During our first full day in Israel, my wife and I entered an old make-shift mini-synagogue tucked away in a corner of downtown Tiberias. Once inside, we saw a few men praying. One of them shuffled over to us and affectionately (as if we were his own bubbulas) escorted us to the curtained Ark. Then he placed his hand gently on my head, ready to recite a blessing. But before he began, he addressed a white-bearded compatriot, whom he called Schlomo. I then blurted out that I had the same first name: “Ani (I) Schlomo.” Both men seemed to be delighted by this revelation. They chuckled and jabbered and jiggled.
Eventually, our ingratiating host blessed me and then my wife. He could not have been more endearing. Just after the ceremony ended, however, he grabbed my arm and harshly said “money.” It had not occurred to me that his services required a donation; he sure emphatically reminded me of my obligation. Taken aback, I slid whatever coins I had into the slot that he unceremoniously directed me to. I guess that all of the good will that everyone had generated up to that point and even my being named after a royal member of the tribe (Schlomo was King Solomon’s Hebrew name) didn’t give me a shekel-free ride.
Later that night, while my wife and I were trying to locate an address near a landmark called the Solomon, I asked an elderly lady for help. At first, it was futile. Repeatedly but respectfully, I said the word Solomon. Even though she didn’t understand what I meant and was getting as flustered as I was, she hardly gave up. Without warning, she shouted out Solomon to someone at a nearby house and to anyone else in the vicinity. They all were stumped. All of a sudden, I switched gears. I said “Schlomo.” The woman then asked, “Melech (King) Schlomo?” As I nodded, she got real animated. Waving her hands, she pointed up the street and almost in a frenzy shouted out “Schlomo, Schlomo!” I graciously thanked her (she didn’t demand any money for her trouble) and within a few steps, my wife and I approached the Hotel Solomon—thanks to my namesake and the kindness of a stranger.
Sobering Enlightenment at the Heichal Shlomo Museum
This elaborate shrine contains a wealth of Jewish memorabilia. Three rooms were particularly striking. One housed a collection of anti-Semitic propaganda in the form of grotesquely caricatured Jewish figurines and graphic images of rapacious Jews found in newspaper clippings and posters around the world. Very disturbing stuff! Another room had a dozen or so hanging cloth bags containing irreparably damaged Torahs from Holocaust Europe. Each of the “deceased” was numbered as if it were a tattoo in the concentration camps.
But the most emotional moment for me occurred in part of a room containing a tallit that had survived many close calls since the Holocaust. The incident involved a ship with illegal Jewish immigrants who had tried to dock at Haifa during the Holocaust. The British, not allowing the refugees to disembark, demanded that the ship return to Nazi-dominated Europe, where the deportees would most likely be slaughtered.
Some of the Zionist activists on board decided it was better to blow up the ship than send the immigrants back to a certain death—a situation akin to the mass suicides in Masada to avoid Roman slavery. Hundreds of Jews were killed (and 20 British soldiers) in the explosion, but the tallit years later was recovered intact in Haifa harbor.
The Dome of the Rock
In the morning, we visited The Temple Mount. It was a much larger area than we had anticipated. Besides the famous mosques, there were many arches and seemingly endless pavement. The Dome of the Rock, which we had frequently seen at various angles from the Mount of Olives and from Hebrew University at Mount Scopus, up-close was impressive but not as spectacular if we had never had a glimpse of it from afar. We knew that we, as non-Muslims, were not allowed to go into the Dome of the Rock.
As we neared the open-door entrance, we met someone who was figuring some religious beads. He reminded us that there was a reason why non-Muslims can’t enter the sanctuary, and of course we were aware of the reason for the prohibition: before we could respond, he said: “Christians and Jews are unclean.” This Muslim asserted Islam’s superiority to other degenerate faiths.
We soon lost our desire to stay any longer at the Temple Mount. As we left, Stan brooded over the fact that Muslims for decades have allegedly bulldozed—in the environs of the Dome of the Rock—archaeological remains of the Second Temple, trying to eradicate any evidence that there even was such a structure. That way, the Muslims can claim sole jurisdiction over the Temple Mount. In fact, Middle-Eastern Muslim clerics and politicians have invariably denied that there ever was a Second Temple, never mind a First Temple. Their claims (especially about the Second Temple) are bogus according to dozens of excavations over the years that have found internationally authenticated remains of the Second Temple.
A Low Point at High Noon
Ultra-fundamentalist Protestant ministers—from Jonathan Edwards (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) to Jeremiah Wright (his jeremiads against racist America)—have been notable and notorious for their vehemently passionate sermons.
Yesterday, my wife and I, while eating at the Nazareth Restaurant, heard what sounded like a hell, fire, and brimstone harangue during an outdoor Friday noon Muslim religious service half a block away.
The ceremony began quietly with a few moments of melodic chanting. But then the religious leader began a furious half-hour diatribe. His tone was so strident—and possibly mean spirited—that my wife and I initially feared that the violence in his voice might stir up some violence in the streets. But a nearby Israeli riot-control cop showed no concern at all—he just listened to the ranting for a while and then moved on. So we figured that it was safe enough to stay put and finish our meal. Still, it was unnerving (even as bystanders) to be subjected to such a loud, relentless verbal onslaught. When the speaker finally ended his tirade, the crowd slowly and peacefully disbanded. Amen to that!
Mayhem, No; Mitzvah, Yes
As my wife and I drove away from one of the Golan Heights’ scenic outpost outlooks, a young man in ultra-orthodox garb—his payis (ear locks) flapping in the wind—frantically waved at us to stop. He seemed genuinely alarmed, so we accommodated him. Immediately, he rushed behind us and slammed shut our wide-open trunk that we had evidently forgotten to close. Without asking for our abundant gratitude, he quickly continued to walk up the mountain path.
We didn’t reflect on this incident until after arriving near dark at our apartment a few hours later. My wife’s new hi-tech pal, the iPad 2, which she had left in the trunk and which she had not used that day, was missing. No matter how painstakingly my wife and I ransacked the trunk (and the rest of the car) that evening and the next morning, we couldn’t locate the iPad. Throughout our frustrating searches, we began to suspect that the piously dressed young man was a fraud—he himself (or one of his conniving cohorts) might have stolen the device just before he closed the trunk.
Even though we were getting resigned to being scammed, I made one last attempt to find the iPad. While my wife was entering an ancient church, I began to dismantle the carpet in the trunk. As I did so, I felt something like a plastic latch embedded in the middle of the rounded trunk panel. I yanked on it; the handle and then the rest of the miraculously undamaged iPad emerged. Somehow, in all of our scouring within the trunk, we must have pushed the iPad into its securely hidden pocket.
I was elated. I jumped about, tracked down my wife, deliriously displayed the iPad to her, and watched her beam at my heroic catch.
After we calmed down, we realized that we had made some obviously careless mistakes during the past two days. We failed to shut the trunk; and we didn’t have the foresight to get a flashlight. As we have learned in prior excavations for our lost treasures, the flashlight is your friend. But our greatest error was to assume that someone had hijacked our iPad. It’s so tempting to play the victim; it’s much harder to look within ourselves.
Odds and Ends in Northern Israel
Have Uzi, Will Travel
At Mt. Betel, I saw a contingent of young IDF (Israeli Defense Force) recruits eating at the site’s restaurant and kibitzing with one another. I wasn’t surprised that they were dressed in combat attire and had Uzis slung around their shoulders. But I was a little taken aback when I noticed that two of the soldiers were women who looked very comfortable not only with their comrades but also with their submachine guns. Before long, I saw a fellow in a T-shirt and shorts; he may have been out of uniform, but he too had an Uzi strapped to him.
Israelis are Schizoid
Israeli drivers are notoriously aggressive. That’s why I let my wife—who is much more adventuresome than I am—do all of the driving. So far, we have had no mishaps on the road, despite the universal, unnerving honking and the anxiety caused when cars, vans, and even tour buses are swarming and swerving all around us. Pedestrians don’t fare much better. While I was taking my power walk yesterday, I saw a young woman get into her car and begin to speed on a street where further down three small children were kicking a soccer ball. I figured that she would slow down a little or perhaps even (God forbid) stop for a moment so that the children could safely get back to the sidewalk. But, maintaining her speed, she just tooted her horn, scattering the luckily unscathed children in her wake.
I guess Israelis drivers are in a great rush to get to their destinations. Yet waiting in line—whether in a mini-mart or a huge grocery store—Israelis are extremely patient. It makes no difference if the check-out person is male or female, old or young, stout or bony, monolingual or multilingual. All of them are super slow.
But the Israeli shoppers don’t seem to mind if the clerks minutely examine every item that slides along the counter, as if it were an artifact at an archaeological dig. No one fidgets or complains when the clerks—in slow motion—lift their fingers to ring up an item and ever so gently nudge it to its resting place. But there is an upside to this Zen-like process: the customer, not the clerk, is required to bag the groceries. Otherwise, even the most stoic of the Israeli shoppers might have trouble enduring the already time consuming check-out routine.
I may curse the willfulness of the Israeli driver, but I respect the will power of the Israeli shopper.
Our GPS Has a Mind of its Own
The spelling of towns and attractions in the Israel-based GPS sometimes doesn’t coincide with how those areas are normally denoted in the tour books or even in local maps. It took my wife and me hours to locate a nearby national park because the GPS was useless. According to it, Hamat Tiberias didn’t exist: but as we later learned, the GPS would have gotten us there promptly if we had known that it decided to add another letter to the first word—Hamat became Khamat.
Another time, we had to rely on an exceptionally detailed map instead of the GPS in order to locate a town called Banias because the idiosyncratic GPS couldn’t find the place. It turned out that if we had added another s to Banias, then the GPS would have accommodated us. As the lord of the highway coordinates in the sky, the GPS giveth extra letters and taketh away our sanity.
Requiem for a Toenail
All of my adult life, I have had ingrown toenails on my big toes. A few years ago, the one on my left foot got so infected that I had to have it (and the whole toenail, as it turned out) surgically removed. Since then, most of it has regrown—mercifully not ingrown—but it is brittle and looks like a veined, grotesque claw. My podiatrist must have been a butcher in another life. Not wanting the same ugly, embarrassing result for my right foot’s big toe, I have scrupulously excised any bit of nail that begins to cut into the tip of my skin.
A couple of days ago in Tiberias, I noticed a different problem: a snippet of the base of the toenail was missing, and the remaining toenail was a bit loose at that spot. I got alarmed. The toenail on my left foot was an eyesore; now the toenail on my right foot was beginning to erode from the bottom up.
Yet I had no time to dote on that specific anxiety. I was worried enough the next day when my wife and I journeyed to the Dead Sea on part of route 90 that (as our GPS warned us) went through a potentially dangerous portion of The West Bank. Thankfully, we had no mishaps along the way.
I was so grateful to have made it safely to the Dead Sea that I even forgot about my disappearing right toenail. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed luxuriating in the restorative salt waters at the beach and at the spa where we were staying.
Before we left the hotel, however, I happened to look at my right foot: the big toenail was completely gone—probably because of its being immersed in such high concentrations of salt. At first, I was shocked. Then I reevaluated. I thought of the upside. I would no longer have to painstakingly dig out the beginnings of an ingrown toenail on my right foot. And I would no longer have to fret about the prospect of having another botched surgery to remove an ingrown toenail. Of course, if the toenail regrows, it might look like the disfigured one on my left foot; but for now, I am content.
Tony Bennett may have regretted leaving his heart in San Francisco. I am relieved that I have left my toenail at the Dead Sea.
Ah, Those Ah-Ha Moments
During my power walk in Tiberias, I routinely encounter a few obstacles. As I get out of the elevator located on the lower exposed parking deck, I at times have to dodge birds flitting about (my condo building could be designated as a bird sanctuary). Once outside, my concern is drivers who all too often erratically scoot inches away from me. Sometimes I have to hopscotch over dog poop (there is no leash law in Tiberias), and I have to make sure that I bypass an area where a couple of watch dogs once lunged at my legs. And I try to stay clear of the cats that feast on the garbage in the overflowing dumpsters.
Although usually my walk is uneventful, I have had a few ah-ha moments along the way. As I trod up a hill and approached a large apartment complex that I had passed by for over a week, I had a flash: that same building was the one that my wife and I couldn’t find a week earlier on our own while walking downhill in the dark. Mercifully, a man in a beauty salon had given us a lift to the right address so that we could be on time for supper with a couple who were to debrief us about Tiberias. After all of the fruitless searching that we did, I was sure that I could never find their place again. But now, ah ha, I can readily home in on their apartment, going uphill or downhill.
My second fortuitous insight occurred a few days later. I have always noticed a sign downtown that indicated—with an arrow—that the Tombs of the Matriarchs were nearby, but neither by car or on foot had I been able to locate the site. But mid-way in my walk last week in the twilight, I just happened to get curious about what was housed in an alcove up a long paved driveway ending in stone stairs.
After I climbed up, I saw a huge walk-around granite tomb and shelves of Hebrew prayer books buttressed against one side of it. Then I noticed a nondescript, unadorned monument to six biblical women: the mother of Moses (Jochebad), one of the wives of Moses (Zipporah), one of the wives of Aaron (Elisheva), one of the wives of King David (Abigail), one of the handmaids of Rachel (Bilhah), and one of the handmaidens of Leah (Zipah). And in a bit of serendipity, the tomb was directly opposite the once-hard-to-find apartment complex on the hill.
The last revelation on my walking route was the most meaningful. My wife and I had visited Sefat, an age-old center of Kabbalistic scholarship and—we discovered—the highest city in Israel. The only time I ever thought I’d see it again was if we drove back to it from Tiberias, an arduous thirty-minute haul through lots of switchbacks. Near the end of my walks, I have always slowed down to gaze at the hazy mountains of the Upper Galilee outlined with a few towns and villages.
But walking on the day after I had been to Sefat, the sky was abnormally clear. And then it happened. I stopped short. Entrenched on the highest mountain top was a wide berth of houses that reminded me of the ones I had recently seen in Sefat. Could that be mystical Sefat, no longer enshrouded in mist? I became exhilarated, euphoric: for the first time during my trip to Israel, I felt a vibrant connection to my heritage. The next day, I found out that Sefat was indeed where I thought it was—not just geographically but in my heart as well.
John Winthrop in a sermon once fervently called Boston a city on a hill, alluding to a phrase from the Gospel of Matthew. Drawing similar inspiration, Ronald Reagan famously referred to America as a city on a hill. Well, I have seen my own city on a hill, and it’s the real deal.
Our tour guide in Petra, Jordan, told my wife and me to shoo away any of the children who try to sell us souvenirs as we progress into the canyons. My wife, who once taught and tamed students at middle school, did a good job: when she said no, every one of the urchins stayed clear of her. It wasn’t just her firm voice; her body language left no wiggle room for ambiguity. I, on the other hand, wasn’t as successful at first. As with my grandchildren, I have difficulty saying no as if I really mean it. I am too inherently courteous to be curt.
After my wife reminded me that I must be more forceful in dismissing these omnipresent pests, I dredged up a new tactic: relying on my patented gibberish—a kind of guttural guttersniping—that I delivered with resounding authority. As the next unsuspecting little entrepreneur approached with his wares, I snarled something like vachvatuch-kvark-pflutchig. Perhaps flabbergasted, perhaps cowed, he fled from me; and I never had to deal with him or his cohorts again. I had triumphed, pleasing my wife and regaining my machismo. At the same time, I did feel sorry for the poor kid. I guess there aren’t too many paper routes in Jordan, eh?
Not Exactly a Stairway to Heaven
My wife and I went with a tour group for a three-hour overview of the Old City of Jerusalem. Throughout our walk, we had to climb up and down hundreds of stairs between and within the Armenian, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Quarters. I was getting pretty well adjusted to this regimen by the time I took my last bathroom break down yet another stairway.
On the way back, I trod up the stairs until I noticed that a couple of women had stopped to let me through a gate at another level. I unthinkingly passed through it, closed it, and then began climbing once again. Suddenly, I realized that I had wandered too far away from the exit where my wife was awaiting my return. As I descended to open the gate, I grabbed onto the handle. It wouldn’t budge, whether I jerked it up or down.
No one was nearby to help me get through, so I hollered for my wife. She promptly arrived. Used to my endearingly bumbling ways (I once locked myself in a men’s room in Paris), she wasn’t surprised at my predicament. Sometimes, she encourages me to extricate myself from the fixes I get into; sometimes, she takes over and frees me. Before she had a chance to decide which option she’d choose, a man came towards me from above the landing. He gestured for me to press a button a few feet up the stairs. I hurriedly did so, but the gate would not open. This guy was obviously messing with me. I was convinced that I needed a key to open the gate from the inside. And he certainly wasn’t going to let me use his. I was beginning to feel a bit queasy being trapped behind bars with a man who liked to taunt me. But then he shook his head and said to press the upper part of the button. How was I supposed to know that the button had two different pressure points? I did as he indicated. Immediately, there was a buzz, and the gate opened as I pushed the handle. I was tremendously relieved; the man smiled, and I thanked him as I left with my wife.
For three hours, I had adroitly maneuvered around myriads of steps, never making a false move, never getting lost. Every time that I pat myself on the back, I do something foolish the next moment. Usually my self-congratulation leads to self-flagellation, but not today. I was an intruder on the stairs of someone’s private residence. Yet after the resident heard me shout for help, he quickly came to my aid, even though I was a clueless tourist—and he had probably seen plenty of them over the years.
The tour guide often remarked that he hoped that the conflicts in Jerusalem would ultimately be peacefully resolved and usher in a happy ending to an age-old bitter saga. Well, I’d like to think that today a stranger and I made one small step in that direction.
Two Prospects of Sudden Death
Last week, my wife and I were determined to traverse every cave in Beit Guvrin-Tel Maresha National Park. At one point, after we climbed up a rutted path to a 360 degree view of the flourishing Judean Hills, my wife realized that she had left her camera in the car. Naturally, I volunteered to retrieve it. I quickly found it and rushed up the steep incline to rendezvous with my ever elusive wife. As I reached the crest of the hill, I felt as if the air was thinning out in my lungs and that my heart was shutting down.
Dehydration, my old nemesis, had overpowered me once more, this time with a vengeance. Instead of panicking, my usual response, I gazed at the all-encompassing Judean Hills and thought that if I were now to die, this grand sanctuary would be a perfect spot. Soon, my beatific moment ended, I regained my strength, I spied my wife down the path, and I joined her—and the water bottle that she was carrying. I certainly was glad that I was alive, but I did miss the sanctified feeling that I had on the top of the hill. I wonder if the prophets, perhaps from dehydration as well, experienced some of their epiphanies while embraced by the Judean Hills.
But I wasn’t done with visions of death that day. As my wife and I were leaving the park, I started to choke on a fistful of raisins. My wife, who was driving down the hills where there was no shoulder, got alarmed but couldn’t stop to Heimlich maneuver me. In the meantime, the choking got much worse. I tried to swallow—no luck. Inhaling was impossible. I had the terrifying sensation that I was going to die, not nobly as before, but ignominiously, without any raison d’etre. After a few more seconds of fright, I slowly recovered, ecstatic to still be alive.
I have no yearning for death. But if I had a choice, I’d opt for death by dehydration, alone at a mountain top, rather than death by asphyxiation in a car, with my wife watching—I presume—in horror.
This morning my wife woke up before I did—a rare occurrence. But only after I heard the computer-generated voice say “It’s 10 o’clock” did I get alarmed. I had slept almost 10 hours—another rare occurrence. **bleep**! As my wife and I had previously deliberated, we were supposed to go no later than 10:30 to see Marc Chagall’s twelve stained-glass windows representing the tribes of Israel. Slightly disoriented, I labored out of bed to make some coffee. When I saw my wife at her computer, I asked her why she had let my stay in bed so long. She, not at all concerned, said that she had just gotten up herself. Well, she might be uncharacteristically blasé about our appointment, but I rushed (only after the coffee kicked in) to get ready.
After zipping through my morning ablutions, thrashing around to find my clothes, and not too delicately eating my breakfast, I realized that it was indeed too late to view Chagall’s masterwork at the Hadassah Hospital Synagogue in Ein Kerem. And yet my wife, who I discovered was still in her nightgown and had only sipped a bit of coffee, seemed quite content.
We now had only a few hours before attending a 5:00 chamber music concert at the nearby Jerusalem Theater. It was my responsibility to figure out where to go and how to get back in time. First I consulted my watch: another setback. It was almost three hours slow, and I had just had a new battery put in it yesterday. **bleep**! It must be broken. My wife didn’t bring hers to Israel, and our cell phones are inactive as well.
I began to say Kaddish for my old, reliable timepiece until I looked up. For the first time this morning, I noticed the kitchen wall clock. The time was 8:15, the same time that my watch had indicated. How could my watch and the clock both be three hours slow? Feeling as if I were in the Twilight Zone, I then asked my wife what was the real time. She serenely said that it was still early. I had evidently misheard the time voiced by the computer while I was wriggling around in bed, half asleep.
Now I have a question. Did my wife knowingly let me think that we had only a few minutes to take the bus to the hospital synagogue, or was she so caught up in her computer emails that she was oblivious to my plight? I think I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt; otherwise, I might need the benefit of clergy.
The last time we hoofed it up to the Mount of Olives, my wife and I were too worn out to see the last two churches at the summit. So today, we decided to take the only inexpensive way to the top: public Arab bus 75, whose headquarters are located next to the Old City’s Damascus Gate. At first, I regretted taking this shortcut.
We waited in the heat for almost 20 minutes for an Israeli bus to get us to the Damascus Gate. We finally gave up and walked instead to the rendezvous point at the Arab bus station. Many bus numbers were listed on the signs around the station, but not 75, the only one that traveled to the Mount of Olives. Nor could we determine where to catch Bus 75—if it really existed despite what the tour guides stated—because all of the bus booths down the road had blanked-out bus numbers. But then we thought we got lucky. My wife spotted Bus 75 as it turned around a rotary and headed towards us. We waved at the driver to stop, but he ignored us.
By this time, I was beginning to unravel. My wife, however, whose abiding virtue is persistence, would never give up, even if it meant trying to flag down every Bus 75 as we trudged forward on our so-far ill-omened way to the Mount of Olives.
Fortunately, we got an unexpected break. A bus driver for bus 76, who saw us wandering about, asked us where we were going. When we said that we needed to be on Bus 75, he promised to help us. All of a sudden, a bus 75 drove by going in the opposite direction. Our Good Samaritan persuaded the other driver to stop and wait for my wife and me: we thanked him and rushed around a long median barrier to alight on our most sought after ride. The Bus 75 driver very graciously welcomed us and took us right next to the Church of the Paternoster.
At that site, we saw dozens of plaques in foreign languages that transcribed the Lord’s Prayer. It was a powerful testament of faith. And the church itself was resplendent with sanctity. But what impressed me the most about our day up to that point and beyond were the two Arab bus drivers who showed so much kindness to a couple of beleaguered tourists. To that outpouring of humanity, I say amen.
KIND BUT CRAFTY
Seeing that my wife and I were walking tentatively through a crowded section of the Old City, a genial old Jewish man popped up to give us some advice about how to maneuver through the maze of alleyways. He soon began chatting about where he lived and asked us where we were from. We warmly responded. As he was leaving us, this friendly soul mentioned that he was retired. I said that so were we. Then we got the unexpected kicker: he needed a few shekels for supper. Go figure! He might have tugged at bit at my heartstrings, but he wasn’t going to tug at my wallet.
THE JERUSALEM GREAT SYNAGOGUE
Chaim Adler, the chief cantor at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, has such a magnificent voice that I hate to miss one note of his chanting, from his falsetto riffs to his lower register exclamations. But last night, there were some roadblocks. At first, I heard two young girls across the aisle babbling to their father. I quickly sought a haven at the other side of the synagogue. For a while, I was able to concentrate on the cantorial singing. A man two seats from me was silent, except for a murmur or two while he was davening. But when he noticed that I had my English-Hebrew prayer book turned to the wrong page, he corrected me. I thanked him and continued to fixate on the cantor.
My new-found friend, however, started to pump me for information about my life. I answered monosyllabically for a moment and then turned my whole body toward the cantor. I obviously did not want to be disturbed, but the man wouldn’t let go. He kept questioning me, and I kept mostly ignoring him. Why would he want to talk to me instead of paying attention to a cantor who had such a glorious voice? Even if the cantor were mediocre, shouldn’t the common decency to be quietly respectful prevail over kibitzing? The man, realizing that I was not going to humor him as much as he liked, seemed offended. He abruptly said Shabbat Shalom and left the synagogue mid-way in the service.
Other people nearby talked intermittently as well. Where has all the reverence gone? How spoiled can they be? Don’t they appreciate the fact that they have the honor to be in the presence of one of the greatest cantors in the world?
Bring on the Tears
My eyes during the past few years badly sting whenever they get moist—whether from salt or chlorinated water, harsh sunlight, or weeping. To relieve my discomfort—and sometimes, it gets pretty intense—I have to wash my eyes with lots of tap water (eye drops usually make the smarting worse). If I am not close to a water source, I am miserable. Accordingly, I wear goggles when I swim, I don highly polarized sunglasses in the daylight throughout the year, and I try hard not to cry.
The last precaution is the hardest for me to enforce. I tend to get weepy when—without warning—I recall some special moment I had with my deceased parents, when I watch sentimental dramas on TV, or when I am moved by the grace and romantic aura of a classical music performance. My only recourse is to get, by whatever means, enough water into my eyes to stop the ensuing pain.
So far here in Israel, I have suffered no major outbreaks. I was able to ward off any salt that might have infiltrated my eyes from The Dead Sea. I even avoided tearing up when I approached and touched the Western Wall.
But I have had some close calls. The last artifacts at the Masada Museum were pottery shards with the names of the Jewish fighters who were chosen to kill their comrades rather than surrender to the Romans. Looking at those decipherable Hebrew names gave me a few shudders, but I managed to stifle any tears.
At a local memorial to the Israeli soldiers who died in battle from 1948 to the present, I noticed that the first name of one of the soldiers was the same as my Hebrew name. I got a bit of a jolt, but again I triumphed over my tears.
Another incident from which I escaped unscathed occurred at the Israel Museum. In one glassed-in case, at the end of a long exhibition of Jewish memorabilia, I was not prepared to see a few pieces of cloth imprinted with the yellow Star of David, a prelude to the mass extermination of the Jews. Even though I knew that if I were born in Nazi-dominated Europe in 1943 instead of in America (my grandparents emigrated from Russia 50 years earlier), I would most likely have been a victim of the Final Solution, I fended off crying in the presence of the foreboding Yellow Star of David.
Yesterday I came close to tears at the Chain of Generation exhibition/drama commemorating the survival of the Jewish people. A searing Holocaust story as a backdrop to the reflections of an Israeli soldier who helped liberate Jerusalem made my throat tighten. But my eyes were only slightly moist.
My biggest challenge will be the Holocaust Museum itself. My wife and I are scheduled to go there in three days. Afraid of being emotionally devastated, I bypassed the one in D.C. a few years ago—my wife went while I traversed the Library of Congress. But now I am in Israel, a country founded to protect the Jewish people from the ravages of another Hitler. I can’t truly understand Israel unless I go through the crucible of the Holocaust Museum: my wife has made sure that we are there on a Thursday, the day with the longest visiting hours.
And if my eyes hurt from all of the tears I’ll probably shed, so be it. If I don’t allow myself to cry in the midst of the horrors of the Holocaust, I am not worthy of being a Jew. What is worse, I would not be worthy of being a human being. At the museum, I hope that my soul will be cleansed; but on a lighter note, I’ll still keep a water bottle to cleanse my eyes.
Three More Snippets from Israel
While my wife and I were in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, we saw a group of at least 20 soldiers walking towards The Western Wall. None of the males had weapons. But the three women soldiers—one in front, one in the middle, and one at the end—each carried an Uzi. Never in America!
Taxi drivers in Israel often ask you to ride with them. Sometimes, they are low keyed; sometimes, they shout at you; and sometimes, they even accost you on the street. Because my wife and I prefer to walk or take the bus, we politely say no to their entreaties. But all too frequently, it is hard to dismiss a determined cabbie. After we got off an Arab bus that took us close to the Basilica of the Nativity at Bethlehem, a taxi driver—on foot—latched on to us. Wherever we went, he followed, trying to be as ingratiating as possible. We kept saying no thank you, but he persisted to pester us: we couldn’t shake him loose. He got so desperate for his 20 shekels that he even played the financially struggling family card. At one point, I feared that he’d ramrod us into his taxi and throw away the meter.
All of a sudden, another cabbie appeared and said that he’d take us to the main Christian sites for just 15 shekels. That offer infuriated the other cabbie. As both of them argued, my wife and I slipped away, picked up speed, and then found shelter next to a police officer. We never saw either cab driver again. What a relief not to be bullied on the way to a sacred shrine.
I have felt somewhat out of place in the two main Israeli cities where my wife and I have stayed. Both Tiberias and Jerusalem have many ultra-orthodox Jews whom I have a lot of difficulty relating to. They are alien to me--with their black and white old-world outfits and their aura of exclusivity. I'd probably be much more at home in Tel Aviv, where the mayor is broaching a breach in an orthodox mainstay: let buses run on the Sabbath. Tonight, however, at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, I got a Jewish buzz. I closed my eyes and heard multitudes chanting and reciting prayers at different intervals and with various degrees of emphasis—from expostulations to muffled tones. It was a communal upwelling (buzzing, if you will) of individualized reverence. And after the service, I was awed to see hundreds of Jews amass as they left the synagogue. I had never before seen so many fellow Jews in one place. In fact, one of the ultra-orthodox men wearing a huge black hat actually spoke—with some enthusiasm—the traditional Sabbath greeting to me (Shabbat shalom) as I waited for my wife. So, tonight, even though I can't follow the fast-paced readings or the unfamiliar melodies, I felt that I was a part of (not apart from) an ancient heritage that is still miraculously alive and thriving today in Israel. An addendum: the next day as my wife and I were returning from an Islamic museum, a young ultra-orthodox man wearing a prayer shawl said Shabbat shalom. I reciprocated the greeting. Then he launched a one-way conversation in Hebrew. I couldn’t fathom what he was saying, so I said “English” a couple of times, hoping that he was bilingual. But he continued just the same. I was at a loss, but at one point, I thought I heard him utter the word Sephardic (relating to historically Spanish Jewry). I then blurted out the word Ashkenazic (of Central and East European Jewish background). The man responded by smiling and offering me his hand. I took it and assumed that it would be a traditional handshake. However, it turned out to be a robust inner-city grip. For a moment, I was taken aback, but I quickly responded in kind. I’ll never know for sure why this pious man was drawn to me. After all, I was dressed like a secular tourist, as was my wife, and I was obviously deficient in Hebrew. Perhaps hearing the word Ashkenazic appealed to him. In any case, last night and today, two ultra-orthodox men (for the first time) briefly but warm heartedly befriended me. Now I feel more rooted in Israel and in my Jewishness.
The Jerusalem Buses Are a Trip
Because the Jerusalem bus system is rapidly evolving, the city has decided to defer issuing bus maps. My wife and I don’t have a printer at our apartment, so we can’t download any of the innumerable Egged bus schedules. But even if we could, there would still be lots of confusion. First of all, the Egged trip planner website doesn’t include Anglicized names of some famous attractions. Unless we were aware that the Hebrew equivalent of the Mount of Olives is Har HaZeitim, we couldn’t determine how to get there by bus. Or, despite knowing, for example, that the Holocaust Museum’s Hebrew name is Yad Vashem, we were still befuddled because there are no references to either place name on the bus schedule. Only after scouring the internet did we learn that we have to go to Mt. Herzl first and then take a shuttle to the Yad Vashem. Here are some other mind boggling conundrums: Often on the Egged website, the bus station stop has a different name from the one that indicates where the stop is located: Shvei Israel is the name of the bus stop at Safra Square, the municipal headquarters of West Jerusalem. Why not simplify things by calling the bus stop Safra Square? And then there are the arbitrary transposition of letters between a listing on the city map site and the Egged website: Hillel Street and Halel Street turn out to be the same street. But even when my wife and I had accurate data, and we were at the right bus stop at the right time, we were once left stranded for a while. After waiting the required fifteen minutes for a bus to take us home from the Israel Museum, we spied one coming in our direction. When it stopped in front of us, we asked the bus driver if, as the schedule indicated, he was going to the central bus station where we needed to transfer to get home. Perplexed, he said that he didn’t know if he was going there. He then turned to one of the passengers, spoke some Hebrew to him, and then told us that the bus didn’t go to that spot. What a crock! We had to endure another fifteen minutes until a bus with that same route number approached. The driver said of course he would drop us off at the bus station—that was one of his routine stops. Sure, our bus mishaps have at times been frustrating. And if my wife and I had only two weeks in Jerusalem, we’d regret that we had squandered such valuable time in our quixotic quest to configure and figure out the bus system. But we are here for six weeks. We can afford to lose a few hours a day waiting for a non-existent bus or riding one apparently to nowhere. And in the process, bus station or no bus station, we are getting more acquainted with one of Jerusalem’s unheralded labyrinths.
Bus Blues Revisited
After a few setbacks, I have been getting pretty good at deciphering and navigating through the Jerusalem Egged bus routes. The first time that my wife and I visited the Israel Museum, Bus 9 got us there routinely—at the time and the spot as the bus route stipulated. But our second outing to the museum on a very hot day was surrealistic. After we exited Bus 18 to transfer to Bus 9, I spent a few misguided moments searching for the bus booth on the wrong side of the street. My wife gently reminded me that the correct access was across the road, as it was a week ago. Just as we backtracked and sidetracked, Bus 9 passed us. Because I got careless, we got stuck in the heat for twenty minutes until another Bus 9 arrived. My wife didn’t mind the delay: she was merrily listening to some upbeat music on her MP3 player. I, on the other hand, was glum, berating myself for my blunder. Going in the right direction has never been my forte. My funk dissipated when another Bus 9 finally arrived. I was delighted to be moving forward in cool comfort, but my good cheer was short lived. As the driver approached the Israel Museum stop, he turned around, unaccountably bypassing our destination, disregarding the scheduled route that I had once so meticulously plotted. I managed to calmly ask him “Israel Museum”? He didn’t say anything: his only response was a slight shrug, and he perversely continued on his way. Then after ten minutes, he motioned for everyone get out at the last stop, Hebrew University, a good sweaty half hour walk to the museum. When he noticed how distressed I appeared, he gestured at a nearby booth labeled Bus 9. Evidently, there was an alternate unlisted Bus 9 route. Not sure that the bus driver had given us accurate information, we consulted an Israeli student who was milling about the bus stop area (he, unlike the bus driver, spoke English). It turned out that he too, expecting to arrive at the Israel museum on bus 9, had been deposited at Hebrew University instead. After we exchanged grievances against the arbitrary bus system, he did some reconnaissance work at the next stop: when another Bus 9 approached, he immediately boarded it, interrogated the bus driver, and then waved us aboard, assuring us that we would indeed shortly reach the Israel Museum. He was right, and after an hour and a half, my wife and I finally reached our destination, a bit weary and very much wary of trusting the bus schedule. From now on, it will be hard for me to take the Egged website at face value. In fact, Egged deserves to have egg on its face.
The Kippah (yarmulke) is a Keeper
While my wife was taking a siesta on a park bench in Jerusalem, I took some candid pictures of people nearby. The most significant snapshots were of a young child with his kippah (a yarmulke). It fell from his head as he tumbled downhill on his bike. I could no longer see the kippah when the boy got up. Seemingly unaware that he no longer had it, he pushed his bike onto flatter ground. Just as I thought about retrieving the kippah for the boy, I saw him with his left hand gesture towards his parents. In that hand, he was clutching his yarmulke as if he would never let go it, no matter what hazards awaited him. I took a picture of his triumph. A few minutes later, I took another picture of the boy. This time, he was climbing up a tree right next to me. He was firmly holding his yarmulke in his trusty left hand while he maneuvered along the branches. He might topple, but I suspected that the kippah would never slip out of his grasp. At that moment, I had an epiphany. I envisioned that boy throughout his life faithfully and intrepidly guarding the kippah, an insignia of his Jewish identity that nothing could diminish or destroy in a Holocaust-proof Israel. When my wife is awake, she takes most of the pictures. I have always felt that she is more adept at using her digital camera than I am. But my simply shot photos of the boy in the park have given me a boost: I may well encourage my wife to take more naps.
Ambushed in Jerusalem—or the Chasid and the Crone
This past week, two people grabbed my attention. A young traditionally dressed ultra-orthodox man accosted me at a bus stop. He earnestly spoke some words in Hebrew, most of what I didn’t comprehend. But I did know what the word Mo-she-ach meant: Messiah. Perhaps he meant that he was preparing for the coming of the yet-to-be-announced Messiah, or perhaps the fervent man was a Messianic Jew who wanted me to acknowledge Christ’s imminent arrival. In any case, I nodded and repeated the word Mosheach to him. He seemed pleased, gesturing towards my arms as if he wanted me to put on the tefillin, those little black boxes with biblical writings within them that devout Jews (my faith is usually lukewarm) traditionally wrap around their arms. I smiled as if I might comply with his wishes, and he whisked himself away. A day later, as I was getting lost trying to reach the Jerusalem Theater to attend a concert (my wife, my compass in many ways, this time did not accompany me), I saw a woman on a bench. I was startled by her grotesquely bloated face. In a vicious tone, she croaked out something to me, about five Hebrew words that had the harshest guttural sounds I have ever heard. I don’t know what her message was, but what shook me up the most was that she delivered her curse with a cavernous vehemence that reminded me of the devil’s harangue coming out of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Maybe I should rush out and get some tefillin after all. Two Mitzvahs in One Day Today, my wife and I went to the Hebrew University at Mt. Scopus to see the botanical gardens. When we got off at the bus tunnel, we met a woman who told us—in passable English—that she wasn’t able to find the performance center. We told her we didn’t know either and walked away from her. But she didn’t want us to leave her. She called for us to slow down and help her find her way. She sounded so pitiful that we complied. As she came towards us, we noticed that she had a pronounced limp and one of her eyes had a huge black lens protruding from it. My wife immediately befriended the woman, holding her hand and giving her a hug or two as we moved across the street towards the main building. The woman was beaming. You could tell that she really appreciated my wife’s kindness. It was a touching moment; I even felt a little flushed. After entering the building, we discovered that the performance center was up a flight of stairs. My wife, still holding her hand and also embracing her shoulder, escorted the lady all the way to her destination. The woman effusively thanked my wife for being so considerate. I was tremendously proud of my wife. I certainly could learn from her compassion for a stranger. Tonight at the synagogue we have attended ever since we arrived in Jerusalem, the chief usher wouldn’t let my wife enter because her shoulders were not covered. We figured that there must be some shawls handy for such a situation—as there are at churches in the area—but the man said that the synagogue didn’t provide any. We couldn’t go back to our far-away apartment to retrieve a proper wrap because the buses were no longer running during Shabbat. I volunteered to locate a shawl at a hotel nearby. I was rebuffed at the front desk. The clerk wouldn’t even lend me a towel. My wife, seeing that I was unsuccessful in my quest, decided if she could do any better herself at another hotel down the street. At first, the two men at the desk (after conferring about the request) sorrowfully said that they had no covering for my wife. She then offered to give them her passport as collateral if they could try a little harder to find a shawl or a facsimile. The main clerk said leaving her passport would be inappropriate and foolhardy. In any case, there was nothing that he could do. But my wife looked so disappointed and forlorn that he told us to wait a moment. He went into a back room, came out with his own suit coat, and graciously handed it to my wife. What a mensch! My wife had earlier in the day taken the time to assist someone in need. This evening, someone else was willing to give her the shirt (okay, a suit) off his back. I am now a believer that caring for others brings good karma for all.
A Saving Grace
Women (young or old, attractive or unattractive) invariably ignore me as I pass by them on my frequent walks in Israel. If I nod to them, they don’t respond. If I say shalom, they don’t respond. If I smile, always innocently, at them, they don’t respond. It doesn’t appear that I particularly offend them. They aren’t mean-spirited. They are just stone-faced indifferent. It doesn’t matter if they are alone, with friends, with their children, with their husbands, or with their dogs. They don’t appreciate my attempts to be civil. Perhaps they feel it would be immodest to acknowledge me on even the most superficial level. Maybe I’d be more acceptable if I replaced my semi-jogging outfit with long black pants, a white shirt, and a yarmulke (or better yet, a yarmulke transplant). Just when I decided on my walks to be just as oblivious to women as they are to me, there was a breakthrough. Yesterday at the end of my last lap, I encountered a middle-aged lady who actually smiled at me as she came from the opposite direction. It was a genuine gesture that threw me so much off guard that I had no time to respond. Her momentary (but momentous) goodwill towards me has given me a renewed desire to be as pleasant as I have always been to the women on my walks. Even if they still persist in snubbing me, I can always rely on the woman in my life for some positive reinforcement, right?
Let the Floodgates Open
As I was reading more about the German Colony, the Jerusalem neighborhood where my wife and I have rented for the past six weeks, I was shaken when I found out that a suicide bomber in 2001 killed seven Israelis and seriously wounded 50 others at café Hillel across the street from us. One of the murdered women was going to be married the next day and had just returned from a mikvah (ritual bath). Despite some misgivings, I wanted to know more about this tragedy, so I googled it. In the process, I located a site listing every major terrorist attack against Israel during the past ten years. I was appalled to discover that my wife and I—either by car, bus or on foot—have been in the vicinity of these atrocities in downtown Jerusalem (Ben Yehuda Steet, HaNevi’im Street, and the Mahane Yehuda district) and in the outskirts of Jerusalem at the Mt. Scopus branch of Hebrew University (The Frank Sinatra Cafeteria). So far during my stay in Jerusalem, I have managed to avoid any crying jags, despite repeatedly touring the Holocaust Memorial complex and visiting monuments commemorating Israeli casualties in warfare against the Arabs since 1948. But when I mentioned to my wife what was bothering me in the aftermath of my research, I choked up and uncontrollably wept for Jerusalem. As my wife wisely reminded me, it was a blessing to release all of the pent-up sadness that I had stifled for six weeks. I now feel that I have more than a token membership in the tribe. Today, empathy for my people broke through the thinning membrane of my composure. Never again will I try so hard to keep from crying when tears well up in me. Cry, the beloved country. Throughout the last days of our trip, whenever I find myself in a location once targeted by suicide bombers, I will stand still for a moment of silence.