Thursday, May 24, 2012

Touching History

This time, their attention span did not waver. Between the hose, the buckets of dirt and the Indiana Jones-like adventure, the boys’ attention was riveted. We were at Ein Tzurim sifting through 3000 years of history. The dirt was from the Temple Mount where renovations to build a mosque left tons of earth upended and unexplored. The dirt gets sifted, rinsed, examined and sorted –  bucket after bucket after bucket. And this was our task. We joined other volunteers and professionals who have been looking for treasures for the past five years ago. (They estimate that they have another 15 years of work.) It is tedious work but we were anxious to get our hands dirty. In the Negev, we helped build with mud. Now near Mt. Scopus, we hoped that our mud work would help reconstruct our people’s past.

On the ride to the site, we dreamed about the rare objects we’d find. But we knew full well it was highly unlikely. How excited we were to be proven wrong! With a short introduction by the staff, we were off on our search.

When they weren’t spraying each other with the hose, the boys excitedly called out, "I Spy a mosaic tile." "I Spy a piece of glass." "I Spy a piece of metal." We really did unearth some treasures – and ones not just planted for tourists.

"Yes, that is Byzantine tile," the staff person said as she examined our tray. "And that pottery is from the Second Temple." "That's a bone fragment. It might have been part of a sacrifice. We are not sure,” she remarked before moving on to the next bucket.

Koby's find, a Roman glass bead, was apparently unique since it was bagged and set aside. I was excited to find a Roman roof tile and a First Temple pottery shard... until I placed them in the bucket with hundreds of other Roman tiles and First Temple shards.

But while our shards were fairly common place, the same was not true a day later. On Wednesday, it was revealed that archeologists uncovered a stamp from the First Temple period that mentions Bethlehem by name. This is the oldest evidence corroborating the Bible’s description that Bethlehem was a city in the Kingdom of Judah. And the timing could not be more fitting – Bethlehem plays a central role in the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavu’ot.

As the holiday approaches, we are reminded that for Jews, history is more than an ancient story.  When we have an aliyah, we do not say God “gave” us the Torah but “gives” us the Torah. Though the revelation on Sinai occurred many thousands of years ago, it happens again in our day.  

Sifting through history is exciting. But for Jews, the past is really never behind us. We can touch it, for it is very much present.

Hag sameiah!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Northern Adventures

It’s been great having the kids in school in a routine. But the short days on Tuesdays and Fridays alone don’t give us the time we want to really explore. So we pulled them out of classes last week for a trip up north to the Galil (Galilee).

We drove through the Jordan Valley north to Beit Shean. The heat and the tight quarters in the rental car made for some cranky travelers.  But, the sight of the city’s ancient, impressive amphitheater finally pulled them out of their funk. (God knows it wasn’t the picnic lunch which ended with Alexander and Esther finishing off a bunch of half eaten sandwiches!) Pouring water down our backs made the midday heat a bit more bearable as we explored the ancient ruins.  The city, which dates to the 1st century CE, has remains in relatively good condition due to an earthquake in the 7th century that buried most of the city.  This left it untouched by human or nature until excavations began in recent times.  

Micah overlooking Beit She'an

Our afternoon dip in the nearby Ein Kibbutzim pools felt wonderful before we continued on our way. We drove the scenic route through Har Gilboa and made our way to the “metropolis” of Afula. We drove around until we spotted the busiest restaurant in town and there feasted on shwarma and a wide selection of side salads.

Koby, Amichai and Yonah cooling off at Ein Kibbutzim
Our tzimmer (what they call B&B’s in Israel – only they hardly ever include breakfast) in Yavne’al did not disappoint- the boys all piled into the hot tub and blasted the Jacuzzi. We don’t understand how a country which takes great pains to conserve water has allowed huge hot tubs to become standard fare at B&B’s throughout the country.  

We arrived after dark, so it wasn’t until morning that we saw the ­­beautiful view from the room- wheat fields, hills and distant towns of the Lower Galilee. We quickly ate and made our way to the Lavi forest – currently the only active tree planting center in Israel for visitors. We planted to the tune of Alexander’s “Etz Hayim He” and the kids had fun placing their tiny saplings in pre-dug holes and filling them in with dirt. 
Planting trees at the Lavi Forest, Galil
The fact that the boys went to bed late and woke up before 7am came back to bite us on our short drive to Mt. Arbel. Two fell asleep. Waking them up and trying to get them to the amazing view point and ancient synagogue- well, let’s just say, we almost had another massacre the likes of which have not been seen since Herod attacked the Zealots in 37 CE on this spot. 

The promise of rafting on the Jordan River quickened the recovery from the Arbel-melt-down and we made our way through Tiberias and then up to Gadot. We anticipated a quiet day in the middle of the week, before tourist season at the rafting place.  Little did we know that groups of all types were there – particularly a large and loud group of Russian speaking men that made for great people watching.  Koby steered us down the quiet Jordan River and the “rapids” at the end gave everyone a thrill. All claim to be ready for some serious white water rafting now.  

With much planning, we had found a time to finally Skype with the kids’ classes at HMJDS.  Then we decided to go away for a few days.  Rather than rejuggle schedules, we figured we could Skype from the road.  So, on the balcony of a restaurant with the Jordan River in the background (and pigeon poop all over), the three HMJDS boys were able to chat with their classes.  They had been eagerly awaiting the chance to “see” and talk with their friends at home.  

From the rafting, we made our way down the east side of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).  A cherry vendor on the side of the road turned out to be a very good salesman and Esther and Alexander were swept up in the excitement of fresh local cherries.  Only when we realized just how much we had overpaid, we could’ve kicked ourselves.  But boy were the cherries good!  We ate dinner at a lovely fish restaurant on the banks of the Kinneret.  St. Peter’s fish and trout while watching the sun set over the Kinneret at Ein Gev was great way to end the day.  

With the promise of a tiyul (hike) involving water, we packed our bags and headed out the next morning. Lest you think all our adventures are seamless, the excitement was quickly tempered by:
a)      fighting in the back seat because "he always sits by the window"
b)      "he read the Kindle all day yesterday"
c)       taking a wrong turn which nullified Alexander's promise that "we are almost there."

Through the windy roads of the Lower Galilee, we finally made our way to Nahal Amud.  And it was as everyone had told us – a great tiyul. We hiked for three hours through forests, past old flour mills and irrigation channels, orchards and along the stream. The anticipation of dipping in the stream kept the boys moving accompanied by semi regular complaints, "oy, are we there yet?" and "I hate this stupid hike," by one particular child left to be unnamed.  We eventually did have a dip.  It was what they call "refreshing" – another way to say cold!  Those gold plated cherries made great pit stops (pun intended) on the long hike back up.  Ami gets the prize for being the best hiker – three hours of hiking and not one complaint. 

Waiting to swim at Nahal Amud

From Nahal Amud, we drove to Tzfat.  With everyone tired, sweaty and hungry, we never-the-less set out to try to see some of the city before sites began to close.  And it was as you might expect – pretty much a disaster.  We got couldn’t find any of the sites despite walking in circles. (Doesn’t Tzfat believe in street signs?)  When we did find them, they were indeed closed.  You can picture the scene.  We eventually gave up and spent another 20 minutes walking up and down looking for a Yemenite restaurant listed in a guide book only to discover that we had passed it many times but it had changed names. Refreshed from malawach, jachnun and unlimited lemonade, we walked a bit more and were happy to discover the Sephardi Abouha and Ashkenazi Caro synagogues were open again for minha.  We also went into a candle shop and found a 10’ tall havdalah candle, as well as Disney characters shaped out of wax. An ice cream break gave us the necessary energy to walk and walk and walk as we searched for our car.  After a long day, we drove an hour on windy roads (more "he sat by the window last time" whining), made it to Kibbutz Hannaton and crashed.

Friday was another full day.  There was so much we wanted to see we ran the poor kids ragged!  We visited Beit Shearim.  Neither Esther nor Alexander had been there and really enjoyed the site. This is where Yehuda Hanasi (compiler of the Mishnah) and other Sages are buried.  We had a wonderful (if a bit long) tour.  As long as the two younger kids got to use headlamps in the large burial chambers, they were engaged. Koby on the other hand has become our expert in Greek mythology which was helpful in deciphering the sarcophagi (yes, Greek images on graves of rabbis should raise an eyebrow).

After another picnic lunch ("more sandwiches, really? I hate sandwiches!”), we rushed to Manof, a tiny moshav farther north to tour a small, chocolate truffle factory.  No complaints here. As Esther said, not a bad life – live in a quaint town with an amazing view, work by and for yourself making chocolate all day. The New Zealand born owner was great with the kids and needless to say, we left with three bags of truffles.  Yummmm…wouldn’t that justify anything else we did that day??

From the modern kitchen, back to ancient ruins at Tzippori, where we spent two hours in the sun walking through the site. This town – known for housing the Sages who fled Jerusalem when it was destroyed by the Romans – has wonderful mosaics in incredible condition. The ruins date back to the Roman era (1st-2nd century CE).  Tzippori is unique in that it’s a city where a clear Jewish presence lived side by side with the pagan Romans. The site continues to be excavated, and there is likely so much more that will be uncovered.  Micah got sick toward the end of our tour so he wasn’t such a happy camper. And another child (the same one who shall go unnamed) was just plain miserable throughout ("who cares about stupid mosaics anyways!").  It was definitely time for a pre-Shabbos nap!

We spent a short time looking for the (supposed) grave of Yonah Hanavi in a nearby Arab town but gave up when we literally ran out of road. 

Shabbat at Kibbutz Hannaton was a wonderful end to our Galil trip. Esther and Alexander had been to this Masorti (Conservative) kibbutz years ago in the early 90’s. Since then, it basically fell apart but a new core group of young families is rebuilding the community. The first families arrived three years ago to an existing, although run-down kibbutz infrastructure.  Over the past two years they have absorbed more families so the kibbutz is steadily growing in size and stability.  There are big goals, ideas and dreams for all the things this kibbutz can be.  Amazingly, next year there will be a mekhina program (one year post high school, pre-army) on Hannaton with the goal of cultivating new leaders for the Conservative movement in Israel.  A lot of exciting potential… Alexander and Esther enjoyed the spirited davening and visiting with couples who recently relocated to the kibbutz. The kids easily adapted to kibbutz life – that is, they felt free to play outside with the other kids unsupervised.

We wanted to be back in Jerusalem for Yom Yerushalayim and Israel's new and only toll road made the motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) drive a breeze.  Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem after the 1967 Six Day War.  We enjoyed watching throngs of young people marching with flags, dance and sing down King George Street and of course fireworks at night.  We also went on a tour of the Jerusalem Municipality buildings, which was a fascinating lesson in the history of the buildings, as well as the various characters that ruled and owned land from the mid-1800s until today.  

While Jerusalem is under Israeli control, we continue to pray for the time when it will live up to its name -  “yiru shalem, they shall see peace.”

Yom Yerushalayim street scene

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Jerusalem's Candy Man

“Never take candy from a stranger.” We drill that lesson into our children from the time they are toddlers. We read about it in Bernstein Bears books and speak about it at preschool. We hear about strangers hiding razor blades in candy. And so we repeat our dire warning: “Never take candy from a stranger. Ever!”


On Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israelis celebrated Independence Day with a day of barbecuing. We headed out to a local park to take in the scene. We sat down on a bench to eat granola bars and jealously breathed in “reiah nikhoah,” the pleasing odor of Jerusalem grills. After a minute or two, an old man shuffled toward us with the help of his cane.  He approached Micah and asked if he could have the large, inflatable hammer Micah was holding. The hammer was a treat Micah received from his generous uncle Aaron at the previous night’s festivities. He had taken it along for the walk to the park. Truthfully, I was more than happy for Micah to give it away -- it would be one less excuse for him to bop his brothers (and parents).

The old man repeated his request to have the hammer and a confused seven year old handed it over with some hesitation. The old man thanked Micah, reached into his pocket and took out a cherry flavored toffee. Amazingly, the other brothers perked up at that moment -- just in time for each of them to receive their special treat.

As the “can-I-eat-it?” chorus erupted and Esther and I glanced that knowing parent, never-take-candy-from-a-stranger glance, the old man lifted his hands and intoned: “Yivarekhekha adonai v’yishmarekha, May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord be gracious unto you. May the Lord show you kindness and grand you peace.” He then mumbled something about the joy that will be felt at Micah’s wedding.

            Are you really going to tell your kids that they can’t eat the candy from an old Jerusalemite man who just blessed them with birkat kohanim? To them, this might just have been Eliyahu Hanavi.

“Yes, you can eat it,” we said.

The man wished us a “hag sameiah” and a “Shabbat Shalom.” And to my dismay, he handed Micah back the large, inflatable hammer. He then shuffled off to prune a nearby rosemary bush -- that he might have a sweet smelling herbs for Shabbat.

“Never take candy from a stranger.” Yes. But as our siddur reminds us, “haverim kol Yisrael,” there are no strangers among Jews. We are family.  And in special places like the Holy City of Jerusalem, strangers offer sweet words of prayer with the candy they give away.

Micah, Amichai and Koby resting during our Yom Ha'atzmaut neighborhood stroll.  Treasured inflatable hammer is being held by Amichai

Yom Ha'atzmaut ceremony at the elementary school.

Yonah and Amichai at one of our local parks.