Friday, September 28, 2012

Epilogue: So Long To Israel

August 23, 2012 (continued)

With only Americans left, we headed to the Young Judaea headquarters in Jerusalem to fill out questionnaires and discuss our travels.  Everyone shared their favorite moment from the trip or the time when the experience of being in Israel resonated most with them.  I was thrilled to hear my performance of "Floatin'" for and along with the group at the Bedouin campfire rated so highly as to be mentioned; however, the event discussed most was our brief but powerful meeting with Avraham, the Kabbalah artist from Detroit who moved to Tzfat in order to connect with the spiritual side of Judaism and participate in the building of a Jewish state.  The message of peace, tolerance of different beliefs within and outside of the religion, and pilgrimage to Israel in honor of the thousands of years our families could not resonated strongly with nearly everyone in the group.

We then shared one last giant meal in Jerusalem, taking up a special room at a restaurant with a long table that comfortably accommodated the entire forty-four person group (including guides and chaperones) and seemed to echo the great spread of Da Vinci's "Last Supper."  At first there were just dips and salads, then we were presented with laffa (big pita) to eat each of these with, followed by beans and rice, and finally long skewers of various meats.  The meal was a bit overwhelming in scope, and by the time we were presented with a small dessert I felt my stomach couldn't handle anymore.

After dinner, we returned to the Mamilla Mall, a big pedestrian shopping street on the outskirts of the old city, which we'd previously walked on an empty Friday night following our shabbat service at the Wailing Wall.  Coming back on a Thursday around 9, the street was bustling with mostly orthodox families spending the night dining and shopping before the sabbath, a fascinating social phenomenon.  Up and down the avenue were street performers including a Hasidic puppeteer and puppet, an orthodox banjo player, and a full-fledge stage performance in the square at the center of the street where a rock-like band played Jewish folk music to a great crowd of viewers and dancers, who moved in much the same manner as my family on holidays—perhaps Ashkenazi origins?

We made our own contribution of sorts to the street show, organizing a group flash mob where we entered one of the more open sections of the street little by little, joining our designated solo performer in a rousing rendition of "the chicken dance."  After about 2 minutes of holding court in the space and attracting a host of onlookers, we dispersed in random directions.  It was one last fun bonding experience as we counted down the hours and minutes until the trip's conclusion.

The Mamilla Mall.

The Hasidic puppeteer.

Orthodox banjo.

As the hour approached 11, we made our way to the Western Wall for a third and final time to participate in our last programmed activity: a tour through the tunnels along the wall to see remnants of the city's former self.  Unfortunately, everybody had been up for some 19 hours—on at most 5 hours sleep—by that point, and the time was marked by people grabbing at walls for support, falling asleep on stairs, and laughing inappropriately loudly, disrupting any sliver of a chance there would have been at focusing on our Scottish tour guide.  It would have been a terrific activity on another occasion, but the guide's voice got lost in the space among such a large group and we did not have any level of concentration left to devote to what he was saying.  Everyone wanted to sleep after a very long day at the conclusion of a fortnight jam-packed with activities.  Our program had been winding down all day after the climb of Masada, but this final event reversed that trend, and we weren't able handle it.

For the final time, Team Shlomo boarded the bus, departing to the airport entirely spent.  One by one we parted ways, as relatives picked up a member or two at the airport drop-off.  Others left on their own to continue their adventures in Israel: some for a few days, others for a few months.  Our tour guide, Einat, so beloved by our group, made her final goodbyes with each one of us, and the remaining two-thirds of the group filed through security to the departure gate, where we'd be returned to New York, and then for some, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, New Orleans, Houston, Boston, Washington, and parts in between.

We spent a magical time together, exploring the roots of our culture, discovering the nation it has birthed today, wandering its terrain, pondering its neighbors, and relating with one another, the rising generation of Jewish adults in both America and Israel.

The morning I left Florence after four months of study and life in Europe, I wrote the following lyric:

    I may be in Europe forever at heart,
    But it won't be the same now that we're all apart.
    All I have left is a memory…
    Now that we're on our own again.

    Oh where did you go my Florentine friends?
    I wasn't yet ready to say goodbye,
    And though it's not over it feels like the end:
    The close to this chapter of our lives.

Those words came back to me the last few days in Israel as the trip came to a close.  The message endured even if the context did not.  Some of us remain in Israel.  Many will return later.  Most will keep in some sort of contact with people from the trip, be it in person or over the internet, but the moment, with all of us together, in Israel, at that point in time was over.  Tensions that may have flickered in the group surely would have grown to raging fires with time, and while it is perhaps best we ended at a high point of bonding with one another and the nation of Israel, it was nonetheless a somber moment as we bid each other adieu.  We will carry forth with us memories from the journey, and new ones will be facilitated by the bonds created on the trip.  No doubt these ten days changed us all in some way, big or small, and now it is a matter of seeing how this will effect our individual paths as we each move into the future.

The Kotel tunnels.

A cistern at the end of the tunnels.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Day Nine: Masada & The Dead Sea

August 23, 2012

Making the most of our final day in Israel, we were up by 4ish, departing the hotel just after 5.  Breakfast would be reserved for later, but there was coffee and chocolate cake waiting for those of us who wanted to put a little food in our stomachs before the morning hike.

As early as we were getting up, the whole morning felt like a race against the clock to see the sunrise from the top of Masada, former home to Jewish Roman King Herod in the 1st century BCE and famous because the last Jewish inhabitants of the city chose death over slavery to the sieging Roman army.  It took about fifteen minutes driving from Arad to the foot of the mountain, and as the pretty first morning light crept over the eastern mountains, some of us grew nervous we wouldn't make it to the top of the mountain in time.  We were dropped off on the west side of the mountain, where we made a mostly straight jaunt up the rocky face until the path turned to switchbacks for the last 100 feet or so.  At the time, I was simultaneously trying to race to the top while not passing Einat—who was mandated to lead us—and take pictures of the early morning light illuminating the chalky mountains behind us without losing pace or wasting too much of my camera battery, which was waning, having not been charged since Tiberias, where I left my backup battery and charger.  Like the miracle of Chanukah, my battery held out for eight days in Israel without being charged, finally succumbing when I got back to New York.

We got to the top as the first daylight crested over the Jordanian mountains across the Dead Sea to the east, and there we waited for fifteen more minutes till the sun finally soared over the far away ridge and lit up the sky.  Even on the high summit of Masada we were only some 50 meters above sea level, though it felt like much more because at the eastern foot of the mountain sat the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, 280 meters down.

First daylight peaks out from beyond this mountain on the road from Arad to Masada.  This picture always reminds me of The Dark Side Of The Moon.

Getting off the bus, looking up the western face of Masada.

The northwest side of Masada is seen in silhouette as the Jordanian mountains and Dead Sea are illuminated in the left of the image.

Team Shlomo prepares to ascend Masada.

The north side of Masada crops a view of The Dead Sea and Jordan.

Looking south behind Masada as we ascend the plateau.

Apparently you have to go down before climbing up.

Looking north across the salt flats.

Climbing... [taken by Natalie Nissan]

...and climbing...

...still climbing...

We made it!

Herod's ruins.

Shlomos take pictures

The easy way to the top.

The south end of The Dead Sea.

Shlomos below at another lookout.

Salt flats.

Sagging flag.

Blowing flag: is it a sign?

See where the sun is about to come over?


Taking picture of sunrise.

Flag waving.

Herod built his Greek and Roman-influenced palace as an escape from Jerusalem, more than a day's journey to the north.  Earthquakes and pillagers brought the city down over time so that most buildings' walls only reached shoulder height, and those that included roofs had the assistance of later preservation efforts.  The original stone was delineated from the new reconstructions by a black line painted across building after building around the former city.  The ruins were reminiscent to me of those I saw at the Vesuvian destroyed city of Ercolano.

Marking another unique experience for our group, our companion soldier Nadav's father was one of the architects responsible for the modern-day rehabilitations, and he joined us at the summit to discuss his role in enhancing the historic site.  The most fascinating thing he mentioned was they took the remaining paintings/murals off the walls, cutting them off the stone like butter two inches deep.  They were then treated in a lab before being reattached to the walls.  It made me wonder if the process was at all typical of ruins and perhaps occurred at Pompeii, where the murals were more numerous and expansive.

Closing out our time on the plateau, we held a small service, as several of our peers fulfilled a sort of spiritual bar mitzvah.  The participants were split fairly evenly between those who wanted to re-commemorate their connection to Judaism—some now at 26, twice bar mitzvah age—and those who never had a bar mitzvah but wanted to now make their commitment to the faith more tangible.  They jointly read a short torah portion in Hebrew, passing off the narrative from person to person, and then each explained their Hebrew name, be it given at birth, taken at a previous bat mitzvah, or chosen in the last few days a part of the occasion.  We of course concluded the affair with a joyous bit of dancing while singing Hava Nagila.

At this point, the sun was rising high in the sky, the mountain top grew hot, and we made the half-hour's switched-back descent of the plateau's eastern face towards the Dead Sea.  The ancient path was much longer and mostly consisted of stone steps built from the mountain's raw materials.  It was a hike I would have dreaded in my youth, with my extreme fear of heights, but I now greatly enjoyed.  After some fifteen minutes, our legs began to shake from over-exertion and perpetual movement, and a few of us took more of a jogging pace, leaping over rocks and past our peers to stretch out and extend our leg motion in order to stay loose.  It was exhilarating, and at the bottom we pleasantly strolled into a cafeteria for breakfast resembling our typical Israeli morning fare: eggs, bread, assorted salads, yogurt, and cheese.

Ruins of Roman siegeworks, set up to enslave the Jews atop the mountain.  These temporary settlements surrounding the plateau are among the most intact Roman siegeworks still remaining anywhere.

Looking down the north face of Masada at King Herod's palace.

The salt flats surrounding The Dead Sea are framed by a great plateau on the Israeli side.

Lots of ruins.  The ones sticking up have roofs that were reconstructed.

Standard remnant wall height.

Remants of Roman murals reattached to the walls.  You can see where the new rock has been added above the black line. [taken by Stephanie Sherwood]

Sharing tallitot at the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. [taken by Natalie Nissan]

Post-service dancing. [taken by Natalie Nissan]

Huddling the group and getting spiritual at the end of the ceremony. [taken by Natalie Nissan]

Descending Masada.  Einat leads the way with two others far below.  Moving in single file down the narrow staircase—with a sharp drop off—it was easy to get stuck farther back.

Tram passing overhead.  Roman siegeworks to the left.  Our breakfast destination at center.

Looking back at trailing Shlomos.

At the bottom, looking back at Masada.  You can see the snake path we walked along the right side of the plateau.   The tram lets off at the building to the left and takes people to the black spot towards the top right of the mountain.

Walking from the tram to The Dead Sea.  The sea has receded dramatically in recent years, so the path continually gets longer. [taken by Natalie Nissan]

Floating in The Dead Sea. [taken by Natalie Nissan]

Covered in mud. [taken by Natalie Nissan]

We spent the late morning and afternoon at the Ein Gedi Spa along the Dead Sea.  The rest of our schedule was pretty light, giving us a chance to decompress and soak in our last moments in Israel.  The activities began with floating in the Dead Sea, which in contrast to the Mediterranean, took absolutely no technique.  It was as simple as laying back, and our bodies sat atop the water as if we were lying on pool floats.  Sandals were basically a necessity to walk in, as the base of the sea was a rough and densely compacted layer of salt, which made barefoot walking unbearable.  As cool as the experience was, the high amount of salt in the water caused a burning sensation from every cut or wound.  We were warned in advance not to shave before going in, but most people found a few spots that started to bother them within a minute or two and continued to sting with greater persistence the longer we stayed in.

Leaving the sea, we next sauntered over to a small feeder creek bed full of mineral rich mud, which we slathered over every exposed inch of our bodies, leaving our skin silky smooth upon removal.  Covered in mud, we looked like a band of Celtic warriors, with naked bodies painted for battle to scare enemies; however, we were a much merrier bunch.  Conveniently placed by the shore were a pair of simple showers where we could rinse off the mud.

Next, we retreated to the spa, spending another thirty to forty minutes in the normal outdoor chlorinated pool before a few of us went indoors to briefly bathe in the sulfur pools.  These also induced floating but reeked so terribly of rotten eggs that we could not tolerate breathing the air for much more than five or ten minutes.  (An unfortunate consequence is I felt my skin had a slight sulfur smell for days after, despite the fact that I thoroughly scrubbed it with soap at both the spa showers and each subsequent day back home.)

We concluded our time at the spa with a group meeting, sharing our thoughts as American and Israelis traveling with one another.  It became an overwhelming show of warmth and affection from both sides, appreciating the experiences with and commonalities of our counterparts.  Each was happy to learn their stereotypes of the other were generally wrong, with the Israelis believing the Americans would be fat, stupid, morally-questionable party animals with hardly any affiliation to Judaism while the Americans believed the Israelis would be cold withdrawn Arab-averse killers.  Both images were shown to be nearly entirely false, at least within the sampling of this group.  We were able to identify with each other immediately and delayed our travel north with a goodbye session of hugs and last words that went well beyond the allotted amount of time.

As we pulled into Jerusalem an hour later the farewells continued with the Israelis walking up and down the bus to the infectious reggae tune that had become an anthem of sorts for the trip, "Jerusalem, If I Forget You."  As the Israelis departed by the train station, heading back to their military stations, we snapped photos and waved until we could see each other no more.

Not a bad place to spend the afternoon.

Palm trees, patio furniture, and swimming in the foreground; The Dead Sea and Jordan in the distance.

Swimming at the foot of the Isreali plateau.  This shallow pool featured a bar in the middle for hanging out, so people gravitated to the center of the pool rather than the sides.

Driving north through The West Bank along The Dead Sea.

Cattle on the hillside on the fringe of Jerusalem.

Einat talks to the soldiers as they prepare to head back to rejoin the military.  Some of them told me subsequently it was tough going back to speaking Hebrew after spending five days learning to think and interact almost exclusively in English.

Sigal and Nadav wave goodbye.