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The Israel-Palestine Lorde Diaries, Chapter 2: Casino San Remo

Yuval Ben-Ami and his gang are going where no man or woman has gone before: They are trying to produce a bilingual, bi-national album based on the songs of pop prodigy Lorde. The only problem: The gang itself is homogenous to the core. An insurmountable challenge?  

For the entire Israel-Palestine Lorde Diaries, click here.

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A week after our Yemenite feast, I met with Yaron to start working out the details. “I have a title for the EP,” I told him, “I want it to be ‘העונה לתספורת קצרה,’ that’s ‘Buzzcut Season,’ the name of one of Lorde’s songs. I think it’s her best.”

Yaron was fine with that.

There was of course, the other thing. “I Think it should be named ‘Buzzcut Season’ in Arabic, too. I want it to be a co-production, Palestinian-Israeli. Anything that has to do with Lorde is out of control. The world may find this interesting, and if it does, I don’t want for it to be exclusively Hebrew, Jewish-Israeli. I’m over that.”

We were sitting at the cafe across from my house, in the largely residential heart of Tel Aviv. The environment here was even more homogeneous than in the Yemenite quarter. You never know what someone’s backgrounds is, but everyone at least appeared to be central Tel Aviv Ashkenazi.

Yaron, ever open minded, reacted just as fondly. “I have a contact for Mira Awad,” he said. “Maybe she’d like to get involved.”

It sounded too good to be true. Mira Awad is something of an actual star. A Palestinian citizen of Israel, she is known for her openness to collaborate with Jewish-Israeli musicians. She even represented Israel at the Eurovision song contest, alongside Hebrew songstress Ahinoam Nini, known internationally as “Noa.”

“So that’s great,” I said, “We have Mira Awad. Now all we need is someone to translate a few songs into Arabic for her.”

“We don’t have Mira Awad,” Yaron said, throwing cold water on my sudden confidence, “I have a contact for her. That’s all.”

This rang a bell. In a recent episode of “South Park,” the gang of cartoon misfits decides to throw a party to boost their popularity. One kid, Stan, tells his peers that a colleague of his father is Lorde’s uncle, so he could probably get Lorde to come and play at their party. From...

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The Israel-Palestine Lorde diaries, Chapter 1: The lunch

Freshly back from his journey down the beaten path, Yuval Ben-Ami is setting out on another adventure, a musical one, a political one — forging a binational tribute to the Kiwi queen bee.

For The entire Israel-Palestine Lorde Diaries, click here.

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There’s a nice restaurant in Tel Aviv where my girlfriend Ruthie and I have lunch almost every Friday. It is named “Nehama,” or rather, it is named nothing. No sign graces its door, or rather its opening. The entire place is a modest kitchen that greets the Yemenite quarter by way of a missing “fourth wall.” Nehama, a middle aged Yemenite-Israeli is the proprietor and sole cook. She makes the world’s finest lentil soup.

There’s a nice guy in Tel Aviv. His name is Yaron Fishman and he plays a good banjo-ukulele. Yaron leads a decisively Tel Avivian sort of double life: working in the high tech industry during the day, then heading “Havurat Atomic” (“The Nuclear bunch”) an indie-folk outfit, and cutting tracks in his Ramat Gan flat at night. He and I recently started toying with my own songs and needed to decide where to take them. What better place to do that than Nehama’s on a Friday?

It was a typically warm November day in 2014. Yaron, too, arrived with a Ruthie: his ex-girlfriend and current best chum. Unbeknownst to us as we sat down on Nehama’s plastic chairs, we were headed for an adventure. We were about to break ethnic, linguistic and national bounds through music, or at least to give it an honest shot.

This tale of attempted integration begins with a very homogeneous crowd, in the heart of Tel Aviv’s all-Israeli bubble. Both guys and both Ruthies at the table were Ashkenazi Sabras: Israel-born but of European roots. The food, of course, wasn’t. Nehama served us delicious fried “malawach” bread and long baked “jakhnoon” dough, spicy “skhoog” paste and “hilbe” – a strange gooey spice that notably affects, though not disagreeably, one’s body odor. Nechama’s joint is the haunt of Jewish Tel Avivians of many origins. from Iraqi-Israelis to Ethiopians, but the four of us were all of the same gene pool, the same upbringing, and while feasting we spoke about the music we all liked: Western music.

Old pigweed

“Do you know what pigweed is?” Yaron asked.

None of...

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The Beaten Path epilogue: Is this the place? (Part 13)

Nothing in the Holy Land is very imposing in and of itself. What visitors seek is a connection to holiness, to an ancient story or to one currently unfolding. The deconstructed tourist trail ends with a realization: Everything here is a trace. The final installment in Yuval Ben-Ami’s journey to Israel and Palestine’s most-trodden tourist sites.

A view from the top of the Seter HaMadrega outpost, just west of the Kfar Tapuach settlement in the West Bank. (photo: Yuval Ben-Ami)

On the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, overlooking the Salt Lake Valley, is a park with a peculiar name. It is called: “This is the Place Heritage Park” and features the imposing “This is the Place Monument.” Ironically, it is not the place, and the bronze figures at the top of the monument are looking away. The place would be the valley below, the one identified by Mormon “Moses” Brigham Young as the promised land. Arriving at this spot following decades of nomadism, Young halted the caravan of the faithful and pointed out the location intended by God for his new chosen people.

The city built in the valley was initially named “Zion.” For someone born in the older Zion, the idea of Utah being “the place” seems far fetched, but is Jerusalem indeed “the place?” Is my Holy Land indeed the same one discussed in the Bible?

A few months ago I visited the mystical city of Urfa, in southeastern Turkey. Traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, Urfa is situated not far from the Euphrates river, on a major artery of the Silk Road. It is a junction of myths and traditions.

On my return I got back to work and found myself once again in a bus filled with tourists, heading south from Jerusalem to Hebron. I told them that the road we traveled is known by its Biblical name, “The Efrata Road,” and that I had no idea why. In Hebrew, Efrata would mean “to Efrat,” or “to the Efrat.” Today there is a town named Efrat on this road, but it it is a modern Jewish settlements named after the road, not vice versa.

And then it hit me: Efrat. This is how people who live along the Euphrates pronounce the name of their river. Could the original Efrata road been the road to the Efrat, the silk road passing through...

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The Beaten Path: Tel Aviv's after hours - a night apart (part 12)

Tel Aviv isn’t a single bubble, but rather a bubble made up of myriad sexual, political and social identities. But between the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll lies a city whose nightlife is also full of homegrown segregation. Part 12 of Yuval Ben-Ami’s journey through the Holy Land’s most popular tourist sites.

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It was American-Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel who proposed, in his essay dedicated to the holy Seventh Day, that the Sabbath is “a palace in time.” “Judaism,” he wrote, “teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year… The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.”

In the same vain Tel Aviv’s nightlife may be seen as “a tourist attraction in time.” Lacking a cathedral, the boxy Hebrew city offers a timeframe rather than a specific location, which piques the curiosity of its visitors. Travelers often head down from Jerusalem for one night (and a very long and painful morning to follow). Sometimes it is the absurdity that drives them down the hills, at least as much as the promise of fun. Could it be that a mere 40 minutes from Jerusalem, where people are being run over in terrorist attacks while others live in the shadow of the separation barrier, people are feasting nightly? Do they not have any idea where they live?

Experiencing Tel Aviv’s nightlife need not involve a desecration of the palace in time. It happens every night of the week, year round, except on the eves of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, and Yom Kippur. Indeed, real Tel Avivians tend not to go out on Friday nights. Instead they stay at home and rant about how suburban kids taking over the city. How the suburban kids get here on Fridays beats me, since the Israeli palace in time features a large-scale garage where all means of public transportation lay dormant for 24 hours.

Is Tel Aviv’s reputation as a nightlife Mecca well-founded? I would say so, although the heartbeat of the city is easy to miss. Tel Aviv does not give itself away to the visitor; at night, its streets generally appear empty. It takes some inside knowledge to find the right door in the right wall that leads you into one of the city’s shrines. And...

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The Beaten Path: Jericho, city of flexible time (part 11)

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.

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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...

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The Beaten Path: Looking the other way at Masada (part 10)

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...

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The Beaten Path: Seeking refuge in Eilat (part 9)

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.

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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...

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The Beaten Path: Framing the story at Yad Vashem (part 8)

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...

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The Beaten Path: Time traveling in Bethlehem (part 7)

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,...

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The Beaten Path: Fixing a hole in Safed (part 6)

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.

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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...

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The Beaten Path: Fishing for the real at the Sea of Galilee (part 5)

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. 

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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




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The Beaten Path: The unholy hierarchies of Nazareth (part 4)

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,...

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The Beaten Path: Baha'i Haifa, Banana St. and the ultimate Other (part 3)

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.

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...

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+972 is an independent, blog-based web magazine. It was launched in August 2010, resulting from a merger of a number of popular English-language blogs dealing with life and politics in Israel and Palestine.

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