Sunday, February 20, 2011

Christmas in Israel 2010

We are tourists in the holy Land, Israel.  The first thing that hits one is the difference in light from Indiana.  The sun is shining with a brightness that almost hurts the eyes. The buildings are white or semi white, or golden, the sort of gold of Jerusalem stone, sung about in many songs, “Jerusalem of gold.” It is warm. We left snow packed Bloomington and here within a span of 15 hours it is summer like. We arrive towards evening and the darkness comes down quickly and suddenly. The sky is full of stars, not like the nights of Indiana. Clear and very bright.
 This is not the Israel of the newspapers and the newsreels. Everything is normal. I could be in California or Florida. The highway was four lanes, and the traffic heavy; there were the usual traffic jams, but orderly as in any civilized country. The traffic moves with jumps, smoothly at 100 km per hour for 20 minutes and then 5 minutes of slow motion then 20 minutes fast again. We arrive in Haifa in the dark. Our hotel is in the German Colony, an area of the city that at one time was settled by German Templar’s, a religious Christian group. These were an offshoot of German Protestants, who came to Palestine to build agricultural settlements, in the second half of the 19th century. At that time the Land was empty, and Haifa a small town of about 4000 people. They developed an area with stone buildings and red roofs, with a very wide boulevard.  Today this area has been restored and is full of restaurants and the Colony Hotel, where we are staying dates back to that period, the original hotel of the area.  Since the surrounding area is predominantly Christian Arab, the buildings are decorated with Xmas decorations and a large artificial Xmas tree set in the fountain at the bottom of Ben Gurion Boulevard. Would he have approved?  Of course the water is turned off.  It was noisy and music was blaring from all the restaurants, creating a festive atmosphere. Here we were trying to escape the commercialization of Xmas, going to a ”Jewish country”, and instead see lighted reindeer decorations and a moving robotic Santa Claus across the street from our hotel. Jingle Bells rings out from every street corner.

This small country is inundated with history and religions.  The history is both ancient and modern. Wherever one goes, every step there is a ruin or structure with a story to tell. Buildings are relics either of the crusaders, or of more ancient times or connected to the War of Independence or Zionist history. Just above the German Colony and its Xmas decorations are the Baha’i hanging gardens.  Another religious symbol, not associated with death and destruction as are other religions, but of planting gardens and holding out for religious unity and a single humanity. There are vey few Baha’is in the world, perhaps 5,000,000 and Haifa, and nearby Acre are their holy sites. The founder of this religion is buried in Haifa and his tomb in the beautiful white temple at the top of Mt Carmel. Baha’ism was also a mid 19th century religion, an offspring from Shiite Islam, in which the prophet or messenger Bahá'u'lláh, proclaimed one universal religion in which all previous religions are continuities, i.e Judaism. Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam and that God has spoken to specific messengers, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, the Buddha and Mohammad, at different periods through time. It is a culmination of all the monotheistic religions, one looking for peace and harmony among men. Unfortunately Baha’is’ were persecuted, and are still persecuted in modern Iran, and their “first messenger” was executed in Iran  (Persia) at about the same time as the German Colony was being formed.  The second leader of the Baha’i movement was imprisoned by the Turks, following banishment from Iran, in Acre. He died there and his site is also holy, and Baha’i pray at this site or towards this site daily.

Even though we should have been suffering from lack of sleep, we walked along the boulevard (actually Ben Gurion Blvd) to a nearby Arab Restaurant and had our first typical Middle Eastern meal.  At a nearby table were group of noisy German tourists, obviously enjoying the good fare and good beer. I thought why don’t the newspapers write about the freedom of the Christian Arab population, the lack of violence, and the obvious good will around us. I don’t think this would occur in any other Arab country except perhaps Lebanon and even that I am not certain.

The trip over was on an Airbus A330-200 carrying 293 passengers. The flight was full to capacity, mostly with young people going for two weeks during Christmas break as part of the Tag lit-birthright program. These were students either just finished high school or in college. They seemed such an unkempt lot, torn jeans and T-shirts with different slogans. A young man, obviously their group leader approached me and began speaking to me in Hebrew, assuming I was an Israeli, returning to Israel.  He turned out to be a Chabad rabbi who accompanied the kids, most of whom were not religious, as judged by dress. When he found out I was an ex-professor from IU, he started telling all the kids. “Hey, here is a professor from IU” and it quickly carried through the plane. Apparently there were IU students in the group and one of the group leaders was an IU student, on her third trip.  I could not keep my identity hidden for very long. The other component of the passengers was families with screaming and crying children. The crying went on all night, and I could not sleep. Children howling” I don’t want to sleep” in a multitude of languages. This was a 12-hour flight. It was one of the more uncomfortable ones I had taken in a long time. I don’t think it would have mattered whether we had flown first class rather than economy, since the noise must have carried throughout the plane. Landing at Ben Gurion was a relief, and everything from passport control, baggage to picking up a car went very smoothly.

We woke up the next morning to a bright blue sky, and temperatures predicted to be in the 70’s (remember this is December). Mimi called some of her friends, and I suggested let’s spend a day in the country. Out of the blue I suggested we go to Beth-lechem haglalit, where I had been previously years before to eat lunch. It turned out that Mimi’s friends had lived on a moshav shitufi (collective village, different from a kibbutz) in that area on their arrival in Israel, I assume in 1948. This was the village of Alonei Abba. We stopped on the way and again found ourselves in German Templar country. At the entrance to the village there is a remains of a church, in quite good condition. The village in a previous incarnation had been called Waldheim, and was established by a breakaway group of German evangelists from Haifa.  The German colony had been founded in 1907; the evangelical church was built between 1914- and 1921. After the rise of Nazism, many of the members of the village joined the Nazi party, and even the Germans in Haifa voted for Nazi officials. Although they objected to the boycott of Jewish shops, there sympathies during WW II were with Nazi Germany. The British started deporting many to Australia for resettlement, and after the war others returned to Germany. In 1948 the Hagana, the IDF, occupied the village and a Jewish settlement established. This was where Mimi’s friends had lived.
 We then proceeded to Bethlehem of Galilee. This is a small village about 10 kilometers from Nazareth. Many archeologists believe that this is the Bethlehem of Jesus, since he was born nearby. This village is mentioned in the Bible, in the book of Joshua, as a city of the tribe of Zebulon. It was inhabited by Jews until the destruction of the 2nd temple in 70 AD, and may have been a Talmudic center. As described above German Templers also settled it at the beginning of the 20th century, and many of their houses including a meeting hall remain standing and still in use.   During World War II the inhabitants were interned and after the war chose to go to Australia rather than to Germany where land was not available. Jewish settlers moved in 1948 and established an agricultural settlement. However today it is tourist village with numerous restaurants and small bed and breakfasts. 
After a few days in Haifa, we drove to Jerusalem, where we were meeting our son and family. The purpose of this trip was in reality a gift to Thalia, our granddaughter who had performed her bat-Mitzvah very well in October in Chicago. In the end the whole family came. While we stayed in one of Jerusalem’s large hotels, they had rented a small apartment in the Yemin Moshe quarter of the city. This is a gentrified area, which was established by Moses Montefiore, the British-Jewish philanthropist for poor Jews in 1891. It was to relieve the overcrowding in the Old walled city.  Today it is an area of gardens and the houses have been converted into small villas each worth a small fortune. They have the most magnificent view of the old city and the tower of David, an old citadel that dates back to the second century BC, and has been rebuilt by all the various conquerors of the city, Hasmoneans, Moslem, Crusaders, Byzantine etc., today it is the museum of the history of the city.
 We wondered around the maze of alleys that make up the old city, going to the Armenian quarter for dinner, with a son of a cousin and wife (Henry and Keren) and his wife’s parents then the next morning touring the rebuilt Jewish quarter with its ancient synagogues, which were built lower than the surrounding area, since during Moslem times, synagogues could not be higher than mosques.  The Jewish quarter has been restored with taste, the architecture blending in. We of course proceeded to the holy “ western wall”, where a large square has been cleared crowded with tourists and worshippers, The “ wall’ itself is not imposing, and it is more the emotional appeal than the aesthetic that is important. Thalia and her mother approached the women’s section, which is separated from the men’s section and is much smaller. Most of the men praying are what is termed in Israel, “black hats” because of the black garb, dating to medieval Poland. The area has its usual beggars, who live of the tourists and claim to study Torah.  I have been many times to this area, the first time I felt some emotion, but now I do not have any feelings about it, and I am put out by the large numbers of people pushing to get near the wall and place a small piece of paper with their wish to God.   The Arab section of the old city is a labyrinth of streets with small shops, selling everything from spices, candy, to expensive jewelry and embroidered Palestinian dresses. Shopkeepers sit outside and try to entice you in. It is the atmosphere of the souk. I am sure you can bargain down any item at least 50%.
 I used to think Jerusalem had a rarefied atmosphere. It is now a crowded metropolis stretching on the hills as far as the eye can see. Masses of white boxes, some three or four story high make up the landscape. The area around the Israel museum and the Knesset is still beautiful, and the city is blessed with lots of parks and gardens, although even in these spaces high rises are appearing. Driving, it seems very crowded.  In error we drove into a religious area teeming with people in black. Perhaps because it was Xmas, the rest of the city seemed more crowded than usual. Waiting to pick up a car at the Budget office took about two hours. There were arguments between the clerks and renters, haggling over prices quoted, prices charged, and trouble finding the reservation. The days of internet and computer ordering seemed to have misfired, and instead of being more efficient, it seemed a total mess.  Driving in Jerusalem requires nerves of steel. Arrows point in certain directions to get out of the city and then disappear. One comes to roundabouts with no idea which of the four streets to take. It is not a planned city like Tel Aviv (which has it own driving and parking problems) but is a mess of streets going in all directions, skirting hills, and valleys, changing names every few blocks, in honor of some Zionist writer or painter, or even some obscure Rabbi.
It was now December 24th and we proceeded back to Haifa, this time with all the family.  On the way we stopped at what is known as the cave of Sorek (Absalom’s cave).   The name has nothing to do with Absalom, the son of King David but is called after Absalom Shohem, a soldier killed in the war of attrition between Israel and Egypt.    It was discovered accidently in 1968 during blasting in the area, and has a magnificent array of stalactites and stalagmites. The temperature is a constant 80 degrees, and the humidity about 90%. The area of the cave is large, and unlike most caves in Indiana there are no bats, since it was sealed off for centuries. All of us enjoyed this. We then went on our separate ways back to Haifa; again to the same area of the German Colony, The children enjoyed the Xmas decorations and the atmosphere of Christmas.
 The next day was interesting, since we met three generations of family, the Steinmetz’s, the children and grandchildren of Mimi’s late mother.  There were 5 cousins and their spouses and in some cases children, closer to Yuval and Karen in age, and one or two grandchildren. The event was held at Shulamit’s house in Zichron Yaacov, a small town south of Haifa. There was the most wonderful view from their yard of the coastline stretching from Caesarea to Athlit, just south of Haifa. My grandson Jacky enjoyed climbing the palm trees in the yard. In fact he climbed every available tree and wall he came across. We had to keep him from climbing the ancient ruins of Caesarea and later Beth Shean. Prior to this visit we went to the National Park to view the ancient Roman and Crusader city of Caesarea.  Besides the ruins of the amphitheatre and hippodrome the area has been developed with restaurants and gift shops, some quite unique.
Next day we drove to the Emek Jezreel and kibbutz Ein Harod. This was one of the earliest Kibbutzim, established around 1921. It is situated on a hill with a great view of the valley, fishponds and Mt Gilboa.  We stayed in the Kibbutz guesthouse, Iris Suites, which to our surprise were very luxurious.  Yuval and family stayed in nearby cabins, rustic, but clean and well furnished. The area of the lodgings was nicely landscaped, and we could sit outside in our own private garden, lie on a hammock, and sip wine with a view of the hills. This was a wonderful experience and we hope to do it again sometime.  This became our base for a couple of days, exploring the Jordan Valley, meeting some of Mimi’s friends and exploring the area with its archaeological sites, the Roman city of Beth Shean, and the mosaics of Byzantine synagogues and churches. The kibbutz is opposite a national park with a natural spring in which one can bathe all the year round. The children did this, with Thalia complaining of the fish “biting’ her toes. 
Although the room came with a bottle of wine, we visited the nearby Tabor winery and bought some wonderful “ gewürztraminer”. The next day we drove up to Mt Tabor to see the sunset. On top of the mountain are a couple of Byzantine style churches, which to our surprise were full of tourists.  Mt Tabor is mentioned many times in the Bible and is the site of the “ Transfiguration” of Christ.  Since I am not familiar with the New Testament I was not quite sure what this meant until I got home and looked it up on Wikipedia.  This is one of the holiest sites for Christians in Israel.   On the slopes of the Mt are a number of Arab villages and at the foot of the Mt the Jewish village of Kfar Tabor.  This was where we bought the highly recommended wine. The village was one of those founded by Baron de Rothschild at the turn of the 20th century. It is famous for its grapes and almonds, and there is an unusual Marzipan museum next to the wine tasting room.
The Roman ruins of Beth Shean are quite spectacular. The National Park Authority runs them. The city is being restored to its “ grandeur” with the main Cardo, (market) already reconstructed, a huge amphitheatre (had abut 7000 places), and public baths. An earthquake destroyed the city in the 8th century. The archaeological dig has uncovered material dating back to the “ iron age”—Israelite Kingdom period.
Unfortunately our trip came to an end too soon, and back we drove to Ben Gurion and home to “ cold and snowy” Indiana.