WHAT I SAW IN ISRAEL

Paul Lowinger

 

I confronted IsraelŐs message about the Holocaust on the first day by visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem where we saw the human skeletons of the camps in black and white photos. We were tourists, students and museum guards among the mounds of shoes, toys, lockets, dentures and the diagrams about the numbers, geography, nationality and transportation of the victims. The only respite was going next door to the ChildrenŐs Memorial which consisted of an ascending diaphanous and twinkling column of light, a conceptual rather then a realistic tribute. My last stop was a stone building displaying the names of the twenty-one d eath camps arranged across an eerie field, each with a sacred flame where I made a sketch since no photos were allowed. The paths between the buildings were lined with trees named for Righteous Gentiles who had risked their lives to save Jews.

Israel without its special pride and conflicts is a land resembling California, a Mediterranean littoral with beaches and sun, cities on hills like Jerusalem and lakes like the Kinneret which we call the Sea of Galilee and the salty Dead Sea. There are crowds with cell phones, consumer and computer commerce, fruit trees and grapes for wine and a love-hate relationship with Washington. White and brown faces, too.

Israel is unique as a Jewish nation and this is celebrated when Israelis talk about Awhat we accomplished and what we still need to do. But the "we" in the words of the Jewish Israelis refers only to the Jews so that the one in five in Israel who is an Arab is not a part of this "we."

When I told Israelis that Israel seemed to me to be successful very much like the United States, the response was, "ItŐs hard to be an Israeli." Although IsraelŐs high taxes and the threats of war and terrorism were acknowledged, no one explained this response. An American expatriate living in Israel laughed as he told me that what Israel really wants is to be the 51st American state.

We went to the Negev and to the Dead Sea. I was wearing my birthday suit as I covered my skin and its blemishes with Dead Sea mud. Its healing minerals are in the Ahava skin softeners, shampoos and soaps which I started to use. They are available from a Web site, www.ahava.com.

We toured Jordan visiting Jerash, a remarkably preserved Greco-Roman city from the reign of Marcus Aurelius. We saw ancient Petra, a burial ground for an earlier Nabatean civilization which built tombs for their royal dead among the rose red free forms rocks. Not on the schedule in the sunny ravines of Petra was the outing of a man by a traveler on our tour who recognized him from a cruise fifteen years earlier when he was with an attractive and much younger woman. The questioner was introduced to the older plain Jane with him at Petra as the wife who had been at home during the cruise. Ken was a naughty boy play ing detective rather then a Sixth Commandment moralist as he took satisfaction in asking after the companion from the ocean voyage while the wife listened.

We had a question and answer session at our hotel with the Israeli ambassador to Jordan who needs four security guards and an armored vehicle to move about in Amman, JordanŐs capital despite the peace treaty in 1994 between Jordan and Israel. The ambassador pointed out that the income disparity, $1600 in Jordan and $16,000 in Israel was a destabilizing element in the precarious relationship between these countries who share the Jordan River and the Dead Sea as boundaries.

We visited Ein Gev, a kibbutz near the Golan in Galilee that had a farm and a dairy although its main activity was the rental of lakefront vacation bungalows like the ones that we occupied. The kibbutz movement began in the nineteenth century in Europe with th `e socialist and agrarian ideals of the Zionist Jews who settled on the land in Israel but now farming plays a smaller role in the economy and socialism is less popular. The member who explained this secular kibbutz to us was a teacher at a local university who owned a car which she lent to other commune member when they wanted to go into town. The kibbutz owned the land and buildings and you could eat communally or not but the child care on the kibbutz was certainly convenient. This successful kibbutz was established in 1937 and if the land and buildings were sold today each of the members would receive over a million dollars.

Friday night at The Great Synagogue on JerusalemŐs King David Street was a way of seeing modern upscale Israeli culture. ItŐs Orthodox so its members arrive on foot. We took a cab from our hotel but missed the service at 5:30 although the lobbies and seating areas were still crowded and noisy well after the service was over. Five modish women about thirty wearing head hugging cloches laughed as they danced the hora in the outer lobby having left their segregated balcony. A group of older and younger men danced in a line with a Torah. Wall plaques celebrated the donors of the building, mostly Americans. The ambience was like a medieval cathedral with piety, ritual, gossip, commerce, fun, flirting and politics.

The Western Wall sometimes called the Wailing Wall has separate sections for men and women with women peeking over a five foot barrier to see the Bar Mitzvahs in progress on a Saturday morning on the menŐs side. Along with the others, I placed a paper with a prayer between the stones of the Wall where according to legend, it is more likely to be answered. Men, take your own yarmulke or buy a colorful one in Israel since they are worn by both Jewish and no n-Jewish men visiting the Wall. You donŐt want to wear the cardboard loaner which resembles a McDonaldŐs carton for french fries.

Walking through the narrow and dark streets of the ultra orthodox Mea Sherim neighborhood was a vision of the shetl of Eastern Europe as it was before the Second World War. Men in fur hats and and dark suits with dangling ritual curls talked on cell phones. The women who shopped with children in tow were dressed modestly as the signs in Hebrew and English demanded of them. Their hair was covered and the long loosely fitting dresses concealed everything else including bare arms. Shops sold charms to protect against the Evil Eye.

The Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv offered access to computerized records of Jewish life and genealogy. I knew my family name meant lion but I didnŐt know it was associated with Leon in Spain and Lyons in France. I didnŐt find anything new about my motherŐs hometown, New York City but there was a description of lively Jewish community life in Papa, Hungary where my father was born. There were exhibits of Jewish life and worship in Africa, India and China as well as in medieval Italy. On the grounds of the museum there is a tell, an archeological site that is being excavated in separate layers beginning in 1200 BCE (Before the Common Era) .

Arab Jerusalem and Palestine are ignored by the Israeli tours so you have to arrange to see them on your own at the Jerusalem Hotel in Arab East Jerusalem. I saw the refugee camp for 25,000 Palestinians at Shuofat near Jerusalem, a depressing and littered slum of temporary construction which began in 1948 with 1,500 people. When I mentioned this visit to my Hungarian landlady who was a Holocaust survivor she said that the debris, crowding and poor housing are deliberate attempts to gain sympathy for the Arabs. Poverty and underdevelopment are also prominent in the city of Gaza, the headquarters of the Palestinian territories.

How should you prepare for a trip to Israel? Of course you need an airline ticket but is there anything special that you should do? Fear of a terrorist attack led one traveler to prepare a will. A Jewish woman got a blessing from the rabbi, a Christian couple read the Old Testament and a woman whose spirituality is directed to the Goddess wrote and produced a play about the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I read Israeli short stories to understand the spirit of the Jewish nation. The bitter sweet changes of life on a kibbutz since the thirties are explored in "A Hollow Stone" by Amos Oz. "Like Salt on BirdsŐ Tails" by Uri Orlev examines the nihilism of the young marrieds ending with the suicide of a Israeli Defense Force fighter pilot. "Badenheim 1939" by Aharon Applefeld is a Kafkaesque irony about the Jews who leave their musical performances in an idyllic spa to board a government train for Poland with a dogged hopefulness that overcomes the apprehension. IŐll read more and see more and tell you more after my next trip to Israel!

© Paul Lowinger 2000