Friday, September 4, 2009

Show and 'Tel' at Ramat Rachel

I came back from Mussar Avicha, the beit knesset where I hang out here in Maale Adumim, one Shabbat morning several weeks ago, and I said to Barbara, “You and I are not with it, and I can prove it.” Herein lies the tale.
One of the couples we met on our cruise was Rich and Barbara (henceforth designated as Barbara II to distinguish her from my Barbara, who will be designated in this article as Barbara I, to avoid confusion). Rich is one of those people who play an essential role in life, the unofficial group leader. For example, there are a bunch of people finishing dinner, and there are several hours left before bedtime. Somebody has got to say, “How about if we…….,” or “Let’s………,” or “We’re……………; wanna join us.” Otherwise, everyone will just sit around and mope for several hours. Fortunately for all of us, Hashem created certain people to fill that role, to take on that awesome responsibility of planning the recreation for the rest of us sluggards.
When our cruise was over, and we were all safely back, not only on dry land, but in The Land, Barbara II, who had a little vacation left, spent a week on an archaeological dig. Some of you, at least, are familiar with Ramat Rachel, a kibbutz at the southern tip of Jerusalem. This place has been around since the 1920’s, and was the scene of extremely fierce fighting between us and the Jordanians both in 1948 and 1967. When one is standing there, its strategic importance is obvious; it occupies a high ground overlooking Beit Lechem and the entire area to the south (which is why it is named ‘rama,’ high place, and Rachel, as it overlooks the site which by tradition is where our matriarch Rachel is buried). It also makes a great scenic backdrop for a chupah. This, of course, is what it has become known for: a great place to have a wedding, and in our short stay here in The Land, we have already been invited to several – thanks to our Teaneck connections.
What is not so well known is that there has been an on-going archaeological dig on and off going back I believe many decades. When you get to the first parking lot, instead of heading towards the hotel and the wedding hall, if you just keep going, past the swimming pool, you will arrive at the tel where the dig has been taking place. And that was exactly what we did when we got off the number seven bus that Friday morning. We were supposed to meet Richard and Barbara II and another couple at the dig site for what was billed as a reunion – partly for us and partly for Barbara II to revisit what she had accomplished and to show it to friends. For in the one week she was there, B II had dug up what seemed to be an ancient mikvah – certainly something to be proud of.
We were the first to arrive, which gave me and Barbara I time to walk around and get a sense of the enormity of this project and the large number of people involved in the dig. Clearly, most of the participants were students, and we could hear an equal amount of Hebrew and English being spoken. We were later told about the arrangements. Each person paid $x per week to participate, which meant they stayed at the Ramat Rachel Hotel and enjoyed all the amenities thereof; except that unlike normal guests, these folk arose in time to start digging at 5:30 in the morning, when most sensible people are firmly glued to their pillows. Later on, when it gets too hot to dig, the process of sifting and evaluating begins.
Within a few minutes, Richard and Barbara II arrived, followed shortly thereafter by Don and Lorraine. (Another couple from Modi’in was invited, but they were unable to make it.) Before we begin the grand tour of the tel, let me throw in an aside about apparel. One of Richard and Barbara II’s more amazing attributes was the fact that between them, they own what is probably the world’s largest extant collection of Jacob’s Ladder Folk Festival (in Israel) t-shirts. I remember remarking to Richard one day on the cruise, that if Jacob’s Ladder ever went out of business, he would have nothing to wear. But now we were faced with a similar phenomenon, the Ramat Rachel dig annual t-shirt, this year’s color a shade of purple, which many of the young folk were wearing. But if you had been on last year’s dig, you had two t-shirts, one from each year. And if you were back for your third dig, you had three t-shirts, each a different color. Of course, considering the cost of participating, you could say that these are very expensive t-shirts – sort of like the Hanukkah menorah or the challah board which Natania made in ‘early childhood’ at the Yavneh Academy, which we have appraised at about $8000 apiece. Nonetheless, with little effort, one could practice the subtle art of one-up-manship, by wearing a shirt from eight digs ago – for there are people, especially the staff, who have been coming back year after year. (I, of course, have my own eclectic collection of t-shirts, from schools I never attended, places I’ve never been, jobs I’ve never had; so I can’t one-up anybody!)
Time to start our mini-tiyul, giving Barbara II a chance to demonstrate what she has learned and show off what she uncovered. I, of course, was listening with only one ear, because I was watching with both eyes and most of my brain. In other words, I was looking at how, what, and where people were digging, at the serendipitous patterns of tools and buckets and wheelbarrows and gloves left lying around, the fact that they were serving breakfast on china dishes, at how you can see much of Jerusalem from these heights, things like that. What I remember most was the look of astonishment and pleasure on Barbara II’s face when we arrived at where she was digging, only a little more than one week ago. When she had put her t-shirt in the laundry for the last time and checked out of the Ramat Rachel Hotel, she was convinced that she had uncovered a mikvah. Now that another layer had been uncovered, it was obvious that what she had dug up was no mikvah – although nobody had a strong opinion as to what this area, partially covered with a mosaic tile floor, had been. The thing is that Barbara II had no stake in the matter either way, no reputation in the field to maintain, no ego to have soothed. Whatever it turned out to be was fine with her; she was just happy to have uncovered something. Perhaps a professional in the field, already preparing a paper or a lecture series on this find, might have less willing to concede the point, but we will never know. The difficulty in assessing anything in a site like Ramat Rachel is that it is one civilization on top of another, and each one felt free to pillage the previous site and use its building materials anew, so you can find a series of artifacts – from a Byzantine church at the top down to the Iron Age at the bottom. What is mystifying about this site in particular is that while it was certainly a Jewish village at one time – probably second temple – there is no mention of it in our sources. Beneath a Byzantine church was a wine press, a grape press, and evidence of a columbaria, where doves would roost. You can see the Temple Mount from Ramat Rachel, and, while I question the assertion that one could get to Har Habayit in forty minutes, certainly it could be done in under two hours. So a pilgrim on his way to bring a korban (sacrifice) at the Beit Hamikdash could stop on the way and get a pigeon, probably cheaper than what it would have cost at one of the stalls that lined the entrances to the Temple (maybe rent was cheaper at Ramat Rachel). At any rate, there was a lot more to consider at this tel, including a palace which seems to expand as they uncover more and more of it and a Canaanite wall which likewise keeps extending itself (they are using some kind of imaging to track it underground).
We did not get a chance to witness the other aspect of archaeological exploration, sifting for artifacts and identifying them, but I had spent a few hours a number of years ago doing some sifting, and I remember how tedious the process is, and how rewarding – IF you find something of interest or of value. The difference between then and now is this: ‘then’ was going through the rubble, tons and tons of debris which the Arabs had removed – illegally of course – from the Temple Mount, and which had been literally rescued from the garbage by archaeologists. So the purpose of this on-going sifting was to ‘prove’ that there had been a Jewish presence on Har Habayit, and so every coin, amulet, or vessel that someone found was in effect ammunition in a political war. The Arabs are less interested in Ramat Rachel (they still want sovereignty over it, as they want sovereignty over all of our land; but they are not yet saying that we never lived there). The main enemy ‘now’ seems to be time and money – getting as much done before the grant money runs out and further exploration is put off. We came upon a large heap of broken pottery, all of which had been evaluated and discarded. Barbara II looked at the pile; she bent down and pulled out a piece of a jug, about two and a half inches by four, with an intact handle, which she gave to Barbara I. Priceless! We took this fragment home, and we are considering where to put it in our new home.
It was now time for the second part of the morning’s activities, heading over to Emek Refaim for something to eat. Anyone who is familiar with Jerusalem knows about this area, the name of which means Valley of Ghosts (the kids who come here on a one year program call it ‘Emek,’ proving only that that they have been in Israel a year without learning much Hebrew). Well Israeli ghosts are well fed, and most of them must eat here, because this street is really a restaurant row. Over the last several years, slowly but surely, most of the restaurants have become kosher – because they can do more business in six days than they would have in seven. So there must be at least twenty places that we can eat in within four or five blocks (eat your collective hearts out, Teaneck!), but many of them are not suitable for breakfast – unless you are a hard-core carnivore. Our little group was headed to Tal’s Bagels, the perfect place for a meal at 11AM on a Friday.
We have been in The Land now for two full years, and invariably, the sixth day of the week finds me at home, cooking and in general getting ready for Shabbat. So you can imagine my astonishment when, after Rich found a hard-fought parking spot on a side street that I would never have been able to locate, and we walked a ways, we arrived at the main drag, and, wow, the joint was jumping. If I had imagined that everybody was home making meatballs, hanging laundry on the line, or cleaning the toilets, boy was I wrong. Shabbat was not going to start for another eight hours, and several thousand people were milling around with the spectral spirits which haunt this street. I am also making the assumption that the ghosts have over the years picked up quite a bit of English by hanging out near the restaurants.
So we sat and had a leisurely meal, undeterred by the water from the air-conditioning unit that was dripping on our heads. Some of us actually ordered bagels. It goes without saying that we ordered coffee (many of you are not aware that nowadays the coffee here is much better than you get in The States). And we just sat and relaxed like the throng of people coming and going from Tal’s Bagels and similar establishments all over Jerusalem. It turns out that one of the young women waiting on us was the daughter of the guy in charge of the dig at Ramat Rachel.
Rich offered to drive us back to Maale Adumim, an offer we readily accepted. They wanted to head that way anyway, to look at the new cars for the Light Rail (the cars are ready, the rails are not) that are all parked somewhere in French Hill. I should note that Barbara II, when she isn’t digging or going on a cruise, is an engineer, and for many years worked for Amtrac, commuting from the Galil to the East Coast. Our friends came in to see our apartment before heading back. They didn’t have a care in the world; they were staying with people in Jerusalem, so they had little to do to prepare for Shabbat.
So that’s how we spent our Friday morning, relaxed and stress-free – and we still got ready in time for Shabbat. Food for thought for the future. Shabbat morning, my good friend Ron – whose family we met on our Nefesh B’Nefesh flight – wished me a Happy Anniversary. I gave him a look. What are you talking about? Yesterday was the second anniversary (secular date) of our mutual aliyah. We had completely forgotten! Isn’t that funny! We were celebrating our arrival in The Land without even knowing it. We thought we were just inspecting mosaic tiles and feeding our faces. How about that! It’s good to have friends to plan our recreation. It’s also good to have friends to help us keep track of the time.