Category Archives: israel

up to the golan, back to jerusalem. and then reflection

When last we spoke, we’d spent several days in Jerusalem, then headed down to the Dead Sea, to visit the lowest elevation point on earth, and to visit the fortress at Masada. 

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Traveling across the West Bank, along the Jordanian border as we went up to the Golan Heights for the latter part of the trip was extraordinary in some ways too.  Traveling this land, with its contentious past and present, and talking with our driver as we went was interesting too. 

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We stayed in a cabin at the Kfar Haruv kibbutz, in the southern Golan.  This setting too was beautiful, overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), across to the city of Tiberius.  I got up early each morning to enjoy a run around the kibbutz, venturing out along the cliffs, and once down into an old pomogranite/olive tree orchard directly below.  After a full day either biking or touring, we’d enjoy dinners together, sometimes creating a large picnic by the cabins.  We felt very fortunate to be included in our friends’ family events.

We had many adventures during our week in the Golan. 

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Along the way, we were guided by people with expertise on the natural and cultural aspects of what we were experiencing.  We hiked a bunch. including some very technical stretches across rocks, water, as well as up and down some good elevation. 

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My daughter surprised me by jumping off of a 25 foot cliff into some water.  She got this bravery from her mom, not me.  She also did some great cave crawling too.  I toured Tzfat, the home of the Jewish mysticism movement known as Kabbalah.  We visited some beautiful synagogues and enjoyed the vibrant artist colony there.  One day we took a ski lift to the top of Mount Hermon, the highest point in Israel, located less than 20 km from Damascus Syria, right on the Lebanese border. 

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We heard stories of the fighting in the Golan during the wars in 1967 and 1973, passing tank traps put in to halt Syrian advances, and seeing deserted Syrian military bases.  One of the more interesting moments for me was hearing Israeli tanks drill, as I discussed politics with my friend Doron and our guide as we sat in the headwaters of the Sea of Galilee.

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The week was capped by a beautiful B’nai Mitzvah, celebrating the coming of age for my friend’s son and his niece.  The ceremony was held in Katzrin Park, an ancient Talmudic village founded around the third century.  The stone ruins provided a very meaningful and picturesque backdrop for this event.  And the kids did an excellent job, their great preparation shining through.

The day after the B’nai Mitzvah, we headed back to Jerusalem, where we settled in for one last night.  My mom and I ventured out for a walk along the market on Ben Yehuda Street, followed by a dinner just north of there.  I got to begin my final day in Israel with a wonderful run around Jerusalem with my good friend and host Doron, who illustrated a great part of the history and layout of the city as we ran through the German Colony, and then up along the Goldman Promenade, where we had a panoramic view of the city, including the Old City, the Mount of Olives, the Cemetery, and the distant hills towards towards Jordan.  It was easily the nicest miles I’ve run in a long time, getting to spend time with my friend of over forty years, and learning so much about a country he knows so much about and loves so dearly.

We enjoyed a celebratory dinner in the hills west of Jerusalem before heading out to the airport to catch our flight.  The trip back included a missed flight, a couple of mad dashes across the Tel Aviv and Atlanta airports, and lots of time spent sitting on planes.

When I reflect on the experience, I am also filled with gratitude for the opportunity to take this trip.  Much credit goes to my wife Kris, who agreed to let us go when she was needing to focus on the final stages of preparation for her Ironman Canada event.  My father really helped by taking care of our youngest while I was away and while Kris did her last bits of training, and helped out a bunch at home.  I’m very grateful to my mother for coming along – sharing this experience with her was really something.  Sharing this with my daughter was amazing as well.  While traveling overseas is not always easy, the experience is irreplaceable.  Finally, I owe many thanks to Doron for helping make the experience so wonderful.  In addition to all of the planning he did for the events on the Golan, he also provided us with an amazing guide for the Old City, as well as a great driver that drove us a number of places along the way.  And again – the chance to experience all of this with the B’nai Mitzvah was amazing.

Much of what I drew from the trip, I will be thinking about for a long time.  As I said – the experience of a lifetime.

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visiting masada

For many people visiting Israel, Masada is the second most common destination (behind Jerusalem).  The story of the siege of the city is interesting, and refusal of the zealots to be taken alive is very moving.

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Read the background on Masada – it’s very thought provoking.

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The fortress itself is intriguing.  Set upon a rock cliff about 450 meters above the Dead Sea, the infrastructure necessary to support the fortress is intriguing.  They required an elaborate system of aqueducts and cisterns to provide water, and large storerooms to stow supplies in.  Following the destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent fall of Jerusalem around the year 70 CE, a group of ‘zealots’ who refused to surrender to the Romans took over the Roman garrisons, and erected the fortress at Masada.  For two years, the Romans laid siege to the fortress, and used Jewish slaves to erect a ramp to overtake the fortress.  The picture below is a view from the “breeching point” of the fortress, where the Romans came in.  You can see remnants of the ramp from there.

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Not wishing to be taken alive, the leader of the Zealots Elazar ben Yair, directed the zealots to commit suicide rather than be taken alive.  All but two women and five children apparently did.  From one of the survivors, Flavius Josephus collected an account of those fateful final hours at Masada. 

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Ironically, Josephus, a Jew previously known as Yosef Ben Matityahu himself had become a citizen of Rome – and was considered a traitor to the Jewish cause of the time.  Yet, Josephus’ work The Jewish War is now cited as a definitive historical account of this time, including by the Israel Museum as well as the interpretive displays in the old city.

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For many years, IDF members were sworn in at Masada, with the oath “Masada shall not fall again”.   The determination never to be limited or defined by captors is definitely admirable.  There has been recent controversy stirred when an Israeli school principal made the previously required visit to Masada optional, pointing out that suicide is against Jewish law, and that if everyone had taken the zealot’s view, there would have been no surviving Jews to return to Zion.

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Regardless of which side of this question you’re on, Masada is a fascinating place to visit, and a fascinating set of issues to consider.

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visiting the old city of jerusalem

This week we have visited some places considered very sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims – within the old city of Jerusalem.  I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy two early morning runs, taking me along the famed Villa Dellorosa, through the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian Quarters, and out to the Western Wall.  Visiting the city early in the morning is wonderful.  There are no crowds, just the restless beauty of the city.  And seeing the devout offer prayer at the Western Wall before everyone else has arrived is wonderful.

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It was an amazing experience, made even better because we were treated to an expert tourguide, Mr Mel Reisfield.  My good friend Doron introduced us when I told him we were interested in having a guide, and Mel brought his encyclopedic knowledge of history, a rich sense of culture, and very active sense of humor.

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Jerusalem has enough history and culture to fill days, so the few hours we spent merely scratched the surface.  I won’t attempt to deliver history lessons myself, rather focusing on the impressions drawn from the tour, and from my walks (and runs) through the old city.  The main lesson is that understanding events in a single place always requires larger context.  As we discussed the Hellanic and Roman influences on Jerusalem means understanding the culture of the conquerors as well as the conquered. 

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Mel’s contrast of the Southern and Western Wall of the Temple Mount was very interesting, comparing spiritual with historical.  His discussion of the development of the Cardo within the city, under the Romans painted the picture of power shifts, client rulers, and ultimately the evolution of the city as we know it today.  We got to see the results of the archeological digs that have taken place over the past 43 years (since the Israelis retook Jerusalem from Jordan during the 1967 war).  This brought us into a discussion of Herodian Mansions, and the tax policies under King Herod.  We spoke about the changes brought about by the acceptance of Christianity circa the 4th century, and of the evolution of Jewish identity from the days when the city was established as capital, through the Babylonian and Roman conquests, through the Diaspora and the establishment of the state of Israel.

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It is a city in layers.  We saw remnants of the wall from the First Temple timeframe, saw many of the steps and stones put in place during the Second Temple timeframe, and were surprised at some of the modifications made to the Citadel (commonly called the Tower of David) over the years.  A small observation tower built on top of the famed Hexagonal tower was added during the period of British Mandate, while the rest of the structure dated from centuries back.  The namesake tower was added during Suleyman’s reign in the sixteenth century, while the main tower dates from King Herod’s time, and the surrounding moat from the Crusades.  In many ways, the history of the city is told simply by tracing it’s architecture.

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This is a city sacred to many people, who hold different belief sets.  Seeing many of them come to pray in these places is both thought provoking as well as inspiring.  See Jews pray against the Western Wall, seeing many of them offer rolled up notes which are stuffed into the cracks, or seeing Christians weep as they kiss the Stone of Unction in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is inspiring.

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(very) warm greetings from israel

My daughter, mom and I embarked on a grand adventure last Friday.  We’re spending the next 13 days in Israel.  The motivation for the trip  was to join some friends of ours in celebrating their childrens’ bar/bat mitzvahs.  The fact of the matter is that we’re using this as an excuse to visit a part of the world my daughter and I have never seen before.  We’ve been anticipating this trip for a while now.

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We set out from Seattle during the mid-morning.  We flew into Atlanta, where we had a four hour layover, before heading to Tel Aviv.  Flying with kk was interesting.  This was by far the longest flight she’d endured.  There was plenty to do (she had books, cards, and a complete in-seat entertainment system at her disposal.  The hardest part was figuring out how to sleep while nestled into an economy seat for a total of about 16 hours.  The other trick was trying to sleep so that we could end up on the right clock for our destination.  Both of these things are easier said than done.

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We landed on Saturday evening just before 6 PM.  Getting out of the airport was pretty easy, and we were settled into our bite-sized room at a noted Feng Shui hotel in Tel Aviv by 8.  The goal for the evening was to take in some of the beach and to find some good dinner.  We walked up the beach about a half mile, enjoying the sunset over the Mediterranean.  The dinner was okay – pretty big portions with prices to match.  By 10:30 or so, we were all very wiped out, and ready to sleep.

The next morning started early.  By 5:30, I was wide awake – just waiting for enough light to do a run along the water.  It was already pretty hot and humid when I set out – fortunately I didn’t have lofty goals for either distance or speed.  I ran along the busy boardwalk area, seeing lots of people up for early morning runs, bike rides, swims, or walks.  By the time I’d clicked off just over five miles, I was done, and very ready for the nice breakfast we enjoyed at our hotel.  They even brought out a specially prepared eggs for me, as well as some delicious espresso for mom and I.  A great way to start the day.

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We settled on taking the bus to Jerusalem.  This would provide the best combination of timeliness and cost-efficiency.  There was a small bit of excitement in finding the right bus, but the trip was quiet and comfortable.  It was amazing watching the terrain change to include bunches of hills, and really something taking in the scale of the city as we arrived.

After we arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday, we had several challenges.  I’d plotted a course to walk over to a hummus plate that was purportedly great.  We found after looking for it for a while that it was closed.  Then we flagged a cab to drive us over to the Israel Museum, only to have the driver take off while my mom was still climbing into the car.  Fortunately she was okay – very annoyed – but okay.  So far, our luck with cabs has not been so good.  More on that later.

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Seeing the collection in the museum was really something.  The model of the city is something to see, and I am still blown away at seeing The Dead Sea Scrolls.  The impact of seeing direct evidence of such significant pieces of history and culture is amazing.  The museum also has some nice Picasso, Van Gogh, and Gauguin pieces – veritable icing on the cake.

Returning from the museum brought a couple more cab adventures.  We got into an argument with our driver about the fare.  We’d not been clear about requiring him to actually turn his meter on, and he got really ticked off when we called him on it.  So ticked in fact that he drove back to the museum – accusing me of reneging on a ‘deal’ we’d apparently struck.  Oddly, he then agreed to drive us with the meter on.  Not surprisingly, it was about half of what he’d originally quoted us.  As we drove, he pitched taking us down to the Dead Sea for a special price.  Clearly this guy was a businessman at heart, despite his efforts at theatrics about money – literally going from angry to friendly again within the space of about a minute. 

As we reached the hotel, I got out and paid him, failing to notice that I’d dropped my wallet in the cab when climbing out.  Panicked after my mom noticed it sitting on the seat as he drove away, I ran into the hotel and asked for their help (not much apparently forthcoming).  The driver then returned with the wallet again, and asked me what I would give him as a reward for returning it – suggesting that the 50 NIS bill I had in there would be good.  This was interesting.  Obviously it was worth more than this to me (approximately $13).  On the other hand I had trouble getting over the way he’d been about money with me.  I ended up just thanking him for his honesty – which really ticked him off again.  Mixed feelings about that (don’t want to discourage him from being honest), but it just seemed more like the guy was laying guilt on just to get some money.

Planning the trip has been interesting.  Striking the balance between things that we’re all interested in is not always easy.  And it’s important to factor in the heat and to limit the amount of walking required, in order to keep things doable.  So far the results there have not been great on my part, but I’m hoping things will get a bit better.  Tomorrow we tour the old city, which will involve lots of walk in the heat of the day.  We’ll see how it goes.