Monday, February 15, 2010

If I Could Tell You of My Devotion....

I remember our kitchen table, the one my parents had in our apartment – the top floor of a three family house – on E. 208 St. in the Bronx; I have never seen another table remotely like it, with its folding sides and its enamel top, yellowish and slightly chipped around the edges. which opened to the perfect size to fit into our kitchen. Not only did we eat our meals on it, but it served my brother and me as our ‘office.’ We are obviously talking before anybody had a computer in their home, but it was also before kids had desks of their own. Four nights a week, at least, after dinner, this was where we did our homework. Until we were in or early teens when my parents got their first TV, our main source of entertainment was a Bakelite radio (we went through a number of these because it was sometimes cheaper to replace than repair; any of them cleaned up would be worth a fortune today) which we listened to with one ear while we did all the tedious stuff required of us at P.S./J.H.S. 80: math problems, social studies reports replete with homemade graphics, spelling, etc.
(How Google aids and abets a reverie: Most people who will read this are too young to remember Radio – with a capital R. In those days, there were national networks and regularly scheduled programs on the air – usually half an hour or an hour – just as there are today on TV; except the radio shows were probably more literate. Many of these shows were broadcast for ten, twenty, or even thirty years. Besides the dramas (Mr. Keane, Tracer of Lost Persons) and comedy (Fibber McGee and Molly), there were soap operas, assorted variety shows, and musical programs of all kinds. Many people of a certain age remember the one hour show sponsored by the Firestone Rubber Company, whose theme music was written by a member of the Firestone family, Idabelle, with lyrics by Madeleine Marshall. There is at least one thread on the internet devoted to alter kackers like me reminiscing and trying to remember the exact lyrics to the song which goes:
"If I could tell you of my devotion, If I could pledge all my love so true, Then my confession would find expression In all the music my heart sings to you."
and trying to remember whose voice it was we heard singing this week after week.)
These skills of listening with one ear and doing something different with the remainder of my brain – not so easy for someone with A.D.D. – honed by many years of practice, served me well in recent years when I was doing data entry at the Jewish non-profit where I was working. Let’s not describe my work as ‘tedious;’ that has a certain negative connotation. Let’s just call it ‘repetitive,’ requiring one’s proper attention, but with room in one’s mental hard drive for some other activity. To the rescue came Internet radio, now not with studios either in New York or California, but anywhere in the world where one can access the world-wide web. I could listen with my headphones to music from real stations like the BBC, WFUV, WKCR or others that existed only on the Internet. For a change of pace, conservative talk radio or a host of shiurim from a number of providers. But a good deal of the time, especially after we had decided to make aliyah when I retired, was listening to Arutz-7, a station which you can’t find on a radio dial, but you can listen to anywhere in the world. If I had to sum up the station’s programming, I would describe it as “The English language voice of the Settlers,” i.e., those of us who live in Judea and Samaria – because one ‘resides’ in Tel Aviv, but one ‘settles’ in Beit-El, from whence the station broadcasts (from which we can derive that living in Tel Aviv is ‘unsettling’). More generally, it offers a nationalist Torah perspective, promoting aliyah and presenting Judaism as “A Light Unto the Nations.” Not coincidentally, that’s the title of one of one of their programs, featuring two olim, Ari Abromowitz and Jeremy Gimpel, who met while serving in a sniper division of the IDF, and have become best of friends.
The funny thing is that now that we have made The Big Move, I almost never listen to Arutz-7. For one thing, I no longer need to be told why I should make aliyah, or how to do it, or what’s happening here in The Land, because we ourselves are now part of what’s happening here in The Land. Also, I’m not sitting here doing data entry – except to keep track of our monthly expenses on a spreadsheet – forcing myself to seek out venues of entertainment while I tippy-tap the keyboard, which now contain the abc’s and the aleph-bet.
But Internet TV? Especially being in the audience when the show is being taped? That’s more interesting. These same two guys, Ari and Jeremy, now do a show part of the year: From the heart of Jerusalem, Tuesday Night Live! This can be seen on the Israel National News website and is syndicated back in The States on Time-Warner cable. We go to the tapings from time to time, and I remember writing about an earlier broadcast last year. Anyway, a week or so ago, we got a ride into town for their latest episodes. The two part program gave a lot of food for thought, which I will share with you – adding, as usual, my thoughtful condiments to spice things up.
The B’nei Menashe. Anybody out there know who or what that is? If not: we’re talking about a relatively small group, a thousand plus souls already in Israel and seven thousand plus in the northeast of India, who claim to be descendents of Menashe, one of the ten tribes that disappeared without a trace when the Northern Kingdom, Israel, was conquered by the Assyrians in the eighth century BCE. Michael Freund, a political commentator and head of an organization called Shavei Israel, has been working to identify groups like this one who claim Jewish descent and assist them in returning to The Land. Mr. Freund was the headliner in the first segment, and he appeared with a representative of this group, all of whom, if I have my information correct, have gone through a halachic conversion process and have been recognized as Jewish by one of the Sephardic chief rabbis. After the show, when we were walking back to their car with a different friend who was driving us home, we got into a discussion about the B’nei Menashe. How would we know if these people are really descendents of one of the Lost Tribes? No way to prove it either way. Do they remotely ‘look Jewish?’ One thing you figure out pretty quick, living here and looking at the assortment of faces you see any day on an Egged bus, there is no such thing as looking Jewish. Of course, ‘the elephant in the room’ is how come the Jewish people, starting out with a similar genetic identity, have wound up looking like the world’s population – even though we still retain a distinct DNA profile? And then relate that to the question: Who is a Jew?
But what is at least as intriguing: What is this all about, a small group of seven thousand people from a relatively remote part of the world wanting to live here as Jews? And how is it that literally all over the world, people are popping out of the woodwork and reclaiming their Jewish identity: children hidden from the Nazis in the 1940’s, families that functioned as conversos for five hundred years, or groups whose connection with the rest of us was severed over two thousand years ago? How you answer that depends upon whether you are a cynic or an idealist, or even how you view our history. There are any number of references in our prophetic writings that, just as the Jewish people would be dispersed among the Nations, so too, they – and that includes the Lost Tribes – will be gathered up and return to The Land. So, if you begin from a basic premise that the formation of The State of Israel is part of the process of Jewish redemption unfolding before our eyes, then it is perfectly reasonable to view the tens of thousands of descendents of Jews all over the world rediscovering their origins as part of that process. And if you don’t accept this redemptive premise, then you don’t. And then you come up with some other explanation. That is why, on the one hand, you can have an audience of people cheering on Freund in his efforts; and you can also have a bevy of government officials who could make things happen, doing everything possible to place obstacles in the way of seven thousand people from every getting on the plane. I keep thinking of how little it would take to bring them here, and how much effort is being spent on wooing five million Jews, most of whom emphatically do not want to come here. Michael Freund was especially diplomatic in describing the situation, expressing optimism that the current government would be more forthcoming than the previous one. My personal opinion is that the Netanyahu crowd, no matter how hard it tries, cannot match the level of cynicism of Ehud Olmert and friends; so there is hope.
The second half of the show – after a short interlude by some earnest youngsters playing essentially Jewish bluegrass music and then a break to let the camera men reload – was even more gut-wrenching, highlighting the official Israeli response to the recent disaster in Haiti (who will live, and who will die; who will be buried alive in the rubble of a building…). Featured were two American born members of the rescue team, a physician and a member of Zaka, the group that goes to extraordinary lengths in tragic situations to find severed body parts so that they can be properly buried as required by Jewish law. While the main Israeli team went to Haiti on a moment’s notice, the Zaka team was almost there to begin with, having just finished a rescue mission in Mexico. Ari and Jeremy were able to show a few clips from American TV of the devastation and the efforts at saving lives, in which the newscasters expressed the general sense of amazement at the quality, speed, and efficiency of the IDF rescue mission (which incredible effort apparently escaped the attention of the current U.S. commander in-chief, causing HUGE consternation among his Jewish supporters) which was able within hours of arriving to set up a field hospital capable of treating five hundred victims a day – at a time when every other country which even bothered to do anything – including the U.S. – had its emergency personnel wandering around helplessly without supplies or direction. It was the Zaka unit which helped pull all these men, women, and children trapped in the rubble.
Given the program’s orientation, it was no surprise that Jeremy and Ari honed in on the Torah values which were being demonstrated in the Israeli response, an example of truly being ‘A Light Unto the Nations.’ The highest form of benevolent activity is when you do something without the expectation, even the possibility, that your kindness will be reciprocated (like washing a dead body before it is buried). No country, even Haiti, will stop vilifying us because of the incredible kindness we performed in rescuing and healing their citizens. You do what you can anyway. But an entirely different train of thought from that of our hosts was occupying my attention, scattered though it may be at times.
You see, I was listening to the American TV commentators expressing their consternation at the initial feeble, even pathetic, efforts of the American relief mission, and I was trying to figure out why that was so and what implications it would be reasonable to draw from it. The first thing I thought of was “They can’t blame this one on ‘W’ like they did Katrina; although if he were still in office, the Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world would be holding inflammatory news conferences in front of the White House. So now that the U.S. has this new president who everyone (well, some people) thought was so wonderful, how come this magnificent country is performing like a third-world power when it comes to emergency disaster relief – especially since the real third-world country in need is a short hop by plane from the Gold Coast of Florida? And when a tiny country half way around the world can get there better and faster? (To be fair, the American government is providing an enormous amount of financial assistance to Haiti, bu that’s not I’m discussing here.)
Good questions. Of course, Israel has unfortunately had a great deal of experience with emergency relief: wars, terrorist attacks, and the like. Plus we are a nation that thrives on improvisation. As I was thinking this through, I remembered a conversation with my friend Jeff over lunch several weeks ago. He was relating his efforts to find a few brass screws (I don’t remember anymore why he needed them, but he did). He was getting a lot of “we don’t have what you’re asking for, but we do have something else which will work as well.” “But that’s not what I want; I want brass screws!” Several days after our conversation, it dawned on me: this salesman was 99.99% certain to have served in the IDF, and there was almost certainly a situation he was involved in when something, perhaps a transport vehicle, wasn’t working; and without the proper part somebody there had to find something, cannibalize something, create something to make the blasted thing would work. It wouldn’t matter if that something was made of brass or papier maché. That in a nutshell is how this country gets by day to day, and that explains a good part of the culture here.
In the States, one is much more likely to be able to get exactly what is asked for; more likely the question would be: do you want the name brand part or the generic? Do you want it shipped or will you take it with you? For The Land of the Free has developed the most sophisticated infrastructure found anywhere in the world: communication systems, highways, medical centers, everything which countries like Haiti don’t have, and why when calamity strikes, so many people die. But America is not so good at improvising solutions in unexpected emergencies. If the Obama administration didn’t send a field hospital it was because it didn’t have one to send. Whether it was an earthquake in Haiti, or something happening out of the blue – man-made or otherwise – in The States, like Katrina, it simply isn’t prepared. That’s kind of scary.
All kinds of stuff arrives in my e-mail inbox, more than I can handle or even evaluate. I did take note of something sent to me recently by several people which quoted some Israeli expert on terrorism. His prediction was that something would be happening in the U.S. in the next year or two. Let’s hope he is wrong; and if he’s not wrong, let’s hope that whatever is supposed to happen is thwarted in media res by some alert person – as happened in the recent incident on the plane. But consider how little it would take for anybody to wreak havoc in any one of so many ways in any one of so many places. One of my standard comments is that we here in The Land have security, and you back in The States have security. Here when you enter a mall, someone checks what you’re carrying on the way in to make certain you’re not going to blow up the building. There, they check you on the way out to make sure you didn’t steal a sweater. It can certainly be aggravating, constantly opening your backpack or purse, but you tell me who’s safer where?
Anyway, there it was, the film clips and the comments from the medical and rescue staff involved, and there was a standing ovation and not a dry eye in the auditorium. Personally, I’m proud to be part of a nation that, with all its faults and shortcomings, can practice such baseless love for other people; a country to which seven thousand people, considered the descendents of Jews, now living in the middle of nowhere, are longing to return to. Maybe the common thread to both of these stories is a kind of devotion: to a people, to a land, to a set of values, to the One G-d. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Golan Tour Part 2 The Road to Gamla

Shall I begin this episode with a real nes (miracle)? In the last article, I mentioned that there were exactly ten men, including the driver, in our tour group. Ezra (Rosenfeld, our fearless tour leader) scheduled shacharit (the morning prayers) for the somewhat daunting time, 6:30 in the AM. – so we could have breakfast at 7 and be on the bus by 8. By 6:33, all ten of us were present. Any of you guys who have struggled to rustle up a minyan at the break of dawn will appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment. That was the beginning of a fine day, the second half of our two day tiyul up to the Golan.
Breakfast. Definitely not the highlight of our trip, but remember we were at a guest house/youth hostel, and we were not paying top dollar for our accommodations. The previous night’s dinner had been acceptable, but maybe it was because I was ready to chew the china by the time we sat down to eat. We had gone into the dining hall, chosen our food (buffet style) and sat down to eat just before an enormous throng of Israeli school kids arrived. One of my on-going areas of interest is how children survive to adulthood – considering the rather bizarre eating patterns of the average child or teenager – especially those in The Land. From where I was seated, I couldn’t help notice the collection of girls passing by us, with heaping plates of macaroni, rice, and potatoes, with several slices of bread on the side. Now I’m world renowned for being a carbo-freak, but even I have my limits! I also have my standards. If for breakfast you’re going to serve me scrambled eggs made from what must have been a powder in its most recent incarnation, I will notice and not be overly excited.
Nonetheless, we did find enough sustenance to get us going, and we were soon back on the bus, ready to roll. Ezra had the hard part: deciding what to do and where to go. Not only was he functioning as tour leader, he also had to be our on-the-spot weatherman. The first day out, the mist was everywhere, but now, sometime, somewhere, it was going to rain; and we were certainly going to be in the middle of it. The trick was to be outdoors when it wasn’t raining, and indoors when it was. Figuring that one out is as easy as pulling the right card…….from an unmarked deck. I was set either way. I had astutely brought with me the wonderful leather and rubber rain boots that Tina had gotten for me when she was working at the J. Crew store at the Garden State Mall. I needn’t tell you that they haven’t gotten really heavy use since we arrived in The Land, but once in a while…………
As it wasn’t raining at 8AM, we headed to our first destination, the National Park at Banias. By rights, the place ought to be called something like ‘Panias,’ because it was named for the Greek god Pan, but Arabs don’t do well with the ‘p’ sound, so it winds up as ‘Banias.’ It goes without saying that there used to be a temple, an enormous one built by Agrippa II, courtyards, the whole ball of wax, near a spot where once upon a time water gushed from a rock. The temple is in ruins, the courtyards vanished, Pan and all his buddies only a distant memories. Agrippas, I or II? A street in Jerusalem, the back end of the shuk. But the water is still there, albeit in somewhat diminished quantities. It must start from somewhere in the Hermon range, and we know for a fact that it winds up first in the Dan River and then in the Upper Jordan River (there are really two Jordan Rivers: one going into the Kinneret, and the other going out of the Kinneret, heading down to the Dead Sea). There is certainly water in the spot where we began, flowing through channels which might be quite old, but if you REALLY want to see water, you have to go to the Banias waterfall. If Danny had been there leading a hiking group, we would have taken the ninety minute hike. But that’s more time than you want to spend on a tiyul, so we got back on the bus and drove part of the way. We still had a little bit of a walk down a path which began to parallel a stream of gushing water until we reached the falls. I looked over at my charming wife, and I knew what she was thinking: The Finger Lakes. Watkins Glenn. The gorges in Ithaca itself. The upper part of Robert Tremain State Park. Water moving rapidly over rocks, perhaps the most soothing sound one can imagine. You never want to leave. Just stay there and listen to the gurgling water rolling over the rocks, in a hurry to get somewhere – but you aren’t.
I’ve discussed this with friends: why aren’t we all living up in The Golan, or the Galil, where the climate is more like what we were accustomed to in the northeastern states? Perfect for people who don’t mind the rain. I’m in awe of the rugged landscape and the starkness of the midbar that surrounds us, but my soul does not require my presence among the dunes as it does by a waterfall. Everyone I’ve spoken with has the same answer. We want to be near Jerusalem, and we need to be near Civilization; i.e., jobs, art and entertainment, other people. Most of us are not going to commute two hours to work and two hours back five days a week. That sort of puts a damper on any vista, no matter how dramatic or ennobling.
Things will change. We’re too small a country to afford having our versions of Montana or Nevada, large perecentages of our real estate sparsely populated, inhabited mainly by Druse in the north and Beduins in the south. Cities like Tiberias and Beersheva will have to expand; the infrastructure: roads, bridges, railroads will have to be created and improved. That way, when sooner or later, someone from your family arrives on the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, they will have a choice of affordable and comfortable places to live. But that’s not on the agenda for today. Now, we are enjoying the splendid wilderness in relative isolation.
If I remember correctly, our next stop was at El Rom, the world’s highest kibbutz, physically, (they don’t claim spiritually). What is the main economic activity at this kibbutz? They make all the Hebrew subtitles for movies. Beats picking olives or cleaning up after chickens – which activities Barbara and Natania engaged in on their stints at Yavneh and Be’erot Yitzchak. And what did we do at El Rom? What else. We watched a movie, one which the kibbutz had produced. All about Avigdor Kahalani and the Valley of Tears. Now, if you know what I’m talking about, raise your hand. If you don’t, be patient, and I will tell you.
The film is about an incident which took place in 1973, at a time when Israel was collectively in a state of euphoria, totally unwarranted, but real, nonetheless. This giddiness began after the Six Day War in 1967, when we whipped the tar out of a lot of Arabs. Most people here believed our army was invincible, could take on anybody, and we were absolutely The Greatest. Many people here, from what I understand, forgot Who really is The Greatest. That would have been like somebody in involved in the Exodus from Egypt getting up and proclaiming: “We sure showed Pharaoh who’s boss!”
One of the practical implications of this absurd overconfidence was that the I.D.F. didn’t see the need to keep its troops properly supplied. “Who’s going to attack us?” The Egyptians for one; the Syrians for another. How about 500 Syrian tanks, or rather 500 brand new Russian-made tanks, equipped with the latest night-vision equipment, with Syrian troops in them, rolling over the Golan, not surprisingly in the dead of night. And who was there to stop them from rumbling down to Tiberias, and from there down to Jerusalem (Ma’ale Adumim would have been in the way; but of course there was no Ma’ale Adumim in 1973)? Forty-four Israeli tanks, that’s what. Forty-four tanks without night vision, because the Israeli tanks that had this equipment were somewhere else. Forty-four tanks with precious little ammunition. Why would you need night vision and ammunition on the Syrian border??? Forty-four tanks with Avigdor Kahalani in charge and as brave a group of chayalim as you could ever find. Under normal circumstances, soldiers who have inferior equipment and who are out-numbered more than ten to one will leave the field of combat as quickly and quietly as they can. So what did our guys do? They attacked – even though they couldn’t see whom they were attacking, and they didn’t have much ammunition to do any damage if they managed to locate their targets. Because these tanks did have functioning video cameras and walkie-talkies, the footage that was shot and recorded could be incorporated into the film which we were shown. At one point, someone in one of the tanks realized that somebody else was riding around with his rear lights on; not a smart move if you are trying to avoid detection. The word was passed around from tank to tank: Hey, dummy, turn off your lights!!! But no one had his lights on. It must be a Syrian tank! Are you sure? It must be! Then blow it up! I hope we’re right! It was in fact a Syrian tank which in the absolute chaos of the battle had been mistakenly attached to an Israeli column and did not survive to see the light of dawn. And when that light did come at last, there were no more Syrians left to do combat. Tanks, yes. Several hundred of these remained, deserted, their engines still running – but not as fast as the Syrian men who simply fled on foot in the dead of night. For years thereafter, these tanks, with their insignias altered, served the I.D.F. with great distinction. And, we were told, this particular battle is studied to great effect all over the world in schools of military strategy.
Having heard that comment, I began to wonder: what could they possibly be studying? The total incompetence and overconfidence of the Israeli high command and government? There are too many other great examples of official stupidity in country after country for this episode to merit attention. The bravery of the Israeli soldier? Many examples of that; plus you can’t teach courage. The cowardice of the Syrian soldier? Many other examples of that; plus you don’t want to teach pusillanimity. Now for the real kicker. The ‘hand’ of G-d, the divine protection over The Land and its less-than-worthy occupants? Can you somehow imagine a chapter in a textbook about that? Somehow, not. Much later, when we were back on the bus, one of the guys in the group was telling a younger, more gullible fellow ‘the real story,’ which included later testimony from some of the Syrian tank brigade about how they saw a huge hand in the sky signaling them not to go on. Things like that. I am personally as skeptical about this claim as I am about the story that the matriarch Rachel appeared to our soldiers in the recent Gaza campaign and motioned to them to go to the right rather than the left, preventing them from being blown-up. Perhaps we can agree that Rachel’s spirit was and is with our fighting forces, and leave it at that. As for the Syrians, let’s put it this way: if you were going to give an explanation for why you ignominiously fled the field of battle, would you say it was because you were a lily-livered coward or because you saw a heavenly vision? Still, I am perfectly comfortable with the notion that G-d has been doing the opposite of what He did to Pharaoh, ‘softening’ the hearts of our enemies on the battlefield, causing them to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory on so many occasions.
The profoundly gripping film ended, and the various groups assembled trickled out of the theater. (The film is shown several times a day to many groups at a time.) We had arranged to use the kibbutz’s cafeteria, so we could eat our boxed lunches where it was warm and dry. Back on the bus, heading to the real Valley of Tears, the scene of the action we had just seen on celluloid. Perhaps there is something special about battlefields. Perhaps certain plots of land have been set aside since the dawn of time for this sort of heroics: Gettysburg, Agincourt, Dunkirk, Thermopylae. But when you are standing there on this field, looking out as far as the eye can see, if it weren’t for the occasional tank still standing there, the plaques with information, would you intuitively realize that it was on this spot that The Nation was saved by forty-four tanks and some very, very brave men? As we stood there, all was tranquil, lush, a place for sober reflection. But not too long, for we had to get back on the bus.
We were certainly in need of a change of pace. What could be better than a shop where they make chocolate? And so our next stop was the very small showroom, factory, and gift shop of DeKatrina, where the chocolate is as good as it gets. There is the obligatory short film which explains something about how chocolate is made and introduces the audience to Katrina, whose grandfather made chocolate in Europe, whose father made chocolate in South America, and who herself makes chocolate in The Land. And then there she is, in person, in the room where the chocolate is being made, she and one assistant together doing all the work by hand – the exact opposite of the Golan Wineries, a huge operation with not a soul in sight. I should also note that, unlike the winery, where they actually make wine from grapes, DeKatrina does not start with the cocoa beans and go from there. Wisely, they start with the finest, Callebaut chocolate from Argentina, liquefy it, add all kinds of good stuff, and pour it into molds, at the end, putting little squiggles on top of each piece when it’s cooled down. If you’re not one of those heathens who doesn’t like chocolate, or is allergic – a fate almost worse than death – and you’ve led an exemplary life, you have had a piece or two of chocolate of this quality, and you know what I’m talking about. We’re not talking about Hershey Kisses here! From watching to tasting. Ezra had already apologized profusely for taking us here after our meat lunch, most of the chocolates being dairy. We were able to sample the parve stuff, and, as a reward for our discipline, take some milk chocolate with us to have three or six hours later. From there out into the gift shop, a fraction of the size of the one in Hershey, PA, but in a different universe quality-wise. If we had already purchased wine that we could easily get in our neck-of-the-woods, we certainly were going to buy some exotic chocolate – and some for each of our daughters, and something for Channah who was looking after Mimi. On our way out, I noticed in a display case some interesting chocolate designs, including a chess set (regular chocolate vs. white chocolate), very impractical because you might eat one of the pieces en route to victory and lose the game. Because I have a strange sense of association, I thought back to a time many years ago, when Barbara was encouraging Natania to learn her addition tables by counting with M and M’s. How much is two and two? Three, because I ate one.
Sometime during the day, and I can’t remember when, our tiyul took us all the way up north to a Druse village almost at the base of Har Hermon, the top of which we couldn’t see because of the fog. Ezra explained to us who exactly are the Druse: a breakaway from mainstream Islam, relatively secular, and by tradition, as a small minority, traditionally showing allegiance to their host country. In pre-1967 Israel, these folk are reasonably loyal, serving in the army and such. However, the Druse in the Golan are in a quandary and are basically sitting on the proverbial fence. Why? Because some of the geniuses in our government keep hinting at the possibility of returning the Golan to Syria as part of some hypothetical peace treaty. Why should this minority start waving the blue and white flag today when tomorrow a red, white, and black flag with two green stars might be de riguer? For the record, the border with Syria here on the Golan has been absolutely quiet since 1973, the Syrians preferring to use their surrogates in Lebanon to do their mischief.
By now, you have probably gotten our pattern: on the bus, off the bus, on the bus, off the bus. That’s what happens on these tiyulim, trying to cram in as much as possible into the time available. That’s why everyone remembers the cartoon, or the caption from the cartoon: “If it’s Tuesday, we must be in Belgium.” At one point in the afternoon, we got off the bus, and I really wasn’t sure where I was or what the point of being there was. We were walking on a path parallel to the edge of a precipice. On the other side was another mountain with a valley in between. As we walked, we could see in between the two mountains a smaller ridge of a rather odd shape, and a number of us began to wonder what we were seeing. We finally arrived at an overlook from which point we could the valley, all the mountains around us, and most importantly, this strangely shaped formation rising from the valley. Gamla, the name derived from the Hebrew and Arabic names for a camel, because this place does look more or less like the hump of a camel – at least, I can’t think of a better way to describe it.
We have to go back to a time in 1967 (no film this time) after the Six Day War when Jews were now free, for the first time in a long while, to wander around the Golan and explore the wonders of nature and the historical sites therein. Shmarya Gutmann, described elsewhere as a “self-taught archaeologist,” (which I assume means he had no official credentials) must have been standing somewhere near where we were. He looked out and had a ‘eureka moment.’ (For real; the word means ‘I have found’ in Ancient Greek.) He knew his Josephus, and what he saw, and what we were looking at absolutely, positively, no questions asked, had to be the place that was described by in detail in The Jewish Wars. Of course, in this world where everybody is an expert, and the other guy, what does he know?, it took Gutmann four years to raise the bucks to start excavation and prove that he was right. You realize, of course, that we didn’t get the chance actually to see what has been uncovered. Even with the kind of high powered binoculars that bird fanciers use to check out the eagle nests on the nearby cliffs, we would not have seen much – that’s how far away we were. We could see groups of hikers walking across the valley (again, where’s Danny when we need him!), but my sense is that the trip down the slope and up the ridge would have taken at least three quarters of an hour each way, and there is no connecting cable car as there is at Masada.
Gamla is often characterized as the “Masada of the North,” but this epithet is misleading. In the first century, C.E., there was a community of about 9,000 souls residing on this ridge, doing quite well – selling olive oil to be used in The Temple and engaging in other agricultural endeavors – from the looks of some of the houses that have since been uncovered. That is, they were doing quite well until the Romans came a-conquering in 67. Tzipori to the west had already surrendered, lock, stock, and barrel, and there were all these enemy soldiers heading their way. The perennial question: What to do? Has anybody out there read any of Josephus’ writings? It’s like watching a great movie, knowing that the ending is going to be a disaster for the good guys. Having switched sides in the middle of the war, the historian had no use for the zealots who continued to fight; and he portrayed them in the worst possible light. We know that they were doomed to defeat; and we know what happened thereafter. So it’s hard to cheer them on, under the circumstances – even though some of us would have sided with them at the time. The difference between the “Masada of the North” and the real one to the south is that, here in the Golan, they were defending their homes and had a legitimate reason to fight. For if Gamla fell, then the Romans – just like the Syrians exactly 1900 year later – would have had an unimpeded march to Jerusalem. The residents of Gamla believed that a people called the Parthians would be coming from the east to battle the Romans, and that if they could only hold out for a little while………. No such luck. The Romans breached the retaining walls, and two women out of the 9000 inhabitants lived to tell the tale.
On the other hand, by the time the zealots were holed up at Masada, the game was up; the war was lost. The sacred vessels from the Temple were being carted off to Rome. Jewish survival would be secured by the compromisers, those who would create a Jewish life divorced from nationhood. The whole Jewish ethos would be turned upside down. The Maccabis would fall into disfavor. Rabbi Akiva would be remembered as someone who learned the alef bet when he was forty, not as the sage who encouraged the Bar Cochba rebellion a century later. There has been a mood shift again now that we have our own country once more, and several generations of Israelis have had to fight to maintain it. Whereas we could not defeat the Romans, we were able to defeat the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and the Syrians. At any rate, Masada has been burned into the collective consciousness of the Jewish Nation; Gamla not so much.
The final two stops were, in a sense, anti-climactic. We headed over to Katzrin to a village which was thriving during the second century of the Common Era when the Mishna was being compiled. Here among the excavation they have restored one residence; at least you can get a sense of the dimensions of these building, how cramped the living quarters were back then. There were a few young adults paid to walk around in period costumes, but that’s about it. All the explaining was left to Ezra’s capable hands – as was the case in our final stop, the regional museum elsewhere in Katzrin. There was a guide assigned from the museum, but his scant knowledge of what was on display there was equaled by the quality of his English. After a while he sort of faded away – mercifully – again leaving Ezra in charge. He was somewhat annoyed; he was charged admission, and he had to act as his own guide to the museum, having to explain the various artifacts on display, all of which had been discovered locally. The last event on our itinerary was to view yet another short film, this one giving an audio-visual recapitulation of the history of Gamla. The film ended with the strong baritone voice of the narrator: “And Gamla was never fall again.” The lights went back on in the small auditorium. We all got up, filed out, and returned one more time to our bus, which would now be returning to Jerusalem. Our tiyul was essentially over.
I sat on the bus as it retraced its path back to the Kinneret and from there down route 90, the rain falling the entire way – in and of itself, very unusual. I kept thinking of that prophetic statement, uttered with absolute certainty, “And Gamla will never fall again.” Suddenly, it occurred to me, ‘he said it will never fall; he didn’t say anything about being given away.’ And that’s the scary thing: it could happen. There are people here and certainly elsewhere who want Israel to abandon the entire Golan. As I am writing this, the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is here in The Land in conjunction with a loan exhibit of Da Vinci drawings on display at the Knesset (My question would be: how many M.K.’s have a clue who Leonardo Da Vinci was?) He (Berlusconi, not Da Vinci) has already offered his opinion that we would be wise to return the Golan to the Syrians. In rebuttal, I would offer, free of charge, one of my special rules of thumb. For any nation to offer another advice about its national wellbeing, the first country should have demonstrated over a period of time – say since 1900 – a track record of responsible government of its own. That would certainly reduce the amount of absurd discourse and hand-wringing that accompanies most of the discussion about what Israel ought and ought not do. “Sorry, Silvio; talk to the hand.
“You see, it’s not just the military significance of these heights, something that only a fool or a madman would ignore. From the Hermon range, from Banias flows the Upper River Jordan into the Kinneret. That’s thirty percent of our national water supply. You want us to give up control of our water? That’s nuts, Silvio; there’s no other word for it. We also grow a lot of grapes, make a lot of high quality wine up there, something you should know a little about. Are you offering to returning Tuscany to the Etruscans? We’ve invested a great deal in the Golan, and I’m not talking about money. We couldn’t stop your ancestors from pillaging our Land nineteen hundred years ago and carrying off our ancestors and our wealth (please stand under the arc of Titus when you return home); should we let you sweet-talk us into surrendering Gamla again? Should we hand over the fields which our fighting forces defended to the enemies who attacked us and ran away? (Imagine the trouble we would be in if our army were to perform as poorly as the Italians have!!!!) Should we hand over the kibbutzim, the agriculture, the national parks, everything which makes this region so special? I don’t think so Silvio; I don’t think so.”
We made our final stop at a little place on route 90 with decent food and the most depressing ambience you can imagine. We finally arrived in Jerusalem, and the bus left us off near where we started. We said goodbye to Ezra, the driver, the other seven men who made our minyan, their wives, the young ladies and Sharona from Midreshet Devora. Remembering to take our goodies, the wine and the chocolate we had purchased with us, we walked, still in the rain, to our bus stop and caught the 174 back to Ma’ale Adumim – the only place within miles where not a drop of rain had fallen.