I wrote this journal when I visited Israel eight years ago, just dug it up when I was looking for something else- my mom suggested I post it online. Given the advanced age of the journal, I happily confess that I probably would say some things differently today. So if there is something in it that you do not like, assume that I now agree with you!
Sunday - August 11 2002: Arrived Sunday morning at JFK. Spent an hour at security, mainly because they xray checked baggage (worthwhile seeming but apparently Americans too cheap to do it) and asked weird questions ("why are you in Israel?"). Then got in another line to get to gate - but unlike in America no random repetitive searches (unlike AirTran flight back in LaGuardia). Everyone gets their coat searched, but they don't do it twice, since El Al has odd notion that purpose of security is to detect bombs rather than prove political correctness. (In NYC AirTran flight, American govt. pinheads searched shoes once at beginning of C course and then searched every third passenger or so at gate).
Flight took off 12ish-biggest plane I have ever seen. First class was upstairs, rest of us downstairs. I was in row 52 and there were 8 or 10 rows back of me, so there must have been at least 600 passengers. I sat next to Assemblies of God fellow from Lufkin, Tx. We discussed God, theology, other light stuff - pretty civil though, no attempt to convert me. Apparently this man had had some sort of mystical born again experience. He thinks God has sent Bush to save the day from terrorists; I am somewhat less optimistic.
Despite size of flight, the El Al flight definitely less unpleasant than US flights. People were wandering around halls, going to middle aisles to get food themselves from attendants. The flight to Israel was more sociable than return flight - my suspicion was that flight to had lots of people from same yeshiva or something, since I saw kids in black hats. Whole thing generally clubby. Didn't hurt that wine and beer was free.
One interesting thing: REAL forks and knives at meals. In fact, I cut myself; my suspicion is that there were enough well-armed air marshals that no one cared about kitchen knives.
Monday - August 12: Got into airport around 5:30 or 6:00, but bus didn't leave for airport till around 7:00 - partially because of security (we had to stand in line to flash passport, answer silly-seeming questions). Bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem ran mostly through agricultural territory - it seemed like there were a lot of different crops, not nearly as monotonous as most American farmland. Guide says sunflower seeds and cotton are some of the crops. As I got further from the airport, land grew lusher, more forests closer to Jerusalem (more evergreens than in most of USA). However, I later learned that there were not enough trees to support wood houses and things like that; all houses in Jerusalem are of stone.
Guide said that people routinely packed firearms; certainly when I was in Jerusalem I saw plenty of security guards packing heat, and in fact there was one on our tour bus.
When we enter Jerusalem, I understood why the term "aliyah" means "going up" - the city is on higher elevation then nearby areas, so if you are going to Jerusalem you are going up physically as well as (perhaps) spiritually. Outskirts of the city seemed thinly populated; I guess Jerusalem is a hyper-elastic city (i.e. one that annexes suburbs, like Houston or Oklahoma City, rather than one trapped inside its 1950s boundaries, like Buffalo). Traffic jam very serious, because of (1) absence of rail system and (2) fear of buses due to bus bombings. Also, people who used to take country roads are scared off by drive-by shootings, so they were all packed onto relatively secure main highway. The cars are VERY small by USA standards, no SUVs etc.
Got to hotel (Dan Panorama Hotel, formerly Mariah, in modern urban area near a bunch of other hotels) around 8:00, spent an hour bathing, changing clothes etc. I spent the morning trying to get connection for razor (success after 3 tries). Hotel nice enough, but a little less opulent than American hotels, in ways you don't notice until you've stayed there a day or two (e.g. no soda machines, fewer newspapers in gift shops, trivial stuff). Area around hotel has lots of bus service, walkable narrow streets, but not very mixed use (in terms of restaurants nearby other than one or two places that looked expense account oriented)
As tour bus drove through city I got some initial impressions:
*Climate VERY dry; we were told to drink LOTS of water to avoid dehydration, more of an issue than in humid environment like Atlanta, I guess. First time I had ever been in dry heat; not much fun because of constant need to drink.
*architecture incredibly monotonous. EVERYTHING made of stone, either brown or light gray. Tour guide says British mandated this, my cousin Dov (70-something prof at Hebrew University) blames absence of wood nearby. Jerusalem has around 500-750,000 people, same as DC or Baltimore. Contrast with Buffalo (where I spent previous week) was especially stark; parts of Buffalo full of Victorians with all different colors, a vivid purple or two, a bright blue/purple here and there, though of course many that weren't as exciting. Conventional wisdom is that architecture should match local vernacular-but some local vernaculars more boring than others. Maybe Israel needs airlift of paint-though on a more serious note, I am not sure purple paint would be feasible on the kind of stone common in Jerusalem. (I suspect not).
*City has beautiful vistas; because it is so hilly there are plenty of places with magnificent views. This allowed me to notice that there was a ton of undeveloped land close in, unlike in American cities. Tour guide says that hilly land is more expensive to build on, more issues re water sewer etc. - seemed to think problem was affluence (not enough of it) rather than political situation.
*Street signs all in Arabic and English as well as Hebrew.
*City streets very narrow, seemed very walkable (as in fact they are) though lots of parking on sidewalk.
*A fair amount of street trees, but since buildings taller than trees no feeling of lushness-I guess newer areas were desert until recent decades, so maybe trees not that old.
*Lions (plastic I think) everywhere. Lots of American cities have animal statutes spread through city for fun (Buffalo with bisons, kind of like baseballs in Atlanta). Eventually they will be auctioned off much like Buffalo statues.
At 11:00, bus went to Gilo, technically a West Bank settlement, but so close to Jerusalem it was really an inner ring suburb. Shows how close everything is to each other. City neighborhoods are very close to some so-called settlements, both very close to Arab areas - one reason peace difficult perhaps, not a lot of space to separate enemies or create natural boundaries. Physical look at Gilo like rest of Jerusalem - everything light brown, everything multifamily (I don't think I ever saw a detached single family house).
After Gilo, I was dropped off at Ben Yehuda Street (in-town pedestrian mall/fast food area). Had fast food lunch (boring chicken shawarma), bought some souvenirs, was bothered by a sea of panhandlers eventually. Ben Yehuda street lively--lots of apartments above shops. Kind of a New Urbanist dream. All types of people-university kids, a few black-hatted very Orthodox types (not just confined to a few neighborhoods as in USA). Took a long nap.
Spent ALL Monday, from 5:30 at Western Wall of Temple (built around 70 years before end of 2nd Temple by Herod). Did long tour of newly excavated tunnel, which is part of western wall that had been sealed up until 1967 war (was under Muslim Quarter of Old City, that is the part of Jerusalem that was entire city until 19th century or so). Most amazing thing is this: in theory, holiest area of Wall should be area closest to Holy of Holies (part of Temple where even High Priest could rarely go)-and that part was in the tunnels so we got to go there.
Visitors to the Wall like to write out little prayers and put them in cracks of Wall. Friends & family had given me prayers to put in, or asked me to write some paraphrasing their wishes, so I did. I put them in part of tunnels closest to Holy of Holies.
Then we prayed at Wall. Prayer was not in tunnels, but at a part of Wall that had been open to public for most of past 2000 years or so. There wasn't one big group, but instead several little minyans that sprouted up informally. (A minyan is 10 or more people, and is required for most Jewish prayers). (Men and women separated, as in Orthodox synagogues). Prayer books all in Hebrew, of course. We could see Dome of Rock (part of Muslim mosque on Dome of Rock, fairly holy Muslim site) from Wall-on site of Temple itself, and site of Ariel Sharon visit that first provoked Arab riots in fall 2000.
After brief dinner in Jewish Quarter of Old City (which I saw only tiny bit of that day, saw more of on Tuesday) (dinner was falafel - most interesting part is toppings very different from in USA. In USA falafel usually goes with tehini sauce - in Israel with french fries, pickles, hummus, and weird spices).
After dinner we went to first part of Rally, welcoming ceremonies. Chief rabbi of Israel spoke on "love thy neighbor as thyself." He said that this Biblical passage means loving your neighbor because he is LIKE yourself, i.e. person like you, etc. And in particular, Jews part of same corporate body of Judaism so we should love each other especially. Michael Melchior (deputy foreign minister) also spoke about why we were here (to comfort Israelis, to let them know world Jewry cares, etc.)
After Melchior spoke, we prayed again at Wall. (Explanation for non - Jews: during weekday, very devoted Jews pray three times - morning, late afternoon, evening. This was the evening service).
The most elevating part of the whole trip was here, on Monday night. I said the prayer (in Hebrew) "Holy, Holy Holy is the Lord of Hosts" - and remembered that I was doing this just a few yards (well, OK, hundred yards from here) Isaiah had (if you believe the Bible) had vision of angels saying the exact same thing. Talk about being in presence of history! Wow!
Went back to hotel after prayers. Asked myself whether Berlin (where I went in 1997 and where my father grew up) or Jerusalem more emotionally affecting, more like "home". Comparison to me is apples and oranges. Jerusalem is important in an abstract way, kind of like Constitution Hall in Philadelphia. Just as Founding Fathers framed Constitution (and thus created America) at Constitution Hall, priests and sages and prophets created Judaism as we know it in here. But these important people weren't people I know and am related to, even though what they did (like what Framers did) affected my life. Germany's emotional pull is less abstract- people I know, and people who KNOW people I know (i.e. my grandparents) lived there and suffered there (not died, since they died after being deported to camps in Poland). Perhaps analogous to Gettysburg- Lincoln said that Gettysburg is hallowed by people who died there. Germany is sort of the same way. At a rational level, it is easier to imagine myself living in Israel. But I like the fantasy of coming home to Germany and saying "finally, revenge on Hitler!" Berlin felt more like home, somehow.
Tuesday - August 13: Tour guide bragged about new highways around Jerusalem and thought it would get Israelis to Dead Sea in ½ hour- sad to see Israelis making same mistakes as Atlantans, more roads leading to more sprawl etc. Of course given iffy condition of nation it may not make difference in long run.
First we went to Ramat Rachel kibbutz, south of city. Good views of desert, Bethelehem, etc. Was reall.y surprised that I could see desert from city (though collapse of my camera means I can't describe it effectively). Atop Ramat Rachel lies archaeological dig from First Temple types (600 BC or earlier). We walked around site, saw bottom of walls from what we think was ruins. Just think - on this very spot Jews may have been worshipping idols 2700 years ago. (On other hand truth may resemble sign I once saw in New Orleans: "On this spot in 1890 nothing of importance happened").
isited Yad Vashem- only real disappointment of trip. Thought we would see full museum; instead just listened to boring speech by Israeli ambassador to Poland, and had brief service in Hall of Remembrance (dark room with names of death camps on it). Walked briefly through the sculpture garden. Then we had lunch at Jerusalem Mall (not real interesting - had wretched attempt at Pad Thai), went straight to rally.
Rally was in Jewish Quarter of Old City, mostly settled in Middle Ages. Totally fascinating. Rally had about 250 paying customers, plus Israelis just hanging around. In Hurva Square, main square of Jewish Quarter. Misc. people spoke briefly. Star of show (in terms of substance) was Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Orthodox rabbi whose email list I am on and who emigrated from NYC to Israel. Riskin said (according to my notes) that "one of the most immoral sentences ever written was turn the other cheek. And one of the most moral sentences ever written was if a man comes to kill you, kill him first." Other speakers included mother of bombing victim, Natan Sharansky (Soviet refusenik turned Israeli pol), Sen. Torricell of NJ- none of them said anything I considered memorable.
Looked through papers online the next day. Major Israeli papers had small stories on Rally; no international coverage though. Maybe next year they will do better.
Before rally, learned that Israel has own conspiracy theorists: some guy was selling table full of books with titles like "Who Killed Yitzchak Rabin?" (His conclusion: Shimon Peres did it, or more specifically got his former bodyguard, who later become Rabin's bodyguard, to fire fatal shots).
Then walked through Jewish Quarter- fascinating! No obvious space for cars, though I saw one or two. Most could barely accommodate one car, and streets are maze not grid or cul de sac. Typically street pattern: each street flanked by numerous courtyards containing apts. Most residents (except richer ones) live in walkups. A few had apt entrances directly accessible from street; looked to me like latter group richer, had more space. (Not like USA where due to security concerns apt. dwellers want common entrances etc. to protect them from street crime). Lots of mini shuls, most interesting looking were Karaite synagogue (which I suspect was usually closed- Karaism is obscure Jewish sect that rejected Talmud and favored literal interpretation of Bible - very popular in early Middle Ages, dwindled when people realized that literalism led to some not-very-fun rules, like freezing in dark on Sabbath). And Ramban synagogues (founded by great Jewish Bible commentator Ramban, aka Nachmanides). Bought some souveniers here too of course.
So by 5:30 I remembered I had dinner date w/cousin-no vehicles inside Jewish Quarter, instead one goes to gates. So I bailed out of group, went to gate. Was tempted to take cab, but saw bus and pounced. Now you might ask "isn't it dangerous to take buses"? Tis true that terrorists do like to bomb them. But odds really pretty minimal if you are talking about just a ride or two. 1 million people board Israeli buses each day, and maybe 50 a year get blown up (100 over two years, in fact). So even if I was doing this every day my odds would be one in 20,000. But I wasn't. Real odds are 1 in 20,000 divided by 365 (about 1 in 7 million), which is very low indeed. I figured odds would be equally high of cab driver being terrorist, kidnapping me and killing me (i.e. almost zero).
I also wanted to take the bus for a couple of political reasons. First of all, I figured the bus company needed my solidarity and my money just as much as the souvenir sellers, maybe more so since it had gotten worse press. Second, as a transit activist at home I felt a special desire to support buses. (I wasn't only American riding bus either). Fare was 5.2 shekels, or about 1.25 in American dollars, cheaper than in most big American cities (Atlanta is 1.75, Buffalo 1.45, NYC 1.50)
Then I walked to Dov's apt., about a 40 minute walk. Went through relatively lush area called Talbiya, lots of street trees, cute little shops, presidential house nearby. Got sense this was upper class area. Housing stock still not that much different from rest of Jerusalem-- small apartment houses, probably 3 or 4 stories. President's house surrounded by walls and bushes, totally invisible from street unlike US White House. Not sure whether this improves security. At any rate, had dinner w/Dov and family and had nice time-noticed apt. a bit small, and that bathroom in separate room from shower/tub, which struck me as kind of a nuisance. Dov & his wife don't drive, but his son had car, dropped me off at hotel. I noticed that Jerusalem at night looks better than in day, in sense that lighting of signs conceals monotony of architecture (i.e. that everything brown). Noticed place named "Café Hillel"-amused me, because I realized that if Hillel alive today could sue for misappropriation of name.
After getting home, went to supermarket to get soda, extra gifts. Prices higher than in US for most but not all items. Among things I've seen in kosher shops in America, prices in US comparable to prices in Israel, instead of being higher due to import costs- I guess this means exchange rates don't favor tourists. Again, I was happy to be supporting the non-souvenir parts of the Israeli economy - I figure most American tourists pretty much limit their spending to hotels and Judaica, hardly my idea of the perfect foundations for a viable economy. (On the other hand, I'm not sure supermarkets are any more critical).
Noticed no pay phones- there were street phones but they only accept (1) phone cards or (2) collect phones. What a pain! (I almost made a collect call to Dov when I could not find his apt within the building address he had given me- but then I remembered I had address book which had better directions)
Wednesday - August 14: Began with faux pas. We (Rally visitors) mostly ate breakfast together at hotel, since it was included in price. Someone asked me what it was like to be Jew in Arkansas. Told him I had no anti-Semitism issue, but that I was slightly put off when I went to public events and heard the Jesus' name mentioned at end of prayer. I later learned that the fellow I was speaking to was a Jew for Jesus (Messianic Jews, I believe they call themselves today). Oops!
Thought about blowing off rest of group, taking bus to Yad Vashem and seeing whole place. Instead I decided to go with group; BIG mistake.
First place group went was Shaarey Zedek hospital. Incredibly nauseating and depressing; I listened to nurse talk about her experiences with suicide bombings, how some hospital staffers had had relatives die (she even brought out victim who survived one, talked about what it was like - feeling body bursting into flame, thinking this was last moment of life, praying, then being rescued),
Listening to nurse was emotional low point of trips - not just because of specific stuff she said, more the tone - I could tell she couldn't numb herself, her emotional nerve endings were totally raw. It seems to me that if you can't be desensitized to horrors of war,s you are probably not going to be able to win it - especially since Israelis, to a greater extent than their enemies, can always bail out and lead more comfortable lives in America. Unless there is peace soon, I feel confident in saying that that nurse will, by 2005, be either in America or in a mental hospital (assuming of course that she doesn't get blown up).
One or two things she said did grab me, and made me feel very depressed about Israel's chance of survival. She yammered about how every human life is precious; it struck me that if Americans had had that attitude in WW 2 (when, as I recall, we dispatched 100,000 each in Hiroshima and Dresden) Americans would now be speaking German and Japanese. She said war had been going on for TWO WHOLE YEARS! In Afghanistan, and probably in other places, war has gone on for 30 years and people deal with it (albeit not happily, I am sure). My spin: Israelis (and maybe even affluent societies generally) have a limited ability to handle this sort of horror; their comfort makes them soft. All in all, I began to wonder if Israel had much of a chance to survive.
Then we went on tour of hospital - we saw bomb shelters (now used for storage of stuff usable for chemical attacks) and parking lot (which can be used for chemical decontamination). Doctor who took us there seemed a bit less messed up than nurse, mentioned that there were occasional bombings in 70s.
While all this was going on I was getting dehydrated, starting to feel lightheaded-even though hospital inside, air conditioning was not in every corridor. I guess climate like this does not agree with me.
After all this, went to Ir David (City of David)- archaelogical site technically outside Old City, but really (according to tour guides) where Jerusalem started. Not sure whether this is supported by real archaeological evidence; guides said they identified this place based on calculations from Bible, which troubles me because relevant portions of Bible (Kings and Chronicles) probably written more for theological purposes than for historical purposes. At any rate, this area is supposedly where David built Jerusalem and made it his capitol. Every IDF soldier, after enlisting, is brought here, as if to show them: "This is why we're fighting - to preserve the Jewish state that began here." (Not sure if non-Jewish IDF soldiers brought here). Ir David a serious disappointment- everything we saw was reconstructed, kind of like Colonial Williamsburg. I liked the Ramat Rachel site better, it was more real, or at least looked more real-I thought I was seeing things that actually were 2800 years old (not that I really know a darn thing about it).
Then went to Hebrew University, site of last big suicide bombing. We had little service where various people (most notably embassies of Korea, Japan, USA) had sent condolence wreaths. Service was in courtyard where victims brought immediately after bombing. Rabbi gave brief speech, lit memorial candle. On the way back to tour bus I noticed Hebrew University law school, which was of course unscathed. (This fact begs for tasteless lawyer joke, I suppose - but I'm not going to be person to create it, at least not here, not now).
Interesting fact (according to tour guide, whose veracity may be iffy): 25% of slots at Hebrew Univ. reserved for Arabs.
After HU, we listened to one of Sharon's assistants yammer; man spoke very well but was totally self-contradictory. On one hand, he vowed to bring terrorists to justice. On the other, he said that if Israel just "isolated" Arafat, maybe he'd go away (and presumably be replaced by someone nicer, ha ha ha). I was filled with contempt for Israeli politicians after listening to him - thought they had no idea what they were doing. But to be fair they may be in impossible situation; they might be afraid of wrath of USA if they played by USA type rules (i.e. bombing the hell out of Arabs till their cities are total rubble a la Dresden or Hiroshima). He said Israel "presenting a model of a fighting democracy", "democracy has a future", urged us to move to Israel. Unfortunately, none of these comments made me more hopeful.
Wed. night was more uplifting by far. Forgot about politics, went to wedding of distant cousin (who lived in Hebron, I think) south of city with cousin Dov- first Orthodox wedding I had ever been to (actually only 4th wedding I had been to in life, unless there are weddings I have been to as kid and forgot about). Took bus to wedding- that seemed to be what Dov wanted, and I sure wasn't going to more of a wuss than my 70 something cousin (plus as a foreigner, I figured I wasn't knowledgeable enough to exercise my own judgment if I had a native to defer to). Very different in a variety of ways from what I was used to:
*Almost nobody wearing a tie. I saw no tuxes, 2 men wearing dark suits (one from St. Louis, one was groom's father), 3 or 4 others (myself included) in sport coats and ties. Groom wore open white shirt and white robe (called a kittel) over it. Most people didn't even tuck in shirt; dominant uniform untucked white shirt.
*So many guests with long hair and beards (more likely Hasids than Hippies) that I thought I was at a Jesus impersonators convention. (In fact, I thought bride's father looked roughly like Jesus would look like if he had lived to be 50 and was balding and wearing glasses).
*Groom walked down steps, accompanied by men playing music. Rabbi (also no tie) said something in Hebrew (I think reciting marriage contract terms), various other people said other stuff in Hebrew (I think prayers). Then we sat down and ate.
*No coed dancing- men dance with men in long circle, women with women. I participated. (Dov later explained that this was customary in Orthodox weddings, but it was not "ultra-Orthodox"-at ultra-Orthodox weddings, men and women don't just dance in separate rooms, they eat in separate rooms).
Met numerous distant relatives, whom I liked in varying degrees.
Thursday - August 15: Began day with intense weirdness. Sat at hotel breakfast table with various missionaries, Jews for Jesus, etc. (they were only people in hotel restaurant at time). They were all anoiting each other with olive oil; I accepted this not to be rude, but wiped it off as soon as I went to the buffet table since I suspected that even though I wasn't enough of a Talmud scholar to KNOW it wasn't appropriate, I guessed that I was on the wrong side of a line here. Then they started debating whether they wanted Third Temple to come or not; one said yes because it was necessary for Christ to come again, another said no because she did not like animal sacrifices and because Antichrist might come. Rather than presenting the Jewish perspective, I thought this would be an excellent time to declare self finished.
Read Israeli papers (or English language edition of same) in morning: saw poll that 50% of Palestinians Arabs optimistic about future, only 30% pessimistic. (By contrast, Israelis less optimistic- obviously Arabs think they are winning). Same poll showed when asked who was winning, Israelis split evenly about "us", "the Arabs", and "no one." My interpretation: Arabs think that if they randomly murder enough Jews without fear of collective retaliation, Jews will get demoralized and move. Nothing convinced me that they are wrong.
Then walked to Yehid Moshe, first Jewish area outside Old City (built in 1840s by British philanthropist). Red roofs, so only hint of non-brown color in Jerusalem housing. Very comfortable looking area- lots of small gardens outside apts. (not as good as Buffalo gardens to be sure, but climate not great for gardening I guess). Still apartments rather than detached houses. Housing in courtyards; people had cars but they were all in parking lot far from apts. - city very much a walking city, as you can guess (though lots of jerks park on sidewalk).
Saw Old City from Yehid Moshe- walked up, discovered Armenian Quarter. I walked about a block, was set upon by would-be tour guides in search of my money. Decided that since I had to leave for airport in a couple of hours and was running out of shekels, I had neither the time nor the $ for this sort of thing, so I quickly bailed out. Based on my guidebook, Armenian Quarter wasn't all that interesting anyhow- general urban design seemed pretty much same as Jewish Quarter.
Then walked towards hotel, tried to think of something interesting I could see in last hour or two. Went to Skirball Museum (tiny archaeological museum near Reform rabbinical seminary) and saw a few artifacts from Biblical times. Most interesting- a "victory stele" by some local pagan king talking about how he defeated and killed king of Israel (northern kingdom of Isreal) and of "house of David." (presumably southern kingdom, covered southern half of what is now Israel) Bible says, by contrast, same two kings were killed by palace coup. Wonder who's lying? I suspect pagan- he might have defeated them in battle, claimed to have killed them just to brag. But I guess we will never know. At any rate, this stele does corroborate that these kingdoms existed.
Also saw idols from territory of Jewish tribe Dan. Concrete evidence of idolatry, or just evidence that pagans lived nearby? I guess we will never know.
Then went to airport- much less security on way back than on way to Israel. El Al equally careful re checking checked bags, but didn't make us take off sport coats or even empty pockets (by contrast, at LaGuardia you have to empty ALL pockets and take off shoes twice). Sat next to American turned Israeli on flight; my sense was that war had pretty much gotten to her hard-bolstered my lack of confidence in Israel's fighting spirit. Got home to NYC Thursday night, spent night w/friend, came home Friday night.
Overall, glad I went - but probably a little more pessimistic than when I came.