Friday, June 8, 2012

Starting Off on the Right Foot and Then Spraining It

No, faithful reader, I have not deserted you. From before Pesach, I was engaged in several very convoluted editing jobs that have taxed my strength and spirit. Now I am done and have received my compensation via PayPal -- more than enough to cover the cost of a new iPad. (Every over-age boy is entitled to a new toy once in a while!) And so we will pick up as if there had been no interruption. I will be interspersing this series about this one week in our life with another on the Encore! production of My Fair Lady in which I have a small part in the chorus -- another venture which took up more of my time than I'd like to think about.

If only everything in life that started out chock-full of promise would end on such a high note. But, alas, everything is not always that simple. Let us consider our recent Pesach as a prime example of how one can be blind-sided while traveling along life's little journey when everything seems to be kol b'seder, or in the vernacular, groovin' right along. So let's start at the beginning when everything was hunky-dory.

Generally speaking, we all have our little routines and rituals for Pesach: how and what we clean or don't clean, where and when to shop and what to buy, and the biggie: who's coming to the seder(s).
There are certain routines which we have developed in the five Pesachs we have been here in The Land, although, in truth, some of our activities have become so simplified that they hardly merit being called routines. We just walk into our local supermarket anytime before the holiday starts and buy whatever we need -- they're not going to run out of anything! If I need to have any utensils kashered for Pesach, two days before, I just walk over to a shul five minutes away, where the yeshivah bochers have set up operations with tubs of boiling water and blow torches. When I want to burn my hametz the morning before the holiday, I just walk downstairs. There's always somebody with a good blaze going next to the trash dumpsters, and I just throw my stuff on top. As we did in The States, we have separate cabinets for our Pesach utensils in our new kitchen. Close the regular cabinets (a little duct tape for good measure, open the Pesach ones, and we're good to go.)

We have a standing invitation to join our friends Ron and Esther at their ONE seder (time off for good behavior!). We supply the shmurah matzoh (we have settled on two kilograms as being more than enough); we bring some wine, they have some wine; they supply everything else, including Ron's running commentary (I stress "running" rather than "plodding"), allowing us to be on our way home up the hill before the clock strikes 12. (One fellow at shul told me that they had set a family record, finishing at 3:15, the earliest they had ever ended. Egads!) Plus Ron and I are in full agreement that when it says a "kzayit," as a measure of how much matzoh and other stuff you're supposed to eat, an olive is an olive is an olive -- to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, who knew her roses, if not much about things Jewish -- not the equivalent of an ostrich egg! We (Ron and I, not Gertrude) are also of the opinion that "maror" (bitter herbs) does not mean horseradish, which is neither bitter nor an herb. A number of the green things that actually do qualify are indigenous to The Land, for example, the original kind of lettuce, much more pungent than the romaine now sold commercially. (One of our local Anglo rabbis told us that he picks the wild lettuce growing in his garden.) So no need to gorge ourselves on matzoh or destroy our taste buds for no good reason.

One established custom here in The Land is to get out and go somewhere during the intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot -- and I don't mean to Great Adventures. Here anywhere you go is a great adventure of sorts. We always try to go on a tiyul or two, and this year we found two tiyulim of interest, both sponsored by the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), which would involve some but not a lot of bus traveling on our part. We started with "Springs in Spring," which began in Kfar Etzion, one of the many small communities near Efrat in Gush Etzion (that's the area south of Jerusalem). There's a regular Egged bus which runs every hour or so which took us to the one bus stop in this kibbutz community. We quickly realized that there was another couple who had gotten off the bus with us, obviously going on the same tour as we were. We were about half an hour early and so what was there to do but introduce ourselves and begin playing everyone's favorite game, Jewish Geography. It would not have been that surprising to find that they would know somebody or even several people that we do, provided that these several people have something in common. But this couple knew our friends Steve and Ettie, who moved from Albany, NY to Ma'ale Adumim some fifteen or twenty years ago AND also our hiking buddy Danny, a life-long Teaneck resident-- good folks who have absolutely no connection to one another. Try that one out yourself. Pick two people you know at random from different places and different times in your life and then go about finding a third person who knows both of them. See how long it takes you!

Speaking of Danny, he would have enjoyed this jaunt through the hills of Gush Etzion, although he's used to much longer treks. Our guide was quite knowledgeable, but he had made one serious mistake, not indicating in the publicity the degree of difficulty of this venture. Most of the AACI walks are virtually strolls down the lane, but this one involved scrambling down a steep path, treading gingerly from stone to stone. A lot of the folks on this trip, most them seriously middle-aged, were not in proper footwear. It took almost twenty minutes for one guy in flip-flops to get down the fifty yards to the bottom. My problem was a little different. Just as we were about to start the tiyul, I twisted my ankle (ouch!). I've done similar things in the past and just walked it off. But I've never had to hike it off. I had no choice but to keep walking, although I was out of commission for two days thereafter. Still it was a fine walk in glorious spring weather. That was, in fact, the whole point of "Spring and Springs", to go gallivanting through the Gush during that short span of time when the hills and valleys are all in bloom; and to locate the various mayanot that flow hither and yon throughout the area.

What I liked about this tour was its singular combination of nature and local history. We began right near the rag-tag collection of stores in Kfar Etzion at the site of an ancient olive oil press whose stone foundation is still visible. There are many such remains of homes and religious or commercial enterprises scattered throughout The Land. Still, respect must be paid to each and everyone of them; each ancient community in which they are found is part of our collective patrimony, evidence that we were once there and a reason for us to return. After stopping briefly at a spring which had been turned into a local watering-hole -- a good place for youngsters to take a quick dip and families to enjoy a Chol Hamoed picnic -- we wound up in the neighboring community of Bat Ayin, which houses a varied collection of Bratslav Hassidim and is probably the only place I can think of where you can find a car spray-painted with the ubiquitous "Na Nach Nachma Nachman meUman." (which means something like 'Please rest in peace Nachman from Uman' -- although I'm convinced that this elusive figure would have been a lot happier if they were to take what's left of his remains out of the Ukraine and knocked off the grafitti which has spread throughout The Land like kudzu). Along the way, we passed a middle-aged Bratzlaver (the same guy who owned the car) in his white shirt, watering his horse. That's Bat Ayin!

In keeping with the theme of our excursion, we finished with a stop at the remains of a mikvah that was in use two millenia ago. We had almost made a complete circle, and the walk back to our starting point in Kfar Etzion was about fifteen minutes. Our bus going back was scheduled to arrive for an additional half an hour, plenty of time to poke our noses into the legendary Naot shoe outlet, one of the several stores nestled inside Kfar Etzion. There are some outlet stores in The Land, but, just like in The States, you have to know where they are. Naot makes a good selection of women's sandals -- not cheap -- and the outlet store has them and a lot more footwear for men and women at a better price than you'd get on Jaffa St. back in Jerusalem. Should I or shouldn't I mention that Barbara ("I hate shopping") gave in and purchased a pair of sandals?

Two days later, having sufficiently rested my sore ankle by forgoing a concert I had planned to attend that evening in Jerusalem and forgoing a trip to Tel Aviv with Barbara and Natania the next day to see married daughter Tina and husband David, we were set for the second excursion, one in the middle of Jerusalem. The planned route was to start at the parking lot next to the Mormon University and snake our way down and around until we reached the City of David, south of The Old City. Now I sort of, sort of, knew where the Mormon campus is -- near the Hebrew U. campus on Mount Scopus. But sometimes 'sort of'' won't do -- especially if you're walking, and 'sort of' is in actuality two miles away. Why not call up the lady leading the tour? She'll know exactly where to go, won't she? Note to self for future reference: if you're considering going on a tour ,and the guide can't give you exact directions to where they're starting, reconsider your plans.

If we had listened to her, we would have wound up in the middle of a nearby Arab neighborhood -- not part of the itinerary. Instead, we figured out on our own where to go -- sort of -- and wound up at the top of the hill where we needed to be, looking down at the Emek Tzurim National Park. Just in time to wait twenty minutes for some stragglers coming by car, who had gotten lost ten miles away. More than enough time for me to look around down below, I could see the sifting site, the same place where I had gone sifting with Myron and Esther a number of years before. The Muslim authorities who were given control of the Temple Mount had built a large underground mosque, in the process digging up I-don't-know how many tons of earth from that holy place and dumping it unceremoniously in the nearby Kidron Valley. So, using our usual ability to turn lemons into a palatable drink, the Israeli archaeological authorities moved the whole kit and caboodle to the site where it is now and set to work sifting through this rubble, in the process finding valuable artifacts that had remained buried since at least the destruction of the Second Temple

Our little group began by walking down the hill towards the sifting site. What I remember to be a fairly small operation has over the years been expanded tremendously. As it was during the school vacation, the place was packed with Jewish youth, all sifting with the same intensity as a rabbi looking for bugs in lettuce. They weren't the only youngsters in the area. We could hear and then see a group of local girls in their school uniforms chanting in Arabic. Better that I don't know what they were saying! I should also add another bit of local color: just as we were about to head on, a flock of goats marched down the hill and headed of to parts unknown!

Now I'll give our guide credit. She had written that we would be going through parts of Jerusalem that we normally wouldn't go through -- and she was right. We began hiking through the park area, which now has a walking trail -- thanks to the new Jerusalem mayor -- up to a look-out point paid for by a wealthy Mormon, on and around, until we came to an area filled with churches and monasteries and scads of Christian tourists -- it also being the Easter season. Our guide took a group into one of the churches to see I-don't-know-what -- as I politely remained outside. We then continued, walking along the road on the east side of The Old City, passing more well-appointed churches built in the last hundred years and large grave sites of wealthy Jews who were alive when the Second Temple was still standing. The final stop on the tour was supposed to be at the City of David, directly south of The Dung Gate. By this time, Natania (who was with us for this trip) and I had overdosed on guide-ese and in desperate need of caffeine and other sustaining nourishment, headed off into The Old City, where Barbara would meet us later.

I've had a number of discussions with our friend Jeff, who has taken the tour guide course and has had the opportunity of watching the finest English-speaking guides in The Land, about what makes a good tour guide. What distinguishes the best from the rest? Some of it is personality and good-old-fashioned people skills -- those you can't teach. Some of it, though, is the willingness to tell a story, or, to put it a different way, to stay on message -- something a person can learn to do. Why are you telling me about this; what's the point? If you're on a tour, and the guide is just passing on a random collection of information, at some point you start tuning out. Likewise if the guide is intent on passing along every last tidbit of information he has ever learned about a particular point of interest. MEGO! (My eyes glazeth over.) To be fair, I should say that I am not the best listener on any tour; at some point, I usually wander away from the group in search of something to photograph. But I can usually tell if I'm missing anything important the guide is saying or if I'm simply wandering away to avoid the incessant drone.

Anyway, we did get to see parts of Jerusalem we had never been to before; and if I had to start over on my own and retrace my steps, I'm not so sure I could do it. So even if I didn't learn a lot about what I saw, it was worth the effort. No one can say we didn't do our part in Walking The Land! However, there was still plenty of time to do other things, which I did, and I will share with you in the next episode.

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