Thursday, August 12, 2010


One word of warning, I am not guaranteeing the correct spelling of all these words. In some cases they are probably more phonetic than otherwise. But I did want to give you a flavor of some everyday Hebrew terms.

Shalom - Yeah, I know, everyone knows this one, meaning "peace". But it gets used very often in everyday conversation to the point where it means "hi", "how are you", "welcome", not just "peace".

Bokur Tov - "good morning"!!! and the correct response is Bokur Or - basically "back at ya"

Haval Al Hasman - "what a waste of time" - spoken with a lot of hand gestures and inferring a lot of sarcasm

Lila Tov - "good night"

Eza Balagan - "what a mess" - also a lot of hand gestures and sarcasm:)

Aliya - "ascent" - refers to a person's first visit to Israel/Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem is built on a hill, the word implies a great deal of physical and spiritual effort to make the journey, climbing the hill, that sort of thing. In many ways, this is my favorite expression. Reading the Psalms now makes so much more sense when you see the words "I will go up to Jerusalem to the house of God.

Obviously we were exposed to a lot more than these few words but I found these to be the most significant. In general, however, language was never a problem while we were in Israel; most people were fluent in Hebrew and English. Quite a difference from here in the USA where we seem to insist that visitors ought to speak "our" language and not that we should have to learn theirs.

Monday, August 9, 2010

I Want To Go Back

You know, I have travelled a bit in my life - England, Wales, Rome, Florence, even India. But this is the first time I have ever felt such a strong pull to return somewhere - to Israel. Granted I wouldn't mind re-visiting any of these places, but there is something different about the Holy Land.

Yes, we visited a lot of places in just one week. But it's not about wanting to see places I didn't get to; nor is it about merely re-visiting the same site. This trip was a spiritual, emotional, physically-demanding, social adventure. And, in a lot of ways, I feel like I have only just scratched the surface of the experience. It's like an onion and I have only just peeled off the first layer. Often, when we visit a place for the first time, we are overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the experience - the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, St. Peter's Square. That certainly happened for me, especially at the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But when I returned, there experience became much more individual, more personal. I was able to focus on the people and the emotions going through my head and the experience became a much deeper one.

The pull to return to Israel is almost palpable; I am not sure if it's "want" or "need" or a little of both. But I've been waking up lately just literally missing the place, longing to touch the Wailing Wall again, to walk through the market and, yes, sample a few more rugellachs, hee hee.

Friday, August 6, 2010


For years now, actually decades, I have been teaching New Testament to high school Sophomores. For that same time period, I have also been using the same book - Jesus of History, Christ of Faith. And, as much as I really like the text, I have always lamented that it takes 6 chapters before you really get into the story of the Gospels - the opening 6 chapters basically set the stage with background on the time period, lifestyle, political situation, etc. I have always believed the background info was important but I was impatient to get to stories in the Gospels.

Now after a week in Israel, it all becomes crystal clear and I have a much deeper understanding of how all that background info makes the stories in the Gospels more meaningful. For years, I have taught, from the text, that the geography changes from north to south. Boy, does it!!! The northern part of Israel, the Galilee, is lush and green, full of life and vegetation, hillsides and valleys full of grapevines and olive orchards. And the further south you go, the closer you get to Jerusalem, the more desolate it becomes. Green hills are replaced by rocky barren lands. And as you continue south, down along the Dead Sea, it just gets hotter and more barren and lifeless. Don't get me wrong, there is a wealth of trees and plant life around and in Jerusalem and west of the city towards the Mediterranean. But you also realize that the only reason this is so is because every plant, every tree was painstakingly planted by hand. Man has made a garden out of a desert. So if you ever hear of someone saying they donated money to plant a tree in Israel, believe them. It's true.

And as far as the Jordan River is concerned, it looks nothing like a river. It does connect the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee but it is barely a stream. In most places you could jump from one side to the other and not get wet. And if you waded across, you wouldn't get your knees wet most of the time.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Random Thoughts

Well, it'a not like i will forget this trip anytime soon so I plan to add in random thoughts and memories as they come back to me:)

Water conservation - given the nature of the climate and geography, it is amazing to me all the little things they do in Israel to conserve water. Leftover water from meals goes right to the plants and flowers. Every building, not just every home, every building in Israel, has a water tank on the roof along with a solar panel that then heats the water - saves electricity too. Guess we aren't as advanced as we think. Also every toilet has two buttons - I think you get the picture - the point being you automatically save water. How come we cant do that here??

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Day 7 - Bethlehem, Jerusalem

I have been rather reluctant to post this time - seeing as how this is/was my last day in Israel, posting makes me feel a certain sense of finality to the whole experience, and I don't want it to end!! Then again, part of me also realizes that the actual processing of this once in a lifetime experience will continue for months, if not years.

So... after breakfast on this our last day in Israel, we made a few stops to get some panoramic views of Jerusalem, particularly what was the original "City of David". What we realized is the absolute illogic of the City of Jerusalem - it just shouldn't exist - it has no water supply, no worthwhile farmland and no strategic value - no reason at all for anyone to set it up as a place to settle down. And yet....

From there, we travelled to the town of Bethlehem, controlled today by the Palestinian Authority. This was the most uncomfortable I felt the entire trip. Security checkpoint in and out. To avoid the hassle, even Yoram and our bus driver did not accompany us. We had a different bus drive and transport and met our Bethlehem guide once we entered the town. First stop was a store - lots of great stuff, made a lot of purchases and lots of haggling. Yes, even though there are prices on the items, you still bargain the price. I got a chalice listed at $75 for $40 and a whole bunch of other things for 35% off. Most of it was made of Bethlehem olivewood, created right on the premises; you could see the pile of olive wood out back of the store. And for those of you environmentally conscious, it's only the pruned parts of the olive tree; they do not cut down olive trees just to get the wood. We bought so much that we had to leave our purchases there instead of 'schlepping' (good Yiddish word) them around.

From there, we travelled to the Church of the Nativity. The entrance is extremely unassuming, very small and very low, you have to bend down to enter - on purpose, it's a sign of humility. This church was the site of a 2002 takeover/hostage situation by Palestinian terrorists; even today you can still see the bullet holes in the church walls. There are parts of the floor opened up where you can see the original mosaic tile floor. Like all the churches we visited, this one was built over the ruins of a previous one, and so on and so on. This particular building dates back to 529 CE, built over the ruins of the church built by Emperor Constantine's mother in 327 CE. Essentially it is built over the site of the cave where Jesus was born. Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, this site is supervised by 3 different Christian branches - Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian - although it does not seem as contentious as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

There was a very long line to get down the stairs to the actual spot marking the cave. Our Arab guide, however, thought he could perhaps circumvent the long line by us going in thru the exit - he made it sound like he had never tried it before and we would end up being very impressed and appreciative of his efforts (translate that to - he would like a big tip!!!). Anyway we did get in through the exit and made our way down to the original floor. There, marked by a silver star, was the site of the manger; most pilgrims kneel and kiss the site so Jeff and I both took turns snapping each other's picture.

From there, we moved to the attached Church of St. Catherine. In the vestibule, there is a gorgeous bronze bas-relief of the Tree of Jesse, donated by Pope Benedict in 2009. The church itself is a modern Gothic style, very beautiful stained glass windows (check the pics on facebook). In the courtyard, there is a statue of St. Jerome who is buried below the church.

Afterwards we headed back to the store to retrieve our purchases and headed out of Bethlehem. However this trip was not as easy. The PA decided we all needed to exit the bus and we all had to individually go through a maze of security checks, scans and interviews, before we could leave. It was uncomfortable, a bit scary and definitely unpredictable, wondering if we had done something, would we be allowed out, etc. I am glad we saved Bethlehem to the last day - I would not have wanted to do this early in the trip and then continue thinking about it.

Once we returned to Jerusalem, we had our last lunch at Aroma's, a little sandwich shop. And then we took one last stroll through a neighborhood near the hotel. We learned this was where the first community settled outside the city walls back in the 1850's. It was simply beautiful, lots of gardens and flowers. This was also the area where Sr. Frances, Esther and I had our Shabbat dinner with Bernie and Fran. And now we know that each of these homes are worth more than $1 million.

From there, we headed back to the hotel to pack; we left at 6pm for one last dinner at the Colony Restaurant before we travelled to Tel Aviv and the flight back to Chicago. Dinner was, of course, wonderful, and we had our first chance to de-compress and share some of our experiences with the entire group, as well as thanking Lisa, Linda, and Yoram for an amazing experience.

It was then off to the airport for a relatively uneventful trip back home. Of course, lots more Israeli security, especially for Jeff who constantly had to explain what he was doing with the big Shofar, not to mention his hookah. Jack, laying down on the floor in the middle of the baggage claim certainly drew some stares. Unfortunately photos were not allowed; otherwise that would have been my last pic of the trip.

And, no, I don't think I am done yet. I think am going to keep posting some random thoughts and remembrances as they come to me. Hope you have enjoyed this journey; of course, I have only conveyed the bare bones of the experience but I will continue to try to add to it. Any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to ask!!

thank you for joining me on this adventure:)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Day 6 - Masada, Dead Sea, Revisiting Old City

After breakfast, we boarded the bus for the ride south to Masada. Almost the entire trip, the Dead Sea was right alongside the road. And the further south we rode, the more desolate it became. We enter the Visitors Center at the base of Masada; I had no idea that Masada was so close to the Dead Sea; I thought it would be even more remote than it is. If you want, you could hike up the path to the top; we wisely chose to use the aerial tram, 3 minutes to the top. I did take video but still have to figure out how to link it to the blog - working on it:) although I doubt Ginger even wants to view the tram ride, oh well.

Masada is essentially 3 levels of living quarters, storage rooms, a synagogue, hot baths, and of course a palace or two for King Herod, not to mention huge cisterns for storing water. From above, you can see for miles and miles and you can still make out the outlines of the Roman army camps as well as the ramp the Romans built to get to the top. If you don't know the story, after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE, the remaining Zealots and their families fled here and the Roman army laid siege to Masada for over 3 months. When the ramp was finally completed and they reached the top, they found that all 960 inhabitants had committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. You cannot imagine the sweeping views from the top - even the pics don't do it justice, a real WOW moment. We took the tram back down for some serious shopping in the store at the Visitors Center and then headed for the Ein Gedi Beach on the Dead Sea

FYI - the Dead Sea has a salt content of 35% not to mention a lot of other minerals which apparently make it (and its mud) good for skin and complexion; lots of skincare products are sold at the Visitors Center. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, 1385 feet below sea level. In fact, when we were on the top of Masada we were actually at 0 feet sea level, go figure. I chose to simply wade into the Dead Sea, while 3 of us actually dove in for the full experience. Air temperature was about 106 degrees, water was not warm, though not really cool either. But the stuff left on your skin after going on really feels uncomfortably slimy, because of all the other minerals in the water. My flipflops are still icky to the touch. And the actual walk down to the beach was dangerously slippery.

We then re-boarded the bus and headed back north to Jerusalem. Along the way, you could see countless hills with caves. Even though we didn't stop, we did see the actual caves at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, very cool!!

We headed to the 3 Arches YMCA in Jerusalem for lunch with Bassem Eid, Executive Director of the Palestinina Human Rights Monitoring Group. I can'e begin to tell you how rounded our overall experience of Israel has been - we have had the opportunity to speak with a variety of sides and points of view - Jewish, Christian, Arab and now Palestinian. It just goes to show how difficult the political situation is in Israel and how elusive a solution that addresses all sides can be. The discussion was eye-opening, how dis-united the Palestinians are, not that any other group is. The biggest disservice we could do is assume any group, Arab or Christian or Jewish, are all united on all fronts or to lop all people into 'one size fits all' categories. It just doesnt work - there are Palestinians who are happy to live in Israel and those who arent, there are Palestinians who work in Israel and other Palestinians who resent any other Palestinian who associates with Israelis. And the same goes for all sides - this is a multi-layered country that demands a multi-layered solutions to the problems that exist. Very very complicated!!
The lunch itself was definitely the low point for food - very poor service, long waits for very mediocre (and that is being kind) food. We even skipped dessert, better that we didn't even try it. Ugh! I am sure Linda has crossed this place off the list for future visits.
Once we returned to the hotel, actually check that, everyone else rode back to the hotel. Jeff and I struck out on our own and walked back through the Jaffa Gate into the Old City. There we re-visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where I got the chance to take all the pics I missed out on the first time when my camera died. This time, however, I got the chance to really notice the people so there are a few human interest shots as well. I think that is something we all do - when we visit somewhere for the first time, we focus on the big picture - the building, the view, that sort of thing. When you go back, you get the opportunity to focus on the people and what's going on. We then headed to the Arab Quarter for more shopping and haggling. You learn things like the bagel man with the pushcart apparently has interests in several local shops as he just left the cart and ushered us through a number of shops. I think this is the time Jeff bought his hookah - this is how it works, you do some small talk (where you from? Chicago, oh yes Wheaton College! huh??, you pick out something you like, and then you "talk" price. Such a beautiful sensory overload walk through all the little alleys and paths. I bought a couple of scarves, but only after Jeff had brought down the price on the ones he bought!!!
We went back through the Jewish Quarter as well and saw the Wailing Wall again. Such an emotional experience to stand there touching the wall and slipping slips of paper into its cracks, hard to put words to the event. From there we made our way out the Zion Gate, I think, and "eventually" found our way to the Church of Notre Dame for 6:30 Saturday mass. What a true experience. I told everyone, only in Jerusalem, can you go to Notre Dame for Mass with a predominately Filipino and Indian congregation, with American and British lectors, where the 7 foot tall French priest does a homily about Opus Dei (really, 7 foot - Judy had to raise her hands over her head for communion), and, in the midst of saying the Canon in Latin, he gets to the Consecration and you can hear the Muslim call to prayer through the windows. WOW!!!
After that, we did a bit of shopping in the Church's religious store; the place also houses kind of an international religious hostel. Esther and I cabbed it back to the hotel where I proceeded to crash for the night.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Day 5 - Yad Vashem, Machaneh Yehuda, Church of Holy Sepulchre, Old City

After breakfast, we departed for Yah Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, a most sobering visit. The main building is shaped like a triangle, soaring to a point overhead, an open space right in the middle with separate galleries on either side. You make your way back and forth. The walls were simple concrete but you would think the walls were weeping with all the sadness and tears I saw, teens, elderly, there was no age limit. You finally get to the Hall of Names, a circular room with a dome above with pictures of 600 victims symbolizing the 6 million.. The walls themselves are lined with shelves holding books and books listing every documented death in the camps. There are computer rooms nearby where you can research your family names to insure they are included. The very middle of the room looks down on a seemingly bottomless hole - it partly feels like the world has cracked, shattered in grief. There is a separate Hall of Remembrance built to look like a tent, housing the names of all the camps and an eternal flame; all men are required to don the yarmulke out of respect. There is also a separate children's memorial, a building lit by a single candle but the walls are lined with mirrors so it feels like there are thousands of them. As you walk through, you hear the names of all the children, roughly 402,000; it takes 3 years to go through the list entirely. Between the buildings are a number of gardens, one, the Garden of the Righteous, set up to honor the those non-Jewish individuals who helped in any way to save lives. You can also see from the pics on Facebook, a lot of exterior sculptures; on in particular, the set of upstanding columns that look cut off or unfinished - reminds me of the children, whose lives were cut off long before they had a chance to live.

We then travelled to Machaneh Yehuda, the open market in Jerusalem, a very lively place, especially when its getting close to sundown on Friday, Sabbath. We had falafels for lunch, yum, and I thought I knew what a real falafel tasted like!! We then strolled through the market, marvelling at the variety of fruits, vegetables, baked goods (yes, my chocolate rugelachs) and everything else you could imagine. If you ever get there, go to the Marzipan Bakery -its the best!!!

We then met up with Daniel Rossing, Director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations for a walking tour of the Christian Quarter, Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, starting at the Jaffa Gate. He took us to the top walkway of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for some really spectacular panoramic shots of the city as well as some shots down into the Church from above. When we actually got down and entered the Church itself, my camera died so for this day I have no interior shots. Not to worry, Jeff and I returned the next day and I made up for it. Suffice it to say, the Church is presided over by 4 different branches of Christianity which makes for some picky and interesting jurisdiction battles. For instance, you will see an outside shot of the Church with a ladder up on the second story - its been there for decades. One branch is responsible for the windows, another for the ledge. So when they wanted to wash the windows, no, no said the other branch so the ladder just remained. Inside, you will find 3 separate religious sites, upstairs the rock of Golgotha where Jesus was crucified, downstairs when you immediately enter the Church - the stone on which Jesus' body was prepared for burial, and then further on, the rock that served as His Tomb. A very crowded reverent place.

After that, we continued on and toured and shopped in both the Christian and Arab Quarter. Hint - you have to know how to haggle. You pick something you like, THEN WE TALK!! That means, let's discuss price. I have to admit the Arab Quarter was amazing, narrow alleys with little shops, all of them inviting you bluntly to talk to them, make you a deal. And the aromas of herbs and spices and incense are heavy and fragrant. We ended up in the Jewish Quarter and the Wailing Wall. As I headed to the Wall, I was approached by this old white-haired and bearded old Jew who asked my name, my wife's name and then proceeded to tell me my future - only in Jerusale. I had brought a note with me with prayers for all my family and friends which I, of course, pressed into a crack in the Wall - what an amazing amazing experience. I did not realize that to the left there is an interior room decked out like a library, bookcases filled with prayer books. To stand at the Wall and to look up and see the Dome of the Rock just above me - priceless!!!!

We then headed back to the hotel to prepare for Shabbat dinner with a local family. By that time, the hotel had set one of the elevators on Sabbath mode - it automatically stops at every floor so you don't have to push buttons (no work on the Sabbath). Sr. Frances, Esther and I walked to our hosts' home, very close to the hotel - Bernie and Fran Alpert. Also joining us for dinner was their daughter, son-in-law and 10 year old granddaughter, visiting from Boston. Bernie and Fran are both archaeologists; in fact Bernie for a time was head of the government's dept of archaeology, a wealth of experience and information. Turns out they are originally from Chicago, up around Morse and Ashland, where Ginger and I had only just gone to see a play at Lifeline Theater, which amazingly they are sponsors of - very small world. Bernie, just in the last few years, has started this new project called "Dig for a Day" - a chance for tourists to participate in an actual archaeological dig sit, for an hour, a day, whatever!! Sheesh, why couldn't I have come for 2 weeks instead of one??

Anyway, the actual Shabbat dinner was wonderful, prayerful, thoughtful. And with 3 generations of the family there, I got a real sense of how the religious traditions are continuing to be passed along. The food, obviously, was delicious and, of course, there was plenty and then some. Our gracous hosts explained everything every prayer as we went along and it was such an honor and a privilege to be included in their family for this occasion. Too often, we microwave our meals, eat alone or in such a hurry that there is no such thing as conversation. When was the last time any of us had a real family meal, much less one that we would do regularly once a week, every week.

One small point, but it speaks such volumes. What water there was left after the meal, Bernie used to water all of the flowers and plants in the house. In a country where the weather is more desert-like and water is precious, it was a simple reminder that all water is sacred and should never go to waste!!!

Lila Tov