January 1, 2012 My israel journal
I finally finished my journal about my recent trip to Israel. For comparison’s sake, notes from my last trip (2002) are here.
Monday dec19th– flew to Israel. Most moving moment: during the morning, I noticed people putting on tefillin and praying as we reached what I assume was the Alps. Fortunately I had not checked mine so I did the same. I couldn’t help thinking of the saying by Samson Raphael Hirsch, the father of modern Orthodoxy, who wrote: “When I shall stand before God, the Eternal One will ask me: Did you see my Alps?”
Arrived in airport in late afternoon- was surprised by number of women wearing headscarves (in the US, Orthodox women often cover their hair but are more likely to wear wigs or hats- not sure what to make of it, whether to think of it as more stringent, less stringent, etc).
At any rate, got to where we were staying so late that we couldn’t do much of anything though. In Jerusalem we stayed in the Holyland Tower, a high-rise condo in Southwest Jerusalem. The building was quite nice but this part of the city, due to dreadful street design, was an extreme example of “density without walkability”: the building is a high-rise condo near a neighborhood of low-rise apartment buildings (thus the density part) but the nearby streets were an incoherent mess of loops, so even places that were in theory within walking distance were inaccessible by foot unless you really knew what you were doing (a category that did not include me or my family). Built in the 1950s, this area is, I guess, kind of the Jerusalem equivalent of the American 50s inner suburb, and equally unimpressive by my lights.
So by and large we took cabs everywhere (at least until after my parents left town- the last day in Jerusalem I was on my own and by this time knew a little more). At night we took a cab to the Jerusalem Mall, which was a little over a mile away- not too far for me, but too far for my eightysomething parents and my sister.
Tuesday the 20th: our first tourist-type experiences. I got up in the morning early enough to try to find a synagogue to do morning prayers in. The neighborhood to the north, Bayit Vagan, is also a confusing mess of looplike streets. (To find where I was, go toCassuto Street inJerusalem in Google Maps). My guess is it took me 45 minutes to get there on foot, but it was probably about 2/3 of a mile away in reality. Wound up in shtiebl (tiny one-room synagogue)- not much to say about it, it was pretty similar to shtiebls in Queens. The only difference was when someone wanted me to switch seats he said so in Hebrew. At least I’m guessing that’s what he said, since after I moved to the back he didn’t say anything!
Wed 21- First serious tourist experience. My brother had gotten a guide for Wed. and Thurs. (also the rest of the time, but this was the only time we met him except for Shabbat). The guide began by emphasizing one broad point: “What you see is not always what you get.” For example, one might think the Old City is the oldest part of the city- but in fact, even the oldest parts of it mostly date from Ottoman times (1500s or so), and in fact many buildings are even newer because Arab armies bombed much of the Old City to smithereens in 1948, and after Israel retook the Old City in 1967 it rebuilt much of the area in similar stone; only if you look carefully do you notice that some areas are newer-looking (which means built in 1967). On the other hand, there are some places (a wall here, a wall there) that are pre-Ottoman.
We spent the late morning and early afternoon at the City of David, the part of the city that apparently dates from First Temple times. (Not necessarily from time of David- there is definitely historical evidence of settlement before the First Temple’s destruction in 586, but no evidence stretching all the way to David or Solomon). No real structures left except for a toilet and municipal water supplies (which according to the Bible were built by Hezekiah in the 700s), but lots of random rocks that houses had been built on. Still pretty amazing to see walls built in times of prophets. The area is also on the wrong side of the West Jerusalem/East Jerusalem border, which looked slightly poorer and more trash-infested than the Jewish part of the city. (My guide noted that the municipal government and neighborhood residents blamed each other; govt. said people didn’t pay for garbage pickup, while residents said the govt. didn’t provide enough to justify payment). We also saw walked up a tunnel that had been used for some sort of waste in Second Temple times, and walked along the sides of the Western Wall that aren’t used for prayer. We finished up afternoon by going to Aish Hatorah building and seeing magnificent views from balcony, then dinner with cousins who live in Old City.
Thur 22- Walked through Christian quarter, which seemed less residential (due to large facilities such as monasteries) but also older (probably because less 1948 bomb damage) on the way to theDamascusgate of the Old City. This was interesting primarily because while the rest of the Old City borders Jewish areas, this gate borders an Arab neighborhood so we got a tiny taste of an Arab area (much nicer than the Arab area around the City of David, with hotels restaurants etc.- my guess is that they get a decent share of the tourist trade, since hotel rates there cheaper than on Jewish side). Then we went to a cave that apparently had been used as a quarry since Second Temple times, so rocks for Western Wall might have come from there. At night we went to Mamila Mall near Old City – not that exciting except for magnificent donut collection at Roladin (lots of flavors but frankly not the best donuts I’d had on the trip) (Why are donuts important you may ask? Because they are major Hanukah food in Israel, kind of like latkes inUSA).
The Old Citygenerally is pretty amazing, not just because of its age but because it is one of the most walking-oriented places I have ever seen. I saw a few cars here and there but by and large people with cars park them on lots on the fringe of the neighborhood. Nevertheless it is not just a tourist trap; there are a few small stores here and there for sundries (though I didn’t see anything remotely supermarket like, and I suspect most people walk or use public transit to larger markets) and lots of stores for sundries.
Fri 23- Spent morning at Yad Vashem, Israeli holocaust museum. I had been there nine years ago, but then it was much smaller. Now it seems almost encyclopedic, with exhibits for individual camps and ghettoes (e.g. Kovno ghetto,Warsaw ghetto, Auschwitz). To a much greater extent than museum in DC, it seems to focus on individuals’ lives, and how they dealt with the challenges of the ghettoes, camps etc. The end of the exhibit seemed to emphasize survivors who settled in Israel, not surprisingly for a museum there. Was very amazed by comprehensiveness, level of factual detail; it seems so much more concrete and less abstract than DC museum. Wish I had budgeted more time: I think we spent an hour and a half there and could have used one or two more.
Went to Western Wall for afternoon and early evening services; Wall is jam-packed on Friday night as you might expect, with Jews of all sorts of backgrounds. One neat thing that’s new: part of Western Wall that was solid rock has been partially excavated and is now used as additional prayer space (very useful if it rains!) Then went to shabbos dinner (party in honor of my niece’s bat mitzvah and parents’ 60th wedding anniversary that day). Over shabbos I stayed in the apt my brother had rented in Baka, a 1920s neighborhood which is basically low-rise, well-off, and walkable, kind of like aJerusalem equivalent of American 20s streetcar suburbs like Jacksonville’s San Marco or Atlanta’s Virginia-Highlands.
Sat 24- in morning went to Hurva synagogue in Old City not far from western wall, an institution with quite an unusual story. The first synagogue on that site was founded in the 1700s but went broke and was destroyed by angry non-Jewish creditors. (NOTE: would such no-nonsense policies have deterred housing crisis? Hmmm…) The second synagogue was destroyed in 1948 by Arabs during the Israeli war of independence. The third was just recently completed. The building was small but magnificent; people seemed mostly yeshivish (“black hat” but not Hasidic, which usually means shorter beards and fewer distinct customs, but still to the right of modern Orthodoxy). Service was quicker and more “no nonsense” than in an American shul: no Kiddush after services or long sermon (nor surprisingly since it is an a highly touristy area and probably doesn’t have the kind of stable membership than shuls in other areas). For people who wanted more, there was some sort of Torah-related speech after the service but it was all in Hebrew and we (in this case me and brother) had to be at lunch.
Then we went to lunch at a friend of my brother and sister in law’s, a pretty amazing household in the Old City that sponsors huge Shabbat meals (I think 20 or 30 at lunch, then 50 at the third meal in the late afternoon). Lots of Israeli soldiers, and hosts went out of way to point them out and to phrase them; hosts seemed to me to be role models of what “dati leumi” should be (dati leumi, as I understand the term, means Orthodox Zionists, who tend to be roughly comparable to American modern Orthodox). One solider had lived inJerusalemall his life, and not been to Wall or Old City till recently, which kind of surprised me. Prayed mincha (afternoon service) on their balcony, where I could see the Islamic Dome of the Rock on the Temple mount.
On a more spiritual note: I really was moved by praying at and near the Wall, primarily I think because I was more connected to the prayers. So many prayers refer to the Temple and Jerusalem, and they all seem quite abstract to me when I am in the US (or even elsewhere in Israel)- much less so than when I could see the Temple (or at least the Temple’s retaining wall). (NOTE: If this paragraph is not spiritual-sounding or emotional enough for your tastes, I apologize for being a typical, emotionally-tongue-tied American male who doesn’t know how to verbalize his feelings well. Please forgive me).
Sun. 25: parents left town so I have a little free time to myself. Had to spend morning switching places to live (from condo complex to nearby hotel). Then took bus to city bus station to get oriented; I was hoping to get a systemwide map and then catch the city’s new light rail system. As it turned out I was only 1 for 2; there apparently is no citywide map (boo, hiss- though on the positive side buses do give change and run very frequently, so if you know what you are doing it is a pretty darn good bus system). Took light rail to Mahane Yehuda market, a giant market where almost everything is kosher. (By ‘market’ I mean not a supermarket but an outdoor market with lots of little independent shops, kind of like West Side Market in Cleveland, Auburn Avenue Market in Atlanta, or best of all Philly’s Reading Terminal Market). Spent an hour and a half and even then had to tear myself away; I think I could have lived there! Wanted to do something else with day so walked along light rail line to City Hall, getting to see the downtown-like area near Ben Yehuda Street. This area was, I think, built around the turn of the 20th century, younger than the Old City but much older than 1950s SW Jerusalem. Lots of what passes for discount retail here, but I think some of what costs $1 in the states costs around $2-3 there. I was originally planning to visit Mea Shearim (superreligious area) but ran out of time. At night met brother and various cousins.
Mon. 26: now that I don’t have to be with family, went to Tel Aviv and got to see the real (non-Jerusalem) Israel. After two days of shoe-destroying rain, it was great to be in the warm sun of Tel Aviv, which felt like what Los Angeles could have been – warm and sunny, but with trees and more walkability. I could almost hear Randy Newman’s song “I Love L.A“. Other than weather, a big difference between Tel Aviv and Jerusalemwas religiousity: in Jerusalem I saw a lot more women in headscarves and men in yarmulkes and black hats. (Black hats are common among so-called “ultra-Orthodox’ or ‘haredi Jews”‘; modern Orthodox Jews often wear a yarmulke in public but not the hat). In Tel Aviv, I saw a lot more women wearing pants. I stayed in part of a downtown apartment so I definitely felt like I was part of the action. A local planning professor and her assistant met me and gave me something of a city tour; the main highlights were the Mediterranean beach and also Neve Tzedek (one of the city’s oldest areas, built in the 1880s). Neve Tzedek is almost, but not quite, a pre-auto community- the streets are broader than in, say, Jerusalem’s Old City (which has very little space for cars except at parking lots on its edges) but narrower than elsewhere. Some houses were very nicely painted and fixed up, while others were allowed to sit derelict: my hosts explained that this sad state of affairs was because many buildings were condos and the law requires a consensus for major changes in such buildings, and because some owners were sitting on buildings waiting for values to appreciate. (I didn’t see anything like this in Jerusalem or anyplace else I’ve been).
Most interesting thing about beach was discussion of development policy: federal Israeli govt. very strict about preventing new development on beach, though I’m not sure why. Right now beach has lots of high-rises but certainly not as much of a wall of them as in some parts ofFla.
Tue. The 27th: serious walking-around in Tel Aviv. Did morning prayers on beach since I got up too late for any minyan (Tel Aviv has some intown synagogues but they keep very early hours). Then visited what’s left of Yemenite quarter (similar to Neve Tzedek but slightly more rundown).
Then went back to downtown to look at Rothschild Street, apparently the main area for the “White City” buildings. Tel Aviv is sometimes known as the “White City” because of its profusion of (often white) Bauhaus buildings, mostly built by German refuges from Hitler. Some of these buildings are quite attractive, though others have become rundown over time; Bauhaus buildings don’t always age well. Since these buildings were near Israeli Independence Hall; I took time for that. Independence Hall is where David ben-Gurion declared Israeli independence in 1948. After that I walked to Old Jaffa, an area like Jerusalem’s Old City except slightly younger (1700s i think), historically more Arab-dominated, and generally a bit more touristy and less of a real neighborhood. My host invited me to a party at her apartment; I met people from Latvia, Belgium, South Africa, and Sweden. One thing that grabbed me was that many of them lived in nearby suburbs because they were priced out of Tel Aviv. Evidently, there are two types of cities in the modern world: cities were people want to live in but often can’t afford to (e.g. Tel Aviv, San Francisco) and cities where people don’t want to live but may be too poor to live elsewhere (e.g. Detroit).
Wed. 28: Didn’t do that much- walked to a couple of smaller museums (City Museum and residence of 1920s poet Chaim Bialik), neither of which took too long. The City Museum was focused on 1920s mayor Meir Dizengoff, and gave some sense of early Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv was founded at the dawn of the 20th century, and (unlike Jerusalem and Haifa) was always a Jewish city. Its growth was explosive until the last few decades, when like many Western cities it lost population and then grew again.
The most exciting part was my very last trip. I took a city bus all the way to Bnei Barak, a very Hasidic-dominated inner suburb of Tel Aviv. I’d heard all these wild stories about haredi society- for example, women having to walk on the opposite site of men on the street. I was relieved to notice that Bnei Barak’s residents were no more extreme than those of Brooklyn’s Boro Park (which, on the other hand, would still probably seem pretty extreme to 99 percent of American Jews). Women were even wearing wigs instead of headscarves (NOTE: I’m assuming this is more moderate because it is less obviously distinctive, but is this a valid assumption? not sure- maybe just fashions different in different places). At any rate like a bigger poorer Boro Park. In both places there is a “minyan factory’ with constant minyans, and I davened mincha (afternoon prayer) there. Biggest difference: Boro Park minyan factory has one or two minyans at a time, Bnei Brak one half a dozen just on first floor (and maybe more on upper floors too as far as I could tell). I was actually less out of place in Bnei Park, since there were a couple of other modern looking guys in my minyan, not sure whether they were tourists too.
At any rate, flew home on Wed. night.