On Route 90, south of the ultra-salt Dead Sea, near Sodom, there is a cut-off sign for Lot’s Wife. If you stop for a moment, you can see salt-encrusted cliffs, many of them sculptured like pillars. How apt! Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of (dead sea) salt. And think about the word Sodom. It has the first three letters and the last letter of the word sodium.
A wadi is a mesa-like, arid expanse surrounded by mountains. There are dozens of them in the Negev desert. After seeing so many of them, I amused myself by saying wadi, wadi, wadi everywhere, and not a drop to drink. Another bit of entertainment: The last wadi on the route to Eilat was named after my Hebrew name: Schlomo Wadi.
I woke up late this morning in Eilat, a cosmopolitan city far away from the evangelical triangle of the Galilee, where sumptuous and austere monastic churches had recently captivated my wife, my granddaughter, and me.
When I opened the patio drape in our condo in Eilat, I was taken aback. Perhaps still under the spell of the sanctuaries near Tiberias, I thought I saw the backs of a long evenly spaced-out row of lean monks in brown robes. They didn’t move. These sentinels could have been alive or statues or hallucinatory images. But after staring at them for a while, I realized that I was seeing an array of rusted metal poles. That will teach me to have my coffee before trying to get oriented in the morning.
I am getting used to seeing soldiers, men and woman, carrying rifles while waiting at bus stops in Tiberias or patrolling border crossings from Israel to Jordan. Yesterday, I got familiar with security personnel with holstered hand guns. At Masada, while I took refuge under a canopy to avoid the searing sun, I noticed a listless man sitting close to me. He was lying on some kind of uniform. Otherwise, I didn’t pay any attention to him. But soon, another man sat beside him and right next to me. He was fully uniformed with lots of Hebrew lettering and had a large holstered gun. I was a bit uncomfortable, especially when he roused the other man, who had the same uniform and the same kind of gun and once activated, he looked blankly at me. Suddenly, the man beside me, who knew rudimentary English, matter-of-factly asked me my name, where I was from, and how long I was staying in Israel. It felt as if I was being interrogated. It didn’t help that his gun was lodged on his side within an inch of my thigh. I tried to answer as casually as possible, but I sensed that my voice was trembling a bit.
I soon found out that I had no need to be alarmed. When I mentioned that I lived in Hawaii, the security guard loosened up. He said that he had always wanted to go to Hawaii; it was his dream to do so. Then he got up with his comrade and cheerfully said good-bye to me.
During this time, my wife and granddaughter were observing a Bar-Mitzvah at the site of the synagogue area of ancient Masada. I wish I had been with them. I am not an observant Jew, but if I had a choice, I’d prefer to have the motto “Have Tallis, will Travel,” to the TV slogan “Have Gun, will Travel.”
An Epiphany, Real or Imagined
Last week, at a roundabout mid-way between Utopia Orchid Park and our base in Tiberias, we were befuddled by the conflicting signals faintly coming from our not-ready-for-prime-time GPS/Waze/Google Map guides. Accordingly we took a misdirected left turn off the main highway. As we steadfastly continued, the road narrowed, the streets got more congested, and it was getting dark. My wife was typically unconcerned (eventually we’d get back to Rte. 6), my granddaughter was eerily quiet or perhaps petrified, and I was uncharacteristically calm (buttressed by a Hebrew prayer or two for quick deliverance).
Just as we saw an intersection leading to the highway, we were stalled in traffic. Right at that moment, I was stunned to see a majestic mosque. Its turquoise dome was encircled with arabesques, and its accompanying minaret towered above us like a space-center rocket launcher. What a magnificent sight! I was mesmerized; I could do nothing but stare mutely—but not for long. The traffic started to move, and my wife drove away.
I don’t know if she or my granddaughter saw what I saw. At the time, they had no reaction, and a few days later, they had no recollection of any Islamic monuments, grandiose or grubby, on our unexpected detour.
To prove to them that what I witnessed was actually there, I scoured websites that might help me identify any towns in Northern Israel that had mosques adjacent to Rte. 6. I located only one such town, but its mosque and minaret were strikingly unfamiliar.
I don’t care whether what I saw so magnificently was real or a vision induced by a neurological quirk. I will always remember with pleasure the elation I felt during the detour in the twilight or into the twilight zone.
Israelis: Two Sides of the Shekel
My driver’s license is due to be renewed in November. If I ever come back to Israel, I’ll need a Nascar racer’s license to keep up with the outrageously reckless Israeli drivers. They routinely ignore speed limits (except at GPS-denoted speed traps), brazenly zigzag in and out of traffic lanes or menacingly tail-gate as if they want to bump you off the road for having the temerity to take up any space at all on their turf. It is dangerous to be a prudent driver in Israel. It might be better to join the crazies than be their prey.
On the other hand, when they are not driving insanely, Israelis are very helpful. The other day, after I filled up at the gas station, I leisurely started my car. Suddenly, I saw a man rushing towards me, screaming and wildly gesturing; behind me, another man was just as frantic. It was unnerving. What had I done that caused such furor? I shut off the motor, got out of the car, and hoped to avoid an impending confrontation with these distraught men. It didn’t take long for me to figure out why they were so frantic: They pointed at my gas cap. It was hanging loose. I had forgotten to put it back on. If I had continued to drive, gas would have disastrously spilled out. What a relief! I gave them plentiful “todahs,” the Hebrew word for thank you.
These two Good Samaritans (perhaps they even were from nearby Samaria) were a blessing.
But once on the road, they might be the typically unhinged Israeli drivers who might well warrant curses, not kudos.
Last week, my wife, our granddaughter, and I, according to Google Maps, had arrived at the Valley of Elah. But where was it? We saw no markers for this site, traditionally the battleground between David and Goliath. Every nature reserve, monument, and national park in Israel has some sort of sign to guide you to its notable biblical and non-biblical attractions. And there always is a tour bus or two parked at the historical landmarks: But not now at the Valley of Elah. There were no buses, cars, or people, not even the omnipresent gecko. It was utterly deserted.
If we followed Google, we would have taken (on our left) a rock-strewn, obscure, narrow, rutted road that abutted a slew of military satellites clustered in a grungy field. Instead, we decided to drive straight ahead up a steep paved road. Perhaps Elah was situated on the other side of the hill; but after we went half-way up, I convinced my wife to turn back to the isolated dirt road that the Google Map had directed us to. When we got there, however, my wife, spying a few people walking in the other direction, followed them. Almost immediately, we noticed a few cars stopped at a parking area. After we drove in, pockets of people were milling about. We asked them if they knew where The Valley of Elah was. None of them had a clue. They had come to see a vibrant forested hill dotted with tenebrinth trees. Aha! Elah had to be close-by, because I had remembered that the word tenebrinth was often associated with Elah.
Back to the rocky road! At first, the ride was bumpy but tolerable. That drastically changed when our car dropped into a huge rut. Even though there was a massive lush valley to our right, I wasn’t so sure that I had chosen the right path after all.
Things looked pretty bleak. Here we were. Interlopers stuck in a crater a few yards from a military satellite headquarters! But my wife calmly and expertly worked the manual transmission gears to nudge the car out of the hole. Soon, the road ended.
When we got out of the car, we fondly gazed at the epic valley beside us, less than a slingshot away from one of the turning points in biblical history.
Going back, my granddaughter and I began to toss some large rocks out of the hole to make a safer exit for our car. My wife said that my efforts would only make it worse: filling the hole with lots of rocks would be more effective. She was right. We finally made it back to the highway, a bit shaken, but struck with wonder.
What started out as a field of nightmares became a field of dreams.
A Disturbance in the Old City
As my wife, my granddaughter Autumn, and I aimlessly strolled through the Old City at the beginning of our stay in Jerusalem, we passed by multitudes of nondescript tourists and people with disparate ethnic and religious garb. Everybody seemed calm and respectful. Even the beggars and the street vendors were low-key.
But all that changed when we got to the tomb of King David late in the afternoon. Two men were incessantly shouting and pointing at each other. Both spoke English, but I was too far away to hear most of their irate debate. Nevertheless, I surmised that they disagreed about just where King David was buried. Their argument ended before I could get any closer.
One of the two exasperated men, the one wearing a yarmulke, joined an elaborately bearded and robed Chasid whom I happened to be standing next to. The Chasid tried to console his friend. “What did you expect? Don’t you know that you can’t reason with a Goy?” I was taken aback to hear such prejudice coming from a man who looked like an ancient Jewish sage. How appalling! Here, in this sacred place, the endemic animosity between Gentile and Jew is still alive and unwell. Instead of telling the Chasid how offensive his remarks were, I repressed my outrage until I caught up with my wife and granddaughter.
When I told them about the Chasid’s response, they were as disgusted as I was. It was a sobering end to our first revisit to the Old City.
Grace and Guts
Yesterday, while my granddaughter and wife were at a hair salon in the center of Jerusalem, I was nearby at an outside café munching on some pasta. Every time that I have eaten there, the owner of the pizza shop has personally and personably served me my meal. He enjoys exuberantly kibitzing with all of his customers when they arrive and when they leave. He is a very likable, ingratiating, upstanding guy.
Near the end of my meal, I happened to look up. Right in front of me (no more than a couple of feet away) was a huge butt-exposed horse that an armed uniformed patrol officer was beginning to tie to a post next to the pizza shop entrance. Immediately, the store owner confronted the cop. After both of them exchanged a volley of some harsh sounding Hebrew words, the police officer grudgingly led his horse to a post further away from the eatery. Much to my amazement, the pizza store owner had stood his ground and bested the cop. I was proud of him. He had chutzpah. He was not intimidated. There would be no horse manure in the path to his establishment.
I certainly was grateful. My delicious meal might well have been quite distasteful otherwise. Because of the owner’s vigilance, I gave him an extra tip. He thanked me for my unexpected (and uncharacteristic) generosity.
When I left, he began horsing around with some of his staff.
Agog at the Synagogue
Almost invariably in Israel, it is the easily recognizable ultra-orthodox men in black who stroll the baby carriages while the women walk beside them. But men don’t have to wear the garb of the Hasidim to be in charge of the baby carriage—as I delightfully found out at religious services last night at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue.
It wasn’t the cantorial chanting and the devout congregational responses that moved me the most. The inspirational highlights of the Shabbat service occurred at the end of the aisle directly in front of me: a father lovingly attached to his infant boy. A red-haired, baby-faced, preppy-looking orthodox Jew, while holding his prayer book in his right hand, ever so slightly with his left hand continually rocked a stroller housing his bundled-up sleeping son. Wow, that man sure could multitask, not grudgingly but glowingly. He sang with a silvery tenor voice, davened with grace, paid scrupulous attention to the liturgical passages, all the while turning his eyes towards the baby to see how much pressure he needed to put on the stroller’s handle so that the infant would be content.
Sometimes the baby boy would open his eyes, but he never squirmed or made a sound, oblivious to anything but his father’s soothing care. After a while, the man lifted his son out of the stroller and gently placed him against his chest, effortlessly resuming his prayers. Although a few young boys and girls were whooping it up around the aisles (the man briefly frowned at the racket), the infant, more or less alert, remained calm.
It was obvious that the father and son had a strong affectionate bond that I pray will always enrich both of them. I was blessed to have vicariously shared in that special relationship.
After the service, I saw that same man strolling his infant while his wife walked by his side. And so it goes. Tradition!
A Mystifying Moment
On our shuttle to the Holocaust Museum, we met a married couple from upstate New York. The wife was very lighthearted and laughed a lot. The husband, Larry, however, was dead-pan serious. In between a barrage of cleverly contrived ironic comebacks, he revealed that he was once a Catholic but eventually became a born-again Christian. Then he asserted that Catholics weren’t real Christians because they excessively relied on tradition, whereas evangelicals were intimate with Christ. When I taught English at a community college in the Bible Belt, some of my young students felt the same way. Hearing such prejudice from a 70-year-old Yankee transplant from North Carolina brought back many unpleasant classroom memories about religious indoctrination.
Once we entered the Holocaust lobby, the man mentioned that he had a sister, but she wasn’t a Christian (a mere Catholic, I presumed). There was no need for him to have made this gratuitous and belittling comment.
I was gradually beginning to dislike Larry. After he saw that my wife had trouble walking because of one arthritic knee, he said that he had God-given healing powers demonstrated by prayer vigils and laying on of hands. With my wife’s permission, he repeatedly touched her bad knee after, under his direction, she walked backed a forth a few times. My wife said that she felt a bit better. He was not satisfied. He touched her knee some more, with the same so-so results. I have always been leery of touch therapy, even in a clinical setting. I had no use at all for Larry’s hocus-pocus.
Finally, we all agreed it was time to explore the Holocaust History Museum. We said goodbye to our new-found acquaintances. Just as I turned around from them, I had a vision: to my left I saw a large sign hovering in mid-air above the information desk. It had one word, PROPAGANDA. Whoa! How surreal! After I blinked a couple of times, the image was gone. Was it a subconscious slip, a neurological misfiring, or a transcendental message? And what did it mean? At first, I thought that it had vindicated me, confirming that Larry was a bigoted, superstitious fraud. But later on, I wondered if the imagined sign reminded me that I was too steeped in my own sanctimonious biases. After all, I faithfully read the on-line, voluminous Sceptic’s Dictionary just as Larry faithfully read the Bible.
It would be a blessing if people like Larry and me could find a middle ground. Then we could mutually be reborn-again in a world without fanaticism of any kind.
When my wife, my granddaughter Autumn, and I first arrived at our Jerusalem rented apartment, I noticed that there wasn’t much room between the gas stove and the refrigerator. I accordingly pushed the stove against the far wall, presumably leaving enough space for anyone of us to maneuver between the two appliances.
Yesterday early in the morning as I rummaged in the refrigerator for some eggs, I barely noticed that my granddaughter was making some coffee on the stove. When I walked to the other end of the kitchen, I smelled some smoke. Autumn assured me that it wasn’t coming from the most obvious culprit, the coffee pot. We both were momentarily puzzled. Then Autumn screeched. She turned me around so that I could see that the bottom of my extra-long night shirt was on fire. I bare-handedly whacked at the flames until they vanished. Autumn and I were dumbfounded. We soon realized, however, that I must have slightly brushed against the coffee pot (either before I opened or after I closed the refrigerator door), exposing a bit of flame that burrowed into my shirt.
If it weren’t for my granddaughter, I might have been scorched before recognizing the danger I was in. I can just imagine myself rushing throughout the apartment, frantically searching for the origin of the smoke. Autumn, alert as always, saved my butt, in more ways than one. If there was any more commotion in the kitchen, it might have wakened my wife before her internal alarm got activated. But then again, my wife once slept through severe airplane turbulence.
The Saga of the “Super Hair/Grocery” Credit Card Charges
While my wife was reviewing our recent credit card statement in Israel, she found an abundance of transactions from, according to City Card, a “super hair/grocery.’’ We never bought anything at a company that was a hybrid salon and supermarket, so we had City Card put a block on those seemingly fraudulent charges. In fact, my granddaughter found a few on-line instances of people being leery of similar payments to such an absurdly named store. Although my wife did get her hair done at a hair salon, she paid in shekels. And I did buy lots of food from the corner grocery store, but the building wasn’t attached to a hair salon.
My wife wanted to be sure that we were being scammed, so she and I went to the grocery store to find out what exactly its name was in Hebrew. When I got there, I saw a two-word sign: With my rudimentary grasp of Hebrew script, I managed to figure out that the Hebrew pronunciation of the sign was super hair; but as discovered on the Internet, super hair in Hebrew means city market, the same English words at the bottom of the grocery bags. OOPS!
Then I tallied each Master Card receipt that I scrupulously kept from the corner grocery store. All of the numerous payments to “super hair/grocery” lined up perfectly with the City Card statement. I didn’t realize that I had schlepped so many things on so many days from the local market. That was my oversight. Abashed, my wife called City Card to remove the block on those so-called phony transactions.
City Card was at fault too. Just pronouncing a foreign phrase as it would sound in English doesn’t mean that the expression has the same meaning as it has in English. If the words City Market (the proper translation) had appeared on all the transactions from the grocery store, my wife and I would have readily accepted the numerous charges after checking the receipts.
We have a Platinum City Card. With the super hair/grocery fiasco, the platinum is tarnished, rust assured.
While my wife and my granddaughter Autumn were browsing in shops at the Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, I wandered into the nearby unheralded Anglican Christ Church. I anticipated seeing a few subdued Christian symbols in a traditional Christian setting, as opposed to the celebrated iconic Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches further into the Old City. Well, I wasn’t surprised that the Church was sparsely decorated. But I was taken aback when I saw a menorah on the altar, a centrally located stain-glassed window framing the Star of David, and a cabinet at the end of the Church that resembled the exterior of a synagogue Ark and was inscribed exclusively with abundant Hebrew phrases from the Old Testament. Of course, there were New Testament references to Jesus as well throughout the Church. But instead of a magnificent colorized portrait of Jesus on the Cross, there was a small black-and-white painting of the crucifixion behind the communion table in the middle of the Church. What struck me the most were the abundant Chagall-like figures (another Jewish touch) surrounding a relatively diminished Jesus.
What a bewildering juxtaposition of Jewish and Christian symbols! I soon, however, understood. I looked around some more until I noticed a wall panel written in English about the history of the Church. Two centuries ago, a Christian Zionist and a Messianic Jew (both inspired by the Jewish roots of the Gospel) decided to build an ecumenical and international church in the Old City, one which would attract Christian Zionists and Messianic Jews who would pray together harmoniously. I was not just enlightened; I was moved by the fusion of faiths.