Photo: Howard Sturman
Welcome to my blog of a trip I took to Israel with my wife Stephanie Gurwitz from December 17, 2019 to January 1, 2020. It was my first trip to Israel at the ripe old age of 64 and I’m very excited to share my experiences with the community and all the people in FacebookLand and wherever this blog may travel. For the first four days we spent time on our own exploring Tel Aviv and parts of Jerusalem. For the bulk of the trip we joined Temple Isaiah’s 50th Anniversary Trip led by Rabbi Craig Axler. About half of the photos you’ll see in this blog were taken by Howard Sturman, a TI member and my wife Stephanie’s employer. He and his wife Robin and son Evan run Medical Innovations. a medical supplies business in Columbia, Md. Robin, Howard, and their youngest son Noah, who came with us on the trip, were awesome traveling companions. Howard really loves this photo of the contrasts between the Orthodox man and the Modern Orthodox soldiers. In many ways it’s a microcosm of modern-day Israel. Many tensions exist. Between the old socialist ideals Israel was built on and the freewheeling capitalism of the new tech economy. Between the ultra-Orthodox and those who have a more modern view of Judaism. And of course, tensions between Arabs and Jews — tensions that have only hardened over the past 25 years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. I’ll let the blog speak for itself, it’s more than 12,000 words, so I don’t expect you to read it all in one sitting. I packed it with lots of links, photos and videos, some from the trip, others i dug up in doing research to more effectively explain some of the history. Take your time with it and think of this blog as a close friend telling you about his trip to Israel. Thanks for checking it out and let me know what you think.
Photo: Howard Sturman
Tuesday, December 17: A Long Flight
Our ride up from Columbia, Md., to Newark Airport was quite a way to start the trip. Our driver was named Nick, a guy who grew up in Baltimore City but his parents were both city school teachers and decided to send he and his brother to private school. Not just any private school, Gilman, where the very well-off in Baltimore send their children. I broke the ice with Nick by mentioning my “Flying B” Ravens hat from the late 1990s, the first few years the Ravens franchise played football in the NFL. One thing led to another and the next thing we knew Nick was talking about police brutality against blacks and the reality that black males know in their hearts that at some point they will be stopped by the police.
Nick made it clear that many of the kids he grew up with didn’t really make it. That when he went to college he finally realized how tough his parents had it teaching in city schools and the sacrifices they made to be sure he had the best education possible. I sat listening to the conversation and wondered what was ahead of us as we made our journey to Israel. The Holy Land is a source of unending controversy and often berated by the far left as an apartheid state, much like what existed in South Africa before the old government fell. Is what we have in the U.S. — the difference between many of our inner cities schools and other wealthy suburbs around the country our own version of apartheid? I wondered if my opinions on Israel would change once I got to spend some time there and got a better feel for the situation? Was it really that bad? Or is the connection between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism – something that Jared Kushner says he believes exists – was that really true? I went to Israel wondering how I could still be pro-Israel yet still be a card-carrying member of the American left? It didn’t really creep up on us. This shift has been ongoing for 40 years. I remember discussions when I was a student at Livingston College where some of my friends said Israel was a mistake. They believed that it could have been considered legitimate as a post-World War II response to the Holocaust, but given what happened with the displacement of the Palestinians, they found Israel’s legitimacy suspect. One friend even went so far as to say the U.S. should have provided the Jews with land in Montana or North Dakota for a state. Having grown up in a religious Jewish family that was stridently pro-Israel, I found these arguments confusing and opinions I didn’t really know other people had. Until Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995, there was always talk and some hope of peace. But after the year 2000 all serious peace talks ended and the right-wing in Israel, however fragile its coalition, has prevailed. I can’t wait to see the Holy Land and see the place first-hand. I thank my wife Stephanie and my mother-in-law Cicely Finkelstein for giving me this opportunity.
Photo: Steve Zurier
Wednesday, December 18: Hello Tel Aviv
We landed in Tel Aviv around 3 p.m. local time and made our way to the Metropolitan Hotel. It was interesting from the start. The cab driver took the HOV lane and saved us at least an hour – maybe two hours – of sitting in traffic to get into the city. The cab driver said 25 years ago Tel Aviv did not have this level of traffic, so progress and prosperity has its down side. I immediately asked him if a lot of Israelis are Trump supporters and he said yes. He said he had a daughter in Las Vegas and the people there were complaining about the immigrants coming in. He also thought that the anti-Semitism in the U.S. was caused by the American blacks. I think he saw a story about the Black Hebrews and thought all the trouble was caused by the blacks. We assured him that we thought they were extreme and nutty, too, and told him most of the anti-Semitism was caused by white nationalists, and that Trump tends to look the other way. He was a bit confused but I don’t think we changed his mind.
We made it to the hotel, thanked him for the ride and had dinner our first night in Tel Aviv at Jessica’s a nice bar and restaurant on the beach that features Carlsberg and Tuborg beers. Any irony there? I don’t think David Ben-Gurion would approve. We had a nice dinner with Robin, Howard and Noah and called it a night by 10 p.m. local time. Was a long, almost 10-hour flight. We were all ragged and ready for bed.
Oh yeah, there was a bit of a highlight. I made my Tel Aviv debut on the bass. The bass player for the band playing at Jessica’s didn’t show up at 9 p.m. when the gig started so the leader of the band, a guy playing acoustic guitar, asked me to sit in. Robin had told him I was a decent bass player. They played mostly American music, tunes like Hit the Road Jack, Killing Me Softly and some indie tunes I was vaguely familiar with, but the chord changes were easy so I was able to work out bass lines. Was fun and a great start to our visit in Israel. The band had some good players. The drummer was all tatted up and had slicked back blonde hair, but was ferocious on the rock tunes, yet sparse and lilting on some of the ballads and slow tunes. Didn’t use brushes but was always with the music. The guitar playing was very good. He could solo and had a good rhythmic sense. The leader had a nice voice and the female lead singer had some serious vocal chops (see link above). After about one or two tunes they realized I could really play so they were digging having me fill in, the drummer especially. Was kind of one of those surreal experiences. I drop in with some friends, sit in and I’m never to be heard from again. Who was that guy???
Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of the great religious symbols of Islam.
Photo: Howard Sturman
Thursday, December 19: The Temple Mount, the West Bank…And Then Some
Most interesting of days. Our guide, Marc Coles of BelieveLand Tours, was more than we could ask for. A former general counsel of a pharma company in Israel, Marc made Aliyah in the early 1980s, leaving his native Cleveland, Ohio. He was knowledgeable and patient enough to spend the day with us even though we often asked the most stupid and repetitive questions. Many times I had him cover the material two or three times over so I could lock it into my brain. He was good about it and nearly most of the time would patiently run through the information.
We started our day in the Old City and headed straight for the Temple Mount. Marc explained to us the complexity of the site being one of the holiest sites in all three major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For Jews, the site of the Western Wall signifies the foundation of what remains of the Second Temple that was vastly renovated by King Herod – the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism. For Christians, the Second Temple was the site of several important events in the life of Jesus. Finally, the Dome of the Rock, where the story says Mohammed journeyed to heaven, is considered the third holiest site in Islam behind Mecca and Medina. Total mind screw thinking about the implications of how this piece of real estate influenced human history for thousands of years. You begin to see your life as just a little slice in the long continuum of time. It’s why Arabs think Israel will eventually go away as do some Orthodox Jews. We walked through the Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter and the Armenian Quarter. The Armenian representation was interesting in that they were the first nation to accept Christianity, which is why they were able to gain a foothold in the Holy City.
We had lunch at a great falafel stand in the Jewish Quarter. They had a nice mix of Falafel and Shawarma and you could smell blend of tahini sauce, hummus and meat from several feet away. The portions were huge. Steph and I ordered a falafel sandwich and a Shawarma platter and it was more food than we could eat. The falafel was served with lots of mixed veggies, onions, and tomatoes and topped with greasy French fries. The best.
Was interesting how much more upscale some of the Jewish Quarter was. The Christian Quarter was also interesting because it showed the path of Jesus the day he was crucified, the 14 Stations of the Cross. We made small stops at Station V, where Simon of Cyrene was made to bear the cross; Station VI, where Veronica reaches out to Jesus and wipes his face and Station VII, where Jesus falls a second time. Just the whole idea that this was mapped out and a part of Israel is really mind-boggling and I thank Stephanie so much for arranging this day for us. The Jewish trips tend not to do the Islamic or Christian sites, which I think in many ways is a mistake, but that’s an argument for another day and one of many complicated points to talk through with people back home.
I already said I kept asking the same questions over and over. I must have asked Marc two or three times how the Temple Mount area was managed. Israel handles the security and there was no shortage of security people. At every entry point there were at least two people with automatic machine guns. While they looked very young, you didn’t want to mess with them with those menacing guns. The Muslims (the Islamic Waqf) manage the area around the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Steph was holding my arm for some balance because of the rocky and wet footing in the old city and an old man smiled and kind of cutely waved his finger, pointing out that men and women couldn’t touch in this area. There was also a strange looking Orthodox Jewish man with a long flowing red beard flanked by security people making sure he didn’t do anything stupid. The Thursday before there were some religious zealots who started praying in Hebrew near the Dome of the Rock. There were also many other incidents throughout 2019 and in the past. This kind of behavior can ignite terrible violence and the authorities are quick to prevent an incident. There were no problems the day we were there, but it was clear that this piece of real estate will continue to be a bone of contention for many months and years ahead. Probably for all time. I left thinking that it’s a miracle how things are managed so well, that we don’t really hear about too much trouble on the Temple Mount. For today at least (not to say something terrible couldn’t happen on any given day), I left feeling like the wall-to-wall security people make it possible for pilgrims to visit these holy sites without incident. There was a Muslim woman with a white scarf on her head (not a keffiyeh) teaching a group of about 15 or 20 young elementary school students. Steph really liked that a lot of kids had Elsa backpacks from Disney’s Frozen. There were also Israeli school kids scampering about, it’s really quite a scene. It’s actually beautiful in a strange kind of way. The Jews and the Arabs have fought for centuries and the Christians have their own tortured history in the Middle East. But today, there was peace, however tense the underlying currents are beneath the surface.
Once we finished lunch we made our way back to the car and went to a place where we switched cars so our Palestinian driver could escort us to Bethlehem. He was such a character, he looked like if there was going to be a movie about the Palestinian crisis, Ali, our driver would be played by Telly Savalas, but of course, Telly died in 1994. Nobody similar comes to mind. Ali had a shiny bald head and grizzled face that exuded a very tough life. He was gracious and mostly quiet with us, speaking in a mix of Arabic and Hebrew. He DID speak Hebrew with Marc. Frankly, I sometimes couldn’t tell if he was really a Palestinian or maybe an Israeli posing as a Palestinian. It didn’t matter. If we had any trouble on the West Bank I wanted Ali on my side. I also thought he would shoot me in the head if his life depended on it. So it goes in the Middle East.
We were driven to a store where Marc said we weren’t obligated, but the implication was that it was appreciated if we pumped some money into the local economy. Robin and Howard bought a piece of jewelry and Steph and I bought a nativity scene for Daniel Ryan’s upcoming wedding in the spring. Was funny though. They are not as aggressive as the Jamaicans, but the Arab salesmen did start me out with a $1,500 wood carving of a nativity scene. I told him no – that I was looking to spend about $100 and we found something more suitable. Was happy to do this for Dan and his fiancé and for Charlie and Angela. I’m not sure they will ever get here, so in some ways I felt we were doing this for them and any Roman Catholic or Christian person I was ever close to. The Church of the Nativity was gorgeous. It had beautiful mosaics from the Crusades period and giant chandeliers that were gifts from Eastern Europe (can’t remember where). As is the way, everything at the church was a negotiation. There was a Roman Catholic side, a Greek Orthodox side and an Armenian side. Such is the way in the Holy Land. Our guide, Samir, took us to the birthplace of Jesus. The pilgrims come and kiss the gold star that marks the birth of Jesus. It was quite moving. They also showed us where the Three Wise Men delivered and held the baby Jesus.
Keep in mind that the area around the Church of the Nativity is in the Palestinian Territories on the West Bank. It is considered Area A under the Oslo Accords. Marc explained some of this to us. It was eye-opening. To see the wall as you come in locking out the Palestinians and the wire fences around the border with the soldiers guarding the border with automatic machine guns is quite chilling. The Palestinians have no airport, and no trains go into the West Bank, so they are essentially land-locked in the Territories. While people can come in, mainly because they want tourists to spend their money, it’s much more complicated and difficult to enter Israel from Area A.
So Area A is the core of the West Bank. Was interesting to see that the Palestinian side was very modest, but the Christian side was very nice, they even had a Mercedes Benz dealership there, which I’m told is less of a big deal than in the U.S. Was quite striking. We didn’t go to Area B, which Marc said was under Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control. Area C is where the Israeli settlements are located, and as a result, much of the violence. I don’t think we’re going to a settlement on our trip (we didn’t), but we’ll see how it goes. Was glad we finally got to see the reality of the West Bank. Was very cool to see a Muslim call to prayer in the West Bank. It was at a mosque across the street from the Church of the Nativity. It sounded like a Cantor chanting or a Catholic Priest chanting in Latin. Muslims and Christians and Jews. We are more similar that we’d like to admit. If only….
Sunset overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv. Wowza.
Photo: Howard Sturman
Friday, December 20: Enjoying Tel Aviv
Mostly a crash day. We spent about an hour on the beach then walked over to the Carmel Market. Was a mad house. The smells of the falafel, bourkas, perogies, grilled vegetables was enticing. While the aromas were wonderful, it was a Friday and many Israelis had the day off so the market was packed. I only had an ice cream and then we went to a general store that featured mixed nuts, fruits and had a refrigerator filled with waters and sodas. Once we had our fill of the market, we walked around the neighborhood and got an idea of how the people lived. Most Israelis buy apartments and are owners, but unlike in the U.S., there is no mortgage interest deduction. Not sure I understand the benefit, but I suppose ownership beats having to depend on the luck of the draw with a landlord. The apartments around the market were nice but not luxurious like some of the high rises we saw along the Mediterranean Sea. Some looked very old, in need of an outdoor paint job or new aluminum siding. There’s prosperity around Israel and it shows, but overall, most of the people live quite modestly in small apartments that they buy.
We walked back to the beach and had drinks and two tapas plates at one of the bar-restaurants along the beach. Our waiter was the hardest working young man on the beach. He was cordial but was all business, scurrying about waiting on tables, speaking three and four language to the guests, some who were Americans, both others were local Israelis and some even were from Kiev.
Here’s where our day went south a bit. We wanted to go to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which was hosting the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival. We grabbed a cab thinking we were an hour early for an 8 p.m. show but were miffed to learn that we could only buy tickets with an Israeli credit card. I had tried in the late afternoon to purchase the tickets online, but the checkout was only in Hebrew and they required a government-issued ID number. So naturally, this was surprising. It was one thing not to have success buying the tickets online, but unsettling learning we could not use a Visa or Master Card issued by a U.S. bank to buy two tickets. They told us we could pay in cash, but the closest cash machine was a 20-minute walk one-way, so we didn’t have enough time at that point, plus Steph didn’t want to walk. So, disappointed, we caught a cab back to the hotel. This cab driver was very nice. He told us that the first cab driver had ripped us off. When I told him I gave the first cab driver $30 for the ride he told me that was like giving him 100 shekels. This all started because he didn’t want to take American dollars. He wanted to be paid in shekels. When I told him I paid $30 US for the first ride, he cringed and said he was upset that somebody would do that to a fellow Jew. “We are all of the same religion,” he said in his broken English. “I try to be straight with people.” We thanked him for his honesty and he took us to an ATM where I was able to get 200 shekels. I insisted he take 50 shekels, he deserved the extra pay for his honesty.
Another interesting tidbit: Steph said when I was out at the ATM getting cash he started going off about politics, saying it was a good time to be here because Netanyahu was still in power. Steph said the driver feels Israel needs a strong leader and he was concerned for the future. He also told us he feels he needs to be married at this point in his life. He was not a young man, but not quite a “Marty” character either, but kind of a lost soul. I’ve always read where the working classes were for Begin and Bibi. I joked with Steph that they could start a new Jewish organization: Cab drivers for Trump.
So it goes, we had a Mexican dinner in Tel Aviv. The Latin music felt like home. I kept getting the feeling that the Israelis are trying hard to make Tel Aviv like America. I understand why they feel that way, but sometimes it feels forced.
Photo: Nice Person in Tel Aviv
Saturday, December 21, 2019: Shabbat in Tel Aviv
Very good day. We did about a 45-minute call with Verizon and they reconfigured our phones so we could easily move in and out of airplane mode, Wi-Fi and cellular. I thought maybe we needed SIM cards, but not true. All we needed was for the phones to be configured properly. In my case, it needed to be reset and rebooted. Great. Today I had the ability to do maps and run searches online via cellular. I pretty much had the use of my phone the way I do in the U.S., and when I wasn’t using my phone I could just put it in Airplane mode. The main thing for me is I could still receive phone calls and texts. I could always choose not to respond and get back to people on my own time.
Phones handled, Stephanie slept for a couple of hours in the late morning and I worked on this blog, which when I started wasn’t worth much but as I got into it have grown fond of writing my thoughts out and remembering the stories while they are still fresh in my mind. First stop today was a reprise at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. We saw a great exhibit on climate change called Solar Guerilla: Constructive Responses to Climate Change. The show had displays on many of the new technologies that could become the basis for the Green Economy. They featured Electreon, which has wireless sensors it puts under the roads and underneath cars so when cars pass on the highway or main streets of cities they power up via electric power. Not sure the oil companies are going to like that technology, but we’ll see what comes of it. There were also Smog-Free technologies like smog-free bikes and rings that filter the air so when people are riding their bikes or walking in the cities the air is cleaner. CheckPoint also had a display on its new headquarters building, which featured greenery throughout the new wings of its headquarters building so the building is more energy efficient and manages water runoff in a more sustainable way. There were also exhibits on Passive Houses, Solar Punk and Sponge Cities, the latter are cities that absorb water more efficiently. There was also a wall that featured a project in New York following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 that looks to manage water damage from violent storms more effectively.
Steph and I walked away ashamed that the U.S. under the Trump administration has pulled out of the climate accords and in essence our chief executive is a climate denier. This should be the most important issue of the 2020 Presidential election, but I don’t think it will move people. The voters on the right think we are climate zealots and have a business agenda to pursue. I really think the Dems have to explain more clearly and in point-blank terms how all these green technologies on display in projects from every continent in the world will create jobs – will create entire new industries – with good paying jobs. When people understand that all Trump offers is 1950s technology with economic policies from the 1790s, maybe things can change.
After the museum we met Heidi Silverman, now Masuri, with her husband Roy and their three kids, Nedav, 7; Ella, 4; and Lior, 18 months. What a nice family. They live in Modi’in, which many compare to Columbia or Reston in the U.S. It’s a planned community much like the way Columbia has neighborhoods like Wilde Lake, Hickory Ridge and Oakland Mills, they have The Rivers, The Vineyards and The Prophets. We didn’t make it out there but I would be interested to see it at some point. I read up on Modi’in and see that there’s been some controversy with the development there. Israel started building there following the end of the 1967. The land was contested and by 2012 the EU declared Modi’in a West Bank Settlement. This was curious to me because I never heard that Modi’in, which functions essentially as a burb of Jerusalem was considered a West Bank Settlement. It all gets more confusing and unwieldy as you learn more. To me, it felt like people moved to Modi’in to escape the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem or to save money and get more home given the real estate boom in Tel Aviv. Many people pay up to $1 million U.S. dollars for a small apartment in Tel Aviv. Much like in the U.S., Israelis want more room for their growing families and better amenities, newer housing stock, and less traffic.
The restaurant was an Italian place called Amore Mio, but it had a decidedly Israeli feel. The Antipasto was more like a Mediterranean salad than a classic Antipasto you’d get in the U.S. It was mostly fresh vegetables as opposed to Italian meats and cheeses. This Antipasto had feta cheese, eggplant parm, carrots, string beans, cabbage, pickled garlic, artichoke hearts, grilled sweet potatoes, mushrooms and small pieces of olives. My penne dish came with Kalamata olives, eggplant and mozzarella. It was served piping hot and was delicious. Roy had this liver and mushroom dish with spaghetti that was very good. I liked the sauce and the pasta, less so the liver, but it was an interesting dish I never saw before at an Italian restaurant. After dinner, we had ice cream and gelato and then said our goodbyes. Maybe we will connect in the Summer of 2020 in Florida. We’re talking about all four of us going to visit my Mom. Heidi usually comes to visit her parents in the summer, so we’ll see. Either way, it’s been a nice connection and very nice to see Heidi thriving as an adult. I remember when she used to come over my parent’s house as a little girl. She’s without question “adulting” with three wonderful kids at this point in her life. Meeting Roy for the first time was nice, too. He’s a lawyer who’s really in to basketball and a bit of a foodie as well. Mostly he seems like a good dad a great husband for Heidi. Mazel Tov to Hank and Phyllis for raising such a daughter.
Photo: Stephanie Gurwitz
Sunday, December 22: Taking Care of Business
Had a good day today. We packed up early at the Metropolitan Hotel and made our way to the Carlton. Steph and I agreed, that this second hotel was a major upgrade. The Metropolitan would have been fine for me, but this place has all the extra touches, a concierge, they greet you with warm cider and apples when you arrive, the gym is open 24×7, they have a jacuzzi and a sauna, and a special place on the beach where they serve the breakfast buffet. Steph and I wouldn’t have spent a week here, but for two nights this was a real treat.
I had a meeting with the Imperva crew today. We had lunch at Ha’Achim, a popular restaurant that features modern Israeli cuisine. It was a good, roughly one-hour session where I figured out that they didn’t want to talk about the breach. They called it the “incident” (they were hacked) and it’s clear they were not authorized to really talk about it. And they didn’t want to talk Israeli politics. I really couldn’t get much out of them so I just stuck to technology. They are very focused on their tech goals for 2020. They plan to issue monthly Internet security status reports, as opposed to quarterly or even annual reports that in the end few people read. They also talked about how they work with large SOCs (security operations centers) to use artificial intelligence (AI) to cut down on repetitive tasks and get their security people to do higher level activities. I also found that they have many product lines, a legacy web app firewall, fraud detection, database security and analytics. We have to figure out how to do a review of one of their new products. Was also nice to finally meet Ben Herzberg, the company’s former director of threat research. He has been responsible for finding many important vulnerabilities in Facebook, Google Photos and Drupal, among many others. Of course, as of early January, Ben took on a new position at Satori Cyber. Such is the way in high tech these days. Companies get bought and sold and people move around.
The afternoon was kind of relaxing. Took a nap for an hour or so, then worked out in the gym. The gym at the Carlton has an awesome view of the Mediterranean. Was inspiring seeing all the people on the beach as I plodded along on the treadmill. Finally, about 4 p.m. we met up with Robin and Howard and had a drink on the rooftop deck of the hotel. It was just gorgeous watching the sun go down over the Mediterranean. I got some good pictures, but Howard got some awesome shots with his good camera.
The group arrived late and it was kind of disappointing. The Associated of Baltimore is here and there was a crew of people from Baltimore and other guests who held a candle lighting ceremony in the hotel lobby. We sang the two blessings and a Shehechiyanu (thanking god for bringing us to this moment) plus Mao Oz Tzur. Brought tears to Steph and Robin’s eyes. Was quite nice. We all sat around playing dreidel and eating jelly donuts and just enjoying being Jewish without fear. Kind of remarkable given all the tension, but that’s what David Ben-Gurion and the nation’s founders had in mind – that’s what they fought so hard for.
The group finally arrived and we had a nice dinner of an array of Israeli salads and chicken and meat kabobs. Food was good, table was set up in a T, much the same way Steph’s family does the Passover Seder. Rabbi Axler sang the blessing and lit the candles and it was all very pleasant. Was happy that we clicked so well with many of the people in the group. There are about 34 of us, so we didn’t spend time with everyone, but got to know Sheldon and Elaine Kramer and their daughter Missy Hamet and her husband Jeff and their kids. Also spent some time with Ken Epstein and his fiancé Wendy watching the Ravens game at Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv. Was fun to watch the game and text back and forth to the boys and the folks at home. You’re never too far away from anywhere today with cell phones, TV and computers. Have more I want to write, but have to call it quits. The bus leaves at 7:45 Monday morning. It’s a school day for us. The morning will be tech morning and the afternoon will be at the Rabin Center.
Photo: Steve Zurier
Monday, December 23: Start the Tour
We started the day at the Taglit Innovation Center where we saw many of the innovative products and apps Israeli start-ups have unleased on the world. Our guide said that 95 percent of start-ups fail, but people keep trying for the brass ring. The same holds true in Silicon Valley as well.
Orcam has this medical app which once it scans a person’s photo you say the person’s name and the next time you see them the device will recognize them. It’s used mainly as an aid for the visually impaired, though our guide said corporate types have asked if they could use it at trade shows and conferences so they could remember people’s names. Orcam says the product is now available in 30 countries and sells for between $3,000 and $5,000. Supposedly insurance pays for it but I’ll believe that when the reimbursement check comes in. There were also a bunch of apps I’d like to look into: Fiverr, a freelance communications and graphics site, Fooducate, a nutrition app, and fitness22.
Our next stop was at the Weizmann Institute of Science, which was awesome. Best known in the computing world for having many famous cryptographers, namely the people who developed RSA. If you know about crypto you know RSA. The Weizmann researchers do great work in the medical, environmental, biological, and chemical sciences. It’s a sprawling campus, very lush with green grass and trees.
Our guide, Yoram Asta, next took us to the Na’an Kibbutz located not far from the Weizmann Institute. It was actually the Kibbutz he grew up on. He said his brother convinced his parents to send him there when he was 13. His parents were concerned that he would stray from religion and his grades would suffer. While both happened, Yoram said he learned self-sufficiency and in those days the Army considered the kibbutzniks the elite and would train them for the best assignments in the military. Some kibbutzim have come on hard times in this new economy, but Na’an has kept pace. They have an Indian company that invested in a factory that makes the nozzle heads for irrigation. People can now own their own homes. Kids don’t live only in the children’s quarters anymore. The old socialist ideal has been modified to keep up with the changing attitudes in Israel.
The final stop of the day was the most heart-wrenching, the Yitzhak Rabin Center. We started at the site of the assassination, which we saw on Saturday when we met Heidi and Romy. Then the bus took us the museum and we took a one-hour tour through Israeli history from the perspective of Yitzhak Rabin. It told the story of a modest Sabra who was recruited by the Hagenah in the 1940s and worked his way up the ranks in the IDF to the point where he became Defense Minister. Of course, Rabin was shot on the night of November 4, 1995 – shot by Yigal Amir, a right-winger who opposed the Oslo accords. In retrospect, this was the end of the old Israel and ended any hopes Israelis and Jews throughout the world had for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Following the accords there were terrible bombings throughout Israel and people didn’t feel safe. They began to question why they felt less safe if they were making peace. There was great vitriol against Rabin. The exhibit had a caricature of Rabin dressed in Nazi garb with a Hitler mustache. Rabin was a decorated Israeli general who was instrumental to the founding of the state. But by 2000, Arab demonstrations persisted and the Israelis retaliated. Yoram, our guide, said Ariel Sharon told the army guys to basically ignore Oslo. “Do what you have to do to stop terrorism,” has been the word ever since.
This was traumatic for Israelis and has also been so heart-wrenching for Jews on the American left. As Israel shifted more to the right and opposed any negotiations with the Palestinians, they elected Netanyahu and the Orthodox party gained ever more control of the country’s politics. This led to the expansion of settlements, the nation-state law on who could be considered a citizen and the U.S. moving the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Over the past couple of months before our trip I read the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz expecting a powderkeg explosion – but nothing major has happened yet. It’s amazing how despite all the strife, disagreements and the inability of Israel to form a government, life goes on.
One last stop: Snuck out on my own to see The III Project at The Zone in Tel Aviv. Was a dump on the outside with graffiti, but very nice on the inside. Was happy to see that even in a young, hip venue where they feature World Music there was a menorah lit for the second night of Chanukah. The band features Meira Segal (bagpipes) and Yoni Ben-Dor (percussion), both from Israel as well as Efren Lopez (hurdy-gurdy and laouto), who hails from Spain. The venue kind of reminded me of An Die Musik in Baltimore. People were sitting in comfortable couches and chairs in the audience. Most of the audience were young people, a mix of gay and straight, but it didn’t matter. Once the music got going it was a very serious listening crowd that appreciated the music. Those who were so moved did some interesting middle eastern-style dancing, it definitely added to the night. The only real difference between this venue and An Die is that they had a full bar in the back, which was nice. I was so glad I went out and caught this trio. I had really wanted to see World Music in Israel and this turned out to be my only time seeing “live” progressive music.
Photo: Steve Zurier
Tuesday, December 24: Bullet Factory
We went to the Bullet Factory today. Is quite an incredible story how 45 people worked on 12 machines for three years, barely anyone knowing what was going on. Our guide said think about what Israel is like in the heat of the summer. Very hot. Plus we only saw two demo machines and it was very loud. Think about how loud it got with all 12 machines going.
The machines were German machine tools from World War I. They followed a circuitous path where they wound up in Beirut and finally made it to Israel in 1945. The bullets fit the sten guns. When the Israelis were asked by the authorities why they were bringing in brass, their story was that women liked brass cases for lipstick, so that’s what they were using the brass for.
Incredibly, they built the factory in 21 days. If people were curious, they said they were making extra storage for organs. Our guide said three of her four grandparents were Holocaust survivors. She is forever indebted to them for their sacrifice. For more background on how the Israelis developed defense industry, read about Chaim Slavin.
Next up this day was Caesarea, where we saw the ancient theatre, amphitheater and the hippodrome. Steph was amazed at how much more was excavated in the 24 years since she had last been in Israel. We saw some interesting stuff. Old Roman statues from the time of Pontius Pilate. We also saw how around the year 650 when the Muslims came they cut the heads off the statues. In their excavations they found cages in the Hippodrome where animals were kept.
Keep in mind that much needed to be excavated because of wars and earthquakes. The last major earthquake was in 1836, so Israel is due for a big one. Something else to worry about. After Caesarea we went to Akko, which is most famous in Israeli history for the Acre Prison Break of 1947. The history here was amazing. Crusaders defeated the Muslims in 1099 and liberated the Christian holy sites from Muslim hands. One other historical tidbit. Napoleon tried to conquer Akko in 1799, failed and never returned to the Holy Land.
We arrived at Naf Ginosar, our kibbutz home for the next two days. The Wi-Fi was lousy, but we didn’t let it stop us from having a fun time. We lit the candles and sang the blessing and Rabbi Axler led a group of us in Chanukah Songs. We also passed around the guitar and a few of us took our hand in playing some songs. I am way out of practice singing and playing the guitar, but did my best on Friend of the Devil and Dire Wolf. Alex Hoffman played some Kinky Friedman tunes and led a spirited rendition of The Weight in which many of us sang along. We also talked about The Band and the religious implications of the tune so wonderfully sung by the late Levon Helm, The River Hymn.
Photo: Steve Zurier
Photo: Steve Zurier
Wednesday, December 25: Tzfat
What an amazing place. Tzfat has a deep connection to the Jewish people and has become widely known for the place where the mystical Kabbalah movement was founded. I really don’t know that much, but when you have time, read up on the Zohar. It’s considered as important to the Kabbalah as the Torah. Here’s a good Vice article on the Kabbalah fad during the George W. Bush era and what’s happened since. Also a good Larry King interview with Madonna that deals with her interest in Kabbalah.
I also took pictures of the plaques they have in Tzfat to honor the writing of Lecha Dodi and Yedid Nefesh. Since we sing the Rick Recht version of Lecha Dodi at Friday night services and Yedid Nefesh is a popular dance also done by the CJC Klezmer Band and Dancers, this spot had a special meaning to me. Yoram also took us to a synagogue that was built around the theme of Echad Mi Yodea (Hebrew and English), the prayer we say at the end of the Passover seder. I thought of David Cheslock and how he would have loved this concept and thought of all the wonderful family Seders we have had over the years and very much connected with how holy and special a place Tzfat is for Jews. David, like many other American Jews, never got to see the Holy Land.
We also went to a winery that day for a lunch of pizza and wine. This is a kibbutz that years ago made jelly sandals but now a private company is in the wine business. It has been very interesting to see how the kibbutzim have evolved over the years – few are the socialist paradises the pioneers aimed to create.
Archeologists found this Menorah carving, proving that Jews lived in this area around Bet She’arim in ancient times.
Photo: Steve Zurier
Thursday, December 26: Mosaics and Caves
What does a touring group do on a rainy day? They go to see interesting artifacts inside. Yoram took us to Bet Alpha Synagogue National Park to see these lovely mosaics. This synagogue, was excavated in 1929 after settlers found the ruins during their irrigation projects. The mosaics featured the Greek wheel of the zodiac.
We also went to Bet She’arim National Park to walk through grave sites that had been excavated.
According to the website: “The importance, value and renown of Bet She’arim was that it was home to a great rabbi – Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi – who was the religious spiritual and political leaders of the Jewish people at the time (between the 2 and 3rd Centuries Common Era). He was compiler of the Mishnah, the oral laws. Rabbi HaNasi wanted to be buried in Bet She’arim and his tomb was built during his lifetime. The story of the town encapsulates the story of the Jewish settlement of the time, the story of its people, their actions and great faith.”
According to Yoram, as soon as the archeologists came in they knew they were based on Jewish inscriptions. The four corners on some of the inscriptions were similar to the four corners of the Holy Temple. We also learned that while the reef has become a Christian symbol, it’s actually a symbol from the Holy Temple and could be found on some of the artifacts at Bet She’arim. I also have a photo of a menorah that clearly demonstrates Jewish life in that period.
We also went to the Atlit Detainee Camp Museum, the internment camp where the refugees from World War II were brought into Palestine. Keep in mind that the British limited immigration in the 1930s to 75,000 over five years. There were something like 140 ships that brought people to what was then Palestine, some with up to 140,000 people. The Zionists would fly a foreign flag to fool the British. And to make it seem like they were normal working vessels, many of the men who worked on the ships were Italian or Greek.
It was a very tough existence. Nobody could go up on the deck without permission. When they arrived in British Palestine, most of the people spoke Yiddish, German or French. The prevailing language in Palestine was English or Arabic. Men were sent on one side, women on the other. These were concentration camp survivors. They were horrified that one of the first things that happened to them was that they were sent to the showers to be disinfected. They used DDT on them, which by today’s standards sounds brutal. There are pictures at the museum that show how horrified they were at the site of the shower. And there were also pictures of how glad some of the refugees were to be reunited with missing parents, relatives or children.
Photo: Steve Zurier
Friday, December 27: Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem and Much More
We started out with the painful history of the siege of Jerusalem in 1948 in which the Jews lost the Jewish quarter and the Western Wall remained in Jordanian hands. Fast forward to spring of 1967. Israel was surrounded on at least four sides. Some say seven countries were primed to attack Israel: Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. The Arabs were set on “purging” Palestine of its Jewish presence. Egypt’s Nasser vowed to “push them to the sea.” Israel fought back. Crushed three Jordanian companies, defeated Egypt and would up flying the flag on the Western Wall.
At the Ammunition Hill National Memorial Site, we saw plaques in honor of the soldiers. One was Yehuda Kandel. His father immigrated from Poland and his entire family was wiped out by the Nazis. It’s important to remember the people who fought in these wars. World opinion has shifted against the Israelis in the modern era, and too often we forget the backgrounds of the people who fought these wars.
Remember that to take back part of Jerusalem, some 182 Israelis died and hundreds were wounded. For those who are interested, some of these links give you some more detail on the battle for Ammunition Hill and Jerusalem. A good book that Yoram recommended is Like Dreamers, by Yossi Klein Halevi. The book tells the story of what the soldiers did during the Six Day War and how their lives led them to different conclusions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here’s a good documentary about the Six Day War in June 1967.
After he told the story of Ammunition Hill, I talked to our guide about his service in Gaza in 2014. Ziv said he knows it would be controversial, but he believes Israel should go in and take Gaza and finish off Hamas once and for all. He said he saw a massacre by Hamas where some 100 Palestinian civilians were shot and murdered for speaking out against Hamas. I told this story to Rabbi Axler, who said he has heard similar stories. That Hamas can do what it wants with impunity and the world press will not report it because it doesn’t fit the narrative of the Palestinians being oppressed. These stories feel like they are true, but it also sounds a lot like the Vietnam vets who say we would have won the war if the politicians let them fight to win. We keep going around in circles and more violence begets more violence.
I brought up Gaza, but the larger issue for this day was the fight it took for the Israelis to win the Six Day War and reclaim the Western Wall for the Jewish people.
After Ammunition Hill we went to lunch in Machene Yehuda, an awesome open market in Jerusalem. There was every kind of good food for sale: bourkas, falafel, shawarma, also many stands selling nuts, candles, wine, olive oil, you name it.
Photo: Steve Zurier
Took a picture of Golda Meir portrait. Here’s the story of how Machene Yehuda has become a hip new area with nightlife and vibrant art.
In the afternoon, we went to Friends of Zion. The video they showed at the beginning was awesome, with shots of the Negev and nature shots throughout all the different parts of Israel. The theme was the famous Here I Am, Hineni from the High Holidays. (Note: Click on both links)
We went into a room and learned about Professor George Bush and many of the Christian Zionists. Professor George Bush was a real person, but it’s not clear how connected he really was to the famous Bush family in the US. Also, upon digging deeper, I found that Professor Bush also believed that the Jews would forsake Judaism and ultimately convert to Christianity. Really???
And a portrait of how Raoul Wallenberg saved Jews during the Holocaust and Harry S. Truman’s support for Israel. There are many good books on the Truman years. Author and historian David McCullough has a large part in his book on how Harry S. Truman came to support the creation of the state of Israel.
Some of us were skeptical of this museum. Many of the people featured showed great kindness and support to Jews, but not all did what they did to create the state of Israel. Raoul Wallenberg was not necessarily an ardent Zionist, he was a humanist who saved Jews for the right reasons. The final video of Benjamin Netanyahu talking about the help from the Christian Zionists was more than I could bare, I wound up thinking that while this museum had some good points, they slanted the stories to fit their narrative and much of it was forced.
On a brighter note, there was a cool Menorah on display across the street. Here’s a photo of it.
Another interesting tidbit. For much of the exhibit, they played Dona Dona by Shalom Secunda. I feel duty-bound to write about Secunda. His two most known hits were Bei Meir Bistu Shein and Dona Dona, but he was a prolific composer for the Yiddish Theater (based on Second Avenue in New York City) and was the music director at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills back in 1950s and 1960s. For the record, according to Victoria Secunda, his daughter-in-law, Bei Meir was a successful song, but the play was closed down early, mainly because one of the stars got sick. In fact, Bei Meir had multiple encore calls during a performance in Philadelphia, so one could surmise that while the show was not a success, even from the beginning, the song was well-liked.
The music clips I shared are of the Andrews Sisters (Bei Meir) and Joan Baez (Dona Dona), the more popular renditions of these tunes. There are many others. Dona Dona was a popular summer camp song in the 1960s and 1970s when Joan Baez was popular. Bei Meir is played by just about every Klezmer band in the world.
Friday Night Shabbat Services and Dinner. This was one of the best parts of the trip for me. The drive to the synagogue was gorgeous. We drove down into a valley overlooking the hills of Jerusalem, was really quite breathtaking. Was great to see where and how the real people of Jerusalem lived.
The services started with the traditional Ma Tovu prayer. I was stunned by how great it was that we were all singing in Hebrew, but most of the people there were singing the songs in their native language. It is really a great accomplishment of the Zionists that they restored the Hebrew language. For them, it is not a rote passage in a foreign language during a Shabbat or holiday service. It is a living, breathing language.
Rabbi Alona Nir-Keren explained how in the general Mevasseret Zion area there are some 40 synagogues – and only one is Reform: Kehilat Mevasseret Zion. She is one courageous women. She said while there’s what we would think of as a board of rabbis, for years the Reform rabbis were not allowed to participate. They fought this in the courts and won. However, since the courts ruled that the Orthodox would have to allow the Reform rabbis to participate the board has simply not met. Rabbi Alona said they have thought of more creative ways to make inroads with the local community. The synagogue has a pre-school and with the space they set up a pre-school for children with disabilities. Rather than driving their children one hour each way to a facility that could help them, some members of the local Orthodox community now use the service created by Kehilat Mevasseret Zion. This strikes me as brilliant. While they may fight them in the courts, they have to look for creative ways to make inroads so the Orthodox see Reform and Conservative Jews as people, as fellow Jews and not enemies.
Our dinner out was fun, my only complaint was that Kay and Saul were older and not really representative of a typical family. I got the sense that many of the members were older and the synagogue did the best they could to connect us with members of the congregation. Kay was from Philly and felt long ago that the United States was a Christian country and she never really felt comfortable in the U,.S. Saul, who was a friend and our driver for the night, was from South Africa and in the software business. He was a very hearty 80 years old. On the car ride back to the synagogue after dinner, he told me he commutes several days a week by train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. He takes the train and keeps a bike at a bike lot in Tel Aviv and then drives to the office and/or to whichever appointment he has that day. I thought that was great, if I could do anything close to that when I am 80 I would consider that a win. Although, I DO NOT want to be working when I’m 80. I want to play music, travel and write stories of my own choosing.
An Orthodox man on the move in Jerusalem.
Photo: Howard Sturman
Saturday, December 28: Shabbat in Jerusalem
My second Shabbat in Israel, this one in Jerusalem, something that I’ve longed to do for some time.
Rabbi Axler took a group of us to the Hebrew Union College for Saturday morning services. I went along with Alex Hoffman and Michael and Caryn Lasser. Was a small group, but we all appreciated the service. We started off with Psalms and then went on to a normal reform Saturday morning service. Part of the Torah portion we focused on was on Judah assuring Jacob that he would bring back Benjamin alive.
When I got back home I realized how important this promise was in context of how the Judah/Benjamin story ends. Brother Joseph, who was then high in the court of Egypt, plants a goblet in Benjamin’s bag and once discovered, it appears that Benjamin must stay in Egypt. Judah appealed to Joseph to show mercy and let Benjamin go back to Israel so as not to separate Benjamin from his father Jacob.
There are multiple interpretations of all this, but I took it to mean that there comes a time in life where you have to stand up for what’s right and be willing to suffer the consequences, both good and bad. Judah’s promise to Jacob and his follow-up plea in defense of Benjamin are seen as some of the most heroic moments of the Torah – and I will forever remember and cherish that this was the portion I studied that Shabbat in Israel. Those of us who attended are truly blessed.
The rest of Shabbat I just rested and caught up on my sleep. Rabbi Axler led a walking tour of Jerusalem and read some of his favorite poems. Sorry I missed this, but one can only absorb so much.
We also had a wonderful Havdalah service featuring Rabbi Axler, was just the Rabbi at his best. Great singing everyone.
Saturday night we were back in Machene Yehuda for some techno music and I had coffee with Rabbi Axler and Eliana. Rabbi Axler knows his way around Machene Yehuda, it’s one of his favorite places in Israel and I’d have to agree. It was always a bustling market during the week and especially on Fridays, but now it’s a hotspot for Jerusalem’s young and hip.
Men in prayer at the Western Wall.
Photo: Howard Sturman
Photo: Steve Zurier
Sunday, December 29: Jerusalem of Gold, Ben Hoffman’s Bar Mitzvah
Wow. Up early after a good sleep and many of us saw sunrise over Jerusalem from the dining room of the David Citadel Hotel. Was what they were talking about in the song Jerusalem of Gold.
Yoram took us to the Southern Wall of the Temple to show us the latest excavations. Here’s some good information for those looking read more.
My wife Stephanie says that besides the ubiquitous Wi-Fi and the burgeoning tech industry in Israel, the biggest changes are all the excavations that have been done over the last generation. Much of what we saw in Caesarea was not dug up 24 years ago and many of the Roman ruins on the Southern Wall were excavated in the 1990s and beyond. Here’s some good background on King Herod and the Southern Mount.
The highlight of this day was the Bar Mitzvah of Ben Hoffman, who read a Torah that was from the Sinai. The service was held overlooking Robinson’s Arch, and this link gives some background on the history. Was truly an honor to be part of Ben’s service and to experience a Bar Mitzvah in Israel. My parents and I talked about it in 1968 for my Bar Mitzvah, but for various reasons it did not materialize. Many thanks to the Hoffman family for making this a community event for those of us on the Temple Isaiah trip.
One downside was that Rabbi Axler was not allowed to bring his guitar to the Western Wall area and was not allowed to play at the service at Robinson’s Arch. Evidently it was Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the month, and the crowds were very large that day. When Rabbi Axler tried to enter the Western Wall area, the security people were concerned that he would play “non-Orthodox” prayers on the guitar and would potentially cause problems and controversy. At Robinson’s Arch, he was told not to play, but we weren’t sure if they just didn’t want the music played, or there were other services going on besides Ben’s Bar Mitzvah, so they felt that the guitar would interfere with the other services.
So, no guitar at the Western Wall.
It didn’t ruin our trip there. We saw the 3D Video show at the Western Wall and then saw the real thing. I put a note in, asking the almighty to grant peace to this Holy Place. Of course, a week later all-out war almost broke out in the Middle East, so clearly I don’t have any inside clout with the almighty. Was very moving to be at the wall, was kind of overwhelming and confusing that so many of the visitors were Orthodox. One young Orthodox man even came up to me and asked me if I was Jewish. He wanted me to put on tefillin. I supposed I should have done it because it was a mitzvah for him as well, but my I got my New York side on and refused. Yoram’s tour of the underground tunnels of the Western Wall was also an eye opener. Here’s a good link above for those who want to read more.
Forgive me for the many links in this section. I think I was starting to become overwhelmed with everything we saw on this trip. That afternoon we went through the Christian Quarter and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Was moving to actually be at the Station 11, where Jesus was actually crucified; Station 12, where he was put on the cross; Station 13, where Jesus was wrapped in a blanket and covered in oil and perfume and finally Station 14, the burial place of Jesus. Here’s a list of the 14 Stations of the Cross. Our guide Yoram also pointed out the Church of the Ascension on Mt. Olive, where the Resurrection was said to have taken place and Jesus rose to the heavens.
OK, you would only get this from me (well, not only me), but I also feel duty-bound to talk about the spiritual qualities of jazz great John Coltrane, how much of his music was a quest to capture the spiritual striving in the world’s major religions. He was playing to praise God. There is the album Ascension, which is one of the more innovative jazz albums that separated Coltrane from his be-bop past — and there’s also the Church of John Coltrane in San Francisco, which I still haven’t been to, but was at City Lights Bookstore last May. I understand that Christianity is one of the world’s major religions and mean no disrespect to the various churches, just want to point out some music inspired by religion. Actually, if you look back at it, much of American Rock and Roll was inspired by the church. Aretha Franklin started in her church choir. And Elvis Presley had his first musical experiences in the church.
Having fun in the mud at the Dead Sea.
Photo: Howard Sturman
Monday, December 30: Perfect Day for a Hike and a Swim
This was a great day. The weather was a sunny 75 degrees and we couldn’t ask for a better day to visit the desert. Today was our day to visit the Qumran Caves, Masada and the Dead Sea.
For those interested in the Qumran Caves and the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is much to look up an read. I found it interesting how they were forerunners to today’s evangelicals and other religious zealots and always find the story of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls interesting. But honestly, my tank was on zero, it was a beautiful day and I was psyched to hike up Masada. Howard, Robin and Noah Sturman and I hiked up the Snake Path with Wendy Zerwitz Schenker. The hike was strenuous and we stopped many times for water along the way. The most notable part of the hike was at the beginning. When Noah Sturman saw the tram going up the mountain he proclaimed, “that was an option?” as the tram glided up Masada. We all laughed and basically told him to deal with his decision and go on the hike. Anyway, it was too late, the hike had started and the adults dug in. I think as a mom Robin was concerned that Noah might croak, but he pulled through and actually had the time of his life at the Dead Sea later that day.
Yoram gave us a great tour of the Masada area, which of course is a story many of us learned as kids where the Jews committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. We also had a meeting with a Sefer who thanks to funding from the Jewish National Fund, has scripted four Torahs in the past four years. Here’s a cool video from our meeting with him.
My son Ben told me that the Dead Sea was a cool part of the trip. I was skeptical, but despite it being a bit of a tourist trap, you really do float in the salt water. The kids had a great time, laughing and pouring mud on their faces. We were late for our bus deadline of course, much to the chagrin of Yoram who was concerned about the traffic back to Jerusalem. Whatever, it all worked out.
We even went out to this nice Dairy restaurant in the music area of Jerusalem. Here’s a clip of a Brazilian duo that was playing at Nah’man’s. Shows you how Brazilian jazz is loved by people the world over. The woman on percussion also played trumpet very well. They had both graduated the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.
Photo: Howard Sturman
Tuesday, December 31: Fond Farewell to Israel
Last day in Israel. We started at Yad LaKashish, Lifeline for the Old, which is a non-profit that provides meaningful employment to low-income seniors. Many of the people who work there are Russian immigrants who came to Israel too old to secure jobs and many have little family and no pension money to speak of. People work in ceramics, metalworking, needlepoint and book binding, based on their various skills.
Before the trip some friends and Rabbi Sonya Starr of Columbia Jewish Congregation gave me five dollars to donate to a worthy organization. When Rabbi Axler told us about Yad LaKashish, it made sense to spend the money towards gifts we purchased at Yad LaKashish. It just felt right to spend our gift money so the seniors could afford to live and continue their work as opposed to some of the more expensive touristy places we stopped at. Frankly, that’s a downside of going on a tour. It becomes a Disney experience where every stop along the way is also an opportunity for you the tourist to part with your money and support the local economy. I’m sure many of us felt this way, but such is the way of these things. However, if you decide to do Israel on your own, at least spring for a guide for a tour of the Old City, it’s well worth it. You can’t begin to absorb 3,000 years of history without some explanation.
Was a busy day. We also backtracked from Jerusalem and went to the Tank Museum at Latrun. If you remember your War of Independence history, the Israelis tried to take Latrun five times (O Jerusalem says three times, I’ll leave it up to the historians to figure that one out) and failed. They even created the Burma Road in the mountains to try to get supplies to Jerusalem during the horrible siege during the War of Independence. Long story short, the Israelis captured Latrun during the Six Day War and have held it since. It’s very strategic high ground between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In the book O Jerusalem, by Larry Collins and Dominque Lapierre (who also wrote Is Paris Burning) there’s a chapter called the Wheatfields of Latrun, where concentration camp survivors came off the boat, were given a gun and next thing they knew were sent to fight at Latrun. They were unprepared and untrained to fight in a war, many perished. It was kind of an obsession for Ben-Gurion – to take Latrun. I considered it hallowed ground and was grateful to visit there. It felt to me much like how I feel when I visit Civil War sites in the United States. We shouldn’t forget what went into the creation of the state of Israel. So much of that gets lost in the current debate and vitriol against Israel. Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials alike in the U.S. – the vast majority of us are all spoiled brats and don’t really know from this kind of suffering and terrible fate.
This was a packed day. Yoram also took us to the Model of Jerusalem at the Israel Museum. Here’s a good video that summarizes the tour. Yoram spent a lot of time quoting the writings of Flavius Josephus. I would be remiss if I didn’t give you a link to some of that work, since so much of what we know about the Roman period is from those writings.
We also went to Shrine of the Book, where we saw both original and replicas of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The final stop was Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. Our first stop was to see the rebar at the front of the children’s memorial, the significance of which is to show how 1.5 million children didn’t live through their full lifecycle. Yoram said to read 1.5 million names would take something like 25 years.
This is a very uncomfortable museum, by design. As you walk through the museum, you read and see videos of dozens of personal stories and as it gets more uncomfortable and you want to leave, it’s seemingly impossible to leave the museum without going to the next exhibit.
There are so many stories, here are a few from the Warsaw Ghetto: Here’s a video of Professor Israel Gutman, who survived the Warsaw Ghetto and the death camp Auschwitz.
Here’s a link to the poetry of Wladyslaw Szlengel, a writer and poet who fought the Nazis and chronicled the Warsaw ghetto.
A good piece on artist Roman Kramsztyk, who perished in the Warsaw Ghetto.
After we all spent about an hour in the museum the group met and Rabbi Axler wanted us to discuss the difference between the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. versus what we had seen in Vad Vashem. I think our group was particularly struck by sheer number of personal stories and how meticulous the research was. How incredibly diabolical the Nazis were in their extermination methods, how the Holocaust affected practically every city, town and village in occupied Nazi territory. I was struck about how there was only one wall dedicated to the liberation of the camps. There was a newsreel of General Eisenhower and footage of a large military parade in Red Square featuring an address by Stalin, that other mass murderer of those times.
On a lighter note, Missy Hamet reminded us that this was our way of celebrating New Year’s Eve, remembering the Holocaust. I suppose giving up one New Year’s celebration to contemplate the plight of the 6 million is worth it.
Tuesday night into Wednesday, January 1: Long Flight Home
We had a great dinner in the artsy part of Jerusalem. I think they served us everything on the menu and the wine was flowing. It was the Eucalyptus Restaurant featuring Chef Moshe Basson. Was a great way to end the trip.
It’s clear that Yad Vashem was the last stop to seal the deal. To underscore the Holocaust as the moral justification of the creation of the state of Israel. That can’t be denied and it’s very powerful to tour through Israel and visit Yad Vashem. I’ve been home about 15 days now and I’m struck by how afraid most Americans are of visiting Israel. Many wonder if it’s safe in Israel? Did I ever fear for my life? I just counter by saying the past few years in the U.S. have been no picnic, with mass shootings and terrible climate events that have destroyed communities and taken lives.
I don’t think we’re there yet, but it could come to pass that the United States will no longer be hospitable to Jews. The Presidential Election later this year will be telling. Overall, I think most Jews are fairly comfortable in the U.S. – and there’s a disturbing trend of disengaging from Israel (especially on the left) over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Overall, I think it’s important for every Jew, Muslim and Christian, to visit Israel and see the Holy Land for themselves.
I am grateful to my wife Stephanie and my mother-in-law Cicely Finkelstein for making the trip possible for me. Also many thanks to Yoram and our bus driver Itzik Mandelbaum, who was a veteran of the Six Day War, the 1973 War and the 1982 War in Lebanon. When I asked him about it, he said, “I’ve seen enough.” Itzik’s driving in the narrow cobblestones of Tzfat was epic – you can see why the Israeli’s prevailed just in Yitzi’s driving. Determination combined with high skill.
Enough said. Also thank you to the members of Temple Isaiah for making my wife Stephanie and I welcome throughout the trip. It was truly a joy getting to know all of you and your families over the 10 days of the trip. Finally, special thanks to Rabbi Craig Axler for agreeing to let Stephanie and I come along – and for his continued enthusiasm for Israel, his keen eye for Jewish eateries, and his gentle manner. The Rabbi has great knowledge and always shared it generously and with great passion.
Make no mistake: The cats have a better shot making peace in the Middle East than the humans. If we listened to them, we would put down our arms and pay attention to them.
Photo: Steve Zurier
When I had lunch with Rabbi Axler one of our days in Jerusalem we wound up feeding the cats fish and chips. This one cat wanted nothing to do with the chips. He was only interested in the fish. The Rabbi then told me about the book Snow in Jerusalem by Deborah da Costa. The story is a great allegorical tale of an Israeli boy and an Arab boy who wind up feeding the same cat, though at different parts of the day. At a certain point, that cat is missing and the boys go look for her. They find the cat huddling with four kittens and immediately the boys start fighting over who’s going to keep the cats and who’s cat it actually was. When the boys realize that the cat wants them to be friends and share the kittens, it’s clear that for the cats of Jerusalem, peace between Arabs and Jews is what they want.
Were it so simple, but I did see how tough the cats have it in Jerusalem. They tend to fight over territory in alleyways and I saw one cat visibly scared when two Israeli soldiers stopped a car at a gate in the old city. The cat knows something is up – and that sometimes it just ain’t cool in this town. Were it so simple to deem that the cats want peace between us so the humans would comply. Chew on that one, but buy the book for your kids or grandkids, it’s a nice story.
So for me, it was the trip of a lifetime. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back, but I’m glad I got to see Israel for myself. I look forward to sharing my experiences with friends and families in the months and years ahead and I’m truly grateful to have had this experience and a chance to write about it. Hopefully some of you will find this blog useful. Feel free to add your thoughts and impressions. Thanks for any useful comments and clarifications, I’m not a historian or even a tour guide.