What to Pack for Israel?

My good friend Wilma visited me in Israel recently and one of the first questions she asked as we emailed back and forth as she was preparing for the journey was “What do I pack?”

I told her not to worry and to wait until a week or so before the trip to see what the weather forecast will be and then we’d talk. It was only later, on our many conversations as we traveled around the country, that it dawned on me that for those who have never been to Israel,  “What do I pack?” means much more than questions about a warm sweater or a pair of shorts.

“You should write a blog post about that” Wilma said, “Tell everyone what to pack!”.

Ok, she is right. So from the more general to the more specific, from the climate and the weather to the different religious sites’ attire requirements, and about the security, here goes:

  • We in Israel have what is called a Mediterranean climate, very similar to California’s Central and Southern coasts. We have four seasons: Spring (March- May) is warm and sometimes a little rainy in March/April, Summer (June – August) is HOT and dry, Fall (September – November) is warm with cooler nights and hopefully some rain towards October/November, and Winter (December – February) is cold and hopefully rainy. You may have noticed, we WANT rain. We pray for rain in these parts of the world. So if its raining, HALLELUJAH!
  • That being said, we do have several micro-climates in tiny Israel and they vary in temperature and precipitation.
    • The coast (Tel Aviv, Haifa, Akko, etc) is very humid and usually warmer than other parts of the country, hot in the summer and mild in the winters.
    • The Sea of Galilee area (Tiberias, the Christian sites around the Sea of Galilee) are 200 meters (600 ft) below sea level, creating what is called a tropical climate. Its always hotter there than most other places in Israel, making it wonderful in the winter but at times oppressively hot in the summer.
    • The Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights are high in altitude, therefore in the summer the weather is very warm and in the winter is quite cold with an occasional snow. It snows every winter on the northern part of the Golan Heights and respectable accumulations of up to a meter (3 feet) are common.
    • The Judean Desert (Masada, Dead Sea) is about 400 meter (1200 feet) below sea level and is the hottest place in Israel. The winters are mild (making is totally fine to bathe in and float on the Dead Sea) but in the summer the temperatures can easily reach over 40 degrees Celsius (+110 F). But, as they say in Phoenix, AZ, “It’s a dry heat.” 🙂
    • The Negev Desert is a wonderful place to to visit, especially in the spring and fall when the temperatures are warm and the nights are cool. The summers are HOT and the winters are actually cold, especially at night.
    • Eilat is a seaside resort city on the southern tip of Israel, on the Red Sea coast. It has temperate weather in the winter and is hot in the summer.
    • And Jerusalem. Many tourists do not realize that Jerusalem (and Bethlehem) are located in the Judean Mountains. Therefore, in the summer its not as hot as the coast but still pretty warm, certainly not humid, and the winters are cold. Yes, there is an occasional snowdrift in Jerusalem, but it usually doesn’t stay for long.
  • What is the main reason tourists end up in the hospital in Israel?? Dehydration! If you have a favorite water bottle, by all means bring it. A good tour guide will be a real nudge about drinking water, and plenty of it. As I tell my tourists: When I was in Tour Guide School years ago, we frantically took notes on all subjects and were freaking out because we had no idea how we would remember all those facts and figures. Our course coordinator told us that for the facts and figures we could always consult Rabbi Google, but the MOST important thing we needed to memorize was the answer to “Where are the bathrooms?” and let me tell you, she was RIGHT. So please drink lots of water. We know where the bathrooms are!
  • Oh, and bring a hat. Don’t worry about your hair-do, its more important to protect your head than to end up in the hospital from sunstroke.
hat

Always wear a hat! And wicking fabric travel clothes are awesome

  • And speaking of hospitals, always, but always get yourself Travel Health Insurance. Cause you never know.
  • What else should you do before you travel? Let your bank/credit card company know you’re traveling. You don’t want them to block your card because they suspect someone stole it and is using it in Israel.
  • And what about cash? Don’t worry about it. There are many ATMs all over the country so I recommend bringing your debit card or whatever card you can use to pull out cash from an ATM. And for goodness sake, if you have to pay a $3 fee for pulling out a few hundred dollars, just do it. Its so much easier to pay the fee than to waste time looking for a better place or a better deal. There are also many Change places, where they will exchange dollars/euros for the local currency.
  • Oh, and from years of experience, the most convenient thing to do is to exchange just a couple hundred dollars (or pull out of the ATM) at the airport when you arrive. Saves you stress the next day and you’ll be ready to hit the markets with some cash in your pockets.
  • Just so you know, and this is very important. Dress in Israel is very casual. And that means that people go to business meetings or even the synagogue in shorts and sandals when its warm, suits and ties are NOT easily found, and attire for the best restaurants in the country is leisurely. Absolutely no need to overdress or be fancy.
  • And now, what about appropriate attire for religious places? So here is the lowdown.
    • Women: As long as your shoulders are covered (short sleeve is just fine), your neckline is not low and you wear something below your knees, you are good to enter all Jewish and Christian religious sites. No, you don’t need a long skirt (I don’t even own one!) or to cover your head with a shawl. As long as your pants/skirt are below the knees, you’re fine.
    • Men: As long as your shoulders are covered (short sleeve is just fine) and your pants go below your knees, you are good to enter all Jewish and Christian religious sites. When you enter a church, you’ll need to remove your hat. When you approach the Western Wall, as per Jewish custom, you’ll need to cover your head. A baseball cap or hat works well or you can pick up a disposable ‘kippah’ head covering in the bin at the entrance and keep it as a souvenir 🙂
kotel attire

Short sleeves and pants are perfectly appropriate at the Western Wall. Whether you cover your head or not is completely up to you.

  • HOWEVER, there are two exceptions to the above rules. If you will be visiting the Temple Mount (Dome of the Rock/Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem), then if you are a woman, you will need to wear long sleeves and long pants, not tights, or skirt. Also, if you will be walking around Mea Shearim or any other Ultra Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, then long sleeves and covering your legs with long pants or skirt are appropriate. Check your itinerary.
  • When coming to Israel, don’t forget your swim suit! You have flown all the way to Israel so you better dip in the miraculous waters of the lowest place on Earth. Seriously. Don’t even think about not trying it out. Its a UNIQUE experience. And also don’t miss swimming in the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee and the Red Sea. Oh, and bring flip-flops or water shoes as well, as the salt crystals on the shore of the Dead Sea can be sharp and pokey and uncomfortable to walk on as you enter the water.
  • Speaking of water shoes, if you’ll be entering Hezekiah’s Tunnel in the City of David (and you totally should, its amazing!) bring water shoes or sandals as you’ll be walking in ankle deep water, in complete darkness for about 20 minutes. If you don’t bring the shoes with you, you can conveniently purchase them at the store.
  • So in summary about clothes. Dress in layers if in the spring or fall and wicking fabric travel clothes are magnificent.
  • And finally, what about the security? You will be surprised at the level of comfort and relaxed atmosphere here in Israel. Many tourists are wary and hesitant about traveling to Israel because other people, upon hearing of their travel plans have probably commented “What? Are you crazy? Its so dangerous!”. Well, its not. And the only way for you to believe me it is to see for yourself. So c’mon over. You’ll love it.

That about covers it. What else should you pack? Lots of patience because drivers in Israel can be a bit crazy, a good sense of humor and a positive attitude because that’s just the way you should always live, and great questions for your tour guide because this place is very, but very complicated.

If you have any other questions about what to pack, please do let me know.

See you in Israel!

The Circuitous Journey of An Extraordinary American Family

Boy, do I love it when seemingly unrelated events come together and fit into the puzzle that is my life. And, when they do, it gives me goosebumps and I re-think my stance on a Higher Power.

For those who do not know of my previous life in California, I lived in Salinas for eight years. Capital of Monterey County, Salinas is the largest city in the Salinas Valley, home of wonderful, hard-working people (especially teachers) and lots of lettuce and strawberries. I loved living and teaching there and one of my favorite things was teaching about homeboy Noble Prize winning author John Steinbeck, who was born and raised on Center Street in downtown Salinas. As part of my 4th grade curriculum, my students read some of Steinbeck’s stories and visited his home. We also headed out to the Monterey Bay and followed his adventures on Cannery Row.

So imagine my surprise, when as part of my Israel Studies Master’s Program at Haifa University here in Israel, I learned that John Steinbeck had some interesting Israel family connections!

Turns out that John Steinbeck’s great grandfather moved his family from Massachusetts to the Holy Land around 1850, settled in Jerusalem, then on a farm near Jaffa. At the same time, and following the same deep religious beliefs about the return of Jesus Christ, Steinbeck’s paternal grandfather left Germany for that same Holy Land, settled on that same small farm outside of Jaffa, met the Massachusetts fella’s daughter, married her, and the rest is history. However, somewhere in that family saga is a terrible tragedy of violence, murder and rape, international scandal and the intervention of the United States and Turkish governments, the rebuilding of lives and changing of names, the American Civil War, disguise as a dead man, a farm in Hollister, the Hamiltons of King City and voila… John E. Steinbeck III is born in Salinas in 1902.

It is a fascinating story and you can read it here by clicking The Circuitous Journey of an Extraordinary American Family

BUT WAIT!!! There is MORE!!! Once you’ve read the above research paper, you may remember that Johann Grossteinbeck, John’s grandfather, was a carpenter and joiner (a skill necessary to seamlessly join pieces together to make beautiful wood carvings).

Well, as I was researching for the above paper, my good friend Baruch Velleman called. He told me that he had begun working at the Kibbutz Gennosar souvenir shop and was selling his friend Lenny’s antique coins and carved wood pieces.

Baruch had previously told me the story of how Lenny Wolfe, one of Israel’s foremost ancient coins and antiquities dealers, had come by a cache of 19th century olive-wood carved pieces and was now ready to sell them.

“You know, the olive-wood pieces I told you about” he said, “The ones that are 150 years old from Christ Church in Jerusalem”.

Suddenly, the hairs on the back of my hand stood up.

I called Lenny.

I told him about Johann Grossteinbeck. I told him about my research. I asked him, “Could it be? Could it really be that one of those pieces may have been carved by John Steinbeck’s grandfather?”

Olive-wood paperweight and sewing kit

Olive-wood paperweight and sewing kit (c.1850-1920)

Olive-wood candlesticks and letter opener

Olive-wood candlesticks and letter opener (c.1850-1920)

And the truth is, that Lenny knows these pieces were made starting in 1850 by skilled woodworkers at the carpentry shop at Chris Church in Jerusalem, but that is where the certainty ends.

Several of the pieces have the stamp of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews (abbreviated to London’s Jews Society or LJS), but the actual woodcarvers’ initials or signatures are not present. In 1849, the LSJ helped found Christ Church, the oldest Protestant Church in the Middle East.

Olive-wood Flowers of Palestine book (it still has the dried, pressed flowers in it)

Book of dried flowers and photographs (covers made from olive-wood) with Bethlehem on front; House of Industry, Christchurch, Jaffa Gate (1850 – 1920)

It is quite tantalizing to think that Johann Grossteinbeck could have carved some of these 19th century olive-wood pieces. And that years and years ago, some unknown buyer bought these pieces at the Christ Church wood shop and took them back to England. And that Lenny Wolfe found them in England and purchased them. And that my friend Baruch helped Lenny bring the pieces from England to Israel. And that Baruch called me and told me about his exciting new job, just as I was researching the Steinbeck family’s connection to Israel. How cool is that!

This is certainly The Circuitous Journey of an Extraordinary American Family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making my Mom proud

My mother died two weeks ago. August 12th. In California. Just like that. In her sleep. Shock for all of us. And although she moved away almost 50 years ago, she had a deep love of Israel and wanted to be buried here.  So my Dad, my brother and sister and I immediately went into crisis mode: calls to Hevra Kadisha (Jewish organization which prepares the bodies of the deceased for a Jewish burial) who thank G-d knew exactly what had to be done, calls to cemetery guy in Israel, notifying family and friends, planning a funeral that she would have liked, buying airline tickets for my Dad, brother and sister to fly over from California, waiting for her body to arrive on El Al Airlines, and putting her in the ground to rest.

Tel Aviv hotel view

My mother looking over the Tel Aviv coastline, enjoying every moment of her visit to Israel

Then we sat shiva (period of 7 days of mourning) at my home in Hannaton where we were fed and enveloped by the love and support of my amazing community.

Suddenly, way too quickly, it was all over, and they left. I felt so alone. But life has to go on.

Reeling from it all, I have been thinking of ways to memorialize, to remember, to honor my Mom, to make her proud. How do I do that… I’ve been gathering ideas, thoughts, little by little. It makes me feel better to think of ways to remember her.

At breakfast this morning, I came upon an article by Kelly Hartog in the Jewish Journal, Israel Helps Yazidi Women Heal from Trauma. Fascinating stuff, about the efforts of a group of Israeli doctors and psychologists to help heal the traumatized Kurdish Yazidi women who underwent several years of torture, imprisonment and rape by their ISIS captors. Here are some excerpts:

Speaking with (Marylene) Cloitre in Northern California, she explained how she had never been to Israel. After completing her latest project with the WHO, she was trying to figure out what to do next.

“I thought, what I’d really like to do next is go to Israel. It’s a country that has experienced so much trauma and has persevered, it just felt like I should know more,” she said. A week later, she received an email from Hoffman asking her to come to teach the Yazidi women at Bar-Ilan. “It didn’t take me long to say ‘yes,’ ” Cloitre said. 

“I work with women. I recalled the attacks on the Yazidi women and I was really shocked by how little the U.S. did and I felt very bad about it. Those things were on my mind when I got the email from Yaakov.”

I said to myself “Yeah, people really need to come to Israel and check us out. We do some amazing work here” and then I thought of my Mom. She would have loved this connection of good things Israeli is doing, with a woman doctor at Stanford University in Palo Alto (where she lived for so many years).

And…

One of the most intriguing decisions made by Zivotofsky was to take the women to Israel’s Holocaust memorial — Yad Vashem. Hoffman said he thought Zivotofsky was crazy. “I thought he’d fallen on his head,” he said, laughing. “I said to him, ‘What do they need to see Yad Vashem for?’ But then I realized it was the most amazing thing, because first of all, it validated them. They saw they’re not the only ones who have suffered. And the way Yad Vashem is documented and archived, they were in total awe of how you can rebuild and get hope and can resume life afterward.”

That, said Hoffman, became the program’s mantra: “Visiting Yad Vashem wasn’t just an extracurricular activity. It tied into the whole theme of empowerment, rebuilding; of post-traumatic growth, which is something we were trying to imbue.”

The visit, Zivotofsky added, helped the women look up to Israel and the Jewish people. “We are a people who have been where they have been, just 75 years ago. They wanted to understand how we have commemorated our Holocaust and they wanted to understand how we have built ourselves up.”

Oh yes, my mother would have loved this project. The trauma she and her immediate family suffered as they managed to survive the Holocaust in work camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan shaped her life story. This would have made her very proud!

So, in honor of my mother, Pola Harrel, may her memory be a blessing, I encourage you to read this article (long but totally worth it) and do good in this world. Oh, and come and visit Israel.

I love you, Mom.

Click the link below for the article

Israel Helps Yazidi Women Heal from ISIS Trauma

 

Shalva and Justice

There is a new craze in Israel these days. The Eurovision Song Contest, which Israel has won three times already, (the latest being last year with Neta Barzilai’s amazing rendition of ‘Toy”) is coming to Israel this May! Yes, and Israelis are beside themselves with excitement. It will be held in Tel Aviv and its probably too late to try to find any hotel space (I hear airbnb apartments are sold out as well) but I digress…

What is really gripping the Israeli public is who is going to represent Israel in this year’s Eurovision. And its a nail biter and a tearjerker, because the crowd favorite is a band. A special band. A band made up of eight special needs young adults, three visually impaired, two with Down’s Syndrome, one with Williams Syndrome, one with autism and their musical director, who himself suffered a debilitating injury during his military service.

The Shalva Band blossomed out  of the musical therapy program at Shalva (meaning ‘peace and calm in Hebrew), which is the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities. But enough with words.

Please watch the Shalva Band in their debut performance in front of a national audience. I dare you to keep a dry eye.

The band has been doing extremely well in the competition, moving forward and making it to the next rounds. As a matter of fact, the Shalva Band performed their first original song this past week and made it to the Quarter Finals!

The song, written by Annael (the lead vocalist), documents her journey with disability and acceptance. The song is called ‘I See Something Good Within You‘ and is about how she ‘looks’ in the mirror and sees something good, something close, something worth loving.

The possibility of this amazing band of special needs friends making it to the top and representing Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest is a worthwhile story in itself.

However, it is made more poignant because last week I attended the International Court for the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Tel Aviv. My daughter Tamar was selected to be among 70 talented and inspiring teens from all over Israel to help commemorate this anniversary by staging a mock trial. The highschoolers staged the trial of Ernst Rudin, a Nazi doctor, pioneer and head of the Racial Hygiene programs in the Third Reich. He was in charge of the forced, mass sterilization of over 400,000 Germans deemed inferior and undesirable and the killing of tens of thousands more. In one of his speeches he justified the euthanasia of children as “the value of eliminating young children of clearly inferior quality”.  He was known as a ‘racial fanatic’ and one of the leading advocates for the purity of the ‘German people’.

Ernst Rudin was arrested after the Holocaust and was supposed to stand trial as a war criminal at Nuremberg. However, his defense claim was that most of his knowledge about eugenics and the racial superiority of the Aryan Race he learned from the birthplace of race theory, the United States. This made the American lawyers and judges at Nuremberg quite uncomfortable and they did not wish to open a Pandora’s Box. So, he was chastised, got a slap on the wrist, fined 500 marks, and released. He died a free man in 1952.

The Israeli teenagers were divided into two groups; prosecutors and defense attorneys. Famous international judges were invited to preside over the trial, from Scotland, the United States, and Germany as well as two high ranking Israeli judges.  Witnesses were brought in from Austria and Germany. Rudin was played by an Israeli actor…

I was so very impressed with the teens as they advocated for or against this Nazi and his crimes. Their seriousness  and professionalism overwhelmed me and I could barely contain my pride and ‘naches’ (Yiddish for pleasure attained from seeing someone you love do something amazing).

The organizers and sponsors of the mock trial aim to package this idea and market it to other countries with the goal of creating an International Youth Parliament that will deal with matters important to the youth of today.

I was going to write about the trial, and Tamar, and how proud I am of her, and how fascinating it all was last week. But I hadn’t yet. I got busy with other things.

Until today, when my husband Yitzhak and I watched the video of the Shalva Band moving on to the Quarter Finals. He wiped tears from his eyes and said to me, “You know, Rudin would have killed them all.” As simple as that. The Nazis would have sterilized and euthanized them. Every one of them.

And now, I’m at a loss for words.

And I Cry…

I’ve been on the verge of tears all day. They flowed this morning, a bit more a few hours later. Now again at dinner with my husband. There’s a lump in my throat, just won’t go away. Its hard to swallow. I have to put thoughts to paper, so here goes:

He was stabbed yesterday, a knife thrust in his back, piercing organs, severing blood vessels. How does that feel? Ok, tears rolling again. How does it feel to have a knife cut through muscle and bone… Does it hurt much?

Because as he was stabbed he instinctively whirled around, pulled out his pistol, started chasing the stabber, jumped a ledge, barreled into a glass door as he stumbled from the pain, then fired his gun. He hit his assailant, injuring him and dropping him to the ground. Its all on the video. I’ve seen it several times. There are cameras everywhere here. We need them exactly because of this. So we know what happened.

I cry. Ari Fuld was only 45 years old. He died of massive bleeding at the hospital. He had a wife. He had four children that look so sweet in the photos in the newspapers. Four little ones that no longer have their Abba. The lump in my throat is for them. For his family. For him. He won’t see them grow up.

I cry for his murderer. Only 17 years old. Seventeen, for fuck’s sake. I have a seventeen year old child at home! What makes a seventeen old throw his life away like that? Oh, its the occupation. Yeah, the occupation.

I hate the occupation. But you know what? Its OUR LAND! I cry because the Jewish people have been living on this land for over 3,000 years and how DARE they say we don’t have roots and connection and the right to be here.

I cry because Ari Fuld loved this land as much as I love it. God, do I love this land. I cry because he refused to compromise and share… and I cry because I AM willing to compromise and share. But our LOVE is equal. Was the same love. I still love. He loved. He’s no longer is able to.

I cry for the murderer’s father, who insisted his son was not interested in politics, only in school. Did he watch the Hamas facebook page propaganda encouraging stabbers to kill Israelis?  Was he moved by Islamic Jihad videos calling for the murder of Jews? What pushes a seventeen year old to sneak a knife to a mall and stab a total stranger in the back. Oh, its the occupation.

I cry because Hamas and Islamic Jihad both praised the murder and called for more killings of my people.

I hate the occupation. How DARE we say they don’t have a right to this land? Muslims have been in these parts for over 1,300 years, empire after empire, in control, in charge, the bosses. Seriously, that’s a damn long time to completely disregard.

I cry for the murderer’s mother, who it appears approached some soldiers to report that her son was planning a terror attack. I cry for her. Had she come to them a bit sooner, maybe her son would not be laying on a hospital bed, headed to life in prison. He would have his life back. Alas. And if what she did is true, what courage she had to try to avert this attack. I cry for her.

I cry because those that claim the right to the land for over 3,000 years are COMPLETELY RIGHT! And those that claim the right to the land for over 1,300 years are COMPLETELY RIGHT! And what does one do? How can one side be right and the other side be right as well?? At the same time?!? That’s crazy.

I cry because a month ago Ari Fuld made a video trying to raise money for 10,000 neck coolers to donate to IDF soldiers who stand guard over our intersections and our bus stops and our checkpoints and our streets and it was so HOT they were melting out there. And he was doing his usual good deeds for our soldiers and it was a great thing. One of the many great things he did.

I cry because I love our soldiers so much. My dad was a soldier, I was a soldier many years ago, my older daughter was a soldier and my seventeen year old will be joining the IDF soon. Very soon. Will she need neck coolers in the hot summer days? Who will give her one? Ari is gone.

I cry because I SO MUCH DISAGREED with Ari’s politics! But that does not give anyone the right to murder him. Never! I cry because even though I did not personally know him, I have friends who knew him and I have facebook friends who knew him. My people are hurting right now and that makes me sad. Because as a people we have been hardened just a bit more. We’ve suffered another trauma, deepening our national Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We don’t get breaks between PTSD episodes. They’re constant.

I cry because the murderer’s family’s home will be destroyed soon. That’s the law. Their lives will be destroyed. They will suffer another trauma, deepening their national Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They don’t get breaks between PTSD episodes. They’re constant.

I cry because in one of the classes I’m taking for my Masters degree, we read the book Cataclysms by Dan Diner and are to write a paper about something that struck us in the book, and I chose to write about Diner’s explanation of the causes of the Armenian Genocide. You know, its not easy to research material about genocide. It wrings your heart, breaks it to pieces, over and over again. Mass killings and massacres previous to the 1915 Armenian Genocide: massacre of 500,000 Turkish speaking, Central Asian Khazak nomads by the Russians, deportations of Galician Jews, ethnic Germans, Baltic Jews, Greeks who lived too far in the interior, 1894 and 1896 massacres of thousands of Armenians, Greeks killing Muslim Turks, Turks killing Greeks, violent forced conversions of Muslim Bulgarians (Pomaks), Druze and Maronite massacres of each other in 1860, massacres of Cretans in 1866, Greek expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Muslims, revenge killings of Greeks… 1st Balkan War, 2nd Balkan War, Italo Turkish War, Russo Turkish War, Crimean War, Greko Turkish War. Oh my God. I can’t even count them anymore. How can I write this paper?

And you know what? I cried at dinner tonight because I know that if it were not for the amazingly strong Israeli Defense Forces, we the Jews in Israel would be a statistic just like those peoples I’m researching. Like what happened to us before there was an IDF. Before there was an Israel for us as a safe haven. There is NO DOUBT in my mind, that were it not for our strength and ability to defend ourselves, we would be another statistic, another genocide among many. We would be at the whim of those countries around us that would slash our throats or hit us with chemical weapons without blinking an eye. HAVE YOU HEARD WHAT HAPPENED TWO HOURS FROM MY HOME ACROSS THE SYRIAN BORDER??  Over 500,000 Syrians killed by Syrians. Thank God for the Israeli Defense Forces. And Ari loved our soldiers so. And I understand where he was coming from, because I love them too. And my seventeen year old will be a soldier soon. Tears flowing again…

And I cry because I hate the occupation. Because they have a right to a place of their own. Just like us. And we can live side by side in peace and security and work together to raise our children and prosper. But we don’t. We senselessly lose our loved ones. Both sides lose. Both sides hurt. Both sides are HARDENED every time there is violence, every time someone gets shot, someone gets killed, someone stabs, someone humiliates, someone loses their life.

And losing one life is equal to losing the whole world.

 

The Ancient Leopard Temple

I am fascinated with prehistoric archaeology and the Leopard Temple in the Uvda Valley, about an hour’s drive from Eilat, is one of my favorite sites. When I stand at this place, used by ancient peoples for 4,000 years (let me spell that out, four thousand years!) as a cultic sanctuary, from the Neolithic Age, (mid 6th millennium BCE) through the Chalcolitic to the Bronze Age, (mid 2nd millennium BCE), I can barely comprehend this time span of human spirituality. Wow. Just wow.

After an Israeli army tank on maneuvers in the Uvda Valley drove past some sand dunes and soldiers noticed strange formations on the ground, archaeologists excavated and cleaned the site in the early 1980’s. It consists of a courtyard, surrounded by a parallelogram-shaped, low, double wall, each side 12 meters long.

IMG_5152

Parallelogram-shaped courtyard, lined with stones

 

IMG_5153

One of the ancient altars, a pit lined with stones

In the courtyard were found four altars from different eras spanning 4,000 years, each one a shallow pit, dug into the ground and lined with stones. Using Carbon 14, the oldest carbonized remains were dated to about 7,500 years ago.  Do you get that? People like you and me were here, in the middle of nowhere, bringing and sacrificing offerings to their gods, starting seven thousand five hundred years ago. Who were these people? Who were their gods? What did worshippers ask for? Why here?

To the western side of the courtyard we find what archaeologists dub the “Holy of Holies”, a reference of course, to the most sacred chamber in the Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where monotheistic Jews believed rested the essence of God. The “Holy of Holies” at the Leopards Temple is an elongated, rectangular, stone-surrounded enclosure that contains exactly 17 upright, unhewn stones. Archaeologists believed these stones represented gods or venerated ancestors.

Upright stones? This reminds me of one of the our most important Biblical stories about Jacob, one of our forefathers. Jacob left Beersheva and set out for Haran and on the way camped for the night. He took a stone and used it as a pillow. He dreamed about a stairway reaching to the heavens, with angels going up and down. At the top he saw God, who reiterated the promise He made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, whereby his descendents would be numerous like the dust of the earth and will spread out far and wide, populating the land.

(Genesis 28:16-19) When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 

Jacob called the place where he erected an upright stone Beth El, the house (or place) of God.

IMG_5154

The ‘Holy of Holies’ made from uncut stones and in the center are 17 standing stones representing gods

The act of placing an upright stone on holy ground, at the place where God or the gods reside, does not begin in the Hebrew Bible. It is as ancient as the Neolithic era, when worshippers erected cultic sites with standing stones on both sides of the Jordan Rift Valley, on the Golan Heights, in the Syrian Horan and in Jordan. Later civilizations such as the Nabateans also venerating upright stones, and worship at the megalithic Kaaba stone in Mecca precedes Islam.

 

Unhewn stones? Isn’t that a Jewish thing? God required Moses to build him an altar, explicitly only with stones untouched by iron. He says to Moses:

And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your sword upon them you have profaned them. (Exodus 20:22)

God demands uncut stones because He knows weapons of war are made of iron. He wants no tool that is used for war to be used to build his altar, his Temple. Greg Salisbury, in his article Have You Got the Stones to Make Peace? in the Jewish Exponent (Sept 4th, 2015), writes:

The prohibition against using an iron tool to shape the stones runs like a thread through ancient Jewish history. While invading Canaan, Joshua built “an altar of unhewn stone upon which no iron had been wielded” (Joshua 8:31). When Solomon built the First Temple, “only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built” (1 Kings 6:7). When Judah Maccabee and his band of brothers liberated Jerusalem in 164 BCE, “they took unhewn [whole] stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one” (1 Maccabees 4:47).

So no, uncut stones go way back. What I find absolutely titillating is that these desert people who built this sanctuary and worshiped in it long ago, had much in common with our Biblical forefathers and their stories.

Lets get back to the Leopard sanctuary. To the east of the courtyard we find what gave this archaeological site its name, a series of 16 animal figures outlined in the sand with stones pressed into the ground. The row of 16 creatures is about 15 meters long and depicts female leopards (so identified because of their raised tails) and one headless antelope. Archaeologists believe this ancient religious art installation represents the story of life and death, predator and prey, the cycle of life. The leopards, probably also representing goddesses of fertility, are all facing eastwards, towards the rising sun (life, new day, new beginnings) and the antelope is facing west (sunset, death, finality).

 

IMG_5148

Female leopards representing fertility all face eastwards towards the rising sun

Sometime at the beginning of the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago, ancient people began to settle down in small groups, plant crops, domesticate animals. They needed as much help as they could get as life was difficult, especially around the Fertile Crescent where much of their success depended on the amount of annual rain, the seasons and the climate.  They began worshipping in some organized manner, first the Sun and Moon and stars, and then trees, mountains and what they perceived as powerful and wise animals. These gods were called upon to bless the crops, to provide rain and to keep away evil things.

On the small hill next to the Leopards Temple are the remains of circular grain threshing floors and a few structures used as living quarters. Historians believe that ancient farmers cultivated wheat and other grains here during the winter and used the water from flash floods to irrigate the crops. It is believed the farmers left after the harvest, only to return the next year for the next planting. Perhaps these farmers created the sanctuary to honor not only their gods but the powerful predators of the desert, the leopards. Were they asking them for divine help? For protection? For their blessing for a plentiful grain harvest? For ample rains in the high desert that would spill to the valley? Who were these people?

I love a good archaeological mystery.

 

The Day I Turned Five

It was 50 years ago today in 1967,  and we were living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.  Now, I don’t know if what I am about to tell you is exactly the way it happened, or if it is the mish-mash of stories I heard and photos and family films I have seen,  or if it is my inner child’s skewed memory of an event that shaped my life on the day I turned five.

We were part of a small community of Israeli families in this lovely East African nation that had just achieved its independence in 1963. My father had been sent there by the Israeli government as an Officer of the Israel Defense Forces and a fluent English speaking Electronics Engineer, and was put in charge of helping the nascent Tanzanian Police force design and manufacture their first transistor radios. He taught the Tanzanian police students engineering and electronics, and together they built these first locally made radios.

zvi with tanzanian police

My father,  Zvi Harrel (first row, second from the right )  with his class of graduates of the Tanzanian Police Academy

There were other Israeli families in Dar es Salaam at the time, each sent there to help the new African country with building infrastructure such as roads and construction projects, improving agricultural technology, business development, arms sales and my dad with his radios. Israel was desperately trying to make friends among newly independent nations and many Israeli specialists and advisers spent the 1960’s in Africa. Like us.

On the morning of my birthday, I eagerly waited for my friends to arrive at our home, excited about the presents I would receive and the fun time we would have playing in our sandbox and up in my tree house

As my friends started to arrive, the moms directed the kids towards the front yard and all the dads went inside. I clearly remember the inside that day, as my father had prepared it ‘for the party.’ From the Dar es Salaam police headquarters, he brought home what to me appeared to be humongous, gray machines with lots of black buttons and lights. I remember them being taller than me.

IMG_5391

My five year old self, riding my bike in front of our house in Dar es Salaam

These huge radio transmitters were placed in the living room and as the fathers came in, they put on head phones and huddled quietly around them, listening intently to radio transmissions, waiting for the familiar two-word codes that meant you were needed in a national emergency. Israel was at war and Arab countries were already broadcasting that Egyptian forces had reached Tel Aviv. Israeli radio broadcasts were somber and eerily silent about events on the ground.  I seem to remember the dads were smoking, which doesn’t surprise me because Israelis awaiting orders of whether to hop on a plane and join their military units to fight for the survival of their small country,  always smoke. Its a thing, one of those unwritten rules. You fight for survival, you smoke.

Little did I know, but in the  weeks before my birthday, there had been rising tension and increasing threats by Egypt, Syria and Jordan against little Israel. They had been amassing their armies on the borders, making death threats on the airwaves and the print media, and Egypt blocked the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping,  itself an act of war. Israelis were worried. Very worried. War was looming and the only questions were when would it start and how would we survive.

Israelis had been preparing for an inevitable war with their Arab neighbors.  Israelis living abroad, especially the men, had already packed a small suitcase and were anxiously awaiting the moment they would get the word from their reserve units to return and help defend the homeland. Everyone was on edge. So was my dad. And so were all the Israeli dads in Africa.

I learned later, that my parents decided to go on with preparations for my birthday party despite the tension and uncertainty and invited the whole Israeli community so we could all be together. A great excuse for moms and kids to play and the dads to huddle around the great big radio receivers and listen to the latest news from Israel.

As chance would have it, the war began at dawn on the very day of my fifth birthday, June 5th, 1967. My birthday party became the gathering place, the headquarters for all Israelis in Dar es Salaam as we eagerly awaited news from home.

It turned out that Israel, our little David of a country, defeated Goliath that week and in only six days destroyed the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, soundly defeating them against all odds. Our fathers were not called up to join their units and after a week of fighting, Israelis breathed a sigh of relief.

However, the most amazing, exhilarating and important result of the Six Day War happened on June 7th, 1967, two days after my birthday. Israeli forces pushed the Jordanian army back,  re-entered the Old City of Jerusalem, re-took the Jewish Quarter and once again, the Jewish people were able to touch and to pray at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.  Our eternal capital was again in our hands.

Today, May 24th, 2017, is a day of great joy in Israel, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary (according to the Hebrew calendar) of the re-unification of our capital. Thousands of Israeli Jews are celebrating in Jerusalem at this very moment and my heart is with them. I will leave it at that, as this is very complicated. But wow, it has been 50 years.

I felt the need to put pen to paper since I am emotionally very attached to the events of the Six Day War, as if I had played a part in that history. And I guess I did. After all, we share the same birthday.

Harrel photo 1967

The Harrel family in 1967, Zvi, Pola, Anat and baby Micah.