Sunday, May 25, 2008

"Lifnei Herodion

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!Nothing beside remains. Round the decayOf that colossal Wreck, boundless and bareThe lone and level sands stretch far away.
(from “Ozymandias” by Percy Byshe Shelley)
Smola. Lifnei Herodion. There are occasions when we take a munit (taxi) back from the center of town, usually with our groceries, or, on rare occasions, get a ride with a friend. When we get to the top of our street, and we need to give specific directions to find our house, invariably one of us will say “Smola. Lifnei Herodion.” Our little section of Maale Adumim is known as Hamitzadim. It consists of one main horseshoe shaped street, called for convenience sake Hamitzadim, and two intersecting streets, first, Horkania and then, Herodion. And there we are at number 33, on the left side as you are going down the hill, right before Herodion.
One thing I have noticed about street names in general. People accept them as identifiers, but rarely consider their meaning. Some places, like New York City, use numbered streets. It’s hard to quarrel with E. 208 St, where I grew up in the Bronx (even though it was nowhere near E. 207 St. or E. 209 St, and I don’t think there was ever a W. 208 St; but we’ll ignore that). The other streets in my neighborhood, the ones with names, were familiar to us from American history: Rochambeau, Steuben, Kossuth, Hull Ave., all named for heroes in the American Revolution or the War of 1812. But as I moved away from my childhood home, the connections to the street names became less and less clear. The first apartment of my own, still in The Bronx, was on College Ave., but there was no institution of higher learning anywhere near where I lived (unlike University Place, which was near the Bronx campus of NYU). In Passaic, we lived on High St., which was higher up the hill from Main Ave., but lower than the next street, Pennington, which was in fact on the top of the hill. In Teaneck, many of the streets seemed to be named for families that lived there long ago: Churchill, Winthrop, Garrison, Grayson, Carlton, Cranford. I had no idea who these people were or when they lived there; nor can I imagine how I would have done any research. But after a while I realized that even when I did know (for example, that Votee Park was named after Milton Votee, a long-deceased former mayor) it added no meaning to my life. And I don’t think I was alone. I suspect that for Congregation Beth Aaron as a group, both the old-timers who had been living there for twenty or thirty years or the younger crowd moving in, Queen Anne Road was simply where the shul was, with no connection to any royal family or personage.
Here a little bit east of Yerushalayim, most of our streets have some connection to The Land or The Torah. Now when I walk to my current synagogue, Mussar Avicha, which is in the neighboring Clei Shir (musical instruments section), I go past Hagittit (“a musical instrument named after the town of Gath,” according to Rashi). Psalm 81, which is said every Thursday, sounds like a street map of that area: Hatof (drum), Hanevel (lyre), and of course Hashofar, names which any schoolchild here can identify. Nonetheless, I hadn’t given much thought to Herodion, named for the fortress south of Jerusalem built by Herod “The Great,” that same Herod who, despite his ignoble lineage, ruled over Judea for thirty four years, expanded the Temple Mount, rebuilt the Second Beit Hamikdash, built cities, excavated harbors, and remade a mountain to house this grand complex. I should add that he also murdered most of his family.
My ignorance would soon come to an end. We had signed up for a tiyul to Herodion for Sunday, April 27. We here in The Land were through with Pesach, while those of you still in Exile were sentenced to one more day of chewing matzoh, with its concomitant damage to one’s intestines. To be fair, we too had an ordeal, undergoing a surreal sharav (heat wave) during most of the intermediate days. The temperature in Jerusalem at several times reached close to 100° F., not hot enough to stop sundry Hassidim from sporting their shtreimels, but beyond the comfort zone for most of us. Nonetheless, schools were closed, many people were off from work, and it was time to travel the Land. Barbara and I had taken a number of tiyulim, of which I remember precious little because of the heat, but we could see everywhere we went how many Israelis, by car or by tour bus, were visiting the parks, nature preserves, or historic sites that cover our tiny country. I read later that an estimated two million Israelis visited one of the sixty three national park and reserves during these intermediate days. That’s a third of the country! That would be like a hundred million Americans visiting Yellowstone, Yosemite, etc. the week of July 4th.

Fortunately for everyone, the sharav finally broke as Pesach ended, and it would be perfect weather to visit Herodion, fifteen kilometers from the southern edge of the city. The tiyul we were going on was sponsored by an organization called Tanachtiyulim, and therein lies one more story. Ezra Rosenfeld is one of the many Anglo-Israelis I have met who have reinvented themselves in The Land. For many years he was part of the administration of Tzomet (or Zomet), an organization which, among other things, uses scientific knowledge to provide technological solutions to issues of Jewish law (like running a hospital on Shabbat). One day, Ezra decided that he had spent too much time behind a computer and decided that he wanted to get out into the fresh air. He had seen over the years the creation of several organizations which gave tours visiting sites of historical and Biblical interest and decided to see if there was a market for these tours, catering to an Anglo crowd. He had been in business for less than one year, and was working hard to make these tours as exciting and factual as possible.

The guide for this tiyul was his neighbor, Aryeh Routenberg, another man who had reinvented himself. He had started out in life as a New Englander; once he moved to Israel, he decided that he was now an official Israeli, and for all intents and purposes spoke only Hebrew. Ezra had practically begged him to conduct tours in English for him. He was touted as the best tour guide in Israel, and, in a crowded field, he is at the top.

And so we were on our way, a mixed group of part time and full time Anglo-Israelis and some tourists, one young man studying in yeshiva, another having made aliyah, and one elderly couple that no one thought would make it through the day, but who held up surprisingly well. As promised, we arrived at Herodion on the new road in about fifteen minutes from the southern part of Jerusalem, passing Beit Lechem – where no Israeli citizen is allowed to go – along the way, and disembarked at a parking lot in the lower part of this national park. There we were, standing in a flat field where the lower part of this enormous complex had stood: the large pool used for swimming and boating, the bath house, (both requiring elaborate systems to bring in water, a rare commodity in the desert), the large area in the distance on which Herod’s elaborate funeral procession had been staged. Aryeh was continuing his running commentary, giving us some needed historical background, and explaining what these glorified piles of rocks had once been. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed some activity in what seemed to be an abandoned structure right off the main road. No, it was not abandoned; there was a Bedouin family living in this hovel. I began to think of Ozymandias and the ephemeral nature of monuments to oneself.

Of course, Ozymandias did not have Ehud Etzer at his disposal. This eminent Israeli archaeologist has spent the last thirty years excavating at Herodion (taking over from a French team which was digging when this area was under Jordanian control), all the while looking for the long lost site of Herod’s tomb. If you are up on your archaeology, you will, of course, remember that Etzer’s team stumbled upon it – half way up the mountain, not where anyone had thought to look – just about a year ago. To see what all the fuss is all about, we got back on the bus and were driven to the upper parking lot. Before we began our short journey to the remains of Herod’s palace and the site of his tomb, most of us stopped to admire the view, looking down and around at the surrounding countryside, a patchwork of barren land, Bedouin homes, and a little bit southwest of us, the community of Tekoa with its red roofs, distinctive of Israeli homes. Two things crossed my mind: a recent discussion and an obscure board game that I used to watch thirty five years ago.

Directly after the expulsion of the people from Gaza and the attendant discussion of how this fiasco could have occurred, there was an idea that the National-Religious community had spent insufficient resources in a dialogue with the rest of the Israeli community to explain the importance of a Jewish presence in Gaza and the futility of abandoning land to the PLO. One of my friends in Teaneck had for many years taken the position that by not directly confronting ideologically the political Left and focusing instead on settling empty hilltops, the religious Zionist forces were sowing the seeds of its own destruction. His point of view has much to recommend it; but looking down at the Bedouin homes in the valley, it occurred to me that there was one consideration his point of view could not take into account.

Are you at all familiar with a game played in China, Japan, and Korea called Go (or Goe)? I had the opportunity to witness this arcane game being played when I was still working as a caseworker in a social service center in New York. Late in the afternoon when all the clients who had shown up had been serviced, one of the supervisors would pull out the board (a rectangular grid) and begin a game with one of his workers (he subsequently left his wife and moved in with the young lady, but that’s not relevant to our story). The idea of the game was to continue placing your markers (black or white pieces each the size of a “mento”) one at a time on the board in such a way as to surround and thus capture some of your opponent’s markers. Exactly how you did this, I never understood, and thus, much of the strategy of the game eluded me.

But what I was witnessing below in the area known as “The Gush” was fairly straightforward. No Bedouin who had built a structure had obtained or sought a “Permit.” Almost all of the housing built recently by and for the Arab population anywhere in Israel is “illegal” under the law, none of which is any concern of the United Nations, the European Union, Haaretz and the Israeli Left, or Condoleeza Rice, as it would be if some religious Jew – under the impression that G-d had given us The Land to settle – was camping out in a tent next to an Israeli flag on a desolate hilltop somewhere in Samaria. It is essential to realize that our Go grid will not stay empty forever; the situation on the ground is not static. If we do not continue placing our human markers on The Board we have been given for an eternal inheritance, the other guys will not wait around. They will keep on Go-ing until they, G-d forbid, by intent or by circumstances, surround us. And if someone suggests that we don’t have enough human markers on The Board to win The Game, I say that we do, and I know where to find plenty in reserve.

After these rapid ruminations, we joined the others, climbing through the (now empty) water tunnels, and, at last on the top of this leveled off high hill, we could see what was left of this imperial palace that Herod built to glorify himself. And we could take pride in a poignant postscript. In the year 66 of the Common Era and again in 132, this pleasure dome became a fortress for the “Zealots” who fought the Romans. (It’s important to get our terminology straight: if you were or are a Jew fighting to preserve our monotheistic religion, you are a “Zealot.” If you are a human hand grenade today, you are a “militant.” Please keep the distinction clear in your mind.) And so, the water tunnels became an assault network to attack our persecutors. In addition to the hot and cold bath houses, a mikvah was added. And yes, in one corner of what had been the palace, we could stand in the ruins of a first or second century synagogue. I thought I could make out in faint Hebrew letters on one of the walls the inscription “No talking during davening,” but I might have been imagining things.

Before returning to Jerusalem, we made a little detour and to eat our lunch in the pretty community of Tekoa, near but not on the site of its ancient namesake. A few local families had joined together and opened a shop in which they manufactured and sold olive oil, where one could buy hot and cold drinks, and, in the near future, sandwiches. We got to sit and chat with some of the fascinating people with us and then to get a tour of the olive oil making facility, after which, many of us bought some oil, although I was careful not to buy the harif (spicy) variety. I figure that life in these environs can be harif enough, without adding it to one’s oil. Earlier, Ezra (remember Ezra?) had mentioned to us that because of the new road, the travel time from Jerusalem to Tekoa had been reduced by two thirds. And, not surprisingly, real estate value in this sleepy little town had sky-rocketed. All this, despite the fact that the current government could well try (they will not succeed!) to give away this part of our inheritance.

There are those today who, perhaps because they are overly focused on the here-and-now and not on the big picture, or perhaps because they do not take to heart how we fared in The Land when we had Kings, take an overly pessimistic view of the current Situation. Then, we had a brilliant leader, a courageous warrior, an orator, a master builder, and a delusional psychotic who murdered many people, including some near and dear. Now, we just have an inept, possibly corrupt, mediocrity, whose boldest action to date has been to stop combing his hair over his bald spot. (Maybe he took all that money for some unsuccessful hair transplants?) But his wife is alive and well; in fact, she is a successful artist, whose reputation will outlive his. His sons are also alive and well, living………outside The Land. It is unlikely that I will be tortured for writing this critique. All we need are enough hands raised during the next election – assuming he makes it that long – to get rid of him. (Your hands could be the deciding votes!)

So while physically Barbara, Natania, and I are living “before Herodion,” time-wise we are living and thriving after that structure and so many like it: the Parthenon, the Colisseum, the Aztec temples have all fallen; unlike the “Sukkah of David,” their civilizations will not rise again. It is now almost four weeks after this tiyul. We began counting “sefirat haomer,” the fifty days between Pesach and Shavuot. We have commemorated Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazicharon and celebrated Yom Haaztmaut (the subject of the next post, G-d willing). Day #33 meant Lag B’omer (still another topic). The counting continues. I am getting up early now to get to the morning minyon; I am saying Kaddish for my cousin Hank (no closer family member available) who died last week at the airport on his and Jane’s way to visit The Land for the first time. As I walk up Hagitit at 5:30 in the morning, the sun is rising to the east. If I return for the afternoon prayers, the sun will be dipping behind the hills between us and Jerusalem, no longer a painfully desolate city. There is nowhere I would rather be.

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