Pink horizon peace
Pale half-moon lights graying sky
I await new day
Pink horizon peace
Early morning moon
Shining lantern in the sky
Foretells sunny day
Our journey was almost over. After our night at the kibbutz we drove on to Capernaum where Peter the Disciple’s mother-in-law had lived. The place was remembered as the site where Jesus healed her of a fever. There wasn’t much to see. Our group wandered around the cool, tree-shaded area and talked among ourselves. Several women standing near me started discussing their concern that Christians had taken over the Star of David, sacred to Jewish faith, to use as a Christmas ornament to trim the top of Christmas trees. One of the women turned to me and asked if I had a Star of David on my Christmas tree. I replied that on top of my tree I placed a brown wooden angel wearing a red felt dress trimmed in green and gold rick-rack. We all had a good laugh together.
We arrived in Tel Aviv to spend a little time before we flew back home. The name Tel Aviv
translates “Hill of Springtime”. Sixty-five years before my journey the first houses were built there in the spring. The city is mostly modern. We stayed in the Shalom Tower Hotel, a skyscraper built on top of a gymnasium. The hotel had a swimming pool on the roof which we loved. I discovered my favorite Israeli street food, falafel – like hotdogs in America. From the roof of our hotel we could catch a glimpse of the Mediterranean. We couldn’t resist going to the beach for a swim. Once we got there we found out why nobody talks about taking a Mediterranean vacation in Israel. There were globs of tar on the sand and in the water that were a result of the cargo ships in the area.
We left Bethlehem behind and drove toward Mt. Hermon and the Golan Heights. Occasionally a Phantom Jet flew overhead. And we saw flatbed trucks hauling rusted tanks away from the battle site of the Yom Kippur War. The road took us near the Sea Of Galilee, now called Lake Tiberius, where warm mineral springs offer relief to people with arthritis near places where Jesus healed the sick.
Our destination was the Banias Spring, the origin of a tributary of the Jordan River. There is a shrine at the spring inscribed to the Greek God Pan. I thought again of the long reach of history in this land. The spring flows from underground and begins its journey to join the Jordan river. Snow from Mt. Hermon melts into the stream. We sat beside the spring, took off our shoes and felt the pure cold water.
That night our lodging would be at Ayelet HaShahar, a Kibbutz in the Hula Valley. We met with the people and heard their story of the origin of the kibbutz. It was built around 1900 in the days of the Turks. It was the first real commune in Israel. Originally no one had personal possessions. There was a common laundry where they took their clothes to be washed with no expectation of getting the same garments in return. The children lived all together in a separate house, cared for by the community. Work to support the kibbutz was shared by everyone, even by the children. It was not a religious community. At the time we visited things were more individualized. People were allowed to work outside of the kibbutz and there was a vacation bonus for families. The meals continued to be communal. We shared their evening meal with them. We ate blintz which were long a favorite of mine. I discovered for the first time how much I like borsch and gefilte fish.
The land where Bethlehem sits has been occupied continually for five-thousand years. It was already old when Jesus was born there. The Church of the Nativity was one of the more unusual churches we saw. The Grotto believed to be the site of Jesus’ birth is found deep inside a Basilica whose entrance was a low, narrow door called the Gate of Humility, which was “originally created to keep out the Infidel horsemen”.( I’m not sure I remember this last part correctly.) Layers of history are encompassed in one small space. In Israel history is everywhere. And rocks. If only the rocks could tell their stories.
We traveled on to our next stop at a “factory” where souvenirs for tourists were carved by jigsaw. The raw material used was the wood of the olive trees that grew in abundance in Israel. There was another tour group visiting the factory so our bus parked outside for us to wait. The building was situated on a grassy spot in a farming area near Afula in the Jezreel Valley. And near our bus grew a grapefruit tree. My husband knew I loved grapefruit. He left the bus to pick one for me. The grapefruit was warm from the sun and easy to peel like an orange. The taste, sweet and tangy, was unlike grapefruit I bought in U.S. grocery stores. The juice was sublime. Nothing else I ate in Israel could compare with my sun-warmed, fresh-picked grapefruit.
Watching the jigsaw cut multiples of olive wood objects was fascinating. They were still making wooden covers for Bibles like the one my cousin brought me when she was in Israel years before. I have kept it in the drawer of a table that sat by my reading chair in the three places I’ve lived the past fifty years. At the factory I bought three camel figures carrying baskets across their hump to take home as souvenirs for my three sons. While I was writing this post I thought of the camels. I remembered that after my sons left home the camels had remained with me. I hunted around and found them in a red shoe box with a black lid labeled “Family Treasures”. Now they are on the window ledge of my writing room, another reminder of my journey to Israel.
At the start of our daily bus rides our tour guide told us about sites we would visit that were recorded in Hebrew and Christian biblical texts which are part of the history of Israel. He emphasized that the sites were “taken on faith and tradition”. The site may or may not have been the actual spot where something took place. Not many are archaeologically documented as fact. However, since ancient times sites believed to be holy to the Jews, Muslims and Christians who pray to one God have been sanctified and remembered.
A story I once read, whose author I don’t remember, told of a holy spot in the woods where people gathered for worship and to say special prayers. After generations the people forgot where the place was but still remembered the prayers. More generations passed and they had forgotten the place and the special prayers. Finally all they remembered was one word and it was enough.
In Jerusalem the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located on the Hill of Golgotha, where it is written that Jesus was crucified and his tomb is located. The Church is shared by Greek Orthodox Catholics, and Coptic (Egyptian), Roman, Armenian, Syrian, and Abyssinian Catholics. There are no services for Christian Protestants because, I imagine, they were latecomers on the scene. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was consecrated in 335 CE. It was nothing I could have expected from my Sunday School lessons. The land of Israel is located where designs and architecture were influenced by Middle Eastern cultures going back millennia. I put aside my literal interpretations and felt the wonder of inhabiting a holy space mystical to me.
The Dome of the Rock, near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is holy to Islam and Jews. A Mosque was constructed in 691 CE over a great stone, named the Foundation Stone, believed to be the place where Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son Isaac. It was written in the Koran that Mohammed ascended to heaven from the stone after his “miraculous night journey” from Mecca. His horse flew him to Jerusalem and landed on the Foundation Stone. The Dome of the Rock and Church of the Holy Sepulchre stand together on the Temple Mount.
The first thing I saw at the Dome of the Rock was a large fountain spilling water into a trough ringing its base where Muslims were washing their feet before entering the Mosque. We took off our shoes as we entered the Mosque before stepping onto the magnificent Oriental carpet that covered the floor of the room where people knelt in worship. We were led to a space behind the large room into a smaller room where there was a low oval wall covered with wood. Our guide told us the story of Mohammed’s miraculous night flight and directed us, one by one, to place our hands in an opening in the wood and feel the rock below for the impression of the hoof of Mohammed’s horse where he landed after the flight from Mecca. I imagined the touch of the multitude of pilgrims who had been there before me.
We arrived in Jerusalem on a Friday to spend the Sabbath weekend. The Jewish people were celebrating the anniversary of their Independence from Great Britain, which took place May 14, 1948. The streets were filled with people. Many were members of the Israeli Army in uniform, still deployed near the Golan Heights after the Yom Kippur war the previous October. In Israel all young people, men and women, most of them Sabras, were conscripted to military service. At sundown the festivities in the street stopped and people went in search of a place to begin Shabbat. Only previously cooked food was allowed. Tourists usually made reservations for their evening meal. We were unaware of the custom and were fortunate to find a restaurant with space for us. The city became quiet, there was no traffic in the streets. No use of electricity was allowed. There would be no food available in restaurants until sundown on Saturday and then only after the stoves and ovens had been turned on just after the sun went down. Breakfast at our hotel Saturday morning was mostly hard-boiled eggs cooked Friday afternoon, fresh tomatoes, and bread. We carefully stuffed food in our pockets to save for our lunch. We welcomed Sunday morning when we would resume our tour of Jerusalem.
I will never forget Yad Vashem, Memorial to the Six Million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. The Memorial was designed to represent a tomb with its low ceilings and windowless rooms. A sense of oppression filled me as I entered the memorial. The names of the concentration camps were written on the floor. Collections of eye glasses and shoes and human hair were searing testimony to people who once lived ordinary lives. Photos of families and children were the saddest part of the collection. There was silence as people struggled with their emotions and memories, and disbelief at how the holocaust could have happened.
From Jericho the road to Jerusalem runs upward. As the road rises into the hills everything is cooler and greener, and rocky. I’m using the present tense because I sense from ancient days unto the present many people for many reasons have been making this journey. I’m glad I did not keep a journal to use years later as a guide for writing the stories of my trip in 1974. Writing from scraps of memory leaves space for me to encounter mists of new ideas and understanding that have arisen inside me since I first went to Jerusalem. I think of Jericho and its many layers. When I first visited Israel I pictured the places and people I knew from the Bible. I couldn’t imagine that I would find present-day people and cities. It was like going to a strange planet where I formed an unexpected kinship. Over the years I have read much about Israel, mostly novels because I learn history best through stories. The story of Israel reaches far out into the modern world. Writing my own stories reveals roots connecting me to Israel.
After our morning at Masada we climbed back on the bus and headed to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is 1,295 ft. below sea level, the lowest point on earth. And you can not sink in its salty water. I put on my bathing suit and waded in until the water was neck-deep hoping to wash the dust of Masada off. I let my feet rise and floated effortlessly. It was lovely. I came out of the water minus some of the dust but with my body covered in salt. After a quick shower I was ready to move on.
Our next stop was Jericho, located in the Judean wilderness. Some say it is 10,000 years old, the oldest city on earth. The old city and its walls which “came tumbling down” have been excavated. A fact of archaeology is that ancient places have many layers of soil deposited above them and to see very old cities you have to look down. It was like looking down a deep well and imagining a once-inhabited ghost city at the bottom.
I am seeing my journey to Israel with new eyes. I’m looking backward and finding fresh perspectives on a trip I took forty-three years ago. I did not keep a daily journal and no longer have the photo slides my husband took of our trip. After I returned from Israel I put together a slide show for my church. On two-and-a-half pages of narrow-ruled yellow legal pad paper I wrote (in long-hand) a commentary for the slide show. I have these pages before me now. The words are my guide for the stories I’m writing for my blog. The more I write the more I remember. I can visualize sights I haven’t thought about in years. I’ve forgotten some dates and facts about Israel but that is what Google is for. So much has changed for me and for Israel but words retain their power to stir my imagination and communicate.
Originally Masada was the location of the Summer Palace of the Jewish King Herod, built around 35 BCE. It stood on a rocky plateau 1,300 ft.above the level of the Dead Sea. In 70 CE in the aftermath of the Roman’s razing and burning the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish Zealots fled and fortified themselves and their families in Herod’s Summer Palace. In retaliation the Roman Army began their siege of Masada by building an earthen ramp to extend to the Palace fortress. After three years when the ramp was nearing completion the Jews, numbering three hundred and sixty, committed suicide rather than be killed or taken prisoner by the Romans. Two women and three children hid and survived. They told the story to Josephus the Roman historian.
Masada was excavated by archaeologists in 1963-1965. The first tourists to see Masada followed a serpentine path to climb up to the site. In 1971 a cable car was installed. We had the good fortune in 1974 to ride the cable car to the rocky, dusty top of the plateau to visit Masada. The plateau was quite large. A low wall close to the plateau’s edge surrounded the area. Looking over it we could see the Roman ramp reaching to the wall. I imagined the Jews watching the daily progress of the Roman builders knowing there was no escaping their eventual death or capture. I was horrified to imagine the desperation that led to mass suicide. I felt the fear and relief of the two women and their five children who remained. I gave thanks for the historian Josephus for writing down the story of Masada, his gift to succeeding generations. I thanked the modern-day archaeologists who excavated the ruins so I could stand on the plateau and remember Masada.
Writing today, in 2017, I grieve for the recent destruction of ancient cultural and religious sites and artifacts that have borne testimony to civilizations through the ages.