Category Archives: Sites of Interest

The Holocaust in Israel

Yesterday, was a national holiday here in Israel: Holocaust Remembrance day. There is a national time of silence at 10am where everything in the country stops and people stand still to commemorate those lost in the Shoah. It was eery experiencing the act of an entire country stopping for one minute. The only silence deeper than that of an entire country taking a collective breath, is that of death.

___________

"The Stones Weep" by artist Miriam Brysk

This year, I was in Jerusalem for Easter. I decided to make that the day that I would go to the Israeli museum devoted to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem. Normally, I go out of my way to avoid all things related to the  Holocaust but I felt that this museum was important for my understanding of Israel.

I went into my experience in Yad Vashem with memories of the Washington DC Holocaust Museum. The DC museum is an architectural work of art. It is beautifully designed and inspired the redesign of Yad Vashem 5 years ago.

The content, however, is a different story. The Holocaust is depressing and there is no way around it. But there are ways of presenting the narrative that end with a measured amount of optimism and hope that humanity has learned something. The museum in DC does not do this. In fact, one of the last rooms you into in that museum describes genocides and ethnic cleansing that have happened since (Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, etc.).

Also, it is worth begging the question: why is there a Holocaust Museum in the capital of the United States? The answer lays in America’s powerful Jewish lobbies vested interest in perpetuating the narrative of Jewish victimhood. Their interest is in keeping the attention and thoughts on what will happen to Israel should America withdraw its support.

Yad Vashem’s purpose is different. It has a three-pronged purpose. The first, is to research the victims and keep their memories and stories by collecting interviews with survivors, documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.), memoirs, photographs, and personal items belonging to victims (clothes, toys, etc.). The archive of Holocaust items in Yad Vashem is the largest and most thorough one of its kind in the world.

The second purpose, is to tell the story of the Holocaust and its victims. They do this through the Museum. The narrative presented is surprisingly balanced and detailed. As one walks through the exhibits there is special care to explain how ordinary people are swept up by extraordinary events. As I walked through the museum I found myself wondering if it had been me in Nazi Germany what would I have done? Like most people, I would like to hope that I would have fought in the resistance or helped hide a Jewish family but who knows? The propaganda of the time was so insidious and Hitler was so charismatic.

Yad Vashem’s final purpose is trying to interpret the impact and cultural significance of the Holocaust while it happened and since it ended. The museum has a huge collection of art and literature having to do with that time. While I was there, there was an exhibit of art from the ghettos.

As the people who were alive during WWII pass on, I feel that this is the most important thing that Yad Vashem does. As the years go by the legacy of the Shoah will be less asking how it happened and more how do we interpret it.

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Re: The Weekend of Wandering in the Desert

Well, I survived. I was not horribly maimed or injured by falling off the mountains or by rock slides or by wolves. All of my worst fears did not come true. The hiking was not nearly as intense as I originally anticipated. The clambering over large rocks got tiring after a while but gave me a new empathy for this guy and his crew.

The law in Israel says that schools are allowed to have a casualty rate of 10% on field trips. Our group had two major casualties (sprained ankle and a sick person) and a few minor ones (scrapes, etc.). Which for a group of 70 foreigners, is quite an achievement.

The Negev is no joke. It is quite literally the most arid place I have ever had the dubious pleasure of visiting. I can count on one hand the number of trees I saw (3) and the amount of water I saw (0L). In terms of wild life, there wasn’t really any… I saw two birds (they were not stupid enough to land) and no scorpions (thank god!) even though they are rumored to be abundant in the Negev. The Negev is a wasteland as far as the eye can see. But, oh my gosh, it is a beautiful waste land.

The Beautiful Negev

What the Negev lacks in lush foliage, it makes up for in rock. My tour guide kept calling the Negev a geologist’s paradise. Think rock formations from Four Corner’s National Park, Yosemite, Disneyland rides, and Death Valley all in one spot. It is absolutely incredible. There was one particular portion of our hike where there were giant house sized boulders that were tossed about by the force of flash floods. The power of the forces at work here was awe-inspiring and made me very glad that God is not fond of smiting people any more.

Rocks!

Looks like part of Thunder Mountain in Disney Land!

I was also a bit nervous about spending such an extended period with so many international students. I like most of them but having classes and social activities with the same 70 ppl gets old very quickly. This trip was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Yes, the amount of whining was a little excessive. Yes, it was a struggle to stifle my murderous impulses towards some people. But what made it alright was our Israeli entourage.

All of the nature trails in Israel are marked like this.

We had an entire crew of Israeli support staff with us. We had our two madrichim (RAs/social activities coordinators), Tomer and Michal; two tour guides, Iran and Israel; two security/first aid guys, Rambo and Guido; one survival extraordinaire, Bear; and one other random Israeli guy. Rambo and Guido (not their real names) were these very intense Druze guys. They only spoke hebrew and survived on chain-smoking, coffee, and intensity. In their army service, they were a part of an élite combat unit. Now they are security guards at the university.

 

Rambo (L) and Guido (R)

 

 

Guido was the younger one. He had a lot of energy and was constantly getting into trouble. While we were at a rest stop on the way he impressed a bunch of little kids by showing off his strength at an arcade game. He may have also dunked one of the our guides while we were in Eilat.

Rambo was the strong silent type. For about half the trip, I thought that he wasn’t human. I’m pretty sure that he is at least part machine and part mountain goat. He took his job incredibly seriously and as a result was very good at it. He was always counting us and was always bringing up the rear making sure no one fell or was left behind. As the trip wore on, I began to see his softer side come out. He is engaged and wears his fiance’s name on a necklace. When asked whether that is a Druze tradition, he responded: no it isn’t, he just really loves her.

 

This is the Egyptian border and one of the guard towers that lines the border. This picture is taken from the Israeli side.

My reward for 1.5 days in the desert and sleeping on the ground in a thin sleeping bag... Sitting on a beautiful beach for a day!

 

 


J-Town: The Center of the World

I have been mulling for over a week about how best to describe Jerusalem to the people back home.

It is one of the best types of cities teeming with life and emotion constantly ready to explode. Sometimes these are large and violent explosions effecting hundreds of people resulting in death and destruction. Turn on cnn circa 2007 and you’ll know what I mean. There are also smaller good natured explosive interactions. Haggling in the market is often an exercise in out passioning the other. Or outside the Jaffa Gate, there was road work being done. The men working were gesticulating wildly and yelling at each other over some minor detail. A friend once explained to me that in Israel no one really wins an argument, one party just gets tired of yelling.

The door out of the Upper Room. Note the Islamic influences.

Overlaying this explosive vibrancy is a startling level of religiosity. Religion seeps out of Jerusalem’s pores, it is in many ways the mortar of the city. There are places in the city where one gets their religion with a side of cheese. For example, David’s Tomb and the Upper Room. These are not sites for the skeptical. There is really no basis for these sites being holy. Probably at one point in history some enterprising young Jerusalemite made up a story about those sites in order to make a quick buck from pilgrims. However, this still does not change the fact that people flock from all over the world to come to these sights. When we were at the Upper Room, a least 3 different groups of Christian pilgrims came through to pray and soak up the atmosphere. This begs the question: what makes a site Holy? Can a site become holy if enough people believe that it is Holy?

The women's side of the Western Wall

Then there are the sincerely holy sites. These are the sites that make Jerusalem the center of the world. For Jews, there is the Wall and the Temple. For Christian’s, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And for Muslims, the Temple on the Mount. Don’t get me wrong, these sites have their own amount of cheese, however, these are also sites that are at the center. At the Western Wall, I just watched. I took a seat on the women’s side and I watched the emotion as women quite literally whispered in God’s ears.The stood at the wall and whispered their prayers and secrets in the same way you do as a child. I saw hope, grief, adoration, and so many other emotions as women stood in the presence of God.

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, our group moved through the last stations of the cross at the same time as a young Ukrainian football team. I am not sure why they happened to be in Israel, all I know is that it was clear why they were at the church. As my group was leaving they were urgently praying and kissing the Stone of Anointing. There is some thing poignant about watching adolescent boys dressed in their soccer uniforms asking for God’s blessing. There is no better salve for pre-game jitters than some blessing from God. In many ways my experience in Jerusalem was not metaphysical. It was an experience of practical religion. A God to whom people who flock to the center of the world to whisper their secrets to God and to be anointed before their soccer matches.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre


Flash! Bang! Update!

So, I have been incredibly lax with the updating. Sorry guys! That was combination of hebrew intenseness, alot of outtings, and a couple of nights of to much arak. I’m gonna break this down short, sweet, and simple.

Acre: Crusader City

So, I went to this place called Acre (pronounced: Akko). It is opposite Haifa on the bay. Acre was the main port for northern Israel for something like 3000 or 4000 years before the British developed Haifa into a deep water port in the 20th century. The city of Acre is interesting because the old city of Acre is one of the best examples of crusader architecture still standing. It is also pretty neat because people still live in some of the old crusader buildings. Also, if one knows what one is looking for once can very clearly see remnants of the the various civilizations that had control over Acre. In particular the Muslim and the Crusader influence. It was fascinating to see.

The only downside to this place was the fact that we went went on the rainiest and coldest day I have been privy too since coming to Israel. And we traipsed around in the rain and the cold for the entire day. This is going to sound awful but it is hard to notice the history of a place when one is trying to find shelter from driving winds and freezing rain.

Bottomline: I need to go back to Acre. I cannot say that I appreciate Acre as much as I could had I been dry and warm when I visited.

The Jewish Diaspora Museum

Mark Spitz: He's Jewish?!

Honestly, I didn’t get the point of this. Well, I do but I am not its prime audience, so some significance was lost on me. The Jewish Diaspora Museum (aka Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People) is from what I can gather supposed to be a museum that demonstrates the significance of the Jewish diaspora for Jewish culture and a preservation of pieces of the culture. To tell you the truth my museum experience could have been a little more information rich. We had a tour guide who took us through the museum. Maybe it was because we were all Americans, but she didn’t really give us any new information. That is a feat in and of itself considering how little I know about Jewishness. Also, the exhibits didn’t have a lot of information in them. I guess part of this comes down to the simple fact that, being a non-Jew, I am not the main audience of this museum.

I think that is one of the hardest parts about being in this country. All though all of the Israelis I have met have been warm and welcoming I often feel like an outsider here by virtue of the fact that I am not Jewish. It is a very strange experience to be surrounded by people who are Americans, some of whom are like me and have never been to Israel, who by virtue of their religious identity are able to feel more at home than I am.

Ceasarea and the Napa Valley of Israel

The seats in the ampitheather

Last weekend, we went to Ceasarea. That was cool I guess. Roman ruins, no matter where you are, all kind of look the same in my opinion. There are two very cool things about Ceasarea: the amphitheater and Herod’s Palace. The ampitheater is about half the size it was during the Roman times, however, it is still used for concerts today. How cool is that? In the same place that ancient Romans 2000 years ago used to go to watch plays, modern Israelis can come to watch modern artists perform! Seeing the remains of Herod’s Palace was cool because he was such a baller. Herod had an indoor fresh water pool in his house. A house who’s back porch looked over the Mediterranean Sea. So, Herod was able host pool parties with beautiful women and plentiful wine while listening to the sound of waves from the Meditteranean sea crashing against his back porch. Tell me that is not completely unreal and totally awesome.

Quaint, no?

After we were done at Ceasarea, we went to a town called Zikhron Ya’akov. I would describe this town as being a cross between Nantucket and the Napa Valley located in the heart of Northern Israel. It has all of the quaint and adorable shops that Nantucket has but has the wine industry like Napa. As a quirk from its history it has a lot of European architecture that makes it a very scenic little city. It was a great place to walk around and get some lunch. It has some great little boutiques and a really wonderful ice cream place. I would like to go back one day for a wine tasting. Also, I might be making this up but I think someone told me that this was the first place in Israel to have running water.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

There are a few last things I want the folks back home to know:

I am done with my Hebrew ulpan! I no longer have to sit in a classroom for 5 hours trying to learn me some Hebrew. It was great while it lasted and I achieved my goal of learning some basic Hebrew. But man, the 5 straight hours was killing me. (Also, the Sunday classes were not doing me any good.)

Because Ulpan is over, I start real school on Monday. Fun stuff: Arabic, Arab-Israeli Relations… It is going to be a good semester.

Finally, bwahahahahahaha!

The weather in Haifa tomorrow...


Elijah’s Cave: Or Just Another Pilgrimage Site

The domed chapel that was formerly a windmill.

The day was an absolutely brilliant day. It was hands down the most gorgeous day I’ve had since coming to Israel. A rainstorm the day before had cleared the air so that you could see the reflections of the clouds on the Mediterranean. Our tour of Elijah’s cave started at the top of Mount Carmel and worked its way down. At the top of Mount Carmel are two sites of interest.

The first was the Stella Maris Monastery. We did not go in because we were with Jewish tour guides who seemed a little reticent to go into a Christian holy site. The site of the Stella Maris Monastery played an important role in Napoleon’s attempts at conquering the Holy Land. I think it is the sight of a battle in which Napoleon got his butt so firmly kicked that he decided to cut his losses and get out the Holy Land all together. The monastery also at one point was destroyed, rebuilt, used as a military garrison and as a hospital.

The second, is a military garrison that was formerly a luxurious Ottoman summer home. It was taken over by the British Mandate and turned into a military garrison a purpose that it still serves today. The building is perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean and obviously has stunning views. Our guides told us that one of the uses of this particular outpost during WWII was to spot the boats of illegal Jewish immigrants trying to escape the Holocaust. When spotted these boats were either sunk or they were captured and the families on board were detained and deported. This history is all too eerily similar, in my opinion, to what happens in Florida with illegal Cuban immigrants.

From the top of the hill we started on a path down the mountain. The path was a little hard to find and part of our group got lost trying to find it. The path was gorgeous and afforded us beautiful views of the sea and sky. Halfway down the mountain there was a domed chapel that was formerly a windmill. It was locked but would be interesting to go into. From there we continued down the path. It took us about 15 minutes of careful walking to finally make it to Elijah’s Cave.

The tie things inside the cave. I hate taking pictures inside holy sites so this is the only picture I have.

Elijah’s Cave is said to have been the cave to which Elijah escaped after insulting a king or something. Wikipedia has other ideas. All I know is that the cave is supposed to have magical healing powers for mental illness and barrenness, and that Elijah lived there until he went to heaven on a chariot of fire. I was, honestly expecting something a bit more natural. Maybe some stalagtites or something.

In front of the cave was a series of patios with places for people to light candles and to ritually clean themselves. Once one goes into the cave it is like any other site of pilgrimage I have ever gone too. The cave is giant square room carved out of rock and lit by awful fluorescent lights. Men and women are separated by flimsy wooden partitions. The women’s side is bigger (I think cause of the whole barrenness thing.) On the women’s side there is a place to ties bits of cloth as you pray.

I think I was so disappointed by this site because I wanted it to be different from all the other sites of pilgrimage I’ve been too. The only thing that distinguished it from the sites I’ve been too in other countries was the fact that everything was in Hebrew.

My disappointment with Elijah’s cave was quickly salved by going to the German Colony and getting ice cream.

The sun setting on a beautiful day.


Elijah's Cave: Or Just Another Pilgrimage Site

The domed chapel that was formerly a windmill.

The day was an absolutely brilliant day. It was hands down the most gorgeous day I’ve had since coming to Israel. A rainstorm the day before had cleared the air so that you could see the reflections of the clouds on the Mediterranean. Our tour of Elijah’s cave started at the top of Mount Carmel and worked its way down. At the top of Mount Carmel are two sites of interest.

The first was the Stella Maris Monastery. We did not go in because we were with Jewish tour guides who seemed a little reticent to go into a Christian holy site. The site of the Stella Maris Monastery played an important role in Napoleon’s attempts at conquering the Holy Land. I think it is the sight of a battle in which Napoleon got his butt so firmly kicked that he decided to cut his losses and get out the Holy Land all together. The monastery also at one point was destroyed, rebuilt, used as a military garrison and as a hospital.

The second, is a military garrison that was formerly a luxurious Ottoman summer home. It was taken over by the British Mandate and turned into a military garrison a purpose that it still serves today. The building is perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean and obviously has stunning views. Our guides told us that one of the uses of this particular outpost during WWII was to spot the boats of illegal Jewish immigrants trying to escape the Holocaust. When spotted these boats were either sunk or they were captured and the families on board were detained and deported. This history is all too eerily similar, in my opinion, to what happens in Florida with illegal Cuban immigrants.

From the top of the hill we started on a path down the mountain. The path was a little hard to find and part of our group got lost trying to find it. The path was gorgeous and afforded us beautiful views of the sea and sky. Halfway down the mountain there was a domed chapel that was formerly a windmill. It was locked but would be interesting to go into. From there we continued down the path. It took us about 15 minutes of careful walking to finally make it to Elijah’s Cave.

The tie things inside the cave. I hate taking pictures inside holy sites so this is the only picture I have.

Elijah’s Cave is said to have been the cave to which Elijah escaped after insulting a king or something. Wikipedia has other ideas. All I know is that the cave is supposed to have magical healing powers for mental illness and barrenness, and that Elijah lived there until he went to heaven on a chariot of fire. I was, honestly expecting something a bit more natural. Maybe some stalagtites or something.

In front of the cave was a series of patios with places for people to light candles and to ritually clean themselves. Once one goes into the cave it is like any other site of pilgrimage I have ever gone too. The cave is giant square room carved out of rock and lit by awful fluorescent lights. Men and women are separated by flimsy wooden partitions. The women’s side is bigger (I think cause of the whole barrenness thing.) On the women’s side there is a place to ties bits of cloth as you pray.

I think I was so disappointed by this site because I wanted it to be different from all the other sites of pilgrimage I’ve been too. The only thing that distinguished it from the sites I’ve been too in other countries was the fact that everything was in Hebrew.

My disappointment with Elijah’s cave was quickly salved by going to the German Colony and getting ice cream.

The sun setting on a beautiful day.