Israel 1989/1998

In the fall of 1989 I was a sophomore at Syracuse University. An acquaintance of the family was a professor at Siena College in Loudonville, NY. From him via my father, I found out about a course he was teaching at Siena called "Biblical Study Tour". This was to be a fall semester course taught once a week where the class would learn about modern communities in Israel that played some role in biblical history. At the end of the course, the class would travel to these sites that they had studied for the semester. With a little workaround, I was able to take the course by mail (basically I had to choose a different place every week and write a paper that I mailed to the professor). The trip was during Christmas break of 1989. There were twelve of us that went and I was meeting most of them for the first time on the plane from New York to Tel Aviv. We left the day after Christmas, spent a week and a half touring throughout Israel, then the group parted with our Israeli tour guides and spent three days in Cairo, Egypt.

By the summer of 1998, El and I had been dating for a few months. She was doing some soul searching at the time which included exploring different religions including Judaism. I already knew that wasn't anything I was interested in for myself, but certainly wanted to play the part of supportive boyfriend. Having been a part of the class trip to Israel in 1989, I got an invitation to join the same department on a "5 star tour of Israel" in June 1998. This time there was no schooling involved. It was just a small trip to see the holy land on a professionals’ budget instead of a students’ budget. There wasn't much discussion after I offered to have El join me on the trip.

Unfortunately, I have little in the way of notes on the trips except for some captions to identify the towns that photos were taken in, but some of the places we visited left a lifelong impression on me. Upon our return in 1998, El did sit down with a photo album and wrote some captions that offered a bit more detail than mine. I will see what thoughts I have regarding these photos. Also, since we visited several of the same sites, I have decided to merge the pictures to give a better sense of the places we were visiting.

Tel Aviv/Jaffa/Caesarea

On both trips we flew into Tel Aviv which is the most modern city and financial center of the country. We flew into David Ben-Gurion Airport. In 1998, we arrived to discover that the airport workers were on strike and we could not recover our bags from baggage claim. We went to the hotel and were able to get our bags the next day. On both trips the hotel in Tel Aviv was great. Right on the sea with excellent views. We went to the northern suburb of Jaffa (known for their oranges) and had fresh squeezed orange juice. You never know if it tastes better because it is better, or if the circumstances under which you are enjoying it are special and you just think it tastes better. Either way, a fantastic round of O.J. was had by all. From Tel Aviv, we visited the ruins at Caesarea, a town on the Mediterranean that is home to a restored/active Roman theatre

, unrestored/dry Herodian aqueducts, and a crusader fortress. We spent significant time in this town. Both trips had extremely knowledgeable tour guides who would basically give impromptu lectures on the places we were visiting. As much as I like the do-it-yourself tours, I think there are some places that in order to get the full experience you need to have a guide- this is one of those countries. One fun fact they showed us was the perfect acoustics of the theatre. They asked a volunteer (me) to go onstage and drop a coin to demonstrate the rest of the group's (El) ability to hear the unamplified sound in the seats. Everyone was impressed. Haifa/Rosh Haniqra/Acre (Akko)

The city of Haifa is a small industrial city that is home to the Bahai Shrine in the Persian Gardens.

The gardens are immaculate and completely symmetrical and we wandered through them for a little while, first getting our “lecture” on the Bahai faith and some other background information. A very beautiful and tranquil setting in the middle of this bustling city. The next significant stop we make is in the town of Acre (Akko). There is a lot of military history in this city that I am sure we were apprised of on our walkthrough. The main attraction in this town was the al-Jazaar mosque. This is a mosque that claims to own two strands (not even the whole beard, just two strands!) of the prophet Mohammed’s beard around which the built a shrine and further a full mosque. I had always found this notion a bit extreme, until we went to a church that enshrined a severed hand. This was my first experience up close and personal with a mosque, and I have to admit, there is some absolutely gorgeous architecture and visually appealing aspects inside and outside of the mosques. I tend to find a lot of historic churches to be a bit on the aesthetically unappealing side, but this was a nice introduction to the Islamic house of worship. In 1989, we headed due north to the town of Rosh Haniqra which is the westernmost border crossing between Israel and Lebanon. We did not go into Lebanon, just to the border to see the daily goings on and enjoy the views. Tel Megiddo/Nazareth/Mount Carmel We went to Mt. Carmel which had a pretty nice view. One of the people that went on both trips was a priest from Siena College. A pleasure to travel with and just an all around nice guy. Anyway, at certain times along the trip he would conduct a mass for anyone who wanted to partake. In 1989, there was one participant that I think wanted a mass at every stop. It was like she couldn’t imagine a spot more perfect than this one for a mass. Time permitting father Dennis would oblige. Then we would get to the next stop where she would think, “there could be no more perfect spot for a mass”. At some point I think even the priest had had enough masses! Again, he was great, and no one (else) could complain at a lack of mass opportunity. I personally did not take part in said masses, but took advantage of the alone time or socialized with the Jewish members of our tour group in the meantime. I remember Mt. Carmel specifically being the point at which I questioned how many masses one person needed in a 10 day trip.

Nazareth was a town that is home to the Church of the Annunciation which is where the Archangel Gabriel is said to have told Mary she was to give birth to God’s son. Yep, they built a church around it. Now, the first time I went was in December- the second, June. Those who know me best, know that, for comfort reasons, I will wear shorts whenever possible. However, some of the sites we visited required “appropriate dress”, which, of course, meant long pants for men. So as not to disrupt the group and cause a scene, I took my first opportunity to purchase a pair of MC Hammer pants (black, not gold lamme) that I would allow me to wear shorts all day and then easily throw them on over the shorts in order to appear acceptably for the tour. Boy, were they a sight. I was going into these houses of worship wearing a pair of sheer black balloon pants looking like I would float away at the first stiff wind. I felt like I looked ridiculous, but I guess “appropriate” is in the eye of the beholder.

Hammat Gadeah/Metulla/Banias/Golan Heights/Tiberias

We spent a whole day touring around the Golan Heights which is the eastern side of Israel where it borders Syria. We were told that except for the designated stops, for security reasons we would not be allowed to stop the bus. I am not sure what the actual threat from Syria was at that time, but we got in and got out and had our lectures on the bus. We stopped at a landmark called “the good fence”

which is the actual separation between the 2 counties with a no-man’s-land border. We met some soldiers at the food stand who were quite friendly. We learned that at some specific point in every Israeli’s life (I think right after high school) every man and woman are required to serve two years in the Army. It was very common to walk into a McDonald’s or any other public space and see soldiers with their machine guns in tow. At no time did we ever feel unsafe, but then again the time I spent in Israel was a relatively peaceful time and we experienced almost no unrest (save Bethlehem). One of the other stops we made in this area was Banias, a natural spring which one of the three sources of the Jordan River. A town called Hammet Gadeah known for its hot spring baths that are said to have healing properties. They also have a game farm, which I am unclear what the connection is between hot springs and livestock, but they had some interesting archaeological excavations going on when we were there. Lastly, we made a stop in Tiberias, a town on the Sea of Galilee that currently serves as a diamond processing center. We had the opportunity to go to the plant and see the refining, cutting, and polishing of the diamonds- but if you know going into the shop that you will not be purchasing any diamonds, it just turns into a long restroom break. Even though Tiberias is located on the Sea of Galilee, we visited the town for a walkthrough on the day that we went through the Golan Heights. Only to return the next day. Capernaum/Sea of Galilee/Church of the Beatitudes (between Capernaum and Tabgha)

The next day we were back in Tiberias, but this time to use it as the starting point for our boat trip around the Sea of Galilee. There are many sites of biblical significance around the sea (and on the sea- if you believe the whole walk on water thing. I’m wondering if he was just standing in really shallow water??). We visited the town of Capernaum, said to be the childhood home of Jesus. There are ruins of an old synagogue there that archaeologists are uncovering and restoring. Other stops include the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes and the Church of the Beatitudes which is where Jesus is said to have given the sermon on the mount (more “appropriate attire”). We stop to see a lot of great mosaics at places around the sea.

Tel Hazor/Ayelet Hashahar

On both trips, the itinerary allowed for a few days with limited or no tour stops. One of those stops was at kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar. It was located near Tel Hazor which was possibly the largest of the Canaanite city-states. The mound (Tel) excavation started in 1928 and was expanded in 1955. Some of the artifacts are now housed in a museum that I believe was in the vicinity. A kibbutz is a communal settlement where each person takes and equal share and provides to the best of their ability. Each kibbutz needs a way to raise money. Although most are agriculture intensive, there are many that are not. Ayelet Hashahar is a kibbutz that as a 60 room guest house where they provide overnight accommodations and food in a communal dining area. We stayed at this guesthouse for two days as one was New Years Day and many attractions were closed.

This trip was my first experience eating kosher. You learn the basics pretty quickly, dairy, meat, and parve (neither). It is not until you are forced to eat kosher that you realize how foreign of a concept it is. The explanation being that you cannot eat food from an alive animal alongside food from a dead one…and no pork or shrimp (among other things). Since this was communal dining, everyone had to oblige. You couldn’t say “oh, I don’t do that”. Spaghetti and meatballs with no grated parmesan, no butter on the bread, no milk in the coffee after dinner etc. There are two different sets of dishes and you need to have (I think) 6 hours between consuming meat to have dairy and vice versa. I considered it an inconvenience. I think Chris Rock said it best when he said “I refuse to believe on judgment day my diet is going to come into question”…”a guy gets up to heaven and says “hey God, I killed a bunch of kids…but I ate right!””. That’s exactly how I feel, but I wasn’t looking to tell my hosts that I needed grated parmesan or butter on my bread.

Since every kibbutz needs to generate some income, interestingly we found a kibbutz comprised of Americans whose business was selling pork product and other “contraband”, not the illegal kind, just the there’s a lot of people in this country not thrilled with your offerings contraband. I thought it was a funny niche they had filled since it was pretty difficult to commandeer such goods anywhere. I will admit to purchasing a very good lunch at this deli…hey, they offered a service and I accepted.

Belvoir/Jericho/Beth Shean

We went to the town of Jericho which was an odd place in that it is an oasis.

You are surrounded by desert-like earth on all sides and as you drive into the town all of the sudden there are palm trees and then lush fields of green. It was just a stark contrast to the desiccated land on all sides. We got our lecture about the walls of Jericho and the significance of the excavations that were there. At one spot we came upon a camel hitching post which lead me to recall the tourist trap that is camel riding. It is very common for the owners of camels to offer camel rides. No matter what part of the region you are in, if there is a camel, the owner offers you a ride (or at least a photo opportunity. Heck, who doesn’t want a picture of themselves riding a camel?) The caveat here thought is that you don’t pay to get on a camel, you pay to get off!! If you have never ridden a camel or sat on top of the hump you can easily be seven feet off the ground and you really do need the camel to “let you off” by setting down unlike a horse that you can usually use the stirrups to aid in dismount. When given the opportunity to get on the camel, the tourist in the know will haggle and settle before agreeing to the ride, whereas the unsavvy tourist will jump on and find themselves involved in a very one sided negotiation. One that will surely amount to a most expensive photo op. I don’t care much for camel rides, so I was good either way. An interesting experience for me was our visit to the town of Beth Shean.

This ancient city is currently being excavated and reconstructed by archaeologists. When I went in 1989, I took pictures of the ruins that were exposed at the time. By the time I returned in 1998, many of the areas that had been buried, had since been excavated revealing pieces of a puzzle to the past. As we returned home and compared some of the photos, you could see that these reconstructed structures had been uncovered over the past 9 years.Bethlehem/En Gedi/Qum'ron/Masada

The Dead Sea and the areas around it offer some great variety and points of interest. We spent multiple days at the Dead Sea to get as much in as we could.

First you go to the “town” and I use the term very loosely (small region with nebulous borders is more like it) of Qum’ron. This is the hilled area where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in eleven different caves between 1947 and 1956. They were found in clay pots and spared from the elements by the arid environment surrounding it. The next area of significance was Masada. This is a 1300 ft. plateau where the Jews made their last stand against the Romans. You can either hike up the snake path to the top or you can enjoy the modern convenience of the cable car. The car is pretty pricey, so with the students I made the hike, but took the car the second time up. The view is pretty great, sadly, the only thing to see is dirt. There is a lot of good history on this site including the mass suicide of 960 zealots when surrender to the Romans was inevitable. In June the temperature on top of Masada topped 107 degrees making it the perfect time to relax at En Gedi. This is a kibbutz that oversees a nature preserve and an entrance to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is not like an ocean where you can just walk onto any beach and go in if you choose. The shores have become salt beaches and you need to use a jetty or some other gradual entrance path. En Gedi offers the jetty, a washing shower to remove the slippery salt from your skin, and some level of supervision. The Dead Sea is so concentrated with salt that no life can survive in its water, not even algae. The solution has killed off (or prevented growth) around its entire perimeter. I personally chose not to bathe in the sea, but El did with many others in the group. The idea is to wade slowly into the water and gently sit down and the salinity will allow the body to float in the sitting position.

Supposedly theraputic, but I can neither confirm nor deny. I did collect a sample of water from the sea and still have it in a bottle on my shelf. Over the years some of the salt has crystallized into blocks on the bottom of the bottle. The last major site we visited in the region was the city of Bethlehem- the site of the Church of the Nativity that has a lower altar that is supposedly the birthplace of Jesus. Bethlehem is a Palestinian township about 6mi. from Jerusalem. In 1989 the group arrived at the church to view the mosaic floor and to go below to visit the shrine marking the area of the manger. As we entered the church we noticed some sort of celebration/service taking place at the front of the sizable basilica. As we were getting our lecture in hushed tones, a bystander discreetly approached our tour guide and told her that our group should probably leave the premises, but offered no further commentary. Without any explanation the group decided to finish up the view of the mosaic floor and press on not heeding the words of the unidentified bystander. As we moved towards the crowd, one thing became clear: we had to pass through the celebration to get access to the lower level grotto. Just then a more official person from the church appeared and corralled our tour leaders and explained that the “celebration” was actually a funeral service for a young Palestinian boy who had been killed by the Israeli military and the expectation was that the group of mourners were expected to rile themselves into a frenzy and take to the streets. At this point our Jewish tour guide realized that she herself could be in danger and made the decision to forego the lower altar and head back to the bus. As we retreated in a timely fashion stepping back outside the church, we could see several rooftops with military personnel like S.W.A.T. teams on them. The bus wasted no time getting out of there and we were down the road before we knew it.

Mount of Olives/Jerusalem

On both trips the major attraction was the city of Jerusalem as a whole.

We spent multiple nights there including non-traveling days. This city is the epitome of living history. The first day we toured around the outskirts of the city which is fairly modern compared to the Old City and saw places like Mount of Olives and the Shrine of the Book which is the current home to the Dead Sea scrolls. When the scrolls were originally discovered they were in clay pots with lids that were shaped kind of like a Hershey's Kiss. Today, the museum is signified by the jar lid replica on its roof. Another stop was Yad Vashem which is the memorial to those who perished in the holocaust- a place that you walk in somber and leave drained. There aren’t many words to describe the experience. When I looked at the picture to the right with its plaque dedicated to the children that perished in the holocaust, I was reminded of one of the most powerful images I have ever witnessed. What was located inside the museum itself, near the exit if I recall, was a pile of shoes. Just children's shoes. Thousands of them. All styles, but all small. It made for quite an exit. The second day was touring inside the walls of the old city of Jerusalem and the third day was a free day to wander through the city and shop etc. I recall on one of our nights off we went to the movies to see Back To The Future II (in 1989). It was presented undubbed, but with 3 levels of subtitles in Hebrew, Arabic and French. It was interesting to experience watching a film where the punchline would occur, we would laugh and several seconds later the rest of the audience would laugh as the subtitle caught up to the action. In 1998, El and I took advantage of the night off to enjoy a fine dining experience. I have no idea where we ate, but fondly remember the entree of duck with cherry sauce.

We spent most of our down time strolling the Old City and window shopping (or open curtain shopping as it were). I have never been very good at the art of haggling and this country (this city in particular) was very difficult for me to operate in. I think that food vendors had the only set prices. Everything else had to be bargained for. The merchants are good at what they do, and I am poor at what I do…a bad combination when trying to hold on to your sheqels (Israeli money). In fact, one of the stories I like to tell was on our day off I was walking around the city with some of the other students in the group. One young woman had been speaking during the trip of wanting to get some sort of gown. I am not sure if it was specific material or the style, but that part is not important. She made a point to stop into every shop that might have what she was after until she finally found the exact item she was looking for. As she haggled with the vendor and worked out the details of the transaction a second merchant from a nearby stall trying to drum up a little business for himself wandered over and tried to entice her to leave this shop and come to see his offerings. A subtle discussion began between the two shop owners out in the open for everyone hear, but in Arabic, so they feel no shame. However, unbeknownst to either gentleman, their customer was fluent in Arabic and understood clearly as the shop owner detailed his intention to grossly overcharge her by misrepresenting the quality of his goods. Before anyone knew it she had called him out and dressed him down in front of everyone within earshot. Her voice got really loud and a scene was created. As all jaws were picked up off of the floor, we all retreated hastily and got filled in with details once she regained composure. It was one of the funniest, bravest and impressive displays of customer dissatisfaction I had ever witnessed. In general though, I loved the city itself though. I loved wandering through the tight streets (although there are no cars and most “streets” are a series of steps and ramps). It was just a series of booth type shops offering everything from food to clothes to souvenirs. Two of the landmarks inside the walls of Jerusalem that left a lasting impression on me were the Western Wall

and the Dome of the Rock. Having heard about the (Wailing Wall) all my life, it is makes for a significant moment when you turn a corner and there it is in front of you. After spending some time at the wall, for me mostly observing (although I did go to get a close-up look at it) we then headed up to the upper portion of the temple mount to the Dome of the Rock. Probably the most beautiful building I have ever seen (I expect the Taj Mahal may rival it, but I haven’t been there yet) with the amazing tile work again, the bright colors it is just gorgeous on all levels. One thing that I thought was a little hypocritical was the no photograph edict, which I respect, however the array of postcards in the gift shop that featured scenes from the interior of the mosque lead me to think that maybe the reason for the ban was motivated by capitalism rather than religious respect. While I am on the subject of hypocrisy, I was thoroughly shocked by the existence of what are called Sabbath elevators. Now, Jewish law has more rules and regulations than I can get my head around…and I am fine with that. But, being that one of the Sabbath rules prohibits the completion of a circuit, it is forbidden for a Jew to get into an elevator and push the button for the desired floor. Therefore, in an effort to “get around” this rule all of the elevators are set to stop and open on every floor on the way up and down in a building. So, to summarize, instead of taking the stairs and choosing not to take the elevator, the elevators are rigged to avoid pushing the button, inconveniencing everyone else. We also heard about laws prohibiting the spending of money and how the faithful would go and pre-pay for services on Friday, so the family could enjoy the benefits of having spent money without actually exchanging money. Again, I have no issue with someone doing this in their life, but when others are inconvenienced by hypocrisy, I have to add it to the list of why some religions’ practices make me scratch my head.

On our last day in Jerusalem, El and I found a café that catered to the university (more liberal) crowd. On the menu we actually found bacon. Now I am not such a ravenous carnivore that I cannot survive without meat, or specifically pork, but I opted for a side order of bacon. Shortly afterwards we were on our way to the airport and heading back to NYC. Long story short, I contracted food poisoning at that last meal that required medical intervention to get through. Maybe they're on to something with that no pork edict. Serves me right, I guess!