Shabbatot), and now leave for a tour of northern Israel. After the exotic (and challenges) of travel through Asia, Israel and Jerusalem have been (perhaps not that surprising, after all) amazing comfortable and familiar. Speaking Hebrew, Kosher (even for Pesach) restaurants, knowing our way around.
We arrived very close to Shabbat on Apr. 11, and felt very blessed that an old college friend of Elyse's invited us for Shabbat dinner after services at Kol Haneshamah. In fact, we feel enveloped by the constant flow of Shabbat and holiday dinner and lunch invitations that come from every direction (sometimes even complete strangers). There is a real culture of Shabbat visiting here, even among the "non-religious" because there is simply not a lot to do in Jerusalem except be with friends and family on Saturday. It seems like an automatic question: 'where are you for Shabbos- maybe you'll join us?' Regardless of the shul or people's religious 'denominational' label, it's just something everyone does, which we found so wonderful. (We also were surprised by the number of vegetarians here- which made invitations all the more comfortable). At some shuls, an announcement is made EVERY week that Shabbat lunch is available -for anyone who would like, with family X or Y (each week another family- it probably means a once a year commitment) so NO ONE who came alone to shul needs to go home and be alone. (Meet the designated family at the Aron Kodesh!) The other amazing thing about Jerusalem is that wherever you go, you run into people from your past: rabbis, cantors, people from university days, friends of friends. One can play quite a game of Jewish Geography in Jerusalem.
Pesach seemed very low key compared to what we're used to. Partly because it is only seven days, and partly because we were invited to all the holiday meals, and seder, there was very little shopping, cooking or cleaning we had to do. People don't go crazy- dishes can be kashered on every corner in big tubs, and everyone seems to eat kitniyot. Being in Israel over Pesach also feels very organic, as spring is really in the air, and the words of Shir Hashirim are really understood as you go for walks and see olives and grapes and pomegranates beginning to flower. There are many lovely special family 'fairs' at Neot Kedumim and the Israel museum with activities (like making papyrus) that we took advantage of. We went to Elyse's former professor, Ben Hollander, for Seder, and it was very lovely.
The shul hopping has been lots of fun. Kol Haneshamah is spirited, warm, great singing and we love the Friday night service there. Sat. AM we have found close by a very interesting modern Orthodox minyan- Shirah Chadashah, started by David Hartman's daughter Tovah. It's a virtual who's who of the hip, slightly out of the box, left leaning Orthodox community, including academics, people on Sabbatical, teachers from the various liberal Yeshivot. It has separate seating with a down the middle see through white gauze 'mechitzah' that is pulled back at various points in the service. Women lead many parts of the service and read from Torah and have aliyot. It is also very spirited with great singing. The toll of the 'matzav' on tourism has been devastating. We are here during a period of relative calm, and streets are busy with Israelis- there are no tourists. We hear a fair amount of English where we are staying- near Emek Refai'im, a well known 'Anglo' area, but besides Hebrew, we have mostly heard French and Russian. There are many visitors who have come for Pesach (a fair number we even know from Toronto!!) Speaking of Toronto, the most hilarious thing is the Israeli Minister of Health announcing that there is a travel advisory to Toronto, and non-essential travel should be avoided! We met a number of Israelis who were terrified of flying to Toronto- we were told, "Zeh me'od mesukan"- (It's very dangerous there!!) So glad we are here, safe in Jerusalem :-)
One sign of how few tourists are here, is that we are always spoken to in Hebrew! Passersby just assume we live here- we've been asked quite a few times for directions even!! Baruch was even stopped and yelled at by a policeman for jaywalking, and only by feigning no knowledge of Hebrew was able to avoid getting a ticket!
We had a wonderful experience at the Kotel during Hol Hamo'ed. The Ethiopian Jewish community gathers from all over the country, and we met a few women in beautiful embroidered white robes and we watched the men conclude their holiday service with a beautifully handwritten Torah codice in Amharic. They attracted the curious stares of the Hasidim - some of them were quite fascinated by the sight of black Jews, who have an authentic, ancient, but very different set of traditions. Some were also confused about whether these Jews were in fact Jewish! We went to the old city for a festival and met many 'meshugah' characters who colour the old city - everything from N-Na-Nach-Nachman to the builders of the Third Temple. We bid lit'ra'ot to Jerusalem, more excited to come back sooner rather than later. We will write again after the tiyul up North.