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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do you know the way to… Jerusalem?

Sometimes it is the small, strange twists of fate that determine how history is written and let me tell you, my friends, this Land of Israel has to be the
queen of where quirky events that changed history happened…

Take for example, the road to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, spiritual and political capital of the Jewish people for over 3000 years, and a holy pilgrimage destination for Christians and Muslims for countless generations, is completely surrounded by mountains. Trekking up to Jerusalem from the coastal plain has always been somewhat of a challenge.

There were several ancient roads to the city traveled by Cannanites, Israelites, and Greeks. However, when the Romans, history’s champion road builders, conquered the land, they paved a main road from the city of Lydda (Lod) to Jerusalem. This Roman road was built along a mountain ridge line, thus maintaining a relatively stable grade up to the city.

Today’s Highway 443 follows this ancient Roman road, a comfortable, divided four-lane highway up the Beit Horon grade, past the city of Modi’in and into Jerusalem. Nice and easy. “What’s the problem?”, you ask.

The beautiful Ayalon Valley on the way to Jerusalem

Well, the problem is that even though Hwy 443 is easier, shorter and a more comfortable climb to the holy city, it is not the main thoroughfare, not the main entrance to Jerusalem. Huh? I know, I know.  Strange twists in history.

There was another ancient path on the southern border of the Ayalon Valley, through the narrow Bab al Wad mountain pass, up a mountain, down a valley, twisting and turning in gullies on its route from the coastal plain through the hills, up and down a few more times and into Jerusalem. It is a longer road, a very strenuous ride for donkeys, camels and the travelers who rode on them.

However, this longer, more challenging and perilous path was the road chosen by history to be THE one and probably not by coincidence is called Highway 1 even today.  (Click here to see Hwy 443 and Hwy 1)

And here is why.

It all has to do with a small, controversial detail in an important story from the Gospel of Luke, 24:13-35.  It tells of two men and their meeting with Jesus, exactly two days after his resurrection.

“That day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about a hundred and sixty stadia from Jerusalem…”.

Jesus joins them on their walk but does not reveal his identity, accompanies them to Emmaus, where they eat and break bread together, chat and then go their separate ways. It is only after Jesus’ departure that the two men realize the true identity of the stranger who ate with them.  They then go tell the disciples that they had seen Jesus in the flesh.  The disciples realize that rumors of Jesus’ resurrection had been confirmed and he had risen.  Very important story.

Jesus breaking bread with the two travelers at Emmaus.

However, where is Emmaus? Well, that’s complicated.

Some earlier versions of Luke say “160 stadia”, (a Roman stadium being about 600 ft), and therefore 160×600 ft is about 7.5 miles, putting the event right next to Bab el Wad, the aforementioned narrow passageway on the longer, more challenging route to Jerusalem.  Great! This site was chosen as the Emmaus of Luke.

As the Christian Byzantine Empire took control of the Holy Land (4th century ce), so began the tradition of Christian pilgrimage to Jesus’ homeland and the sites made holy by his actions and sermons.

Let me paint the scene for you:

Christian Pilgrim: Hello my friend, I’ve just arrived by boat from Anatolia. I need a donkey to get me to Jerusalem.

Donkey rental attendant: Sure, no problem. This fine donkey will do, he’s made the trip several times and knows it by heart.

Christian Pilgrim: Great! Will he take me by Emmaus, where my Lord Jesus appeared after his Resurrection?

Donkey rental attendant: Well, actually no, this donkey much prefers the easier route, less time, less hills, less problems.

Christian Pilgrim: What!? Are you kidding me? I have not come all this way to make it easy on myself or the donkey. How can I show my face back in the village if I don’t visit Emmaus? I’ll be taking the long and winding road, thank you very much!

Donkey rental attendant: (sigh) Suit yourself.

Why the long and winding road?!? Why?

There you go folks, that did it. The main thoroughfare to Jerusalem was therefore switched and Christian pilgrims made their way past the village of Emmaus (Hammat in Hebrew, becoming Emmaus in Greek, Neopolis in Latin and eventually Imhaus in Arabic). But wait, there is more…

In later versions of Luke 24:13, the distance from Jerusalem was changed to ’60 stadia’ (scholars don’t know why, misprint?) and latter pilgrims  placed the event at a different location altogether.  Just to be sure, the Crusaders built several citadels on this road to Jerusalem, at Latrun (from the French Le toron des Chevaliers), at Abu Gosh,  and at Aquabella (Ein Hemed).

Through the ages, Christian pilgrims also declared and visited the villages of  Motza and Kubebah as the “Emmaus” of the New Testament, all on this same road to Jerusalem.

So which is the real Emmaus?  It’s all a matter of faith, ladies and gentlemen.

First the Christian Byzantine pilgrims, then Arab Caliphates, Ottomans, British and even present-day Israelis still use this road as the main drag into town.

Today, the government of Israel tries to dissuade commuters from taking Hwy 1, it is often congested, more dangerous and causes great traffic jams at the entrance to the city.  Trucks are not allowed on it in the mornings anymore, big signs recommend switching to Hwy 443 or other newer roads, but many of us still prefer this winding road into the city.

Tradition!

p.s. There is, of course, more to this story, having to do with the Green Line, the Ottomans, the Palestinians, the paving of 1869, today’s political climate, etc.  Great conversation over a cup of coffee.