Tuesday, June 9, 2009

An Ancient Sparrow in The Old City

Does anyone have a place they never visit because it’s right next to another place they always visit? For us, that would be the Bible Lands Museum, which is across the street from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. We often get to the latter, even though it is still undergoing massive renovation and most of the museum will remain closed for another year. Still, they usually have something of interest to see there, and it’s always fun to walk around the model of the Old City in Second Temple days (the one that used to grace the premises of the Holy Land Hotel) which is wonderfully done, if somewhat fanciful in its representation. But on Sunday, Barbara and I would cross the street and head into what some people have called The Avoda Zara Museum, because it does house an impressive collection of ancient cultic objects from the Fertile Crescent region. Our point of interest, however, was not the artifacts contained therein, but an exhibit of photographs, lithographs, paintings, etchings, etc. of Egypt in the nineteenth century, made at a time when explorers, missionaries, and men of commerce swarmed over the length and breadth of the British Empire. This was also the period of the infancy of photography, and so dozens of men from England and France brought their cumbersome equipment and began making images of the ruins of ancient Egypt. Other artists with lighter loads, the painters, the lithographers, the water colorists also arrived, drawn by the exotic subject matter and the very different quality of light.
One of our treasured books – among many – is “The Holy Land, 123 colored facsimile lithographs and the journal from his visit to The Holy Land” by David Roberts R.A. (that’s not a baseball term; R.A. is Royal Academy, the association of British artists). A highly respected artist of his day, Roberts was able to use his connections to travel throughout the country, gaining access to Christian and Muslim sites. What he was able to do was convey a sense of what it was like, wandering as a pilgrim, seeing for the first time the past grandeur and the then desolation of the land. What I had not known was that Roberts had made a similar voyage to Egypt, and there were a host of his lithographs gracing the museum walls, showing a landscape filled with the glories of ancient Egypt. What his work and the many photographs on display were able to convey is something which is difficult for us moderns to appreciate: the magnitude of ancient Egypt. Ancient Rome, ancient Greece, these we can understand. We have what remains of their art and their literature (for example, the Greek playwright Sophocles [5th century B.C.E.] wrote over 120 plays of which only seven [including Oedipus Rex] have survived in complete versions), their philosophy, their technology, and in many ways their languages; many of us have spent some time in school studying their history and their culture. Like all neighboring civilizations, both the Greeks and the Romans tried to destroy the Jewish people one way or another, but they were no worse than others like the Huns, the Visigoths, the Mongols, the Aztecs would have been if they had found us, and no worse than our actual pagan neighbors like the Philistines were. It is easy to appreciate the ‘classical’ accomplishments because, in their way, they speak to us today. Consider this part of the following lyric by the Roman poet Catullus [first century B.C.E.], which everyone who has studied Latin in high school or college has stumbled and fumbled through sooner or later: My girl has lost her darling sparrow;/he is dead, her precious toy/that she loved more than her two eyes,/O, honeyed sparrow following her/as a girl follows her mother,/never to leave her breast, but tripping/now here, now there, and always singing/his sweet falsetto/song to her alone./Now he is gone; poor creature,/lost in darkness,/to a sad place/from which no one returns. (translation by Horace Gregory) I can only admire such writing, and I am sure that most of us can easily relate to the emotion.
But Egypt, a civilization which flourished for a thousand years and more? We have lots of mummies encased in museums, along with stuff which was looted from half buried pyramids, the broken face of the Sphinx, and that’s about it. This is definitely a civilization that does not speak to us, despite the best efforts of Cecil B. DeMille. I think the reason is because Ancient Egypt was a culture which worshipped death – a concept generally foreign to the modern Western mind and certainly to Jewish thought – and their deities, like Isis and Osiris, ruled The Realm of the Dead, a place no one wants to visit of his own free will. As NY Times/IHT writer Souren Melikian observed in his recent review of an exhibition entitled [in English] “The Doors of Heaven: Visions of the World in Ancient Egypt” now on display at the Louvre, “Most myths are so far removed from modern concepts that it is difficult to grasp the role they played in the living religion. Their emotional charge certainly escapes us.”
The purpose of the exhibition in the Bible Lands Museum – not by coincidence shown around Pesach – was very different, to give a context to the Exodus, the foundation of our still vibrant religion rather than “reconstructing the secrets” of a vanished one. When you see the dozens of photographs, made on large, fragile glass plates 150 years ago, you begin to get a sense of scale: just how large the pyramids and the temples were, how impressive they would have seemed; maybe you can get an inkling of what it took to build them, how strong and centralized their government was, and how big their army must have been. At least that’s the reckoning I was making as I walked around: how easy it would have been for the Children of Israel to have been swallowed up in the jaws of a civilization as mighty as this, and just how big a miracle it was for us to have been brought out alive as a nation. It would have been worthwhile to have seen this exhibit before we sat down to the seder.
By this time, Barbara and I had worked up a mighty fine appetite. We had ascertained beforehand that the museum had a cafeteria which was a) open and b) had kosher food. There wasn’t much left by the time we got there, and there in the refrigerated bin was a cheese sandwich on a Pesach roll. Now there has always been the concept of “marit ayin” (or Morris Ayin [like the accountant] as they would say in Brooklyn, which means that one shouldn’t do something which is perfectly legitimate, but looks bad, like standing in front of a store window on Shabbat and looking intently at the merchandise inside – even though you are not going to go in and buy something. For this reason, in the early days of margarine, a housewife in a sixth floor tenement kitchen wouldn’t have served the butter substitute with meat – in case a neighbor just happened to be flying through the air, would happen to see the suspicious item on the table, and would thus assume the housewife was mixing meat and milk. This principle does not seem to apply to Pesach, witness the ersatz Passover breakfast cereals and pasta. But nothing looks more real than the Pesach roll. When we were on the tiyul to Shilo mentioned before, one of the women whipped out a sandwich on a Pesach roll, and there was an audible gasp from those around. The woman realized what had happened and quickly blurted out that she definitely was not eating chametz. Here’s the kicker, though: although the Pesach roll looks like bread, it certainly doesn’t taste like bread. It tastes like what it’s made of: compressed matzoh meal. Not only is it nasty, but it could probably make one ill, if eaten in sufficient quantities. Stick to matzoh; your soul and your stomach will feel better.
We finished our meal, such as it was, and returned to tour the rest of the museum, which is comprised of random collections of items from many ancient civilizations. I have trouble jumping from one area to another, and I have much more of an appreciation for jewelry when someone is wearing it, or an artifact when someone is using it as it was intended. These things lying lifeless in a display case, unless they are breathtaking in quality, cannot hold my very limited attention span for any great length of time. But objectively it is done much better here than in similar institutions, for example, the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. We finally left, waited patiently for the bus which would meander back to the center of town (which if it had gone directly the Central Bus Station would have taken three minutes instead of half an hour). We needed to regroup and get ready for Monday and two tours of The Old City.
Let me add a qualifying remark (and who would there be to say no?). When most of us think of walking around the Old City, we are thinking about that part where Jews tend to hang out, which is a relatively small section of what is enclosed within the walls that Suleiman the Magnificent (!?) built 500 or so years ago. We are not thinking about the Christian quarter or the Armenian quarter, and we are certainly not thinking about the large area called the Muslim quarter, although I remember the time very vividly when an ordinary Jew would have no qualms about walking anywhere in Ir Atika. We are thinking about that section which the Arabs reduced to rubble in between 1948 and 1967 and which is being lovingly restored. But even in that tiny area of land, there is enough history, ancient and modern, to occupy someone for most of a lifetime. Barbara had suggested that we take the time to travel down to Beersheva to join up with a bus tour of the area, which the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel was sponsoring from there. However, I convinced her to take it a little easier and spend the day on these two walking tours which the same organization was sponsoring which focused on events two millennia apart: The Old City in the Second Temple period and during the War of Independence in 1948.
We began in the morning with Shraga who led us on a tour that I might have thought didn’t need a guide: one that focused on two archeological sites: the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, and to begin with, the Wohl Archaeological Museum nearby. One might wonder why you would need a guide to take you to a place that has copious material available in English. The answer is that you can read the signs, but you (or at least I) don’t really absorb the material or make sense of what it says. The Wohl Museum encloses the remains of a series of houses which were owned by well-to-do Cohanic families who had left ‘downtown,’ i.e.; the City of David area, to move to the posher Herodian section, ‘closer to work’ in the Beit Hamikdash in which they served. (The area had been excavated as part of the removal of rubble when Israel reclaimed the Old City in 1967.) Without a good guide, you could easily walk through the place in ten minutes, say “that’s nice,” and never give it another thought. But the walls, the floors, the mosaics, the artifacts, everything that was found there has a story to tell, assuming that we know how to listen, about how we know who lived there, what their daily life was like, whether they were more or less ‘religious’ over the course of generations; and that’s what the guide is for, to have listened and to retell what happened these centuries ago.
From this microcosmic look at the residences of a few families, our tour group headed down to the Davidson Center and the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, which is the area below (to the south of) the Kotel Plaza. Shraga wanted to take us down to the area where the Western Wall abuts the Southern Wall, but in order to get there we had to climb over, around, and between some very large rocks that were in our way. As we edged toward the Western Wall we came upon what I assume were two ‘bar mitzvahs’ in progress. Men and women, some of them wearing brand new talletot which they may have purchased two days before in one of the shops on Ben Yehuda, were standing around tables with Torah scrolls. At one of the groups, a woman was leading the assembled in “Hinei matov”, which is not normally part of a Monday morning davening. We had stumbled onto the small area, still technically part of the Kotel, which the powers-that-be have allotted to the Conservative movement to do its thing. I felt as if we were intruding as we went crashing through. You can imagine if you were having such a ceremony in a shul, and a tour group passed through; it would be somewhat disconcerting! I am not known as a big fan of Conservative Judaism, but these folk came all the way from America to celebrate an important event, and they deserve a little respect, a little privacy. It would be impossible to let them have their prayers and ceremonies closer to the Kotel plaza because a riot would certainly ensue, and that would only make matters worse. (It goes without saying that there will be no political solution in the near future because there is no constituency here that cares.) If anyone wants my opinion as to which is a greater impediment to the arrival of Moshiach, giving a woman an aliyah, or throwing stones and worse at such folks because you ‘know better,’ I would be happy to offer it.
We arrived at the appropriate spot for Shraga’s next discourse which focused on the two massive walls in front of us. Today, when we think about the Western Wall, we tend to think about The Kotel and the large adjacent plaza constructed after 1967, although, as we know, this is only a fraction of the retaining wall which Herod built. When we think about the southern wall….; actually we rarely think about the southern wall, just as we rarely think about the two other walls, either. But we can see part of this wall, the section that connects to its more illustrious western neighbor, which because it was closer to the Holy of Holies was always considered more prestigious. (The rest of the Southern Wall is hidden by homes built during the Turkish rule.)
One can look at these walls, and one can read or hear about them, but there is nothing like looking at them and hearing about them at the same time to make it sink in how impressive this project was. We are talking about taking stones that weighed up to fifteen tons and moving them long distances with fairly simple equipment and then placing them exactly where they were supposed to be; in the case of the southern wall, each row set two centimeters back from the row below (to alleviate the sense that the wall would be toppling over). And then you have to take into account the fury of the Romans – the same Romans who could wax so eloquently about avian mortality. Not only were they intent on capturing the Second Temple and ransacking it; they were determined to destroy even the walls around it, hurling these same fifteen ton stones to the ground. It goes without saying that it would be easier to push the stones down than to pull them up, gravity being what it is; still it would have been a lot easier to leave everything in place and turn our Beit Hamikdash into a bowling alley or a supermarket. Shows you how you can miss out when you lose your temper. Of course, it wasn’t simply a matter of anger; the Romans were determined to eradicate any vestige of a Jewish presence in the area. What better way than to destroy our holiest place; and heaving large rocks to the pavement certainly makes the point emphatically. Up to that point, 1900 years ago, the area in which these rocks have fallen was a busy thoroughfare, and opposite the wall, on the other side of the street, were the stalls of vendors who exchanged coins and sold the items which a worshipper would have needed to offer a korban (sacrifice) in the Beit HaMikdash. But to see this in your mind’s eye, you need a guide who has already imagined it.
Lest one think that it was only the Romans who acted towards the Jewish people with a sense of vindictiveness, the last stop on our tour was the nearby Golden Gates, the Shaar Harachamim (Gates of Mercy). Jewish tradition has it that Moshiach will enter the Old City through these gates. So what did Suleiman the Magnificent (!?) do? He blocked up the gates so the Jewish Messiah would be thwarted. Then the Turkish sultan created a cemetery in front of the gates to keep away Elijah the Prophet. Right. Hey, Suly, we laugh (ha, ha) at your pitiful efforts. If you ever want to know how to prevent Moshiach from coming, watch us. We have figured out ways of delaying his progress which you in your wildest imagination would never have thought of. (If it weren’t so sad, it would be funny.)
In case we hadn’t been able to form a mental image of what it was like in Temple days (and because it was very, very hot), Barbara and I went into the Davidson Center itself and watched the film, the same one we had seen several years before. A modern-day actor, speaking in either Hebrew or English – depending on which version you happen to walk in on – strolling around today’s Old City suddenly becomes a pilgrim entering Jerusalem in bygone days, purchasing a young animal for a korban, eyeing a beautiful Jewish lassie, etc. Nice effects, but a little stiff.
When we had paid our admission to the Wohl Museum, for a few shekels more we bought tickets for the Burnt House, which is the remains of another house destroyed when the Romans sacked Jerusalem, and which was probably owned by the Bar Kathros family, mentioned (not too favorably) in the Mishnah. While there are the typical artifacts inside, the main attraction is a film, a dramatization of the destruction of the Temple, told from the family’s point of view. (From where this house is located, one would have had a bird’s-eye view of the Temple going up in flames.) The film is in Ivrit, and the visitor is offered headphones which have a soundtrack in a dazzling variety of languages. Barbara got us the English version (she was being lazy; she can easily handle the Hebrew). We arrived at the screening area just as the presentation was starting and the lights were dimming. Barbara quickly inserted her phones into the little jack under the seat and gave me mine to do the same, I realized immediately that I had a choice: either I could spend the next ten minutes in the now darkened room crawling around on the floor, trying to locate the phone jack, or I could watch the film in Hebrew. Over the years, I have certainly made sense of enough operas in French or Italian without even a libretto. So I watched the film without a translation. This would not have worked for a feature-length film, but for ten or fifteen minutes, knowing the basic plot outline – no problem; I could readily understand what was flying. Another small step towards mastering Hebrew!
We had several hours before our next tiyul was to start. Personally, I was exhausted from the walking and from the unseasonable and unexpected heat of the day. To be blunt, I was ready to call it quits and crawl back to the comfort of our apartment in Maale Adumim. But my indefatigable wife was ready to go on. So we decided to find a place to get some lunch and sit down; we could decide on our course of action once we had rested. As many of you know, there are scads of places to eat in the Jewish Quarter. The ones that serve pizza or bagels were mercifully closed (that is they made no attempt to create Pesadike pizza, for which the world can be grateful). But pretty much all of the meat restaurants were open for business; here in Jerusalem, one can readily obtain kosher-for-Passover falafel (minus the pita), which is what we settled for. A little food and a fair amount of caffeine will usually revive my spirits, and so we set off for the Zion Gate, the meeting place for the second tour of the Old City.
As I mentioned before, both of these tours were sponsored by the A.A.C.I., and perhaps they could have bundled both of them into a package entitled something like “Jerusalem: Where History Seems to Repeat Itself,” or perhaps, “Jerusalem: The City That Others Love to Destroy.” If the morning’s venture was about how the Jewish people battled the Romans and were decimated for their efforts, the afternoon’s activity was designed to show the battle for Jerusalem in 1948, which also ended with the Jewish quarter being reduced to rubble by our friendly Arab neighbors. They, of course had no Har HaBayit to ransack, so they settled for destroying the most prominent of our synagogues, specifically the Hurva and Tifereth Israel.
When I think of these two grand edifices, I am reminded of something I heard many years ago, about how even inanimate objects have ‘mazal,’ some good, and some bad. The reference point was a row of seats in a ‘temple’ in Wilkes-Barre, PA. There was one seat which a man, then in his nineties, had been occupying every Shabbat for over sixty years. Every other seat in that row was never used. Synagogues in general have mazal: some are used for many years; others are built to last for centuries, but no sooner are they finished than ‘the neighborhood changes,’ and all the Jews move away.
When the Hurva was destroyed, a central arch was left standing, leaving an image of a large, defiant rainbow, a symbol of Jordanian treachery and the Jewish will to reclaim sovereignty over the Old City. It didn’t hurt that the Hurva was in a prominent place in the plaza between the Cardo and the Kotel – you can’t miss it. And so, for big bucks, it is being rebuilt, in effect, recreated down to the last detail. (Whether there will be enough worshippers to fill it regularly is anyone’s guess.) On the other hand, Tifereth Israel (also known as the Nissan Bak synagogue), despite its glorious past (its beautiful dome was funded in part by Kaiser Franz Joseph!), remains an abandoned shell on an off-the-beaten-path street whose main attraction is the Karaite synagogue. There do not appear to be any grandiose plans to restore this treasure, whose name means “The Splendor of Israel,” to its former glory. Looking at it, you just have to let your imagination run rampant; otherwise, it’s just another place where the weeds grow wild.
Of all the things we did over the Passover holiday, the one activity of which I have little recollection was this afternoon’s tour. We started at point A, the Zion Gate, walked across the Old City to point B, circled back to point C, zigzagged over to point D, and so forth, back and forth, each stop representing a place or event of great importance in 1948. But in the heat and the throng of people, a lot got lost in translation. You want to know the one thing that stands out in my mind? There was one woman on the tiyul who was also missing something in her own translation, if you get my drift. Not exactly a person you would want strapped to you during a sky dive. At one point, she had gotten separated from the rest of the group – which could have happened to any of us. As our guide was talking to the group, his cell phone started ringing; the woman at least had the presence of mind to call him. He found out approximately where she was and told her to simply retrace her steps. She would come to a very large brown and yellow sign, about two and a half feet tall; to the left of the sign was a stairway up to a higher level, where we were. A number of us went over to the edge of the balcony to look for our missing lady. Sure enough, there she was coming back up the street, not paying attention to anything, looking totally confused. She stopped directly under the big sign; all she had to do was look up, but as I said, she was bewildered and befuddled. There were ten of us yelling down to her, “Up here, up here.” Nothing. The tour guide was on the phone with her. Nothing. It took about ten minutes to get this lady the fifty feet from where she was to where we were. Barbara and I were laughing hysterically because the incident reminded us of a scene in a movie called “Ruthless People” (with Danny Devito and Bette Midler) where the police are looking down at an aborted robbery and considering shooting a man for being the stupidest person alive.
Actually, there was one other thing I remember, and that is the throng of people milling about in the Old City, people from all over The Land and all over the world. You can rightfully expect the place to be mobbed for a specific occasion or event, like the Birkat Cohanim or on Yom Yerushalayim. But on this afternoon, people were just there, some in organized groups, some just ‘hanging out,’ (shopping, looking, listening to the ubiquitous musicians, eating, and perhaps contemplating their special place in Jewish history) – although I didn’t see anybody bring out a mangol and start grilling some burgers – all part of the generalized hofesh (vacation) that engulfs The Land during this festival. (Try driving from Jerusalem on a chol hamoed morning, past the turn-off to Maale Adumim, on the way down towards the Dead Sea, and see how far you get and how long it takes you!) I could write and write and write, trying to convey what was an existential feeling, that this is ‘how things are supposed to be,’ the Nations assembling in Jerusalem during a pilgrim festival for the specific purpose of praising G-d. But writing about it seems platitudinous and propagandistic, as in “We’re here, and you’re not (rub it in; rub it in…..),” which is not really fair. On the other hand, some wise-acre out there could retort that he is no farther away (distance-wise) from the actual Beit HaMikdash than we are. And I could reply that we are further (conceptually) along towards rebuilding it because of our presence here; but that is a pointless discussion, and I’m not a big fan of pointless discussions (good grammar being my thing).
And so, it was time to leave both The Old City and the new city of Jerusalem, time to wend our way home to the newer city of Maale Adumim (where even the limited amount of new construction makes the ‘Give-it-all-to-the-Arabs’ crowd go completely nuts). The following day, we would divide our labors: Barbara would join our downstairs neighbor Devorah on a walking tour of Even Sapir in the Jerusalem forest, and I would resume my culinary duties, in time for the last day of the Holiday, fast coming to a close. We would soon be closing our Pesach drawers and opening the regular ones. The taste of matzoh would fade from our mouths, none too soon. Are we any closer to all the wonderful things and events that we fervently hope for when we sing “Hashana habaah” at the end of the seder; or will next year bring more of the same? One thing that will happen: we are advised that there will be thirty-five new families making aliyah to our community. The sand in the demographic hour glass is slowly but inexorably shifting, and we are enjoying watching the movement.

1 comment:

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