Last, but not least, from Israel

I walked to the craft market, bought some nice earrings, then cruised through the big Carmel market. Lots of food, other stuff. Bought some pastries, savory and sweet. I wanted some poppy seed pastry, but what I got was too sweet. Oh well, memories of childhood are hard to re-create.
The sun was out, the breeze was lovely, so I walked to the sea and along the promenade until I found a good spot to sit. It was a cafe called “Banana Boat” or something like that, and I found a seat under an umbrella and ordered some tea. The music the cafe was playing was, for some reason, american pop songs mostly from the late 60’s and early 70’s, and hearing Dylan among others put me in a good mood. I pulled out my sketch pad and a pen and doodled away for an hour or so, mostly people watching. And dog watching and a bit of cat watching. The guy at the next table had a huge dog, I swear the head was bigger than mine. and it kept lunging at other dogs.Just a bit distracting!
Eventually the wind got stronger, the clouds a bit darker and I decided to move along towards my hotel. Staying on the promenade I managed to miss my street and ended up quite a ways north of where I meant to be, and my backpack was heavier than it should have been. I got back to the hotel, rather bedraggled, and ate my savory pastries with some nice cold water and settled in to wait for my taxi.
The driver came to get me and we headed off to Ben Gurion airport. As seems to happen, he was a nice guy, turns out his family is from Shiraz, Iran and he was very curious to hear that I’d been there. I joked that he should marry someone with a passport acceptable to Iran and then he could visit. His face changed and he said, “I’m going to tell you a secret.” He said that he was now divorced, with two daughters. While he was still married, he met a woman and began a relationship with her. She was a muslim from Iran who had moved to Israel with her Turkish-jewish husband, but was divorced from him.Very complicated, he said, as I nodded in agreement. It was “amazing love” he said, but then, even though she loved him more than he could imagine anyone else ever doing, and even though she said that she wanted to convert to Judaism, he realized that he did not love her enough. So, the relationship is over. 
Whew! I think it felt good to him to be able to talk about this transgression with a total stranger, but he must have felt that I wouldn’t judge him, and I didn’t.
The taxi ride continued to the airport, where there were so many levels of security I stopped counting. First the taxi was stopped and I was questioned and had to show my passport and explain where I’d been and where I was going. I said ” Amman”, and shut up. My driver agreed that was a good tactic. Damascus as a destination might raise a few eyebrows.
More security, lines,more security and I’m finally sitting with a cup of tea waiting for my flight to board. The prospect of coming back here for less than one day is not a pleasant one. But, I have no choice. I’ll arrive from Amman around noon, then fly out to Frankfurt at 3am the next day, or really that night. I’ll have to leave for the airport at midnight, perhaps 12 hours after arriving. But, that’s life and travel has enough draw for me to endure the awful parts. Wish me luck in Amman as I negotiate my way to the flight for Damascus. The Royal Jordanian agent said that he could only check my bag to Amman, but to get the bag there I’ll have to pay for a visa, he thinks. Well, what will be will be.

Published in: on March 25, 2011 at 2:53 pm  Comments (2)  

The Western Wall, a bit of idol worship?

Hilda, David and I started our day at the Jaffa Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem. Our goal was the Western Wall, the most symbolic relic of ancient Israel in the city and the focus of many decades of strife.
The wall, built of huge stones of the same pale gold color as nearly all of Jerusalem, was originally a retaining wall, part of the Temple Mount, holding up the second Temple. The religious structure, the heart of ancient Judaism, was destroyed by the Roman emperor Hadrian in AD70.For hundreds of years the Wall, all that remained of the Temple, was a place of pilgrimmage for jews from all over the world, the diaspora.
In 1948, with the creation of the State of Israel, the old city was under the control of Jordan and for the most part jews lost the ability to visit it. 19 years later, after the 1967 war, Israel once again controlled the Old City and set about to make the Wall accessible to more visitors.
We started our walk on David Street in the Christian Quarter. The narrow stone paved “street”  is really a sloping alley way lined on both sides with tiny shops selling everything the religious pilgrim might need or want. Much, if not most. of the goods on display seem to be from India or China, with little that looked like local crafts. The merchants, for the most part, were relaxed and calmly invited passers by to examine their wares, only occasionally accosting the person who made the mistake of stopping to examine an item, or even glance at something shiny! But a quick, “No” stopped most of the attempt to sell. The street is mostly covered with a roof of some sort and lit with fluorescent lighting as well as the lights from the individual shops. The scene was sometimes very crowded, with Jews, Christians and most likely Muslims walking up and down the steps, or pushing carts with goods along small ramps built into the street. 
The street continued to descend towards the Jewish Quarter and the Wall. 
Immediately upon entering the Jewish Quarter, the atmosphere changed dramatically. From dingy, crowded tiny shops, to well designed expensive seeming stores selling antiquities and art. And the passageways now had archaeological sites highlighted with stairs and plaques of description. We started to hear music, and soon were caught up in the Purim celebration in the Old City. Kids and adults in costumes were following along with people carrying blue and white balloons and playing loud recorded music and singing.First one group, then another, all sorts of costumes, all kinds of people. Fun, loud and just a bit annoying.
We continued through the lovely, airy, open plazas with what look like rather new buildings down to the entrance to the Western Wall complex. We had to go through a security process, with our bags x-rayed and then we were in a very large open plaza with two areas fenced off. On the right is a smaller area where women are allowed to approach the wall, and leave notes in the cracks. The tradition is to write a note, fold it, and stick in somewhere, hoping that the wish or request or desire will be granted by God. Men have a much larger area, with big cabinets that hold Torah scrolls, occasionally carried around by some one. Women were standing on chairs to look over the fence into the men’s area, throwing candy and shouting. 
For some reason a tradition has been developed of walking backwards, which I found annoying. As my cousin Ronnie said, it’s much more of a Christian thing to do with no precedent in judaism. I felt like I was in the presence of idol worshipers, hoping to be granted some special favor by garnering the approval of a deity. I’m sure that many observant jews will disagree with me, and I do not speak with any authority or, really, any knowledge of Torah. I only speak with my feelings, from what seems right,or wrong to me.
Hilda and I went to the women’s side, each of us wrote a short note, pushed our way to the wall to deposit the note, and stayed a while to observe the crowd. Women from all walks of life, in all sorts of dress were there. Some sitting reading  and praying, some putting both hands on the wall in attitudes of ecstasy, and staying there a long time. Babies in strollers were blocking access, stands with prayer books were in danger of toppling over as women pushed towards the wall. Somehow, there was near silence as all this was happening, while from the men’s side, chanting and singing wafted over the fence. 
We met up with David at our appointed meeting spot, and agreed to head into the Arab Quarter for some lunch. Wandering through passageways again, past vendors and without intending, we ended up at the beginning of the Via Dolorosa,Christ’s last walk before he was crucified. We found a cafe with tables outside and decided to have some chicken shwarma before proceeding along the path of Christ.People watching was marvelous! All sorts of tourists, many clearly Christians of various denominations led by religious leaders, some religious jews walking very quickly, reading prayers hurrying towards some location we could not imagine. Children on their way to or from school in uniforms carrying book bags stopped to buy candy at a nearby store. After we finished, we joined the crowds with our guidebook in hand to trace the 12 stations of the cross. Three jews from San Francisco in search of the holiest Christian experience. We felt right at home.The first few stops were obvious, then we realized that we had missed a couple. But there was an American couple standing and discussing station 7, he read the latin inscription and we were all duly impressed. We continued to weave in and out with the same couple, eventually taking the opportunity of standing breathing incense in a Coptic Church to exchange some information about ourselves.
The Coptic church was fascinating in several ways.First, it had a courtyard on the lower level which was composed of brick and stone walls of various buildings with a round structure in the center. There were trees in a neighboring area whose willowy leaves shaded a corner of the yard. Monks in black robes occasionally walked out of a house, ignoring the tourists. Up another flight of stairs was the large church with paintings of Christian scenes which had plaques of arabic writing below each, and arabic writing above the doorway. The mix of arabic and christian iconography and faces was especially wonderful. 
We found our way down and followed the crowded passageways to the Damascus Gate, where we found a taxi. The traffic was awful apparently in part because a tunnel near the Jaffa gate was closed. I got out of the taxi near where the road to the German Colony neighborhood diverges from the Hebron Road, where Hilda and David’s hotel is located. I walked down the hill and into the tree shaded Emek Rafaim street, by now very familiar to me. It is certainly one of the nicest areas of Jerusalem, reminding me a lot of my Noe Valley in San Francisco.
Later, Ronnie and I met Hilda and David at an excellent Kurdish restaurant, Ima, for a farewell dinner. Tomorrow I leave for Haifa and Hilda and David are renting a car and driving south, eventual to Elait and to Petra, in Jordan.

Published in: on March 22, 2011 at 9:48 am  Comments (1)  

A day of enormous contrasts

A very odd mixture Sunday- devastating sadness and hilarity.

I met up with my San Francisco friends Hilda Scheib and David Handscher, and together we took a bus out to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. I was there,in it’s prior incarnation in 1965,but like everything else so far, it was nothing like what I remembered. It is so powerful, so well thought out and executed that it takes your breath away.

We walked along a wooded path from the busy main street where the bus let us off, and came to the entrance building. It is bland, nothing special, nothing emotional at all about it. We walked out the other side, around a path and into the enormous main building. It is shaped like the top half of a Star of David, with a very high steep peak and angled sides. At the entrance, projected onto one of the end walls of the building, which has a steep “A” shape, was a video montage unlike any I’ve ever seen. There are videos within the videos, people from one video inserted into windows in buildings in another video, all projected over maps. And all in black and white. The images are swirling past you as if pivoting from the top of the wall.
Then you start the journey through history, from the early days of Nazism, through all that lead up to WW2.
The building has 3 parts on the same level – the two large side areas and, in between, bare concrete skylit from high above. In some areas there are either video screens showing relevant information or objects recessed into pits. Like train tracks, and parts of factories destroyed by bombs.
What made it most affecting for me were the video interviews with survivors of so many horrors. There in front of you were men, and women, describing how they managed to live through unimaginable events. One man describes standing with his grandfather, knowing that they were about to be murdered and thrown into a pit next to where they were then standing. He remembers his grandfather praying, then hearing a shot, and falling into the pit alive and unhurt as dead bodies fell on top of him. His grandfather one of the bodies. He lay still for a long time, and then when he thought it must be night, he started to move. As he did, someone grabbed his leg. It was another young man( they were 14 or 15) and together they pulled themselves out from under hundreds of dead jews and somehow escaped to survive.
There was a woman describing how she pulled her dying sister along in a cart on a death march from a concentration camp. They walked for weeks with almost no food, in the winter, with very few clothes or shoes. The Germans did not want to leave anyone to tell the story. She survived but her sister died the day after they were rescued. The medical records that are displayed showed photos of her, her sister, and at least a dozen other women at the time they were rescued by Allied soldiers. She weighed less than 100 lbs, and her sister even less.The photos were of women with only bones covered by skin. Some lived, most did not.
On a map that showed ghettos that were officially created by the Nazis, of 10,000 people or more, I found the village that my paternal grandfather came from, Lomser. He had left in 1906, but more than likely the children who had not followed him died in that ghetto, if not before.
The arrangement of the museum keeps you walking back and forth across the concrete central core, from artificial light into natural light and back again. From what should be unreal horrors into the light of reality, and then back again. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the Wansee conference, Auschwitz.
Then the end of the war, but not the end of suffering. As some Jews were freed and became healthy enough to travel, they wanted to go “home” and see if any family members had done the same, if anyone they loved was still alive. Thousands of jewish survivors of the war went to Poland, to the homes they had been forced to leave, only to find their Polish neighbors occupying the houses. There were even new pogroms against the returned jews, killing dozens. They were not welcome, their absence was what the Polish people wanted.
And the Displaced Persons camps where thousands of survivors, now alone in the world in so many cases, met and married quickly and quickly began having children. The photos of groups of women and men with their babies and the joy on their faces was a powerful antidote to the over whelming sadness of the museum.
Yes, there were cases of gentiles helping jews, but with few exceptions, it was one or two people who were saved. Bulgaria,of all places, protected the jews, and of course Denmark. And there were others. But, the bulk of people, politicians, religious leaders, ordinary people stood by and did nothing or were actively aware of what was happening and chose to allow it. It makes one wonder if Anne Frank was right, that “most people are really good”.
When we left the weather had changed, it was chilly and foggy as we walked across to wait for our bus, and a party was the last thing we could imagine.

But, a few hours later, we were on our way to a Purim party at the home of a man I’d met at Friday night dinner with my cousin Ronnie. He invited all of us, but Ronnie preferred to go to his synagogue and the dinner hosts had other plans. Hilda, David and I eventually found the right house and entered to the chanting of the Megillah, the story of Esther and how she and her uncle, Mordechai saved the Jews of Sushan, Persia from the evil Haman, advisor to the King.
According to tradition, whenever the name of Haman is read out loud, the people listening to the recital are supposed to make lots of noise – blow horns, shout, bang something – to drown out the hated name. It’s really fun, and the crowd was mostly young people, in their 20s. Everyone ( except us) was following along in their own copy of the Megillah, paying total attention. We sat on some interior stairs listening and waiting for Haman’s name. When the story was finished, everyone clapped and the party began!
Wine, whisky, food music, dancing. The tradition is to get drunk and forget who you are for one evening. Most of the group was in costume, and everyone was having fun.
At around 10, we decided to leave and find some actual dinner, since pretzels and hummus was not exactly a well-balanced diet! We had pretty much skipped lunch that day, since one loses one’s appetite at Yad Vashem. So, we had salads and some pasta and headed home to sleep.
You think that, after seeing every horrible thing that human beings can do to each other, going to a party would be impossible. But, like the men and women who married and had children after surviving the impossible, life chooses to go on. I’m hardly equating the experience of merely seeing the evidence of the holocaust with enduring it, but the theme exists. Choose life, it says in the Torah. And the natural inclination of humans is to go on and keep trying to survive, to find joy in life. I’m glad that is the way we are made.

Published in: on March 21, 2011 at 4:20 pm  Leave a Comment