Jerusalem

Trip Start Oct 23, 2008
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Trip End Nov 05, 2008


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Sunday, October 26, 2008

As I mentioned in my previous blog - our son Sasha and his girlfriend Michal hosted us in Israel...we spent our first night in their apartment in Tel-Aviv, woke up early next morning, packed our things into Sasha's car and went to Jerusalem...Sasha and Michal got a couple of days off to spend some time with us in Jerusalem, so - we were really looking forward to it...
Jerusalem is not far from Tel-Aviv (Israel is a small country, everything is "not far") - maybe 60 - 70 km (= less than 40 miles) or so...but on the way there we managed to get lost a few times...Sasha is not a bad driver, and he even had a navigation device that was giving directions in a high-pitched female voice...we dubbed the device "Natasha" ..."Natasha" turned out to be fickle and unreliable...despite her linguistic abilities that included Hebrew, Russian, English and probably some other languages - the directions that she was giving us were changing every couple of minutes to the exact opposites...or else - she would become completely silent at the moment when her help was needed most - like when we would come to a fork in the road, for example...Yogi Berra, a famous former baseball player and manager, once said: ""If you come to a fork in the road, take it." ... I wonder if "Natasha" heard this quote and was just testing our sense of humor...so, as you could probably tell by now, "Natasha"'s company made the trip somewhat challenging but definitely not boring!...
we would've enjoyed "Natasha"'s company even more, but we had to be in the Old City of Jerusalem at a certain time, and we were already running late...the reason we could not be late was because Michal booked for us the Western Wall Tunnels tour for a specific time (and latecomers are not admitted to the underground tunnels without a guide)...but we were already so close to the Old City!... luckily we found a place to park the car not far from the Jaffa Gate (one of eight gates in the walls of Jerusalem's Old City) and ran through the gate into the Old City... in a minute or two we found ourselves in the middle of a square; if you turn left from the square - you will get to the Christian Quarter of the City (and Muslim Quarter is basically in the same direction), if you turn right - you'll get to the Armenian Quarter (and Jewish Quarter in the same general direction), and if you go straight down a narrow street - you'll get to the Western Wall (eventually)...but we didn't know it back then - we just followed Sasha and Michal who were leading us down the steps of this very picturesque street... it was bustling with life, colors, smells and sounds - delicious temptations for all my senses...but at this point we were literally running, so - I couldn't stop and try to absorb my surroundings ....it didn't take us too long though - a little further down the street, then - a sharp turn to the right, a flight of stairs to the left, and the Western Wall was right in front of us... we made it to our tour of the Western Wall underground tunnels with not a minute to spare (I think all 4 of us could make great sprinters under right circumstances!)...


JERUSALEM'S OLD CITY


I have to digress now...I do not want to go into detailed history in this blog - that's what we have Wikipedia for (and books - for more in-depth knowledge)...but I find it useful to give a few highlights here...these "highlights" are mostly the answers I could find to my own questions (and I ask a lot of them - I am a very curious creature!), and if one day I want to refresh my memory - I'll be glad I have them here...any religious scholar or even just an aspiring history buff would probably sneer at my questions (and simplified answers, too), but it's ok - I'll live...and I don't think they would be spending their time reading my humble blog anyway...
so, before we go into the tunnels under the Western Wall - a few words about the Wall itself (also known as the "Wailing Wall" ; also known as "Kotel" - which in Hebrew means just "wall", I think)...
the Western Wall is the closest "allowed" site (please keep in mind the word "allowed" - I will come back to that) to the most important place in Judaism - the Temple Mount...this place - according to the Torah - is where the world was created and where the so called Foundation Stone was located in the Holy of Holies (Kadosh Hakadashim in Hebrew)...the Holy of Holies was the inner sanctuary of the two Jewish Temples that once stood there: the First Temple (also known as Solomon's Temple) and the Second Temple...nobody was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies except the High Priest, and even he could enter only once a year...the First Temple was destroyed by Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the Second Temple was destroyed by Romans in 70 CE, but there is a belief in Judaism that the Divine Presence is always on the Temple Mount, and one day the Third and final temple will also be built there...

there is a "problem", however, - today the Temple Mount (which is also revered in Islam) is the site of one of the holiest sites in Islam - Dome of the Rock (as well as the al-Aqsa Mosque)...non-Muslims were not permitted to come to the area for a long time...as of a few years ago - non-Muslims are finally allowed to the area (but not to the mosques) after passing through security ... but you cannot go there whenever you wish - only at specified times (at the time of our trip the "window of opportunity" was about 3 hours long in the morning and 1 hour long in the afternoon...and of course, no Fridays, Saturdays and Muslim holidays)...in addition, you are allowed to enter the site only through a specified entrance known as the Mugrabi Gate...I was quite curious to see what was behind that gate...you tell me "don't" - and I want to "do"...you tell me "not allowed to see it" - and I want to see it even more...so, one day my angel and I came to the gate during 1-hour long allowed period...we had at least 10 minutes left before the end of it, but the guard did not let us in...yet a few Muslim-dressed women walked in freely...we had quite a curious little conversation with the guard:

The Guard: - there is no reason for you to be here...better go to the Western Wall...
Me: - but I've been there already...I am here, because I want to come here!
The Guard: - why do you want to come here anyway?
Me: - because I want to take some pictures ("how dare you even ask me that?! what business it is of yours?!" - but of course, I didn't say that out loud - the guy, after all, had a machine gun on him, and I - on the other hand - didn't even have long nails or stiletto heels to defend myself with)
The Guard: - no pictures, just go away - go away now, go, go...

the end of conversation...it's not easy for any non-Muslim to enter the compound on the Temple Mount...
but it would be even more difficult to do so for an Orthodox Jew, because many of their own Orthodox rabbis declared that it is forbidden to the Jews to come to the Temple Mount...why?...I've made a brave attempt to understand the religious complexities, and - as a result - I think the reason is this (but don't quote me on that - speak to a friendly rabbi near you!) : after the destructions of the two Jewish Temples, the exact location of the Holy of Holies (remember? - the sanctuary where only the High Priest could enter and only once a year) is unknown, and so - the restriction of not entering applies to the whole area...to be safe, so to speak...

What we now call the "Western Wall" is just an exposed remaining piece of whole Western Wall - the wall that surrounded the Second Temple (on the Temple Mount) and was built by the King Herod in the 1st century BCE...over the centuries the surrounding wall itself got covered with dirt, and houses were built upon it...when Israel became a state, they started some work to uncover parts of the wall, and the tunnels were made so that people could walk along the wall, under the streets and buildings that are above it...

the tour that we took was exactly that - walking along the whole Western Wall under the ground, under the part of the city that grew over it...it was quite a fascinating tour...and we also discovered on this tour that the closest point to the Holy of Holies that a religious Jew is allowed to get to was here, in one of the tunnels underground, and not at the Western Wall (although the Western Wall is the closest allowed point on-the-ground)...it was a small segment of the wall, and there were a lot of Orthodox Jews praying there the same way they pray at the Western Wall...

after this tour we went to the outside part of the Western Wall, the exposed part, the site of Jewish pilgrimage... although - I believe - not only Jewish...tourists of different faiths come here along with religious Jews...many (Jews and non-Jews alike) leave their written wishes in the cracks of the Wall (I did, too, of course) hoping that their prayers will be answered...
but for religious Jews this place is especially important - it is a site of mourning, praying as well as celebrations of important life events...we were at the Western Wall twice during our stay in Jerusalem (once with Sasha and Michal, and once on our own), and we witnessed several bar-mitzvahs celebrations there... many brides and grooms come there before their weddings, too...
the Wall is divided into 2 sections with separate entrances: one section for men, one for women...there is a tall partition wall between the two sections...so - my angel and I went to the Wall through different entrances, and found ourselves on the opposite sides of the partition wall...but! we hate to be apart, even for a short time, even at a religious site, so - we agreed beforehand to try to find some way to reunite over the partition wall...and we did!
...there were plastic chairs - for those who want to sit down to pray near the Wall...so, I pulled one of these chairs to the partition, climbed upon it and peeked into the men's section...I couldn't find my angel in the crowd, but he eventually spotted me hanging over the partition wall, got a chair of his own and climbed upon it ...this way we reunited and could touch, kiss and take our own picture there... I think we set a good example, because afterwords I noticed several other couples doing the same and taking pictures of themselves "reunited" over the partition wall ...
It was very enjoyable to explore Jerusalem's Old City... we walked through the Jewish and Armenian Quarters...in the Christian Quarter we went to the Church of Holy Sepulchre - the place where Jesus Christ was crucified and buried...I expected to see a big, magnificent church, but it was rather modest...



there were a lot of people inside the church, especially around the Stone of Anointing - which is said to be the spot where Jesus was prepared to be buried...people touch various religious and personal items to this stone in hopes that they will be charged with divine energy...
We also went to the Muslim Quarter - the largest and the most densely populated of the four quarters of Old Jerusalem...

there, in a little unassuming Arab restaurant, we had the most delicious lunch we ever had in Israel...we also stumbled upon a little outside café there - quite shabby but very picturesque! - where people were drinking coffee, socializing and smoking "nargila"...nargila (also called "hookah") is basically a water pipe that is used for slow smoking... it is very popular in the Arab world, and in Israel you can find it everywhere - in cafés, nightclubs, restaurants...you can use nargila to smoke tobacco or aromatic herbs (maybe other substances, too, but we don't do illegal stuff)...Michal ordered us a mixture of rose petals and apple, and we shared "nargila" - it was quite a relaxing experience (and it smelled so good!) ...
we also walked over the walls surrounding Old Jerusalem, made a semi-circle around the Old City and eventually ended up at the Arab market...I loved these explorations of Jerusalem's Old City...








MASADA AND THE DEAD SEA


A day trip that we took from Jerusalem was one to Masada and the Dead Sea...on the way there we had to pass through the Palestinian Territories (there are differences in opinion as to what they should be called, but I hope that "Palestinian Territories" sounds neutral enough) and a few check points complete with soldiers and machine guns ...there were no clear boundaries, but you could tell right away that there was something different about the area: the houses were built haphazardly, the area seemed shabbier and looked somewhat unkempt...but other than these "architectural differences" it still seemed like the same country... we were driving through the Judean Desert, and I noticed a few camels on the side of the road...there were no owners in sight, but the camels were "outfitted" for riding... and I wanted to ride one ...I've already had a chance to ride a giant turtle (that was in my home town zoo when I was about 6 years old, and I remember myself jumping up and down with excitement on its back... I was quite a robust 6-year-old, so - how that poor turtle still managed to make a step or two is beyond me!), and I had a chance to ride a horse, and a dolphin (actually two dolphins at the same time while holding to their fins) and an elephant...there are not too many "ridable" animals left, you know...but camel is one of them, so...........anyway, we stopped at the side of the road, and I opened the window to take a better picture of the nearest camel, my ride-to-be...suddenly a young man appeared seemingly out of nowhere, walked to our car and demanded a payment of 5 shekels for my taking a picture of his camel...5 shekels is a little more than US $1 - not a big deal...but there was no sign to tell you "no pictures" or that you have to pay if you take one...and anyway - I was about to pay much more for riding this camel...if he just added these 5 shekels to the cost of the ride - I wouldn't've known the difference...and everybody would've been happy...but he was insolent, and I didn't want to ride his camel anymore...there will be another time and another place, I am sure ...Sasha said that such rude demand does not deserve 5 shekels (and that is Sasha who always gives money to every street musician and beggar!), and so - we just took off....in another half an hour or so we reached Masada... Masada is a rock plateau about 450 meters (= about 1500 feet) above the level of the Dead Sea on the eastern side of the Judean Desert...Judean King Herod, who ruled from 37 BCE to 4 BCE , built his palace and a fortress here...He was somewhat paranoid and saw enemies everywhere, and Masada - which was remotely located and difficult to attack - suited him fine... but Masada is mostly known as the last bastion of Jewish freedom fighters against the Romans: a group of them settled here during the first Jewish-Roman war in 66 CE...Masada was under siege for some time, and when the rebels saw that the end was inevitable - they took their own lives choosing death rather than Roman slavery...the story goes that the men took lives of their wives and children and then of their fellow rebels until only a few men were left...these few had to draw lots to see who would be the last one - the one who would take lives of the remaining men and then his own life ...when Romans came - they found all the people dead and the provisions intact, but they also found a couple of women who were hiding and who eventually told them what had happened there...nowadays some consider it an act of heroism, other consider it an act of mass suicide...I try to be neutral, and it's up to each of us to decide what to make of it...but there was music and poetry written on this topic, and Masada is now on UNESCO world heritage list...
when we got there - we took a cable car up to the top and planned to take so-called "Snake Path" - a 45-60 minute hike on our way down ...but we spent more time there than we thought we would - watched an informational movie, lingered over coffee, played "hide-and-seek" in the ruins (not intentionally though! but somehow we kept losing each other there), so - to save time and get to the Dead Sea before dark, we took a cable car down, too...that was a little disappointment I had to live with...if it were entirely up to me - I would even climb UP, let alone DOWN!...but at least we got to the "Mineral Beach" on time (public beaches there close at a certain time)...I normally would be indifferent to the beach going on a trip like this (after all, we have our separate "lazy" trips for that), but I just had to try floating in the Dead Sea - to see for myself what it felt like...there was also a source of mineral mud nearby, so I (of course, what else is new!) wanted to cover myself in it...supposedly - for therapeutic purpose, but in all honesty - just for the pure fun of it!...where else could I roll in mud without being looked upon as if I were insane?!... I went for a swim afterwords - to wash off the mud...although you can hardly call that a "swim", more like a "float"...I had this funny feeling being in the Dead Sea

...I am quite a decent swimmer, but my skills were completely useless there...and I felt sooo awkward trying to get on my feet in the water - the density of the water does not allow to do it easily...all this being said, I think the whole experience is somewhat overrated...
would I bother going to that beach again? - no...but do I regret going? - nooo...





ALONE IN JERUSALEM




Sasha and Michal had to return to Tel-Aviv for work, and we spent a day alone in Jerusalem...we took it easy - had leisurely breakfast
...walked back to the Old City, allowed ourselves to get lost there...




half a day went so fast - we hardly noticed...then we returned back to the hotel for a little siesta, and went for a long walk again...during this walk I discovered another use for my camera: it was getting dark, and we didn't want to lose our way back in the narrow streets and alleys, so - I kept taking random pictures of the streets we walked through as a visual reminder of how to get back...
I vaguely remembered a fairy tale where a clever child who was abducted by villains took a pocketful of small stones with him and was dropping stone after stone along the way - to find his way back...so - I was playing that clever child with my camera (no villains in this story though) - taking pictures of every corner and saving them to help us find the way back...it turned out to be unnecessary - we got back easily...but I saved some of the pictures anyway ...so, hopefully my little "exercise" in cleverness was not in vain :)
























YAD VASHEM







On our last day in Jerusalem Sasha came in the morning to pick us up...we planned to return to Tel-Aviv in the afternoon, but the first part of that day the three of us spent in Yad Vashem...






Yad Vashem was established by the state of Israel in 1953 as the national memorial to the Jewish victims of Holocaust...it is a large complex that contains the Holocaust History Museum, archives, library, memorials, research institute and much more...I think everybody who visits Israel should go there...it is a very emotional and deeply upsetting experience...some people might say that it is too disturbing...but that's the whole point - it should be very emotional, it should be deeply upsetting, it should be "too disturbing"...because that is how we learn to never forget...
Yad Vashem is a place that - no matter how hard and how sincere you try - you just can not describe...words cannot convey it...you need to see and feel it for yourself...if you ever have a chance to go there - you definitely should...
and I'll finish this entry with the quote attributed to Martin Niemoller, German Protestant pastor...I heard it in several variations before...and I had a chance to re-read it again in Yad Vashem...this is something to think about...

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me--
and there was no one left to speak out for me...
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