+972 Magazine » Yuval Ben-Ami http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Mon, 22 Dec 2014 15:12:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 The Beaten Path: Jericho, city of flexible time (part 11) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-jericho-city-of-flexible-time-part-11/99757/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-jericho-city-of-flexible-time-part-11/99757/#comments Wed, 17 Dec 2014 12:02:20 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=99757 On we go, deconstructing the tourist trail, except this time it melts in our hands, much like Salvador Dali’s clocks. Welcome to Jericho, oldest city on earth, established right this moment. Part 11 of Yuval Ben-Ami’s latest journey.


When I visit Jericho with groups, the visit is typically brief. This sweet, ultra-historical desert town is an attractive destination, but is sadly stuck between two far more attractive ones: Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. It ends up being no more than a way station for most.

We usually swing into town, scale “Tel al-Sultan,” the mound that marks Jericho’s original Neolithic settlement, speak as much of the city’s 120 centuries of history as the heat allows (which is seldom much) and then head over to the main attraction: a round stone tower, buried inside the mound and visible thanks to the trench dug by legendary British archeologist Jana Kenyon.

“This,” my Palestinian partner Husam says to the group, “is the oldest structure ever discovered. It’s 12,000 years old, so old that we don’t even know what purpose it served. It could have been a watchtower, a temple, a silo…”

I like to take over at this point and add an illustration: “this is 8,000 years older than Stonehenge.”

The visitors are typically impressed but they are more concerned with a different period in Jericho’s history, that of Joshua’s conquest. They wish to see remains of Jericho’s famous toppled walls. I am no expert on the archaeological debate, but here is what I do know: it appears that most archaeologists today are in consensus that the oasis was periodically uninhabited at the time attributed to the conquest. The ones who do believe a living Jericho existed during the 13th century BC, are those who dig with a bible in one hand and a rake in another.

Try and explain this to a mixed faith group.

Actually, it isn’t so difficult. Archaeology is the world’s most positive science. It can only prove what was, no that anything was not. You never know conclusively what you might find if you dug a foot deeper or a mile further. You only know what you have found so far and what you haven’t.

When the ever rationalist Husam is being too adamant about Rahab being mythology, I pop in with this notion, appeasing the faithful. Then we stop at the shop to buy fresh dates, reboard the bus, and head to the Dead Sea for a dip and a massage.

For two years now Husam and I have been enjoying our little routine, feeling quite comfortable — until our little spiel about the oldest structure in the world was knocked down by discoveries made in Gobekli Tepe, in Turkey. To be concise: the temple at Gobekli Tepe, incredibly preserved and featuring stone carvings of ducklings, wild boar and divine penises, was shown to be just as old as our round tower. True, Jericho remains the oldest city on Earth. No settlement was found at Gobekli Tepe and the temple was likely used by wandering hunters and gatherers, but our “oldest structure on earth” is no longer the oldest. Our own walls of Jericho have fallen.

A wrinkle in time

One thing that complicates exploring this country is that many of its wonders are incredibly ancient. The sands of time gather over them, shrouding them in mystery and controversy, hiding treasures away or rendering them a misleading appearance. Our minds struggle to grasp the idea of the ages. They often fail, and consequently so much of what is around us appears ageless. Tel al-Sultan, which is made up of the ruins of hundreds of different communities piled one on top of the other, looks like a pretty nondescript mound of soil, something you would find on the outskirts of a building site.

Ruthie, my girlfriend, joins me for my day in Jericho. She has never been. Like other West Bank cities designated “Area A,” Israeli law makes Jericho is off limits to us. We are stunned by how near it is. The drive here from central Tel Aviv lasts an hour and 10 minutes. The IDF’s position on the road leading into town is currently unmanned. There’s a Palestinian checkpoint a bit further, but the policeman waves us in with a smile.

Our first stop is for food. We get shawarma and enjoy it by the fountain on the main square. Ruthie is vegetarian, but only in Israel. This way she can explore culinary traditions when traveling. The UN recognizes Palestine within 1967 borders, hence, though Jericho is entirely besieged by the IDF, which keeps its residents under military rule, for culinary purposes it qualifies as abroad.

From the square we head to the cable car that climbs the Mount of Temptation. Tradition has it that Jesus spent 40 days on this mountain, fasting and meditating while the devil was attempting to taunt him. A monastery of cave dwelling monks has existed here since the fourth century, and in the 19th century was expanded with a beautiful stone structure, clinging to the cliff face.

As we step off the gondola we notice a sign indicating that the monastery closes to visitors at two o’clock. It is now 1:58 p.m., and so we rush up the stairs leading to the entrance. Even in the most patient city on earth, time may shrink into a two-minute slot. When this happens, the centuries vanish, the mysteries become unimportant. All that matters is whether the warden is generous.

He is. We get to visit the handsome premises and enter the grotto that is said to be Jesus’s mountain perch, but something has happened. Jericho’s elusive time has grasped us. From now on we are on Jericho time, flexible time.

The relaxed gazelles

We can sense it as soon as we return to the valley and climb the mount. Music drifts over it, German music. We skirt a small rise and discover its source. A heavily pregnant woman stands there, although on closer inspection she turns out to be fake — nothing but a beach ball tucked under her dress. She carries an old fashioned cassette player. We step over, say hi and learn that she is an art student from Hong Kong on an exchange program in Jerusalem.

“My friend and I get everything for free this way,” she says pointing to the mock pregnancy. “We get free admission to all the sites, we even rode the cable car for free.”

“What’s the music?” I ask.

“It’s German music, from the 30s,” she says.

“Is it Max Raabe?” I ask, referring to the contemporary German star, whose big band orchestra reproduces those old favorites.

“No,” she says, “It’s really from the 30s.”

I nod, fascinated by how curiously time flexed about us. We are standing on the product of 12,000 years of civilization, hearing music from the 30s and refusing to believe that it was really from the 30s. The student’s appearance is incredibly contemporary, her attire goes beyond modern, beyond post-modern. It is post-post-modern. Her one arm is entirely adorned by a tattoo. Her music player is an uber-hipster treasure, her eighth-month belly took 10 minutes to arrange.

This seems like a particularly good time to visit a site that dates back to a period not yet referred to in this series. So we get in the car and drive a mile north to Hisham’s Palace, an 8th century Muslim khalif’s residence. We are driving through Jericho’s sparse, village-like townscape. This time of year it is a town of only over 30,000 residents. In summer, only a third remain. All who can escape the heat, do.

Jericho’s appearance has changed dramatically during my lifetime. When I was a child, before the current restrictions were imposed, my family would pass through town whenever traveling north from our Jerusalem home. The northern part of Jericho was then a mud city. Clusters of mud dwellings covered the short mesas lining the road. Those have all been replaced by concrete. Summer Jericho isn’t winter Jericho. 1984 Jericho isn’t 2014 Jericho. This eternal city is entirely subject to flexible time. When Palestinian and Israeli daylight saving times fail to correspond, it falls back one hour from the settlements surrounding it, from the cars driving past it.

Ruthie is disappointed that Hisham’s Palace is in ruins. She anticipated a proper palace, and instead gets a few stone foundations and scattered remains of past grandeur. I have seen the best stonework of the palace presented in Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum, and assumed that little remained on the ground.

There are, however, at least three wonders to behold here. One is a massive decorative element: an ornate stone star, framed in an ornate stone two meters in diameter. The second is a scale model of the palace in its heyday. It sits on metal scaffolding and one can stick their head inside and take a peek (as can be seen in Ruthie’s photo, above). A third wonder is the mosaic on the floor of the palace’s former diwan. It shows three gazelles grazing by a beautiful tree, one of them being eaten by a lion.

These gazelles, of course, cannot possibly all be grazing at the same time. Otherwise the ones not yet devoured would have surely escaped the lion. We are gazing at two frozen moments at least, overlapped in one stunning mosaic, by a tree that will always be green.


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The Beaten Path: Looking the other way at Masada (part 10) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-looking-away-from-masada-part-10/98874/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-looking-away-from-masada-part-10/98874/#comments Fri, 12 Dec 2014 13:26:42 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=98874 Contrary to the strict Israeli narrative, Masada is really what you make of it: it can be the site of a majestic palace, the place where Jewish rebels committed mass suicide, a backdrop for an opera or a tourist attraction complete with the golden arches of a local McDonald’s. Part ten of Yuval Ben-Ami’s journey through the Holy Land’s most popular tourist sites.

A story for you all.

Several years ago, the Tel Aviv-based Israeli Opera decided to launch an opera festival at Masada. Its intention was to use the mountain (and the palace that sits atop it) as a dramatic backdrop. That way it could follow in the footsteps of opera festivals across the world that make use of historical and natural monuments. Clearly the climate on the shores of the Dead Sea is harsh, and the desert surrounding Masada is wild. But the Israeli Opera became committed to the cause, and determined to become the “first opera house in the world to ever pave a road,” in the words of Director Hannah Munitz, it set off into the wild.

The Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel, however, imposed a restriction. The stage must be set approximately a mile away from Masada itself in order to prevent damage to the rare geological formations at the base of the mountain. The majestic backdrop appears a tad less majestic from the new location. As if they felt the need to compensate, the set-up of the festival grounds was actually quite majestic. With the support of Israel’s Discount Bank, the event’s prime sponsor, the opera company set up a huge reception area. Upon arrival spectators found themselves at a Discount Bank-fest, which resembled an Israeli outdoor wedding, replete with fine refreshments, soft music and promotional banners.

The first opera staged at Masada was, naturally, Aida. The second was Nabbuco. These are the only two operas in the canonical repertoire set in a desert. But Sevilla is a warm place too, so the third year saw the opera put together a production of Carmen. The following year organizers skipped the deserts and heat and just went for La Traviata. I was writing as a theater critic at the time, and went to review each one of those productions. By the time I got to Nabucco I was already over it, especially after riding the Discount-chartered bus for three hours while the bank’s commercials played incessantly on the video screens. I realized that at least artistically, nothing interesting was likely to happen that night. From a cultural perspective, however, the entire phenomenon – the meeting point of money, opera and a potent national-historical symbol at the lowest place on Earth – was quite interesting.


And so I decided not to write about the performance but rather about the entire production. Rather than sit down on the bleachers and take in Masada as a stage prop, I would climb Masada at night and write about what I could see from that vantage point. And that I did. At one point a projector illuminating the entire mountain lit up directly below me, immediately casting my long shadow on the slope. I jumped and hid behind a rock. I don’t think anyone noticed. When it was all over I headed back to Tel Aviv, arriving just before dawn. I went to bed and was woken by a phone call from my angry editor.

“This is not what we asked for,” he said.

“This is what I saw.”

“Just so you know, we are looking for someone to replace you.”

I urged him to take a look at how well the article was doing online. The time was about 9:00 a.m. The piece was up for less than two hours and over 13,000 readers had already visited it. By Hebrew media standards this is insane, especially considering the subject matter. Nevertheless I was laid off soon thereafter under some other pretext.

The non-suicide

There is a specific way to “read” Masada that is seldom challenged by guides or books. But from an archaeological perspective, Masada is at the heart of a lively debate. There is no doubt that Herod had a palace here, and that the palace was used as a bastion by rebels during the Great Jewish Revolt. There is no question that the Romans besieged the mountain or that they broke in by constructing a ramp and driving a battering ram into the walls. The question is whether everyone inside was dead or not. The mass suicide at Masada is told to us by a single source: the historian Josephus Flavius, who may have had a vested interest in telling the story the way he did.

Josephus was a rebel, and he himself initiated a mass suicide at another bastion: Yodfat in the Galilee. Josephus manipulated the lots at Yodfat in order to remain the last man standing. He then failed to kill himself. Instead he turned himself in to the Romans before flattering their centurion so effectively that he was freed. This is not an appealing story, and certainly does not present the man in a very nice light. One way to divert attention from it would be to relocate it to Masada and tell it as a tale of heroism. No major human remains were found at the top of Masada, and many other details contradict Josephus’s professedly second-hand account.

Having said that, the Yodfat incident could well serve to support the Masada suicide story. It teaches us that such things actually happened in those crazy days. Either way, Masada calls for us to think openly. We no longer live in times of almighty builder kings such as Herod the Great, who commissioned a breathtaking stone palace in the middle of the desert. We no longer live in times when nearly a thousand people kill themselves so as not to be taken captive by an enemy army. I cannot even fathom such a thing happening in the current, brutal reality in Syria and Iraq.

Masada demands that we open our minds and use our imagination. Ironically, there is hardly any site in the entire country where visitors are more strictly urged to adhere to a specific narrative and to stick to a well-charted tour. The introductory film at the visitor center, narrated by a man who strongly reminds me of George Constanza, leaves no room for alternative scholarship on the site.

I always leave the screening thinking about this George Constanza fellow – about different models of the Jewish man, from Elazar Ben Yair, commander of the Masada Zealots, to Woody Allen, to the stereotype of the Israeli soldier. It may seem like a silly thought, but it is also a gateway to our issues of identity; I truly believe it is something worthwhile to ponder. Here then, is my tip for Masada: observe it differently. When told to look around you, look down. When told to look up, look around you. When told a story, think about who tells it. You will discover new things.

Looking up, looking down

Let’s give it a shot. You’re at the foot of Masada. Don’t look up – look around you. What do you see? A McDonald’s.

Yes indeed. There is McDonald’s at Masada. Should we blot it out in order not to spoil our experience of the landmark? Let’s instead contemplate it. Why are the yellow arches here? They are here because an ancient king felt a need to build a refuge in which to protect himself in the case of a coup. There’s one arch for every thousand years that has passed since. The past creates the present, and the present is always a reflection of the past. Who was Herod? He was not a Roman, nor was he a puppet king of the Romans. Rather, he was a franchise king, much like the local manager running this joint. Herod operated the local branch of an empire that spread its culinary tastes and cultural tendencies throughout what was then known of the world.

Read more: Yuval Ben-Ami time travels in Bethlehem

Let’s go on to the top. Looking around makes sense, since the palace is beautifully preserved. But look down and you’ll see something even more breathtaking. Remains of walls trail the bottom of the mountain, dotted with peculiar, stone squares. These are the walls of Roman camps. The desert that preserved the palace also managed to preserve the very drama of the siege. This is the land of the frozen moment, where not only eras or life stories are preserved in stone – so are events, punches, feelings. Masada is a monument made up of moments: the quarrying of the stones for construction, the single brief visit Herod may have paid here during his struggle with the Parthians (though there is no solid proof that he ever actually visited), the rebels, the siege, the Roman assault.

Look further at the Dead Sea. At the time of the revolt it was still a single, large body of water, and remained so until the late 20th century, when phosphate mining and diversion of the Jordan River’s waters caused it to shrink and split into two basins. This is the current moment, and it counts at least as much as the past. Look further at the desert: the fascinating geological history of this region submerged under water for eons, makes for a story at least as dramatic as the human one. This is the distant past. This is also the present. Processes are still taking place here. Masada is still being shaped.

Masada is about imagining. Don’t limit yourselves to one version of the tale or notions of scale and proportion, time and space that are not your own. Make your own Masada. Herod saw a dramatic geological formation and turned it into a palace, the rebels saw a palace and turned it into a fortress. Later came monks who saw a ruined fortress and turned it into a monastery. Finally, Israelis came and turned it into a symbol: a tourist attraction, an excavation site, a McDonald’s, an opera venue. Now we are here, on the world’s most fluid rock, and what we think of it is up to us.

Read parts onetwothreefourfivesixseveneight and nine of ‘The Beaten Path.’

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The Beaten Path: Seeking refuge in Eilat (part 9) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-seeking-refuge-in-eilat-part-9/98777/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-seeking-refuge-in-eilat-part-9/98777/#comments Thu, 04 Dec 2014 16:05:41 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=98777 Israel was borne of a need to escape a violent Europe. Now Israelis feel a constant need to escape a violent Israel. The deconstructed tourist trail reaches the deepest south, which is where they often go. Part nine of Yuval Ben-Ami’s journey through the Holy Land’s most popular tourist sites.


Off the Sinai smuggling routes, there’s a place called Coral Beach – that’s where you wanna go, to get away from it all. It is only a short bus ride from central Eilat, so you can get there fast and take it slow. Just don’t go wandering the hills on your own, since you may accidentally cross the Egyptian border and get shot.

But why resort to a Beach Boys paraphrase? Eilat is amply sung about in Hebrew. In the words of local songster Yaron London: ”Come, let us escape from the asphalt/And from the crumpled cities/Come, let us escape to the quiet lagoons/Come on to Eilat, to Eilat.”

We have come quite far on this series so far, and some degree of originality is called for. We deconstructed Nazareth aesthetically, Bethlehem historically, Safed mystically and Yad Vashem according to literary standards. I have five hours on the bus to choose an angle for tackling Eilat before arriving; I think I will try and analyze it psychologically. It is, after all, a state of mind.

Eilat, the only remote city in a country hardly large enough to be called a country, is seen by Israelis as partially ex-territorial. And in a sense it is. At the end of a delightfully scenic desert drive, my bus must stop at a checkpoint and be inspected by members of the Border Police. What border are we crossing? No border, of course. We are entering Eilat’ free trade zone, where VAT is not charged and instead prices are hiked independently to cover the difference.

Eilat is not sacred, it is not under occupation. It is not even, in pure Jewish religious terms, located within the “Land of Israel.” It therefore qualifies it as a fine haven for an anxious nation. Of course, Israelis aren’t the only ones who visit Eilat. It is a favorite among Scandinavians and other northern Europeans, who can trust the sun to shine here year round. We come here despite the weather: the climate in the rest of Israel is quite a bit more moderate, the beaches are better and the food finer. We come here because it’s calm.

Read: Framing the story of Holocaust at Yad Vashem

As a city of refuge, Eilat is a bit strange. It is situated at the virtual meeting point of four Middle Eastern countries, one of which has seen two revolutions in the past five years, another is run by fundamentalists who chop off heads with an ISIS-like zeal, a third is actually threatened by ISIS and the fourth is, well, Israel. Eilat is hit by the occasional rocket launched from the Sinai, and is the one spot in the country most prone to serious earthquakes. Summer days here are hellish, with temperatures occasionally exceeding 45 degrees Celsius (113 in Fahrenheit), But still, it works.

So they say.

Where broadway is a runway

As the bus pulls up to city’s central station, we pass by a hotel named “Siesta.” My hypothesis encapsulated a single word. I disembark, walk one block down the hill to Siesta, where I am able to read the full name of the hotel. It incorporates the name of the chain, and is actually called “Holitel Siesta.” Holi – as in holy? So things still are holy here? There isn’t really any escape, is there?

It is in speaking to the reception clerk, Didi, that I first notice something different. Any interaction between two Israelis who come from different social and ethnic backgrounds carries its own baggage, and this should be no exception. Didi appears to be a Mizrahi Jew, and her home town is Ashkelon, a disenfranchised periphery town. I am a Tel Avivian Ashkenazi, here on a “journalistic assignment.” Our conduct is supposed to be contrived at best, awkward at worst.

It isn’t. It’s actually genuinely warm. We go on chatting long after I am checked in and holding my key card. I sense the same warmth with the bell boy at the elevator, who is a Galilean Palestinian.

The hotel is a microcosm of Israel’s demographics, albeit with a slight bias against my own, privileged group (it is, after all, a cheaper hotel, set away from the beaches). There are Russian Jews here as well as Mizrahi Jews, Druze women in white scarves, and Muslims in hijab, all of whom share the dining room with Hassidic families. It’s not perfect idyll, of course. No West Bank Palestinians are allowed into Eilat at all (Hebrew), including those who are given the most far-reaching entry permits to travel inside Israel. The poorest sectors in Israeli society cannot afford even a simple Eilat vacation, so the Ethiopian community, for one, is absent. Meanwhile, Eilat’s hospitality industry employs many of the city’s East African asylum seekers. This creates an unsettling “Sun City” reality in which white vacationers are tended to nearly exclusively by black laborers.

Other than that, I’m having a great time here. The Siesta dinner features stuffed artichokes (my favorite), my room has a cute little balcony, and the desert breeze is fine tonight. Impossibly, and despite my snobbish tendency to dismiss Eilat as a soulless tourist trap, I seem to have found refuge.

Hold on. Wasn’t all of Israel meant to be a “refuge?” This was supposed to be our haven from anti-Semitism and violence – a place to rest following millennia of vulnerability and sufferings? Now so many of us seek refuge anywhere but Israel. Just listen to the way Israelis pronounces the word khool (“abroad”) and you’ll get the gist.

Back in 2010 Ben Gurion airport yielded to complaints by Zionist activists, and removed an advertising sign promoting its duty free stores. The sign, which hung directly beyond passport control for departing passengers, read: “From this point on, we begin to have fun.” The activists claimed that fun can be had in Israel too, and that the ad is anti-patriotic. Personally I think most Israelis would sooner identify with the slogan than with the criticism against it.

Flying away has become our national pastime. We see little sense in saving up for buying a house in a real estate bubble that saw home prices double over the past seven years. We see little sense in trying to find peace of mind in an ever-burning land. We thus invest our precious pennies in weekend getaways, backpacking vacations or anything that will help us forget our impossible home.

Read parts onetwothreefourfivesixseven and eight of ‘The Beaten Path.’

For Israelis the airport has become an ultimate emblem of fond promise; in Eilat, the airport is the town’s centerpiece. A landing strip takes the place usually reserved for a main street, separating the hotel area (known locally as “tourism”) from the living city. Eilat is “khool away from khool” for those who cannot afford Paris. It does not, of course, resemble Paris. Instead it is a tiny Israel: a dense, seaside urban community, sandwiched between borders with the desert at its back. It is, however, made up mainly of an airport, and that’s what counts.

Between two flags

Eilat’s seafront promenade stretches less than a mile from the airport terminal to the Jordanian border. The hotels lining it grow posher as one heads east, culminating with the Royal Beach, the Eilat Dan Hotel and Herod’s — a fancy, orientalist three-part complex.

The rejection of the Middle East remains constant throughout the promenade. The Arabic language is absent (Hebrew, too, is replaced by an abundance of English), the architecture is strictly Western, providing the city with the skyline of a conservative Las Vegas. Only Herod’s complex corresponds with city’s location at the gates of Arabia, while trying to do so without being “Arab” per se. The spires that top the buildings vaguely recall minarets, although the arches are Romanesque and the theme is “ancient Edomite.” It is likely that the developers, uneducated as most Israelis are on the New Testament, do not know that they named their hotel after a famous baby-killer.

East of Herod’s is an empty gravel lot preceding the fenced border. Here, the city of Aqaba, large and dense, rich in concrete and spiked by many a real minaret, climbs up the slopes overlooking its eponymous gulf (known in Hebrew as “the Gulf of Eilat”). Halfway down its coastline towers the world’s fifth tallest flagpole, and harnessed to it is the world’s second largest flag. It is not the flag of Jordan, but the flag of the Arab Revolt, used by Arab nationalists during the revolt against the Ottoman Empire. The flag that is identical to the Palestinian flag in all but the order of its colored stripes, and is generally accepted as an alternative flag of Palestine (flag of the All-Palestine government).

This flag can be seen from everywhere on the promenade and through most windows in Eilat. It provides an omnipresent reminder that Eilat is a border town; that it borders the complex the Middle East, and that it belongs to the complex Middle East. But it also belongs to Israel, despite all evidence to the contrary. I turn around, ready to head back downtown, and find that one of its port hangers now presents an enormous mural: an Israeli flag responding in blue and white to the red, white, green and black. A rare instance of communication.

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The Beaten Path: Framing the story at Yad Vashem (part 8) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-framing-the-story-at-yad-vashem-part-8/98449/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-framing-the-story-at-yad-vashem-part-8/98449/#comments Tue, 25 Nov 2014 17:00:35 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=98449 Exploring Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum allows us to understand the way in which the Zionist narrative deals with the destruction of European Jewry. But is it the whole story? Part eight of Yuval Ben-Ami’s journey through the Holy Land’s most popular tourist sites.

Janus Korczak Memorial, Yad Vashem Museum, Jerusalem. (Yuval Ben-Ami)

In the early years of the 11th Century, the Holy Land was taken over by ISIS. The religious militants came from the north, their faces covered. They pillaged every town through which they passed, beheading “heathens” and abducting women. Their sense of self-righteousness and the blessings of fundamentalist clergymen made them entirely blind to their atrocities.

They did not call themselves “ISIS” or “ISIL” or even “The Islamic State.” They called themselves Crusaders, and are celebrated today as noble knights. As part of this series, I had the idea of visiting Acre, capital of the second Crusader kingdom, checking out its various crusader-themed sites and discussing how we romanticize history.

Eventually, I chose to stick to the list of sites chosen by my trusty editor Michael. It skips Acre, but does feature Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum. On the way there I wonder whether that would be the perfect place to explore the theme of “romanticizing history.” Clearly, Yad Vashem does not cleanse wrongdoers. Nor does it diminish history. The museum provides a very serious educational experience, and is invaluable in preserving the memory of the Holocaust. As a teenager I spent hours in Yad Vashem’s archives searching through sheets of microfilm for survivors among my grandfather’s family members who disappeared from southern Slovakia in the early 40s, almost without a trace.

At the same time I cannot escape the way in which Israeli culture ceremonializes the memory of the Holocaust, boxing it away it from the rest of history and distilling our emotional reaction with its every mention. It seems to me that Israeli politicians appear to ceaselessly use this emotional reaction in order to enhance our sense of vulnerability and ostensible dependence on their polices.

We also beautify the Holocaust, leaving out that which we find “unbecoming” of the canonized memory. Consider the experiences of sex slaves in the camps. Women survivors who have been through unimaginable horrors must go on feeling ashamed, hiding their stories and the tattoos that attest to them. Their pain is almost never told. My great aunt was enslaved in a different fashion: working in a Siemens factory that operates until this very day. The dehumanized slaves did not receive basic living conditions and died of typhus. My great aunt died on the day of liberation. I don’t hear much talk about that either. We now buy Siemens; we even cook our meals with their appliances. Discussing “labor camps” without mentioning brand names is considered more “becoming.”

The way Israel deals with the Holocaust has changed over the years from silent shock, through the catharsis of the Eichmann trial, to our present day discourse. There was always bias in how it was told. No society or individual can deal with such a catastrophe without some degree of moderating manipulation. This is why Anne Frank’s diary is so popular. We can deal with one girl. A million children – that is a lot harder. This is probably why “Schindler’s List” was shot in black and white, providing some distance, and why it focuses on the story of a man who risked himself to save others, and not on that of a killer.

Reaching for the light

Yad Vashem (the name can be generally translated as “a memorial and a name”) is a large campus situated on a hill on the green, western outskirts of Jerusalem. The grounds host various structures and pieces of public art. The most central of those is the museum, designed by architect Moshe Safdie is the 1990s.

Safdie’s museum is a prism of concrete that runs through the hill. Visitors zig zag through the prism, exploring the interactive exhibition while gradually nearing the light at the end of the tunnel. Having gone through, they stand on a balcony overlooking the beauty of the Jerusalem corridor. The tunnel summarizes the Zionist narrative vis-a-vis the Holocaust quite briefly: it was a hard time, but it’s over. Now we have our own country and never again will we be subject to such evil.

Read parts onetwothreefourfivesix and seven of ‘The Beaten Path.’

Having emerged from the tunnel, visitors frequently head for the children’s memorial, a striking installation in which the light of three candles is multiplied through a play of mirrors into a galaxy of small flames. They are also invited to walk down the hill and visit “the valley of the communities” — a stone labyrinth, whose walls are adorned with the names of towns and cities where Jews once lived (and may still live). Otherwise they may or climb up to Mt. Herzl, Israel’s principle military cemetery and the pantheon of the nation’s greats, from Herzl to Rabin.

Along with the prism, the hill also presents the Zionist narrative. At its foot is the Jewish past – the Diaspora — which the Israeli perspective views as a thing of history. Halfway up is the Holocaust, the turning point. And at the very top? The Arab-Israeli conflict, with its own death toll, representing the present. (Sadly and perhaps prophetically, the hill possesses no higher peak; that would be reserved to honor a future of peace and normality.) The diaspora is a maze — a claustrophobic reality. The Holocaust is a straight corridor: a single, solid, defining event that leads elsewhere. The cemetery is an open air garden, somber but free, and of course – superior.

So the story goes

I am here today with one of the groups I guide. We try to give them as much time as possible to explore on their own. I take that time for myself. After visiting the museum I walk through the grounds of Yad Vashem, visiting my favorite spots. Most of them are dedicated to acts of bravery: the tree planted in honor of the Danish nation, the moving statue of legendary teacher Janus Korczak and the children of his orphanage. Korczak, who like the children was Jewish, was given several opportunities to escape Poland. He chose to remain with his children and ended up being carted to the camps along with them.

Sitting at the foot of the moving depiction of Korczak hugging the children, I realize that Yad Vashem does not romanticize the Holocaust. It neither over-dramatizes nor significantly under-dramatizes it. Instead, it frames it.

Consider Korczak’s story. He was not the only one who stayed with the children and met his death at the hands of the Nazis. There was a woman there too, Stefa Wilczynzka, Korczak’s partner in running the orphanage. Wilczynzka had actually moved to Palestine in the 1930s, when dark clouds began to cover Europe. She became a member of Kibbutz Ein Harod, but chose to leave in order to care for Jewish children in Poland. Like Korczak, she was offered refuge and refused. She was murdered in Treblinka in 1942.

We need the Holocaust to be a story, and a well-defined one at that. We need it to be made up of familiar characters. In a typically male-centered telling of history, Wilczynzka was forgotten. Though she is commemorated elsewhere by Yad Vashem, her removal from the pages of history is cast in bronze in the major Korczak monument, which presents a solitary man hugging a group of children.

We need the Holocaust to be a story, a well-defined story. We need it to have a beginning. When did the Holocaust begin? I return to the museum in order to find out which exhibit is placed first in the museum’s chronological presentation. It is a plaque describing the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933. The next exhibit, however, takes us back in time with a plaque dating back to the Middle Ages, which describes historical anti-Semitism in Christian traditions. Yad Vashem admits that the story goes back — that Hitler did not emerge out of nowhere. But it chose to start in 1933 and only then look back, squeezing the history leading up to the Holocaust for the sake of coherence.

When does the Holocaust end? The victory of the Allies and the liberation of the camps ended the extermination of the Jews and of other populations (the latter are only briefly referred to among the exhibits). Is that really the right point to insert a “The End” caption? Was the war of 1948 not a ripple effect of World War II? Is contemporary worldwide anti-Semitism unrelated? What about the ongoing psychological and political scars left by those 12 years on Jews, Germans and others? Is the Holocaust entirely unrelated to later atrocities, such as the Rwandan Genocide and the Balkan massacres of the 1990s?

Nearly a decade ago an Israeli guide named Itamar Shapira stood on the concluding, comforting balcony with a group. He told them that in the serene landscape before them once stood a village named Deir Yassin, and that in 1948 Israeli militias carried out a massacre there. To my understanding Shapira did not compare the event to any horror of Holocaust. He did, however, link it to the events that preceded it in Europe. German acknowledgement of the Holocaust was enormously important to both nations. Shapira expressed a hope that Israeli recognition of Palestinian pain would result in a healthier future for both societies.

Shapira was promptly fired from Yad Vashem. He told the story wrong, drawing the wrong conclusions. Framing a narrative makes history more accessible, more easily conveyed. But it also prevents that same history from being explored. It bars us from learning from it. We have framed the Holocaust too well — so well that we have barely become capable of asking the most difficult, humanist questions it brings up. Questions that the rest of humanity has been dealing with for over 70 years. As Jews we relate to the victims of the Holocaust, with whom we share so much. As humans, however, we almost never relate to its perpetrators, with whom we share so much. This is unfortunate. We have so much to learn, so much to be wary of.

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The Beaten Path: Time traveling in Bethlehem (part 7) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-time-traveling-in-bethlehem-part-7/98086/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-time-traveling-in-bethlehem-part-7/98086/#comments Mon, 17 Nov 2014 20:04:25 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=98086 Seeking the past in a land with an overwhelming present can be challenging, and ever more so in the extremely compact city of Bethlehem. Part seven of Yuval Ben-Ami’s journey.

The Wall in Bethlehem. (photo: Yuval Ben-Ami)

If you want the world to hate you, turn Bethlehem into a prison. I can’t fully fathom why my government wants the world to hate it (and me), but this is exactly what it has been doing in a lengthy, gradual process that has only intensified over the past decade.

The separation barrier runs along the northern edge of the city. A monstrous concrete wall hugs the urban core like the arm of a tango dancer, embracing the hip of his partner. On other sides, a double electric fence skirts former farmhouses, separating them from their former lands. To the south, a cluster of settlements constitutes off-limits terrain for Bethlehem residents. To the east and west of the town run the carefully watched bypass roads that serve these settlements.

The besieged area is roughly the size of Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. People here joke that in Bethlehem you never have to switch out of first gear. It’s not really a joke, actually.

Oh, and this is where Jesus was born, and King David, too. The latter left no interesting monument for visitors to enjoy, while the former is celebrated by a truly fascinating church, the oldest on earth; a beautiful building that once stirred a major world war. Here pilgrims and tourists can visit the site of the manger itself, or the cave in which St. Jerome translated the bible, or the nave of St. Catherine, the site where the midnight mass is held each Christmas. And on and on and on.

Now count to three and say which is more interesting to you: Jesus or the occupation? You don’t have to say it out loud. Faith and political convictions are both personal, but one would assume that not everyone reading this murmured “Jesus.”

It appears that over the past 10 years Israel has actually built a monument in Bethlehem that rivals the 1,700-year-old Church of the Nativity. Not bad. Not bad.

The omnipresent present

Milan Kundera’s novel, Life is Elsewhere, tells the life story of a young Czech poet named Jaromil. At one point toward the end of the book, the author halts the narrative, sensing a need to explain a matter of structure. “The first part of this novel encompasses fifteen years of Jaromil’s life,” he explains, “but the fifth part, which is longer, covers barely a year. In this book, therefore, time flows in a tempo opposite the tempo of real life, it slows down.”

Kundera excuses this: “The reason for this is that we are looking at Jaromil from an observatory I have erected at the point of his death. For us his childhood is in the distances, where months merge into years; he has come with his mama from these misty distances right up to the observatory, where everything is visible as the foreground of an old painting, in which the eye can distinguish every leaf on a tree and every leaf’s delicate tracing of vains.” (translated by Aaron Asher)

Most visitors arriving to the Holy Land seek history – that which is far, and history is most often what they get. In truth, there isn’t any real competition between the Wall and the church. Everyone who comes to Bethlehem sees the church, whether they stop by the wall to admire its ugliness or the beauty of the art adorning it, or just zoom through the checkpoint, led by a priest. Then again, no one today can visit the birthplace of Jesus without baring witness to the occupation, whether they approach it via the overwhelming Checkpoint 300, or through the back, using the striking infrastructure of the “Tunnel Road” reserved for Israeli settlers.

The past may be the reason for the journey, but the present is omnipresent, and is as clear as the foreground of an old painting. The past, meanwhile, will forever remain in the misty distances, small like a far-off figure beheld from an observatory. The star marking the place of Jesus’ birth has the diameter of a human arm. The Wall at Checkpoint 300 is 27 feet tall.

I am sure that many pilgrims, having invested a fair portion of their life savings in what simply must result in a spiritual experience, find ways to put the present behind them. When traveling to Bethlehem on another expedition, the one recorded here on +972 as “The Round Trip,” I visited Rachel’s Tomb, a once quaint location, where Jews wept over the memory of the beloved matriarch, and which since 2003 has turned into a literal bunker surrounded by the Wall on three sides.

When I asked worshippers at the tomb how they reconcile the idea of the site with its reality, they shrugged and praised the security at the site. They didn’t seem at all bothered by the austere appearance of Rachel’s Tomb, by how different it was from its depiction in a mural adjacent to the bunker: a small domed structure, shaded by olive trees.

Then again, many pilgrims and other tourists must be baffled. Traveling this country is becoming more and more intellectually and morally challenging. If the van driver who picks you up at the airport decides to short-cut the way to Jerusalem through notorious Route 443, you will see barbed wire, concrete and checkpoints within 20 minutes of starting your visit to the country. Otherwise, give it a day or two.

Calling Mr. Tur Tur

Can the past be magnified in order to simplify things for tourists? Can the present be shrunk? Doubtless, the Israeli Tourism Ministry is putting a bit of thought into that. German fantasy author Michael Ende, born the exact same year as Kundera (in this post, chronologies count) once dreamed up a magical chap named Mr. Tur Tur. Tur Tur appears larger the further he is, and smaller the as he approaches; he eventually finds a job as a lighthouse. It would have greatly benefited Israel for the Wall to be Tur Tur-like, for it to shrink into invisibility as the tour bus arrives in Bethlehem.

No such luck. It’s definitely there, and for the visiting local such as myself, it even extends into town. Bethlehem is of course historical, but being Israeli I see all of it in the context of the occupation, including the church itself, which was the site of a horrific 2002 standoff between the IDF and Palestinian militants. As a Jewish Israeli citizen, I am banned by Israeli law from entering Bethlehem, and so every step I take here is charged with very real adrenaline.

I walk into the church and hark, holy and full of mysterious light though it is, I am still in the Occupied Territories. Today the interior is also entirely laden with steel scaffolds that further push away the past, and in fact make the place seem rather futuristic.

A man approaches me. Through plain clothed, I can somehow tell that he is a policeman. Here comes trouble. Should they catch me in Area A, Palestinian police are obliged to hand me over to the Israeli authorities, who will give me trouble. “Where are you from?” the man asks in Hebrew. I pretend not to understand. He repeats the question.

“Chicago,” I mumble.

“No, where are you from?” he asks again, disbelieving.

I give in. “Tel Aviv.”

“But where in Tel Aviv?”

Where in Tel Aviv? What’s it to him? I name a street and realize that far from wishing to arrest me, he is hoping to reminisce. In the days before the Wall, this gentleman used to work in Tel Aviv. In security. He is longing for the city on the coast, now unattainable. He is seeking the past. He knows my street. He knows the entire city, very well. He tells me that should I have any problem in Bethlehem, I should contact him.

Bethlehem is dependent on tourism. It suffers enormously from its blockade, which for one, prevents tourists from choosing to stay in the town and shop in it. The city lost a great portion of its population during the Second Intifada. Affluent Christian families left, taking much of the city’s economic stability with them. The settlements are always an issue and the limited sense of space is almost unimaginable for those who do not live here.

With this being the state of things, what can one do but dream of a past, the recent past, the past experienced personally? It appears in the mind’s eye almost as detailed as the present, and is rich with promise. The distant past may hide right beneath the church’s floor tiles, but it was just as horrible as now. The gospels tell that the Holy Family was escaping Herod’s wrath as soon as the baby was born. Bethlehem was under occupation then as it is now. This town has an overbearing present and a fabled ancient past. In between are times that strongly haunt its natives, times that appear a tad more normal: the humble local notion of the good ol’ days.

Read parts onetwothreefourfive and six of ‘The Beaten Path.’

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The Beaten Path: Fixing a hole in Safed (part 6) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-fixing-a-hole-in-safed-part-6/97583/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-fixing-a-hole-in-safed-part-6/97583/#comments Fri, 07 Nov 2014 12:51:57 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=97583 The deconstructed tourist trail reaches the mystical Galillean town and its many ghosts. Safed is the incredible shrinking city, forever threatened by its own capacity to be more than one thing. Part six of Yuval Ben-Ami’s journey.


Safed makes me sick. Literally. As soon as I hop off the bus, take in the obligatory breath of fresh mountain air and settle at the “Baghdad Café” for an Americano, my stomach begins to torment me. I know this isn’t only the snack I had in Geinosar. This place makes my spirit sad, and my body sympathizes.

Safed is one of many cities around the country that used to be mixed, and no longer is. Tiberias, as mentioned in the previous post, is another. These cities survived. They were the fortunate ones. Many communities simply disappeared in the bloody days of 1948.

Safed only half disappeared: its Jewish quarter survived. Its Muslim quarter emptied and was later fashioned into a Jewish artists’ colony. My seat on the café’s terrace overlooks the old mosque, which was converted into an gallery; the tourists sitting at an adjacent table are excitedly discussing their plan to head there and take in a few canvasses. None of the refugees were allowed to return. Over the years, one of them became the Palestinian president, and as I head again to the café’s bathroom I can’t avoid thinking that I’m suffering from a case of Abbas’s Revenge.

Israel’s air conditioner

Sick or not, when I see a sign advertising “Fricassee,” I pop in for a Tunisian sandwich. The gathering of Jewish diasporas brought a new form of diversity into the newly homogenized Safed of the 50s. Newly arrived North African Jews joined the older Jewish community, which dates back to the 11th century. Shimon, a Libyan-Israeli in his sixties, prepared my delicious sandwich, stuffed with tuna-fish, spicy Harissa and pickled lemon. “How’s Safed?” I ask him.

“Mit’haredet,” he answers gloomily.

So much is charged into this one word, which can be most plainly translated as “turning ultra-Orthodox.” One often hears secular Israelis use it when complaining of changing atmosphere in their communities, but Shimon wears a skullcap. Then again, Safed really has become very religious over the decades. He may be wearing it only so as not to lose costumers.

“When was the first time you visited here?” he asks.

“Back in the 1980s,” I say, “and it really was a bit different then.”

Shimon snickers. “I’m talking about the sixties. There were no air conditioners in the entire county. Everybody would come here to chill. There used to be clubs here, along this very street, and bars like in Tel Aviv. People would let rooms in their houses, everybody did. There was so much demand. It was like ‘Eskimo Limon’ (a series of tawdry Israeli beach comedies, y.b.). We kids used to carry the suitcases up from the bus terminals, work in the hotels… there’s none of that left.”

I look out of the small shop to lamp post pasted with Hassidic bumper stickers. An ultra-Orthodox family passes. One of the kids sticks his head in, enticed by the good smell. Safed used to be diverse. It was a city of Jews and Arabs, then only Jews. It became differently diverse, being a city of both secular and religious Jews, till most of the seculars packed up and left. It is the incredible shrinking city, forever threatened by its own capacity to be more than one thing.

Any wonder it makes me uneasy?

The roofs of Petrograd

I go down to the Mosque. It stands complete with its old minaret, though the crescent at the top has been removed. I walk inside. The interior is full oil paintings, small bronze casts and stone sculptures, with the dominant style broadly definable as Cézannesqe. There is a special exhibition showing paintings of pomegranates, in honor of the high holidays. I locate a single nude: a small sculpture of a pregnant woman, but that is already much for a mosque. In fact, any painting hanging here desecrates the mosque, as Islam sharply forbids the making of graven image.

Several of the paintings render Safed itself. Of those – all but one exclude the very building in which they are shown.  Meanwhile, on the southern wall hang two beautiful large-scale oils of a city I identify as St. Petersburg, Russia. I take a moment to muse of Safed and St. Petersburg, of the far and the near, of the experience of immigration and of the effect seeing a landscape painting of a familiar place has on the heart. Then I catch myself having to much fun, which doesn’t seem right, so I quickly walk out.

Outside in the yard is a tiny coffee shop. Around one of the tables sit four young people chatting in English. I approach them and carefully ask of their impression of the place. The one choosing to answer is the only man among the four, a Baltimorian named Josh. With his Yarmulke and beard he fits my profile of a tourist who is here for Jewish content, and would easily overlook a minaret. My profile, it turns out, is prejudiced.

“I realize that it use to be a mosque, and I assume it got taken over as a result of the war in ’48, “Josh said, “I’m sad that it’s no longer a mosque, but I’m encouraged by the fact that it’s still here. It was never demolished, they didn’t scrub off the Arabic inscription, and so it at least serves as a memorial to a community that once lived here.”

Josh concludes by saying that he would love to see coexistence spring up in Safed once more. I learn that he and his friends, two Americans and an Englishwoman, are all here as volunteers to teach and otherwise help in struggling communities of south Tel Aviv and Jaffa. They are supported by the Jewish Agency, but they are not here for Jews only. One teaches in a mixed area of Jaffa, another supports asylum seekers.

Josh’s statements encourage me. When traveling Eastern Europe in search of my roots, I found that the synagogue at my grandmother’s hometown in Poland is today a Tex-Mex restaurant. Even if I were to repatriate, form a new community and reclaim the synagogue, the past can never be fully restored. The Muslims of Safed were displaced by people who sought to undo an historical wrong. I agree with Josh. We should be grateful for what remained and work to better what is, knowing what can be recovered and what cannot, and the difference between the two.

Hope’s hometown

If there is any city in the world that embodies the belief in positive change, it is Safed. In the 16th century, this town was home to the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Lurie. In Lurian teachings, the universe is presented as a fabric of forces, and that fabric can and should be manipulated by us humans, in order to move the world forward on the trail to perfection.

“Tikkun Olam” is the name of the program that brought Josh and his friends over. Tikkun Olam mean “the repairing of this world,” and is an extremely central in contemporary Kabbala study. Accordingly, I decide to conclude my visit with a stop at one of the two synagogues in which Luria would have prayed during his life time.

I walk over to the heart of the ancient Jewish quarter through a market offering silver gilded shofars and countless depictions of dancing Hassidim. While many Hassidim reside in Safed today, and while Ashkenazi Jews have been known to live here since the 18th century, the emphasis on this romanticized image still seems contrived. Jewish Safed of previous centuries was likely far more similar in its music, costumes and atmosphere to Muslim Safed than to your typical Ukrainian stetl.

The small interior known today as the Ashkenazi Luria Synagogue (named so even though it was in fact founded by Greek Jews) is my favorite shul in the entire land. The arc is graced by beautiful painted wings of carved wood. Below the bima is a small fenced off enclave, where the Ari’s ghost is said to have appeared once before the congregants.

There is so much to look at here, but my eyes today are drawn especially to two murals I haven’t previously noticed. They are painted on either side of the arc. One depicts Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the other shows Rachel Tomb, near Bethlehem.

The Western Wall appears as it was before 1967: towering over a modest paved lot. Not suspecting that the massive parade ground described in the first installation of this series is ever to appear, turning it into a mere backdrop. Rachel’s Tomb is a small, domed structure shaded by ancient olive trees. Today it is surrounded on both sides by the separation wall and roofed with concrete. It sits at the butt of a fjord of the wall that stretches into the town of Beit Jala, allowing Jewish visitors to visit the tomb without having to go through a checkpoint.

Here are two sacred places as we would like to see them, and not as they are. Here are two beautiful places as they appeared so recently: Rachel’s Tomb was only turned into a bunker a mere decade ago. Safed is still changing, turning more and more homogenous. I cannot stop this process, I cannot reverse it, but I can see it, and that must count for something.

Read parts onetwothreefour and five of ‘The Beaten Path’.

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The Beaten Path: Fishing for the real at the Sea of Galilee (part 5) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-fishing-for-the-real-at-the-sea-of-galilee-part-5/97580/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-fishing-for-the-real-at-the-sea-of-galilee-part-5/97580/#comments Fri, 31 Oct 2014 15:02:13 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=97580 In an over-mythologized, pre-imagined land of promise, the Sea of Galilee is a dream waiting to be shattered. Here it is, deconstructed. Part five of Yuval Ben-Ami’s journey. 


Ruthie, My girlfriend, hates movie spoilers. Tell her so much as one detail of the plot, any detail, and she’ll pass on the entire film. I joke that even knowing the genre would kill her fun. Actually, it’s worse. We once decided to watch “The Long Goodbye.” While waiting for it to download, I hummed the theme song, and she yelled: “don’t ruin it for me!”

Oddly, the very same Ruthie isn’t bothered at all by travel spoilers, which are my pet peeve. I avoid looking at photos of towns and monuments before reaching them, hoping to view them “afresh,” and I get upset when an image of the site appears on the entry ticket. Ruthie devours guide books, I flip through them only after exploring a bit on my own, for fear of swapping my first impression with somebody else’s.

One place where a travel spoiler does come in handy is the Sea of Galilee, if only because its name alone creates a major false expectation. This is not a sea; it’s a lake that wouldn’t even stick out from the maps of most U.S. states. It is called “sea” because the word, “lake,” or rather its Hebrew equivalent, “agam,” was not yet in use when the Bible was written and compiled. Any body of water was “sea” to the Biblical authors, in the same way as any human settlement, no matter how tiny is a “city.” The term “village” was coined only later.

The Sea of Galilee has a long history of surprising visitors. Poet Rachel Bluwstein, who arrived here early in the 20th century from Russia, expected neither the climate nor the beauty nor the sort of peasant lifestyle she would assume. In one of her finer poems, she questions the very reality of her experience.

And what if none of this had ever taken place
What if I never rose up to the garden,
To work it with the sweat of my brow.

Never, in long, hot days of harvest
Have I burst in song, atop a hay-cart
Never have I dipped in the quiet azure and innocence

Of my Kinneret?

Kinneret is the lake’s Hebrew name, and its mention conjures a well-defined set of associations in the Israeli mind. It was in the Jordan Valley that the first Kibbutzim were founded, and the lake’s shores are revered as a major cradle of Zionism. We identify the lake with Bluwstein on her haystack, not with Jesus. The Israeli school system offers little if any exposure to the stories of other faiths.

For much of the world, however, the Sea of Galilee is all about the man who walked on its waters. For them it may be small by size, but it is spiritually vast. In short, I’m arriving today at a lake that appears in many dreams. All who arrive here — come with a ready idea of it.

What better a recipe for surprise?

Fans of the lord, not of Lorde

I wonder if there is any site along the lake where the two histories meet, and realize that it would be Kibbutz Ginosar. The members of this old-time kibbutz found a 1st century wooden boat on the lake bottom. Their kibbutz soon became the focus of pilgrim traffic, as the boat could very well have been St. Peter’s own. The kibbutz had everything to gain from opening up to Christian content. Today it is home to a large scale visitor center, where the boat is showcased.

To get to Ginosar, I must go through the town of Tiberias. Look at a single historical image of Tiberias, a labyrinthine city of black basalt, and you have yourself a shattered expectation. Old Tiberias was largely demolished following the war of 1948. It was replaced with several large, mediocre hotels and a brutalistic shopping center overlooking an abandoned mosque.

This isn’t the worst of it. Many beaches around the lake are privately owned and charge entry fees. Those that aren’t, especially on the far shore, often get horrifically polluted by careless domestic vacationers. Pilgrim groups seldom see this. They are taken to carefully-maintained Christian sites on the northern shore: Tabgha, Capernaum, and the Mount of Beatitudes. From there they sail to the dock of Ginosar, which is likewise neat. This is probably best for everybody.

Various and diverse groups make landfall on the dock. There’s a South African group, a Danish one, a group of Indians from Kerala and two entire boatfuls of Finns. Another boat is flying a blue flag with a Union Jack at its corner. I expect Australia, but on closer inspection the stars turn out to be red.

Twenty Kiwis enter the visitor center and pause to shop for souvenirs. I chat with them, confessing my love for their musical compatriot Lorde (described here in a recent post). I expect them to be very proud of Lorde, but they seem too devout to favor pop music, regardless of how intelligent and subtle it is. I switch to a question: what was your best experience on the trip so far?

“It would probably be this,” one gentleman from Wellington gestures back to the dock, “the Sea of Galilee.”

“Nice! and what did you like about it?”

“Well, I guess it would be what I experienced here when sailing it,” he points to his heart, “I mean, I didn’t know what to expect when we came.”

Oh! “And what did you expect anyway?”

“I expected this, I guess. I mean, it’s all about worship, isn’t it?”

The Israeli in me is eager to argue. No, it isn’t all about worship! it’s also about poets on hay carts!

I resist the urge. “And so your expectations were met?”


A miracle on the sea of Galilee! An expectation was met. In a land of countless overlaps, the key must be focus. This gentleman sought a specific spiritual experience and found it. He came for Jesus. I came for both Jesus and the kibbutz movement. I cursed myself with eternal bewilderment.

Too many promises

The 2,000-year-old boat is situated behind a wall of dark glass. I walk in and distracting a guide addressing a group in Hebrew, I tiptoe past them to the wreck. It is more impressive and better preserved than I had expected (okay, enough of that). Illuminated displays line the walls, telling tales of its discovery, its physical makeup and possible beginnings.

While pacing about, I eavesdrop on the guide. She is telling a story from the New Testament, in Hebrew. Another miracle! I’m no born-again, but would like for my compatriots to have some idea why that New Zealander likes our country so much.

“They thought he was a rabbi,” she says of the disciples. “They didn’t know he possessed supernatural powers, and when he stepped off the boat and walked on water, they didn’t expect it!”

Now, this is getting to be too much. The thematic rod I picked in order to fish the Sea of Galilee for meaning is working well. There really are expectations everywhere, but what does that mean? What am I supposed to deduct? Would I find just as many expectations, disappointments and surprises had I chosen to write this post about Pensacola?

Just as I struggle with this, the guide says something unexpected. “This isn’t the actual boat, in a sense” she confesses, “None of this is organic matter. The wood was replaced with artificial wax, just as they did with the corpses at the “Bodies” exhibition.

My eyes dart back to the boat. A moment earlier I used an illuminated chart to decipher which planks were cedar and which carob. I was misled. It is all wax.

Which is when the satori arrives. Above all expectations, one is supreme. Wherever we go, we expect the real. This quality is extra elusive on the shores of a lake so over-mythologized, so pre-imagined. Those who put their trust in Christ or in Zionism need very much for this place to be real, and this is why they tend to overlook the absence of historical Tiberias and the state of the beaches.

I, who believes in neither, navigate instead through rough seas of broken and fulfilled hopes. This is the Promised Land, and promises create expectations. It was promised not only to one group, nor in a single sense, and not all promises were kept, to say the least.

Take Rachel Bluwstein’s fate. She stayed a mere four years by her beloved Kinneret, then moved to France and then back to Russia. She did return in 1919, filled with new hope, and joined Kibbutz Degania, but was soon expelled after being diagnosed with Tuberculosis. “You are ill, and we are healthy, so you must leave,” a member of the kibbutz informed her. She wrote the poem quoted above on her death bed in Tel Aviv, far from the Sea of Galilee, a dream that became real, and then turned into a dream again.

Read parts one, two, three and four of ‘The Beaten Path’.

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The Beaten Path: The unholy hierarchies of Nazareth (part 4) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-nazareths-unholy-hierarchies-part-4/97577/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-nazareths-unholy-hierarchies-part-4/97577/#comments Mon, 27 Oct 2014 13:41:31 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=97577 If the heart of Nazareth is sacred, its outskirts are very much the opposite. If anything, they provide a perfect example of a system that stubbornly preserves a hierarchy of communities: Arabs below, Jews on top. The third stop on the reconstructed tourist trail.

Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami Nazareth

There is a painting by an Italian master, the great Pierro della Francesca, called “Madonna del Parto.” Two angels hold up the folds of a tent in which Mary stands. She is pregnant, wearing a blue gown with a crack in it, just where her belly pokes out the furthest, allowing for a white undergarment to show through.

The eye, when looking at this painting, follows a carefully crafted trail. It first sees the white cloth at the heart of the matter, then moves out to the outskirts, discovers the tent and the angels, and then begins its journey back inwards, to the very center of the painting, to the hint of things to come, to the soon-to-be born son of God.

There is a church by the eccentric 20th century Italian architect Giovanni Muzio. It stands in the middle of the city of Nazareth, and is the only thing most tourist see of the town. The church is concentric. The bottom level of this massive 20th century concrete monster is a large empty space, centered on the grotto of the annunciation and the ruins of three earlier churches that once stood on this site. On the top floor a large hole gapes over that same central point. This is where all eyes are drawn.

Comparing the Madonna del Parto with the Basiliaca of Annunciation would be an injustice to both. I wouldn’t dream of doing that. Instead, I am comparing the Madonna del Parto with all of Nazareth. When architecture says “Look this way!” it’s a good idea to oblige before looking another way, then looking that way again. The same applies to touristic conventions point anywhere.  With your permission, I will explore Nazareth and its church today following the pattern designed by Pierro: Starting from the white glimpse of divine motherhood, moving on to the outskirts, and then moving back in.

City on a hill

In the middle, then, is a large black cone, towering over the site in which a unique encounter between divinity and humanity is said to have taken place. Muzio, who designed the basilica in the 1950s, is just short of being notorious. His most famous building besides this one is a Milanese office building known as “Ca’ Brutta” – i.e. the “ugly house.” He infused the basilica with symbolism; bas reliefs that represent the four elements stretch along the façade, beneath more bas reliefs that represent the four Apostles. Repeating triangles are meant to recall the A and M of Ave Maria. The entire cryptic code would take days to explore, but as promised, we are looking outwards.

Nazareth is situated in a natural bowl, a crater of sorts, encircled by Galilean hills. It is rimmed by another city – “Nazareth Illit” or “Upper Nazareth,” a town conceived at the same time as the church. Nazareth Illit is a serpentine. It winds around central Nazareth and its northern neighborhoods, yet it is not a suburb per se, as it was designed to serve a different ethnicity.

Historical Nazareth is a mixed Muslim and Christian community. Its residents are Palestinian citizens of Israel. Nazareth Illit, meanwhile, was conceived as a Jewish town to counterbalance the Arab one. The towns strategic vantage point, overlooking an Arab town that developed around a lower-altitude spring, recalls the layout of West Bank settlements.

While Nazareth Illit, an industrial town first populated largely by Mizrahi Jews and later by Russian immigrants, is hardly Israel’s answer to Beverly Hills. Nevertheless, it enjoys far better services than Nazareth proper. Up on top there are parks, sidewalks, good education and medical services. Down below, there is hardly any of this. All government functions are situated on the hills, with the monumental regional courthouse overlooking Arab Nazareth from above, in the fashion of Kafka’s “Castle.” The current mayor of Nazareth Illit, unhappy about Arab Nazarenes moving to his more attractive town, has launched various openly racist campaigns against them.

If the heart of Nazareth is sacred, its outskirts are very much the opposite. There is nothing wrong with Nazareth Illit’s residents, and their town truly is a nice place, despite its awkward sprawl around the Arab city. It does, however, provide an example of a problematic system – one that stubbornly preserves a hierarchy of communities: Arabs below, Jews on top. This hierarchy extends further, keeping the Mizrahim, Russians, Ethiopian Jews and others from soaring further, into the well-guarded enclaves of Ashkenazi society.

Mission of Burma

The outlaying neighborhoods of Arab Nazareth are a joy. Nazareth is a culinary powerhouse most famed for its sweets, and here is where the secret pastry shops are to be found. Everyone knows baklavas, but I prefer the dark crispy burmas (rolls of baked kadaif noodles stuffed with sugared nuts). I start my day by shopping for a few of these, but not too many. It would be a horrid mistake to kill one’s appetite before lunch in a city that boasts some of the best restaurants in the country, from the famous Diana, which offers an exquisite take on the traditional Palestinian grill, to that secret place where they sell you shrimp in a pita pocket.

Stop. Here I am, the Jewish-Israeli, experiencing a Palestinian city as a mere restaurant. I know Nazareth well enough to identify it as a cultural and political powerhouse. My first exploration of the city came in 2006, when I wrote an article about its bohemian life. Nazareth had a great art house operated by the Israeli Communist Party, ever powerful in the urban Galilee, a good literary circle, a theatre (closed since), and an “author’s house” which combines a library and an art gallery. It was, and still is, yearning for the one establishment that stirs the artistic and intellectual life and keeps a city young: a university. Alas, the Israeli government again and again votes down this initiative.

As the circle narrows into the downtown, the city’s unique religious history is already apparent. The Latin Basilica is hardly the only church worth exploring here. In fact, it isn’t even the only church of the annunciation. The Eastern Churches recognize a different site, where the Greek Orthodox church of St. Gabrial stands. The waters of Mary’s spring, Nazareth’s original source of water, flow at the far end of its nave.

No less lovely is the chapel of Mensa Christy, a small structure roofing a massive rock. Tradition has it that Jesus and his disciples used this rock as a table while picnicking on the hillside. My guess is that it was held sacred long before the most famous Nazarene was born, perhaps before the birth of Judaism. Of all the tourists that visit Nazareth, about 0.001 percent enter the chapel, its petite interior dominated by mystery, the massive key that for years one had to borrow from the neighbors (it is now kept at the basilica). The rest see only the center. That hole in the ground.

This is not a city to be bussed into and out of. It’s a city that deserves at least one night. I am writing this on the breezy balcony of the Fauzi Azar Inn, a guesthouse with an extraordinary story, born of an unlikely cooperation between a Jewish Israeli entrepreneur and a Palestinian woman. In the kitchen behind me, surrounded by huge jars of dried herbs for the guests to brew tea with, sits a German woman who cannot believe that she is leaving tomorrow. She is headed for Jerusalem.

The cloister

Then, as close as one can get, hugging the basilica in the same way a mother’s arm embraces a tender baby, is the most wonderful place in town. It is the cloister enclosing the church’s yard, and it is full of art. Catholic communities around the world sent basilica mosaics and painted tiles depicting the Madonna and child. Each creation reflects something of the culture and essence of its origin. The Irish Madonna is standing in a moor, an Irish church behind her. The Thai Madonna wears a Siamese crown, her shoulder is exposed.

There are more tiles inside the church, along the walls of the second floor. The Japanese Madonna’s shawl is made of real pearls. An image from Benin transcends all familiar notions of the repeated theme. For many people around the world, the first association to the idea of the event commemorated by this church is art. From Fra Angelico to Leonardo da Vinci, the greats loved to paint the angel’s arrival at Joseph and Mary’s home. Today, in the heart of Nazareth, and despite all faults of the building, art is triumphant. It is art that says the final word. Art holds ajar the flaps of the tent, allowing us to look in both directions.

Read parts onetwo and three of Yuval Ben-Ami’s series, “The Beaten Path.”

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The Beaten Path: Baha’i Haifa, Banana St. and the ultimate Other (part 3) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-bahai-haifa-banana-st-and-the-ultimate-other-part-3/97525/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-bahai-haifa-banana-st-and-the-ultimate-other-part-3/97525/#comments Tue, 21 Oct 2014 15:59:03 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=97525 From afar, the flight of the fancy complex and the boxy city appear rather harmonious. It is upon close inspection that they are revealed to be made up of entirely contradicting notions. The second stop on Yuval Ben-Ami’s journey to deconstruct Israel’s well-worn tourist trail is something of an exception, in every sense of the word. Welcome to Haifa’s Baha’i Gardens.

Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami Haifa

The view from the Baha’i Gardens (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

A few weeks ago, my dear friend Osnat had an interesting experience on the slopes of Mt. Carmel. It happened when she came to visit the famed Baha’i Gardens: an astounding pillar of greenery rising up from Haifa’s port district, crowned by the golden-domed Mausoleum.

The group climbed down the higher tiers of the garden, descending toward the Tomb of the Bab – the Baha’i faith’s major prophet. There are 18 tiers in all. They reflect the pillars of faith as described by the Bab, and also provide a fairly nice framework for a guided tour. A basic introduction is given at the top, with a splendid view of the bay. A few steps down, features of the garden can be pointed out, and one or two tiers later it’s time for a Q&A session.

Osnat asks: “So say I would like to become Baha’i, how would I go about it?”

This was a real conversation killer. The tour was in Hebrew, and Jews are deeply sensitive about proselytizing, while the Israeli state frowns on it severely. Consequently, all religions besides Judaism practice extreme care not to offer a pathway to the light. Osnat says she heard the group fall uneasily silent. Some may have suspected that she was “planted” to bring up the question. The guide had to quickly make clear that this is not the case. “The Baha’is do not accept Israeli converts,” she said, “so as to not meddle with the already complex fabric of this country.”

Fair enough. To the best of my knowledge, Osnat has no real inclination for becoming Baha’i (she beautifully described her very real journey of identity as a second generation Russian-Israeli here). She is, however, an authentically curious person. And so a few tiers down, on the central platform of the garden surrounding the tomb, she came up with an even more risqué question:

“There are all sort of stories about things that are inside the mountain,” she said, “Some people say they keep rocket launchers there. Where do you think these stories originate?”

This would have been more easily answered had there been nothing inside the mountain. But a television exposé released nearly a decade ago showed the mountain below the gardens to be largely hollow. The producers obtained footage of a large scale auditorium and something resembling a supermarket.

“It’s a shelter,” the guide explained, She added that “people have wild imaginations,” that she has heard many conspiracy theories and that some people believe the Baha’is keep live dinosaurs in subterranean caves.

The mystery component

I muse on this anecdote as I ride the train to Haifa. It provides a fine key for unlocking the second stop of the journey. To the naked eye, the Baha’i complex in Haifa is first and foremost a breathtakingly beautiful place, but there’s so much more to it. It is also an extraordinary study in “otherness” within the Israeli and Palestinian framework. It is a bastion of the ultimate outsider, one that forces us to reevaluate our own identities.

The Baha’is are Middle Eastern but they are neither Palestinian nor Arab. The religion originated in Iran and the aesthetic of the Haifa gardens, as well as those in Akko, betrays the love of symmetry found in Persian gardens. The Baha’is are also Western but they are not Ashkenazi-Jewish, nor is their presence part of a global consumerist culture. When we meet one, he or she is often American. The Haifa complex, complete with a library and a conference hall, is strongly reminiscent of Salt Lake’s Temple Square or the Boston headquarters of Christian Science.

Then again, when do we ever meet one? The elders of the faith forbid Baha’is from living in the Holy Land, so as to prevent them from getting involved in its religious wars. The guides are most frequently not Baha’i, though the guards are. My only real conversations with Baha’is took place abroad. It was overseas that I learned of their religion’s tolerance for all other faiths (apart from atheism), its unique history, the plight of Baha’is under the Islamic regime in Iran and more.

Those who are absent can only be seen as a mystery, and every visit to this embassy of a nonexistent country is an attempt at cracking the mystery a bit further. The train arrives at Haifa’s waterfront and I take a bus to the mountaintop, hoping to make it to the noon English-language tour, which is the last of the day. Unfortunately, my new status as a tourist seems to be getting to me and I find myself on the wrong bus.

I call Ruthie, my girlfriend, to moan. “If you’re only five minutes late, they’ll probably let you join late,” she suggests.

“Do you think so? I think they’re pretty tough.”

“Who knows. It’s in Israel, maybe they won’t start on time anyway.”

Yes. The “others” are so foreign that we don’t even know by what sense of time they function.

I end up arriving 20 minutes too late. Past the locked gate is a member of the staff, a Palestinian citizen of Israel. I ask her if I may join the tour in the middle, and mention that I am working on a series dealing with tourist attractions in the Holy Land.

“No you may not join the tour in the middle,” she says, “and you may not write anything about the Baha’is without permission of the Baha’is.”

“You know,” I smile, “the rule of the thumb is that so long as libel is not involved, a journalist may write about any group or organization freely.”

“Not the Baha’is,” she states firmly.

Very well. I walk away. The topmost tier may be visited without a guide, and the same goes for the shrine of the Bab itself. I take some photos at the top, then follow the streets down to the temple, only to find out that it is already inaccessible. The opening hours of the Baha’i grounds are even shorter than that of a typical Israeli government office. I come to wonder whether the Baha’is consciously preserve their status as mysteries through unwelcoming policies such as this, or whether being a mystery in this land is such a bad idea in the first place.

How Banana Street came to be

For want of a tour or a community to engage with, I take in as much as I can of the gardens’ extraordinary aesthetics, especially enjoying the large-scale stone eagles that overlook the steps. The bones of the Bab were brought to the Holy Land in 1909, the same year the first kibbutz was established. A decade or so later, Zionism began to adopt modernist aesthetics, and it is modernism that defines today’s Haifa.

Interestingly, when viewed from afar, the flight of the fancy complex and the boxy city appear rather harmonious. It is upon close inspection that they are revealed to be made up of entirely contradicting notions. Looking down toward the port and the neighborhoods at the foot of the Carmel Mountain, I am reminded of an incident in which these notions clashed.

It happened sometime during the 1990s when the city of Haifa decided to renovate the “German Colony,” a lovely strip of stone dwellings built by the Templars — a German Christian society that settled many corners of the land in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

When the Baha’i establishment caught wind of this, they approached the municipality with a request. It turns out that the street running between the German Colony’s houses points almost directly from the tomb of the Bab to that of Bahá’u'lláh, the faith’s holiest figure. Bahá’u'lláh is buried in the city of Akko, across the bay. It would only take a slight shifting of the street, a 10-degree shift to the east, in order for a symbolic finger to point precisely from the tomb of the prophet to that of the messiah.

Sorry, said the city of Haifa, we are not shifting a street that is part of a coherent grid and is lined with historical buildings. As a matter of fact, we are not shifting any street.

I had the pleasure of interviewing a member of the city council on the issue, for the sake of my book, Wonderland, an exploration of oddities in Israel. The council member said that she does not recall a more demanding negotiation in all of her years in office. The Baha’is wanted their finger and were not taking no for an answer. The compromise that was eventually reached is either absurd, genius or both. The street was lined with roundabouts and at each roundabout it shifted ever so slightly, invisibly, to the east. The final tilt comes up to less than one degree, but if this newly-formed arch were to extend across the bay, its tip would touch the resting place of Bahá’u'lláh.

Say what you will of this country. Along a single axis, extending down a single mountain, it gives you a banana shaped street, a mountain of live dinosaurs and the most beautiful gardens west of Isfahan, so much devotion and so many potential misunderstandings.

Read parts one and two of Yuval Ben-Ami’s series, “The Beaten Path.”

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The Beaten Path: The Western Wall as military parade grounds (part 2) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-the-western-wall-as-military-parade-grounds-part-2/97518/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-the-western-wall-as-military-parade-grounds-part-2/97518/#comments Wed, 15 Oct 2014 21:08:11 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=97518 It’s still beautiful and moving, but recent decades have done something strange to the ‘Kotel,’ our first stop along the deconstructed tourist trail. What happens when a site is the object of both religious longing and military identity?

Read part one of The Beaten Path, ‘An introduction, or how to ruin a good story’

Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami

(By Yuval Ben-Ami)

There are so many advantages to not being a tourist. For one, I know the best way to get to Jerusalem from Tel-Aviv. Busses only reach the main terminal, which is located on the western outskirts of town and requires a further trip by the light rail. The Sherut minibuses, however, go all the way to the city center, a mere five minutes’ walk from the Old City’s ramparts and the beauty therein.

I actually hop off earlier, because, not being a tourist, I know a good little hole in the wall Mizrahi restaurant in which to stop for lunch (“Ta’ami” on Shamai st. Their menu hasn’t changed since 1957). Not being a tourist, I also know a shortcut, so within 15 minutes I make it all the way from the restaurant to the Western Wall, and walk my very full stomach through the metal detector.

From this point onwards, however, I would much rather be a tourist.

The religion of longing

It’s perfectly alright for a historical site to come with baggage. One would be hard pressed to find one that isn’t in this country. Still, I’m a little more sensitive when it comes to the Western Wall. I guess I just deeply love it. It is an authentically Jewish symbol, and I love Judaism.

I love Judaism for the same reason I love the blues. Picture the cliché of an old timer blues musician, taken to an extreme. He’s poor, he’s blind and he’s the victim of a severly racist system. His girl left him and his drinking habit won’t. What does he do with all that? He makes art, beautiful art. Here is what Judaism has been for over two millennia: a creative response to a being extremely unlucky.

There once was a religion that centered on a temple, where sacrifices were performed by priests. The last and finest of those temples was destroyed in 70 AD and left the people irrecoverably scarred. Rather than die out, the Jewish nation reinvented its practices, moving them into the synagogue and the home. The new Jewish religion focused on the very sense of grief and longing, as well as the hope for a mystical undoing of the disaster. It expressed this by poetry and prayer, and a broken glass at each wedding.

The sole and humble ruin left of the temple became an important symbol. It is not even a piece of the temple itself, but a shard of a retaining wall. Herod the Great put four such walls around the hill, in order to reshape the temple’s natural pedestal into a massive shoebox-shaped structure.

Over the years, more retaining walls came to be exposed in excavations: a southern one and an eastern one, as well as a much more vast stretch of the western one. However, none received the same degree of attention and reverence as the portion of the wall that remained visible over the centuries. It is the very modesty of the wall that made it what it is. A good blues tune has four verses and is accompanied by a single guitar.

Enter the red berets

It’s still there, and is mind blowing. The enormous stones tower over the pavement. Doves flock among bushes that have taken root among the cracks. Still, something is missing, something crucial: that modesty.

The temple may be in ruins, but it is in Israeli hands. Since June 1967 and Israel’s conquest of the city, the Wall has become an Israeli national symbol, and by extension, a military symbol.

Military symbols need square footage. Until 1967, the houses of old Jerusalem nearly reached the wall. This was the city’s “Moroccan Quarter,” home to a Muslim community. The neighborhood was knocked down to make room for an enormous plaza. I’ve never gotten a straight story about the fate of its residents, where they went or what kind of reparations they received, if any.

The plaza, a fan of white tiles that spreads out from the wall itself, is maintained by The Western Wall Heritage Foundation as a de-facto Orthodox synagogue. The area nearest the wall is split by gender, while the larger part of the plaza, to the west, is a tightly watched territory. Writing and photography are banned on the Sabbath, the men’s and ladies’ rooms are situated about 200 yards apart, and marked by multiple huge signs, to prevent confusion. For hundreds of years, the “Kotel” functioned perfectly well without any gender separation or religious policing. Those days are over.

The complex is secured by Israeli police and all visitors are screened and profiled. There is so much that’s difficult about this structure of control, especially in the disputed territory of East Jerusalem. There are the political issues, such as the closure of the area to the city’s Muslims, which creates a huge “Palestinan-free-zone” situated between the Muslim quarter and contested Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. There are the religious issues, as reflected, for example, in the struggle of progressive Jewish women to pray according to their tradition. There are countless issues, but what troubles me whenever I’m here is mostly the sun.

You see, there is no shade on the plaza, nor a single proper bench on which to sit (save for a low wall at the very back). The place is not at all hospitable to visitors, which makes one wonder: why is it so vast and what in the world is it good for?

For one thing: it is good for military ceremonies. Thousands of soldiers are brought here every year following their various training programs to solemnly swear their allegiance before the wall. The ancient wall sees more weapons than any other wall around, besides perhaps Jeruslem’s more recent famous wall – the concrete one.

A symbol of tender emotions was turned into a symbol of might. To many Jews, this is the fulfillment of an aspiration. Zionism saved the Jewish people, some would argue — but there is a cost.

The postcard project

For 2,000 years the Jewish people longed for the temple. Today I find myself today longing for the longing. No ceremony is held before me in the plaza, yet nearly everyone present is in uniform. Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem appears to be taking an inter-holiday break; the tourists are elsewhere and no bar mitzvah drums are beating at the moment. I have arrived at the parade grounds of a military base.

I pass a rare group of civilians: a family of Orthodox Americans, and overhear the mother instruct: “Don’t go to the Arab Souk!”

The soldiers themselves are all members of the artillery corps, here on an educational excursion. A few are training to become guides themselves and take other soldiers on tours. This is only the second site they visit, the first being Independence Park in the heart of West Jerusalem.

I ask what they learned there, and am again struck by how young these soldiers are.

“The instructor said something…” one mumbles, “Hertzl met the Sultan there, no, the Kaiser, something like that.”

“That’s interesting. Did she mention the fact it used to be a Muslim cemetery?”

The soldier mumbles something that could work either as a yes or a no. I decide to let him be. The Wall is enough of a site to deconstruct in one day.

A few feet away, a tourist is shooting a group photo of about 20 soldiers, all of whom are holding up postcards. The soldiers tell me that the tourist is named Sara or Sarah, and that she presented the cards as a gift. I follow her to the next group of soldiers. She explains to them that she is a long time European traveler who is deeply fond of Israel, and particularly of the IDF.

“I asked people around the world to send me postcards addressed to you, to Israeli soldiers,” she explains. “People around the world don’t know what you are going through. They know nothing about the kind of love and mutual support that you share. You are beautiful in the heart, so don’t believe the blah blah blah the politicians say. Stand strong and be proud,” she says as she hands the postcards around.

I wait to speak to Sara and learn more about her and the project but there’s no shade and it’s getting too hot to bear. She is too engaged with the soldiers to be disturbed. I sense that she is close to tears. She is having a religious experience, and as I wait, I realize that I have just witnessed the Wall go full circle: from a place where god is worshipped to a place where the military is worshipped.

Of course, Sara is not the first to arrive here with letters. The most well-known tradition attached to the wall is that of sticking notes with prayers and wishes among the stones. Many people send notes with friends or family who are traveling here, to be folded and placed in the cracks on their behalf. There’s a certain beauty in seeing letters delivered here into human hands instead of into stone cracks, and I can’t help but ask myself: has the wall, that powerful symbol of the Jewish nation’s unrequited love for god, indeed become unnecessary? Should we stop longing? Have we arrived?

Is our destiny truly war?

Read part one of The Beaten Path, ‘An introduction, or how to ruin a good story’

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