Friday, July 25, 2008

An End and a Beginning

What an intense and beautiful first day in the Holy Land!

After a five-hour delay in arriving, our hearty band made our way to Jerusalem, driving up from the coastal plain up the majestic slopes of the Judean Hills and into the City of Peace.

I am continually amazed by how what is new can be made to appear old, and how what is old can be made new. On the first score, the city of Jerusalem has had an ordinance on the books since the 1920’s which mandates all new construction to be covered in a special limestone known as Jerusalem stone. When Naomi Shemer wrote “Jerusalem of Gold,” she wasn’t only speaking of the Old City walls; the entire city of 700,000 souls is built with a uniform look, so that even the most modern and colossal new hotels could possibly be confused with a 2000 year old structure (that is, had they built 30-story hotels in the year 100).

So, too, what is old can be made new. The western entrance to the city of Jerusalem has been transformed by the addition of a beautiful new suspension bridge that will be a part of the light rail system in development for the city. Of course, Israelis being what they are, there have been many arguments about what the bridge is meant to look like. It’s King David’s harp. No, it’s it an angel’s wing. No, it’s a goose laying a rotten egg. That last opinion comes from the skeptics who beg to know why the bridge was designed and built at great expense now for a light rail system that won’t be operational for at least 3 and possibly 7 more years! Anyhow, I think it’s beautiful.

We had, as you can see from the itinerary above, an emotional beginning to our first full day, starting at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum. It’s an incredibly moving and well-designed and totally rebuilt museum with 14 rooms of exhibits which couldn’t possibly be explored in depth in even two visits. Our tour guide is once again the great Julie Baretz. She gave a fascinating explaination as to why, now, 63 years after the liberation of Auschwitz was the time to turn Yad Vashem from a rather simple, academic museum filled mostly with black- and white pictures, into a truly world-class, stunning place. She reminded us that, in the early days of the State of Israel, there were more than half a million survivors living in Israel. There was little need for a complicated museum; a huge percentage of the population bore personal testimony—the best kind, after all—to the horrors and the heroism. Today, the first decade of the 21st century, there are fewer and fewer survivors, and the vast majority of those were small children during the Shoah. Now, more than ever, Israel needs a powerful holocaust memorial, and a powerful one they have.

We then continued on to Mt. Herzl, home to Jerusalem’s military cemetery where Herzl himself is buried, along with military and political leaders with names like Rabin, Golda, Chana Senesh and on and on. Generals and lieutenants are buried side by side on Mt. Herzl; no ranks are mentioned on the headstones; every life is precious in this country…

We continued from there to one of my very favorite places in the whole world, let alone Israel—Machane Yehuda, an open-air fruits and vegetables and just-about-any-other-staple-for-your-house market. And we went at the best time—Friday afternoon, as Shabbat approached, when Israelis of every background converge to but what they need in advance of Shabbat. It’s a hive of activity—jam-packed with shoppers, supply and demand at it’s best as shopkeepers yell out the prices—trying to outdo each other for volume and appeal—shalosh va’chetzi shekel agvaniot! (3 ½ shekels for a kilo of tomatoes!) calls out one. Ta-eem v’zol (tasty and cheap!) calls another. And everyone is racing the sun. Shoppers must get home before Shabbat; shopkeeps must get rid of every last agvanya and anav (grape) and challah before their shops close down until Sunday morning. I love it! We bought pistachios, grapes, delicious pastries, candy, knishes—oy—what did we need when we came in? Oh, yes, just something to bring our hosts for Shabbat dinner!

And so, after a few laps in the hotel pool in the roof overlooking the King David Hotel and the Old City (sigh—it’s a rough life!), off we went to Kehilat Har-El, the oldest non-Orthodox synagogue in the country, established in 1957. There we enjoyed a beautiful service with music that was not so unfamiliar to those of us from Beth Haverim Shir Shalom. Levadowski dances with Craig Taubman and tangos the Kol B’Seder—a hodgepodge of musical styles matching the eclectic membership of the community.

Finally, the members of the congregation hosted us for home-hospitality, which was a real treat. We had a wonderful time at the home we went to, and we’ll look forward to reconnecting with everyone tomorrow to hear about their experiences.

Whew! And that was Day 1!! So glad we’re sleeping in tomorrow before a walking tour of the Old City.

More, soon. Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem…