Thursday, October 25, 2007

Israel: My Past- (and Historical-) Homeland

[A little-longer-than-usual blog post regarding my visit to Israel in May 2007. (I'm still working on catching up with my more recent travels). Those who wish to skip onto a particular part of the story, click on: introduction and general observations about Israel, the Holy City of Jerusalem, the small town of Zikhron Yaakov where I grew up, and a beautiful nature-walk up a creek in northern Israel ].

* * *


Having already written about Jordan, I feel compelled to also write about Israel -- the complementing part of my Israeli-Jordanian visit. It was actually Israel that was originally my prime destination: to visit my sister and grandparents, and to re-experience the country where I had spent my earlier childhood. Jordan, on the other hand was more of a lucky afterthought.

Israel. Yes, I needed to re-visit that country. I had been a great Israeli patriot when I was growing up there, and I now wanted to see how much of my fond Israeli memories were accurate, and what I think my life would have been like if my family had stayed in Israel these past 8 years.

Israel, as my sister had noted, has changed and grown dramatically in the past eight years. I, coincidentally, have done likewise. In essence, then, my moderately grown (and wisened) self was now re-visiting a country which has changed so much from my naive childhood recollections thereof, that it was almost a new country for me.

I flew into Israel on El-Al, an all-Israeli air carrier. From the very moment I boarded the plane -- with all of its Hebrew-lettered signs, yarmulke-wearing passengers, and an overall color-scheme to match that of the Israeli flag -- I could feel that I was steadily re-entering Israel. The final touch was the arrival announcement, pronounced in both Hebrew and English: not only was the Hebrew announcement spoken first, but instead of welcoming people to Israel (as the English announcement did), the Hebrew one welcomed El-Al's passengers home.

The airport was new, beautiful, and monumental, built after we had already moved out of Israel. Right outside the airport, half the buildings of downtown Tel-Aviv were likewise newly-built. Israel was definitely well on its way on the path of expansion, growth, and modernization.

With my sister and uncle, we first drove to my grandparents' apartment, where we ate a traditional Jewish meal and engaged in a traditional grandparently conversation. Then, the topics of my health, college life, and scholarships exhausted, we drove to a nearby area where my sister and her husband Boris live.

Their apartment complex, built on the outskirts of Tel-Aviv right after Israel's inception in 1948, had not had the sweeping wind of modernization blow even the historical dust off of its stairwell. Both the building and the rooms within it were dark, small, and cluttered. Outside, the noisy sidewalks of two streets were bustling with immigrants, negotiating better deals on already cheap commodities. Whole clans of children played soccer on nearby school-grounds, countless signs announced permanent 30%-off sales next to each and every store, and 60's-looking buses rumbled tiredly along the streets. An unmistakable Israeli air, mixed with an even more unmistakable air of immigrant quarters, hung over the sun-drenched neighborhood...

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Undoubtedly, my most authentically "Holy Land" experience was visiting Jerusalem. I traveled there with Boris and Nica, both of whom are finishing up degrees in Archeology. They led me through all of the beautiful -- and sometimes overlooked -- sights of Jerusalem, all the while trying to out-do each other's historical tales. To all those who intend to visit Jerusalem or anywhere else in the Middle East someday (whether with the intention of an archeological/historical tour or a more involved outdoorsy trip), I once again highly recommend Boris' and Nica's guiding services -- their contact info is and +972-54-632-7789.

Jerusalem is a fascinating city. I had visited it only once before, on a three-day sixth-grade trip, just before my family moved to Alaska. I remember being very impressed with Jerusalem then, and proud of how Israel had captured it in during the Six-Day War of 1967 (before that, under the 1948 treaty that created the nation of Israel, Jerusalem had been left in the clutches of the Arab world). The battle for Jerusalem was not easy: Jerusalem stands on high hills, and the access to it is very visible and distinct, so the enemy had the advantages of high ground and the predictability of attacks. Many a men died in the successive attempts to capture the city, who are commemorated in beautiful and tragic Israeli songs: "Givhat ha Tahmoshet", "Babel Vad", "Ha Kotel", and others... The eventual success was put into verse in one of the most lyrical and beautiful songs in Hebrew: "Yerushalaim Shel Zahav" -- "Jerusalem of Gold".

But when I had visited Jerusalem with the class, I had been living in Israel for six years, so some of the "Israeli" flavor of the city did not surprise me. This time, however, I was visiting Jerusalem the very next day after arriving to Israel for the first time in eight years; thus, the contrast between Jerusalem and all the other cities that I've ever been to seemed all the more apparent.

Jerusalem is a very eccentric city: no element of Jerusalem seems to be quite in place. Old ruins of the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock, ongoing archaeological digs, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the holiest church in Christianity -- the site of the crucification of Jesus) are all situated almost side by side. A burial site -- in fact, the most holy of all burial sites, from which the souls of all the righteous will spring up to heaven at Messiah's second- (or, if you're Jewish, first-) coming -- rests, unmaintained and disarrayed, a mere walking distance away. Nearby, modern Israeli homes stand in disharmony with cluttered Arab houses across the street. At a loud street market, predominantly Arab tradesmen, speaking in every major touristy language of the world, loudly proclaim the worthiness of their products. Barefoot children play soccer off the walls of homes, mosques, synagogues, and churches -- indeed, there's little room to kick the soccer ball anywhere else. An immeasurable number of fully-armed young soldiers patrol the streets, sitting on benches with their guns forebodingly ready. Rabbis hurry off to a synagogue, stern looks upon their faces; behind them, equally orthodox priests, clutching their crosses and other religious ornaments, hurry to perform sacred Christian rituals across the street. Loud and prolonged calls for Muslim prayers drift from ornate minarets scattered throughout the city. Countless tourists drift within the crowd, their distinct languages melting into one incoherent sound hanging high over the streets; sweet smells of bakeries, shish-kabobs, and falafel fill the air. All that -- and in much more vivid colors than I could ever hope to describe -- washes over Jerusalem like waves over a polished rock, refining the city's undeniably unique flavor.

The Wailing Wall, our first destination, seemed actually rather anti-climactic compared to the profound emotional catharsis that it had once induced upon fervently-religious travelers of the early 1900s. Gone are the days when the Wall was the symbol of all that Judaism stood for, remembered, and had left after the Diaspora; gone, too, are the days when caravans had to travel for months through the hot desert to get to Jerusalem's cool olive trees. The re-birth of Israel and the age of aviation had rendered the Wall a broken fragment of the past, surrounded by a religious and touristy commotion that takes away the remainder of its monumental nature and beauty. Each crack between the stones was stuffed full of small pieces of paper -- by tradition, Jews from all over the world come to the Wailing Wall to write down a small note to God, asking the fulfillment of their wishes. I too considered writing something down, but upon seeing how crammed God's Jerusalem inbox was, I decided to wait until I find a more spacious address for delivery at some later point.

From the Wailing Wall, we proceeded to an ancient and long-abandoned cemetery, built into the side of a mountain. There, each family's burial occupied a small cave. Within each cave, a number of "shelves" were reserved for the most recently deceased, and the remnants of the rest of the bodies were piled in a burial pit below. Hence, as Boris explained, the phrase historical phrase "to join one's ancestors" is actually inaccurate towards death: rather, the dead body would first be placed separately on a cave's "shelf" upon death, and only a generation or so later would its bones join that of its predecessors.

We continued forth, stopping for a long time by the Dome of the Rock, and admiring its spectacular beauty. For ridiculous political reasons, entering inside the Dome was not permitted to anyone but Muslims (religion has nothing to do with it, and several years ago it was still possible to see it from within), but the Dome was irrefutably gorgeous even from the outside. Covered in blue Italian mosaics and surrounded by dozens of matching "mini-domes" and wells, the Dome is the crowning architectural jewel of Jerusalem. The main dome was built between 687 and 691 AD by the 9th Caliph, Abd al-Malik, who decided to bring the beauty of the Italian mosaic to his Arab homeland; the mini-domes were built by private contributors.

We visited a number of churches of all denominations. Most memorable was a Greek orthodox church, for its fragrant smell of incense and for a spectacular display of chandeliers dangling down from the ceiling. Another church -- in fact, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of the crucification of Christ -- included many separate rooms, each for its own denomination, as well as an especially beautiful and holy chamber in the middle. Finally, on a hill adjacent to old Jerusalem, we stepped into a small chapel that was memorable not for its own beauty, but for the breathtaking view of Jerusalem from within its arched glass window: the cross of Christianity, the Muslim Dome of the Rock, a Jewish synagogue, and the rest of Old and Modern Jerusalem all intertwined in one unifying and representative scene.

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One of my finest memories from when we still lived in Israel is of my elementary school, Nili, which I attended from 3rd to 6th grade. Nili stands at the heart of a small pleasant town of Zikhron Yaakov, situated on a hill a mile or two from the sea. The town itself was founded over a hundred years ago, far before the formation of Israel, when the land had still been barren, swampy, and malaria-infested. In a successful effort to dry out the bogs and to eliminate the disease, eucalyptus trees had been planted all around the emerging towns. As one of the oldest settlements in Israel, Zikhron is hence one of the greenest, with plenty of shade along the streets and with a beautiful adjacent forest. The houses within the center of Zikhron are likewise old but lovingly-maintained, built in a traditional style out of white Jerusalem stone.

I had loved Zikhron, and I had loved my school. So much had my classes there given me: wonderful friends, overall cheerfulness, a feeling of patriotism towards Israel, a sense of community and camaraderie, a passion for singing, an enjoyment of sports... Zikhron, too, contributed to whom I later became: I spent long hours tranquilly observing the forest and breathing in its pine-scented air, I participated in numerous clubs (from swimming and tennis, to pottery, to chess, to writing), and I even took part in an eccentric European sport that involved doing gymnastics within a giant hamster-like wheel (if you're curious, click on that link!).

When I visited my sister this summer, I naturally wanted to return at least for a day to Zikhron Yaakov. Nica too has not been back to Zikhron for several years, so together we set out to explore and reminisce the town where we had once lived. We began by walking about the surrounding forest, which, coincidentally, proved to be much smaller and less hilly than I had ever remembered it -- I guess living in Alaska has introduced a new definition of "vastness" into my mind. The summer heat was already setting in onto the early-May Israel, so some of the grass had turned brown and dead, but a spectacular variety of beautiful but thorny summer plants had sprung up all over the fields in its wake.

(Note: the black dots in the flowers above are NOT insects -- they're just a black dots on the flowers. However, from above, that dots do indeed look very much like bugs. What the flower gets through this odd tactic is self-promotion: it advertises to bugs flying overhead that "hey, my pollen's amazing -- look how the other bugs loves it!", thus causing REAL bugs to come and pollinate it!)

After a leisurely stroll through the forest, we emerged back into central Zikhron. Though I thought that I remembered virtually nothing of Zikhron's layout, some unconscious part of me easily led us down the familiar forgotten roads. The school gate was closed, but, with perhaps a somewhat alarming expertise at jumping fences (I swear that I'm a reasonably nice and law-obeying fellow), I quickly found myself on the cherished school grounds. With the exception of a new gym building, the school had remained just as I remembered it: a small one-level building, filled with children's artwork and an overall feel of cute childly endeavors, surrounded by green trees and tenderly planted flowers. A small outdoor amphitheatre where we used to play an Israeli ball game of "hayei sarah", along with an even smaller stage elsewhere (how large it seemed when I sang for a school play there in 3rd grade!) completed the school. So simple was the design, so old the building itself -- and yet, how much joy it had given to us, its students!

For fifteen minutes I walked, enchanted, around the school's perimeter. Finally, much slower and more thoughtfully, I climbed back over the fence, to where my sister was waiting for me. Could I have grown as attached to an American school, I wondered? Perhaps -- I was an impressionable child. But part of my bond to the school had been created by patriotism towards Israel, and I don't think that any country other than Israel teaches its future citizens to so fervently adore and protect their land.

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That same evening we embarked upon my last trip in Israel, to Nahal Meshushim, a creek in northern Israel. We arrived to the trailhead around 11pm. The night was clear and silent; overhead, thousands of bright stars lit our way through the darkness. A deep valley opened to our right, with the creek whispering softly below. We walked along a secluded jeep road about an hour, and then turned onto a barely-visible and rarely-used trail down the valley. The path was overgrown, full of thorny flowers and shrubs, and much wilder than anything that I'd have expected in Israel. As we walked by some of the plants, we saw a remarkable display of sleeping chameleons (probably fifteen in total on a half-a-mile stretch), adorably clinging onto the swaying branches and leaves with their fragile and baby-like fingers.

(Photos taken by Konstantin Hoshana,

At last, we made it to the bottom of the valley. The creek running through it was small, about 12-15 feet wide, with small stones that murmured softly as the water glided past them. A small aquatic turtle lived at the side of the stream, looking as peaceful and inactive as nearly all turtles do. When we attempted to lift it out of the water to examine it, however, the turtle vigorously shook its ligaments and tried to set free. As we placed the turtle back in the water, it immediately proved to be far quicker than its land-walking relatives, swiftly maneuvering through the rocky waterbed to safety.

(Photo taken by Konstantin Hoshana,

We crossed the stream, set up our tents, and made a large bonfire on which we prepared our gourmet past-midnight food. Leka, one of the guys in our group, even brought a small guitar that he used to entertain us for the next several hours. He had the most unique voice that I'd ever heard in my life -- a voice so seemingly "PhotoShop-ed" that it sounded as if it was synthesized on a computer. His voice bent, skyrocketed down and up the octaves, echoed with itself, imitated an electric guitar, and was quite literally as malleable as a piece of soft playdough underneath Leka's supreme command. He sang well into the night, and only when his voice was joined by that of early-morning cocks did we finally go to sleep.

We woke up several hours later, the intense heat of the sun microwaving us within our own tents. Upon sluggishly getting out, we were immediately rewarded by the cool of the shade and the freshness of the creek. The area downstream from where we'd crossed the creek formed a sort of a dam, in which we relaxedly swam for a good half an hour. Then, completely refreshed and rejuvenated, we walked back to our tents and began the day's intended journey.

(Photo taken by Konstantin Hoshana,

Our goal was to leisurely walk up the creek, eventually reaching a series of small cascading waterfalls and a set of unique rock formation. As natural as the idea of walking through a knee-deep creek seems, I've never actually done it before. I had walked through, jumped over, and swam across creeks before, but never with the intent of staying in the water longer than I had to. Yet purposefully walking in a creek -- for the sake of feeling the softness and moistness of the water, hearing the murmurs of the stream, seeing the occasional glimmer of sunlight water, and elegantly maneuvering across rocks and fallen trees -- proved to be such a tranquil and rewarding activity! The water temperature was perfect, just cold enough to offset the mild heat that was seeping in from between the branches of trees overhead. Around us, small creatures of the earth -- from an alien-looking caterpillar, to a pleasant conservatively-dressed bug -- were likewise enjoying the beautiful day.

(Photos taken by Konstantin Hoshana,

After several hours, we reached the unusual pentagon-pillar rock formations, created by some mystical natural processes. The pillars were indeed very near-perfect pentagons at their cross-sections, and quite impressive. Just upstream of the pillars were several smooth cascades, which we slid down to our heart's content, before finally turning back and walking -- this time on a trail above the creek -- back to our encampment.

(Photos taken by Konstantin Hoshana,

* * *

The following morning my sister, Boris, and I left on a week-long trip to Jordan (see my previous blog post, "A Visit to Allah's Fascinating Land"). Having Jordan take up the latter half of my Israeli visit was actually an intentional plan on my sister's part -- in her words, once I'd see Jordan, there'd be little for me left to do in Israel. I think the statement is overly harsh towards the patriotically-loved country of my childhood, but for the purposes of what I wanted to see and visit and re-experience in Israel and the surrounding region, I think that the timing of my trips was just right. To those who have not been to either of those countries, and have found my blog post intriguing enough -- do plan a visit someday!

Shalom Aleychem! -- "Peace be upon you"

- Michael

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