Israel - March, 2008

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Introduction note:

I (Joe) have had a long-delayed commitment to visit one of my very dearest friends in Israel. After the events of last year, I didn't feel I could put it off any longer. Michael Frank and I met in high school in Cincinnati in 1982, and have been brothers ever since. Michael is a musician, an artist, and an all around special person. He has sacrificed much to live in Israel for over a dozen years now. I got him to come back to the states to stand up as the best man in my wedding nine years ago, but visits have otherwise been very scarce. I only had a week scheduled for this trip, so we made the very most of it.


Wednesday March 26, 2008

I arrived in Tel Aviv mid-afternoon after a long overnight flight. Michael picked me up and honored my request to just return to his home in Jerusalem so I could clean up and decompress a little. Michael lives up on the top floor of a fourth floor walk-up on Ben Yehuda Street in the center of Jerusalem. He has two studio apartments separated by an outdoor patio that looks out over the historic city. This arrangement put me comfortably in his music studio. After a brief period of not moving, we took an evening walk around his neighborhood and visited the Yehuda Shook (open-air market) where we snacked on some market foods and I unwound with an Israeli beer. Later we enjoyed a good meal and walked over to visit with his ex-wife, Nahala.

Click on thumbprint photos to see them enlarged.

Joe with a cold beer and a smile.
Fresh Herbs.



Thursday March 27, 2008

After a good night of recovery sleep, we left Jerusalem early for a long day of sightseeing. We drove east down to the Dead Sea and turned north along the Jordan River. Our first stop was at the ancient ruins of Bet She'an. Recent (in the past 30 years) excavations have revealed this site to be the Roman-Byzantine city of Scythopolis. The original Egyptian city on this site dates back five thousand years. Canaanites occupied it for a thousand years after the Egyptians, before the Romans. The primary restoration of the site now intends to show the Roman city that last thrived there.

We continued north to the Sea of Galilee and up to the hilltop city of Zfat (Safed), Israels's highest city at 3000' elevation. It is the center of Jewish mysticism (Kabbala), and a thriving artist colony. I can best equate Kabbala with some form of numerology. Much of the art on display in the colony was mystical, and created by drawing very tiny numbers in different colors. This has profound meaning for kabbalists. We spoke with a shopkeeper whom casually recalled being bombed two years ago in the recent skirmish with Lebanon. I was also called 'messiah' by an elderly woman that was about to pull her hair out trying to get her meat grinder unstuck. We came along at that time and I was able to separate the stubborn assembly, to her utter amazement and joy. It felt good to be called a messiah in the Holyland, though I would have never know what she said if it weren't for Michael translating her Hebrew.

The Sea of Galilee from the road to Zfat.

We continued even farther north into the Golan Heights, verdant from the spring rains. I had read in my Fodor's that Israel had a ski area and I was curious to go see it. We drove all the way to the northeasternmost limits of the country along the border with Syria. We drove up Mt. Hermon, which still had a little snow left on it, but the rocky ski area had long before closed for the season.

The green Golan.
Mt. Hermon (9232') is actually in Syria.

We just missed getting to visit the inside of Nimrod's Fortress, pictured below, arriving after they closed. I found the story of this ruin intriguing. In it's early years (1100's AD), a fantatical sect of Muslims occupied the structure. This murderous group would frequently indulge in huge quantities of hashish before heading out on their killing sprees. They become know as Hashashin (hashish users), from which the word 'assassin' is derived. A little trivia that caught my eye.

Nimrod's Fortress.

As afternoon crept toward evening we turned back south with our plan to be home this night. We drove down to where the Jordan River flows into the Sea of Galilee. Michael had hoped to do a ritual immersion (spirtual bathing) in the Jordan River, but the seasonal rains created too much current for a dip in the river. Instead we stopped at Capernaum, a historic holy site that had a recently painted Greek Orthodox church sitting right on the seashore. Mike got to enjoy a spiritual cleansing before we drove into Tiberius for an outstanding dinner. We completed the drive back to Jerusalem by midnight. It had been a full day of traveling, and we had packed it full of sights.

Jordan River.
A Greek Orthodox church at Capernaum.


Friday March 28, 2008

Michael is an Orthodox Jew, which means that Shabbat (the Sabbath) is strictly observed. This observance keeps him from using technology during the Sabbath. Shabbat begins around sundown Friday and finishes around sundown on Saturday. For this reason, Michael needed to spend the morning catching up on some computer work. This gave me time to go out and get a load of laundry done, since I only brought a minimal wardrobe that would fit in my carry-on luggage. I spent $10US to do one load of self-serve laundry at a laundromat. This is representative of the very high cost of living endured by Israelis, and many of them earn much less than Americans for the same type of work. The lifestyle in Israel is quite modest, even on a professional level.

The jet lag caught up with me this day and I was exhausted. It didn't help that I chose to go to Yad Vashem this afternoon. Yad Vashem is the world's main Holocaust memorial and museum. I had enjoyed how few tourists we encountered on our travels yesterday, but Yad Vashem was packed today, as it always is. The gravity of visiting this museum made me feel even more rundown. It is an amazing museum, and a tribute to those around the world that choose to never forget what happened, lest it happen again.

We enjoyed the sunny day by walking around the city center. I could not overlook the absurd dichotomy of a functioning city existing within a terror zone. There are several plaques attached to the exteriors of buildings throughout the city center. These serve as memorials to the victims of suicide bombings, many of them within a block of where Michael lives, yet the street activities resemble normal people carrying out apparently normal lives.

Michael had arranged an invitation for me to join him at a friends house for a traditional Othodox Shabbos dinner. We walked over and joined our host at the synagogue as evening service was finishing. We then became part of a large party invited to his house for dinner. We all sat around a very large table and enjoyed a great evening of food, ceremonial rituals, and friendship. I was wholly welcomed and felt incredibly comfortable. It was a very special evening for me, and it truly enriched my understanding of what being jewish really means. This really complemented the entire Israel experience.


Saturday March 29, 2008

Michael and I had a very quiet morning, and then we walked through the Old City in the afternoon. We entered the one-square-mile walled city in the Armenian Quarter. In the Christian Quarter we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and walked part of the Via Dolorosa. We then squeezed through the congested Arab Shook in the Muslim Quarter before reaching the Western Wall (Wailing Wall)in the Jewish Quarter. It amounted to a clockwise circuit of the Old City. Michael lived within the walls of the Old City on two different occasions during his many years in Israel, yet he had not been back in several years. He was greeted by many old acquaintances at the Western Wall when he was recognized.

The Temple Mount left of the Western Wall.
Men and women pray separately.
Mt. of Olives from the Old City rampart.

Later we walked over to Nahala's condo for the remainder of the Sabbath. The three of us relaxed, visited, ate, and laughed all the way through sundown. The Sabbath is really a celebration of life. It felt like a timeout that isn't forced, but is anticipated each week. It is a reward from God after putting in a productive week. I really started to get it.


Sunday March 30, 2008

Mike and I packed our bags and headed out early this morning for an overnight exploration of southern Israel. Our first stop was just east of Israel looking out over Wadi Kelt. Michael had seen great photos of this scenic spot, but staring into the morning sun created a haze for our visit.

Near Alon above Wadi Kelt.

We dropped down to the Dead Sea, the lowest dry land in the world at 1292' below sea level, and turned south. Our next stop was at En Gedi National Park, an Oasis in the Judean Desert. This nature reserve has an abundance of wildlife that survive off the reliable flow of the park's springs. We found Nubian Ibex (wild goats) in the parking lot and the Rock Hyrax along the trail.

The ibex.
The hyrax.

We continued up the Wadi David trail and enjoyed a refreshing dip in the clear spring water.

Joe being "supportive."
Michael, my host and guide.
Mike & Joe.
A spring waterfall.

A little farther south brought us to Masada National Park, site of the famous Roman seige of the last Jewish holdouts during the destruction of the kingdom of Judea. Masada occupies a mountain-top mesa 1500' above the Dead Sea. The chronicles of a Roman historian report that after months of the seige, the romans built a masive earthen ramp and wheeled a tower up the ramp to assault the stronghold. With the end near, all but a handful of the nearly one thousand remaining rebels committed suicide. It was a very hazy day for our visit to the top, but we were treated to a fly-over by a couple Israeli military helicopters. We enjoyed the cable-car ride to the top, and then took the long walk back to the base.

The Masada mesa.
Dead Sea from atop Masada.
Helicopters buzz Masada.

After a hot and sweaty outing at Masada, we took a soak in the Dead Sea at Ein Bokek, a tourist mecca on the western shore. I had wanted to experience bathing in the extreme salinity of the Dead Sea. It has roughly ten times mores salt than the oceans. This makes the water so dense that it is impossible to sink. I actually felt like I was floating on an inflatable mattress on top of the water.

Joe is buouyant in the Dead Sea.

We continued our journey with the long hazy drive south to Israel's southernmost outpost of Eilat on the Red Sea. This is a well-developed modern vacation resort, and we found a comfortable room right along the sea looking across at Jordan. We enjoyed a fine meal in our hotel, and an entertaining walk along the touristy boardwalk before turning in after a long day.

Pleasing view from our room in Eilat.


Monday March 31, 2008

Michael and I both had trouble sleeping. I think his snoring was the issue for both of us. We continued with our busy itinerary. We rented some snorkeling gear and walked into the Red Sea directly across from our hotel, to explore the reef. It is amazing to have the reef located so close to shore. I've never been a huge fan of snorkeling, mostly because of the jellyfish, which were here too, but I still found it very pleasing.

It was well into the afternoon before we finally got out of Eilat and visited Timna Park on out way back north. This dry red rock area reminded me much of southern Utah and parts of Wyoming, my home state.

Timna Park.
Joe found a friend.
More ibex.

We had a much less hazy drive back north, and took a different route through the Negev Desert. The date palm plantations stood out as the only thing green in the desert.

Date Palms . . .
. . . from above.

There is a large military presence in the Negev. I found these two signs very amusing. The second one begs for a story line.

Make up your own anecdote.


In the heart of the Negev desert we crossed Machtesh Ramon (The Ramon Crater). At 25 miles long, 7 miles wide, and 1320' deep, the crater is the largest erosion depression of its kind in Israel.

Mike & Joe.
The Ramon Crater.

There are many camels and bedouins in the desert, though some of the bedouin camps look almost semi-permanent. The camels can be seen grazing right along side the ride, with no fences containing them.

Camels in the desert--makes sense.
Bedouin camp.

We drove through Beersheva, capital of the Negev, and continued toward Jerusalem on a route through Hebron. Jews are not welcome in this area, as we passed through many roadblocks. There was a feel of danger in the air as we pulled in line behind a military convoy that was being escorted by military helicopters. The road through and around Hebron has many tall roadside fences and walls to prevent thrown rocks and sniper fire from hitting vehicles passing by. We arrived back at Michael's Jerusalem aerie before 9:00PM in time for me to pack for my departure the next day, and to say goodbye to Nahala.

Michael, Nahala & Joe.


Tuesday April 1, 2008

This was my last day in Israel, but I still had a whole day before my evening flight from Tel Aviv. Michael and I took care of some computer issues in the morning and then headed toward Haifa. We stopped at Samuel's hilltop tomb for a great view of the surrounds as we left Jerusalem.

A great view from Samuel's tomb.

We drove north up the agricultural Mediterranean coast to the hillside port city of Haifa. It was a beautiful drive, and such a different looking city. With available time quickly slipping by, we focused our visit on the Baha'i Gardens. Haifia is the worldwide headquarters of the Baha'i faith. This religion was formed in the 1800's and holds as its primary tenet, the unity of mankind. Their shrine in Haifa is built on a steep hillside and surrounded by immculately landscaped gardens.

Baha'i Shrine & Gardens in Haifa.

Michael and I ended my visit with one final meal in the old coastal city of Jaffa. We caught a great sunset before heading back to the airport to say our goodbyes. In hindsight, I really got to see a lot of the country in my one-week visit, and deepened my understanding of Michael's infatuation with the country.

Jaffa sunset.






















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