Monday, January 18, 2010

On the Golan Pt. 1 The Mist over the Mountains

One thing I’ve noticed during the years of my being intermittently conscious is that differences between spouses can either make or break a marriage. Handled poorly, a man and a wife can wind up preventing each other from doing what each one truly wants – winding up with some lukewarm, gruel-thin kind of compromise. On the other hand, if each partner has the other’s best interests at heart, then one can encourage and push the other to greater accomplishments. In our case, Barbara is the more adventurous one. I am usually more than happy spending time at home (my philosophy is that the greater the amount of time you spend there, the quicker you amortize the cost of your rent or mortgage). If my wife had her way, she would be trekking all over the world. In that regard, she has the perfect Israeli mindset. Here, kids finish up their military or national service and start wandering off to Nepal with a sleeping bag and a backpack. Again, I figure that I have just spent X for a new mattress; why wouldn’t I want to use it?
There is no question that if Barbara hadn’t prodded me, she and I would not have gone on our wonderful eight day cruise to Greece. We’ve been on a number of walking trips and short tiyulim since then, but all of a sudden, Barbara was asking me about going on a two day trip up to the Golan. I couldn’t use my standard argument, that it would be too expensive, as it was quite reasonable. So I left it up to her to find somebody to look after Mimi. In our previous apartment, our downstairs neighbor was more than willing and able to look after our geriatric feline, even for the week we were away in June. But we are just far enough away that it would be a burden on her to drop by twice a day to feed and clean up after our cat. It turned out not to be a problem at all – this time. We found somebody nearby, plus we ultimately wound up with Gilad, our handyman being around, taking advantage of our absence to get some work done, and then Natania being home for part of the second day. So we had ample troops to make certain that Mimi’s water was fresh and her heating pad was working.
We had been on several of Ezra Rosenfeld’s Tanachtiyulim before, and they had ranged from good to very good. But now Ezra was proposing to up the ante. Hitherto, he had offered standard excursions: you get on the bus early in the morning in front of the OU Center on Keren HaYesod, and you return sometime in the late afternoon or early evening, and the trip covers whatever can be fitted into that amount of time. We all know that Israel is a small country, but, blessedly, it’s not that small. There are lots of things to see that you can’t get to and get back in one day, and that limitation was frustrating Ezra no end. We had heard him musing on some of the earlier trips about finding a way to put together a two day trip; and now he had made good on his idea: an overnight trip up to the Golan; and because we would be staying at the youth hostel/guest house at Tel Hai, the cost of the trip could be kept within reason. We knew that these would not be five star accommodations, but then, I’m not sure that there are any five star or even four star hotels up there; most of the luxury accommodations are clustered together in population centers like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There doesn’t seem to be any great interest in putting up a Mount Hermon Hilton.
Some of you know to get to the Golan. . If you’re starting in Jerusalem, you have to go past the Hebrew University campus on Har Hatzofim (Mount Scopus), through the tunnel, keep going past the bypass to Maale Adumim, onto the winding road that leads to route 90, where you can either head south to Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea, and all the way down to Eilat, or you can go in the other direction, past Jericho, Beit Shean, Tiberias, and all points north. Because the bus was coming in our general direction anyway, and because Ezra is a nice guy, he agreed to pick us – and another couple – up right by the bus stop before Hebrew U., saving us close to forty five minutes of traveling time, which is HUGE when you’re leaving at the crack of dawn. The first thing I noticed when we got on the bus was a change in the demographics. Generally speaking, these tours are not for the very young. You don’t see couples with four kids on a bus heading, let’s say, to Herodian. Either they go by car, or they don’t go at all. So ‘young’ in this context usually starts at around forty – with an occasional son or daughter dragged along – and rises rapidly. But there were seven teenage girls on the bus, doing what teenage girls do best at 7AM – sleep. We found out in the course of the trip that Sharona – who was also with us, along with a counselor – together with her rabbi husband, had started a new program called Midreshet Devora, a one year program designed for post-high school girls who want to spend a year in Israel but do not (emphasis on the ‘not’) want to spend all day, day after day, in a class room setting (and the rest of their time hanging out with their friends and laptops in The Coffee Bean on Rehov Jaffa). So the girls go on all of Ezra’s tiyulim and learn Tanach the best way, Ezra’s way, by walking The Land and seeing where the Patriarchs and Prophets hung out, and how it all happened – which helps you make sense out of some very old narratives.
Ezra – unlike some other tour directors – has learned that groups of adults travel on two things: their stomachs and their bladders, so he doesn’t schedule lunch at 3 in the afternoon, and he plans for reasonably frequent pit stops. After an hour or so of traveling, we stopped for snacks and a bathroom. However…….unlike most such detours, this one came with a bonus: a small archaeological park. This one had a scale model of the entire Jordan valley, and next to it, the floor of an ancient synagogue, one of the many, many that are being located and uncovered throughout The Land. I’m going to hold off discussing the remains of this synagogue until we get to the next one, later on in the day. Instead, we went back on the bus and traveled the route we just looked at on the scale model.
Part of route 90 is named for ‘Gandhi,’ Rehavam Zeevi, the Israeli political leader who was assassinated in October 2001. Ironically, this road was built in order to bypass Jericho, once a popular destination for Israelis and now off-limits to us. There are any number of monuments to Israeli soldiers and civilians who lost their lives in military actions and a series of terrorist attacks from the Jordanian side – all of which occurred prior to ‘Black September’ in 1970 when King Hussein drove the PLO out of Jordan. He had apparently been told by the Israeli government something to the effect of “If it’s not going to be quiet on our side, then it won’t be quiet on your side either.” And while there is still a no-man’s land demarcated with barbed–wire on our side and the border is still patrolled, it has been quiet for many years. The other sided of the river (because the River Jordan is narrow and in a valley, one can almost never actually see it from the road) has come alive in the years since then. The entire length of the valley is populated and farmed. The Israeli farmers were willing to share their knowledge of drip-irrigation with their counterparts in the Hashemite Kingdom, and as a result, they are growing things cheaper there than here! Our side is also alive. The effect is gradual. First, you see individual irrigated plots where things are growing and then hot houses. Soon, more and more of the land is green, and then there are areas where all you see is green. Remember that the Casdens live on the edge of the midbar, where green is a luxury. Usually this word is translated as ‘desert,’ but as has been pointed out to me on countless occasions, it really means a ‘wilderness.’ What’s the difference? Rainfall. Unlike in a true desert, there has to be sufficient precipitation to support some vegetation. Here, during the late winter and early spring, there is a thin, but distinct growth of grass on the hills, and throughout the year, enough hardy vegetation to keep the sheep and goats – and there are still herds of such animals in these parts – alive and healthy.
But to keep my soul healthy, I need to see, from time to time, the quantity of vegetation that I’m accustomed to. I need to roll my eyeballs in green, real green, layers and layers of green, the kind I used to run my lawnmower through – not that I miss my lawnmower; no way!
We kept going north, into a short stretch of road which is serviced by the Jordanian cell phone company, where you’re always warned to turn off your phone, because if you make or receive a call here, you’ll be charged a proverbial arm and a leg. Through the checkpoint. Now we were in the Beit Shean valley, coming into the city of that name. This used to be one of those depressing development towns which Ben-Gurion set up to house the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from North Africa. One can understand his thinking. It was certainly necessary to populate the country, spread people around. Everyone can’t live within ten miles of Tel Aviv. It was just that once all these Moroccans were dumped there, no one thought to provide them with much in the way of resources. Giving people who were not farmers a cow or two doesn’t cut it. For a very long time, Beit Shean was part of the Israeli backwaters, the kind of place where a Sephardic version of a Polish joke would take place. Over the years, a weeding out process has taken place throughout the area. People left, leaving their land to others. The strong, the people suited to an agricultural life remained, and some of them began to prosper. When you pass through the town now, you see rings of newer, bigger homes and some of the same stores you see in the more prosperous part of the country. There are also some antiquities of great interest here; but that was not part of our itinerary.
We passed by Tiberias and headed north and to the east, beginning a slow climb upwards. It was at this critical topographic juncture that I chose to take a nap. When I woke up we had climbed over a thousand feet from sea level and everything looked different. We could have been in the Catskill Mountains, except the terrain was more rugged. But there were trees; not just some trees, but lots of trees. The hills were green; the valleys were green. And the mist was everywhere, something that could not have been predicted. Our first stop was an overlook from which one can normally see the entire valley below. We could see part of the way: the kibbutzim below us; but beyond that there is the Kinneret, Tiberias, and beyond. There is of course something aesthetically pleasing about this view; but well beyond the natural aspect, there is the realization that would occur to most sentient creatures that from the heights on which we were standing, how easy it would be to rain spitballs, rotten eggs, water-filled balloons, or more sophisticated weaponry down on a hapless population below. As we know, this (the use of more sophisticated weaponry, that is) is exactly what happened prior to 1967, when Israel expelled the Syrians from these positions. But for us standing there on that day, the kibbutzim below us could just as well have been the end of the world; the Kinneret and Tiberias, which I know for a fact are there, had simply disappeared from sigh, swallowed up in the haze! Ezra was, of course disappointed. The whole point of getting on a bus and traveling five hours was to SEE something; otherwise, he could have described it to us back in Jerusalem at a more civilized time of day. I didn’t mind this inconvenience; I was watching the rays of the sun filtering through the clouds, the mist over the mountains. There were several signs pointing the way to various nature paths. One of them used the expression “loop trail,” i.e., the path would wind around and you would wind up back where you started. Shades of the walks we used to take back in New Jersey with the master, Danny. If only he realized how much of The Land is hikers’ heaven. Back in The States, you can walk parts of the country, like the Appalachian Trail, which goes from Georgia to Maine. Here, the Shvil Yisrael goes from Eilat, up and across to the Mediterranean, and then up to the Lebanese border and the Upper Jordan River. Not as long as the A.T., but just as scenic.
As we couldn’t see much, we got back on the bus and headed off to Umm El Kanatir, which means in Arabic, mother of the arches, because there were a lot of arches here in this village which flourished in the fifth and sixth century C.E., and which was destroyed in an earthquake in the eighth century. Here on the side of a mountain you can see the remains of building foundations, all of which were made from basalt, the local building material. Communities like these thrived as long as, and only as long as, there was law and order and commerce was possible. Sounds like a lot of places all over the world.
We walked around a lot, but what I remember most was the excavation of the synagogue and the enormous machinery which was being used for that purpose. This was one of three such ancient structures we would visit on our tour, and one of the many, many, which are being uncovered throughout The Land, now that we are in control and we can. There is a great deal of useful information which can be derived from examining these houses of worship. One simple example, it is pretty easy to determine how successful a town or village was by noting the size of the beit knesset and how well it was built. As far as I am concerned, the single most important thing to understand about these excavations is that in sum it is causing us to reconsider some long-held beliefs about our religious practices. First was the idea that synagogues came to exist only after the Second Temple was destroyed. All you have to do is take the new bypass road south from Jerusalem, about ten minutes, to the excavations at Herodian, which Herod built more or less while he was expanding the Temple, to put that canard to rest. Then it would be reasonable to ask: if there were batei knesset which co-existed with the Beit Hamikdash, what exactly went on in them?
But go forward a few centuries. We are now in the period when the discussions in the academies were being collected, edited, and put into what we know today as the Mishna (and the other stuff, not included but preserved, called the Breitot); and then in the later period when the discussions in the academies were being compiled into the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds. One of the sections deals with Avoda Zara, idol worshiping. Now more Jewish men than one can even imagine have gone over the part which deals with the question that if somebody found a finger or a toe which had once been part of a statue, could that person use it even as a paper weight, or must it be destroyed, and if so, how? Very nice. Then somebody today starts uncovering the remains of a beit knesset from this period, and, lo and behold, there is a mosaic tile floor, not only with a depiction of the zodiac – common throughout Jewish history – but smack dab in the middle for anybody to see is Helios, the Sun God, ‘large as life.’ What is that all supposed to mean? You tell me; I have no idea. It’s comforting to know that if, perchance, I find a body part from an ancient statue that might have been worshipped in its day, I can know what to do with it. But one can spend a lifetime studying these texts and never even think about some other questions which some of us would like to know more about. When some really primitive person took the trouble to fashion a fertility idol with its, to us, grotesque features, what could he possibly have been thinking? What was this piece of wood or stone supposed to do, and how? Was he thinking the same thoughts as the more sophisticated Greeks and Romans were when they made magnificent marble statues? There is a notion that idol worship has been eliminated from our world. But what about people today who practice voodoo or other cultic practices? (How about a web site for trading these little figures: I am interested, but what are we supposed to learn?
Then there is another issue, dicey to some. Everyone who has considered the matter is aware that there was an Ezrat Nashim, a women’s section, in all the permutations of The Temple, just as there was a section for gentiles, for regular vanilla Jews, and for the Cohanim. And the existence of this section is the justification for the modern-day mehitzah with all it entails. Certainly that’s what I blurted out when someone mentioned to me that in the ancient synagogues uncovered so far in The Land, there does not appear to be a scintilla of evidence that there was a separate section for women. Considering the matter with a clear mind, the following possibilities occur to me: one) There were separate sections for men and women, just that the demarcations have not survived. Hard to envision how that would work, with stone benches and all. Two) In those days, women never showed their faces in a beit knesset. I’m told that is not the case, but I don’t know what the evidence is for that. Three) Men and women sat separately without any physical separation. Plausible. Four) There was ‘mixed seating.’ I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on that one. Please understand that I am not discussing what should or should not be done today. As I keep repeating until I’m blue in the face, “I don’t poskin sheilas,” i.e., answer questions or venture opinions relating to contemporary Jewish Law. (Well, I try to limit my opinions.) But if anybody out there is intending to opine that there was an ezrat nashim because there had to be an ezrat nashim, do both of us a favor and save your breath.
Now for some fun. After checking out this ancient agricultural village, our next stop was to examine something more contemporary, as practiced at the Golan Heights Winery. Oh joy! We used to pass by literally dozens of small wineries in our excursions up to the Finger Lakes, but there was never any reason for us to stop as, of course, none of them were kosher. What’s the point of looking if you can’t taste? Here in The Land, there are winery tours from time to time, but we haven’t been on any of these. Now was our big moment, propitiously at a big winery, where grapes from all over the region become bottles of Yarden, Gamla, and Golan wines. (They are also part owners of the Galil Mountain Winery.)
The winery tour doesn’t give you the touchy, feely part: standing amongst the vines, watching the grapes being picked and then smooshed. By the time you get to see what’s going on, the juice of the grapes is aging gracefully (just like me!), resting in enormous oak casks – each one costs $700, and there are lots and lots of casks in a very large room which you observe from a catwalk above. Down below, there was one solitary individual, dwarfed by the rows of casks, doing maintenance work. From there, our winery tour guide took us to another catwalk overlooking the bottling room. Here nobody touches and nobody feels anything because we are watching an automated conveyer belt, and there is nobody there. The guide explains the process: over on the right, all the way in the back, the empty bottles are rinsed out; then each bottle is filled with wine; step three, a cork or a synthetic stopper is inserted into each bottle; then each bottle is sealed; then labeled; twelve bottles are put into a case; finally a large machine lifts each case and sends it on its way. The bottles have marched all around the room, sometimes in single file, sometimes waiting patiently in a crowd at the equivalent of a red light for their turn to proceed. The process is mesmerizing; I at least could have stayed there for hours, watching the endless motion of the conveyer belt. Barbara was brought back to the days of her childhood when her grade school class visited a milk bottling plant somewhere near Binghamton, N.Y. But here they were going to give us wine to taste; wouldn’t miss that for the world. We were herded into a room with a conference table large enough to seat fifty or so people. Being an amiable host, the winery had placed bowls of pretzels strategically around the table for us to munch on while a nice young lady told us a little about each wine we are going to taste, plus the usual bit about sniffing the wine first and letting it roll around your tongue before you swallow it. In days of yore, the winery used to let you take the wine glass you used home with you; nowadays, your souvenir is a waiter’s corkscrew – fine for a waiter – but no way would I trust any bottle of mine to the vagaries of these antiquated devices.
Last but not least, we were shepherded into the gift shop. Ezra reminded us of something which should have been self-evident: one could find better prices for most of these wines by careful shopping on Agrippas Street, near the Mahane Yehuda shuk. Nonetheless, we were there, in a room with bottles of wine for sale. We all bought something, even Ezra.
It was now after 4PM, time for mincha. Nobody had bothered to do a head count; we realized that we were exactly ten men, including our driver, and that we all had to be in one place at one time for a minyan. One of our ten had wandered off. The rest of us walked back from the bus to the entrance and included the Jewish security guard who was standing by the gate in our minyan.
One final stop on our way to Tel Hai: the Helicopter Memorial on the grounds of Kibbutz Dafna. As you ride up route 90, on the left is the original helicopter memorial, commemorating fifty-seven soldiers who died when the transport helicopter they were on crashed. The I.D.F. thought it had the solution. From then on, no more than thirty seven soldiers at a time could be transported on one of these helicopters. And so on February 4, 1997, two of these choppers took off in, I believe inclement weather, and managed to crash into each other in mid air. Needless to say, in a matter of seconds, the wreckage of two helicopters and the remains of seventy-three of Israel’s bravest were soon strewn over a field a few kilometers from where we were. The Israeli government usually acts promptly to honor its fallen heroes, but, for some reason, it took twelve years to create the official memorial that we were visiting, although the families of deceased had held their own tribute on every anniversary of the disaster. And there is, in a small wooded area, nearby, another memorial. The official one is, to be redundant, very official. It has a circular pool, water flowing through a long channel, 73 large upright stones, and the names of each of the fallen with their rank in the I.D.F. The unofficial one, which I believe was put together by the families, has 73 small dog tag size replicas placed on the branches of a small tree and a few items recovered from the bodies: ID papers and similar items. Each one is treated with equal dignity, regardless of their rank. The official memorial is more magisterial, but I will leave it to you to decide – if you ever chance to be nearby on Ramat Golan – which is more heartfelt.
Nightfall was fast approaching, and, to be less than delicate, the winds had shifted, reminding us that we were on the property of Kibbutz Dafna and its refet (cow shed). Back on the bus, on our way to the youth/hostel/guest house at Tel Hai, where we had a buffet dinner and retired for the evening. Shacharit (morning prayers) would be at 6:30 (groan!), breakfast at 7, and we would be on our way by 8 in the morning. Well, at least, we wouldn’t need to take a bus to get to our bus, which would take us on another full day of touring – all of which you will learn about – just be patient.