Saturday, January 22, 2011

Minnesota Morning

This morning I am sitting in my pj’s sipping coffee and looking out at the sub zero Minnesota winter.  Last Saturday I was in Jerusalem, sitting in my pj’s sipping tea and relishing the quiet of spending Shabbat with my friend Michal.  The contrasts go far beyond geography, outdoor temperature and choice of beverage.  In Hebrew the word for Sabbatical is “Shabbaton.”  In the U.S. the opportunity to take a Sabbatical is generally limited to those in education, and utilized most frequently by college and university professors.  However the concept of taking a Sabbatical and its roots go way back to ancient Israel.  For example, in Leviticus 25 (third book of the Torah) there is a commandment to desist from working the fields in the seventh year. 
During my son’s years in religious school, the term “Shabbaton” was used as a term for a retreat where a group of classmates would spend the entire 24 hours of Shabbat together, with a focus on Shabbat.  In my mind, and in my experience, the need/desire for Shabbat, Shabbaton, Sabbatical are all intertwined.
In his book The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland, author Bill Holm (who I feel so privileged to have known) wrote:
After a while, the United States is simply too much: too much religion and not enough gods, too much news and not enough wisdom, too many weapons of mass destruction - or, for that matter, of private destruction (why search so far away when they live right under our noses?), too much entertainment and not enough beauty, too much electricity and not enough light, too much lumber and not enough forests, too much real estate and not enough earth, too many books and not enough readers, too many runners, and not enough strollers, too many freeways, too many cars, too many malls, too many prisons, too much security but not enough civility , too many humans but not enough eagles.  And the worst excess of all: too many wars, too much misery and brutality – reflected as much in our own eyes as in those of our enemies.  So I come here to this spare place.  A little thinning and pruning is a good anodyne for the soul.  We see more clearly when the noise is less, the objects fewer. 
At Kibbutz Lotan I had discovered my inner passionate pruner.  However, I am not very skilled at thinning and pruning in my own life.  Which brings me back to spending Shabbat with my friend in Jerusalem.  Michal, by her own description is “not very religious,” yet she keeps an almost Orthodox practice of Shabbat.  On Friday morning she went to the big market in Jerusalem, stocked up of fish, fruit and vegetables, returned home a cooked up a veritable feast to last through the next few days.  As the sun lowered, all of life slowed down.  The work was done.  No computers would be turned on, no telephones answered, lights would remain on dimly, a big thermal pot of hot water was on the counter for tea. 
Michal’s adult son, Nahrie, joined us and we washed our hands and sat down for dinner.  With a clear resonant voice, Michal sang the blessings for the bread and wine.  The words were familiar, the melodies were not.  Two friends, two sons, and a wonderful meal.  There was something so beautiful in the composition of that experience.
During the other six days of the week, Michal’s life in Jerusalem has as many pushes and pulls as my life in St. Peter.  She is a teacher at a high school, is completing and graduate degree at a University in Tel Aviv and has elderly parents needing time and attention.  Her very strict adherence to keeping Shabbat, also keeps her sane.
I am not sure how that information informs my life in St. Peter.  When visiting my mom, the day after I returned to St. Peter, she asked me if I was happy at all to be home.  I said, “Sure I am.  I am happy to sleep in my own bed, and drink coffee in my own kitchen in the morning.”  And she said, “Oh good.  I was afraid you would be miserable.”
I really am not miserable but I realize my life here is too dense, often too noisy, and I don’t know how to thin and prune it.  However, I like that metaphor.  In gardening you know if you want certain plants to thrive, you need to pull out encroaching weeds, and sometimes even thin out some healthy plants to enable others to grow into their fullness.  So on this bitterly cold Minnesota morning, I am thinking about gardening – about this garden that is my life.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Green-line family

On Sunday evening, January 9th, Bob began the long journey home, and Josh and I spent the night in Tel Aviv.  Bright and early Monday morning we took a taxi to the bus station, and then traveled to Tiberius.  As with a number of other stops during the last three months, I really knew very little about Tiberius.  When preparing for this trip I had asked Rabbi Adam Stock –Spilker, (one of the Rabbis at Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul) for any Israeli contacts/connections he might share with me.  He suggested I contact Dan Mogelson, Director of Young Leadership and Israel Programs at the United Jewish Fund and Council of St. Paul.  Dan forwarded my e-mail of inquiry to the Jewish Agency for Israel in the Sovev Kinneret region.  There is a partnership between the Sovev Kinneret region (where Tiberius and the Sea of Galilee are located) and St. Paul, Minnesota.  After receiving my e-mail of inquiry, Hadar Binya (of the Jewish Agency) contacted me via e-mail and asked what I would like to do in the area.  I explained my background to her, and told her I would like to teach some dance classes and, if possible, visit Kibbutz Ga’aton - a Kibbutz about an hour from Tiberius that is home to a contemporary dance company and a Dancers’ Village.
The Jewish Agency’s website explains that the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 program (P2K) connects 550 communities around the world with 45 communities in Israel.  The term “living bridge” is a phrase used in the literature about the programs.  None of this really had a context for me before I arrived.  I only knew that Hadar, the “living bridge” coordinator, was exceptionally organized and had set up opportunities for us to visit with individuals in this area, and opportunities for me to teach at a number of dance centers.  What I actually experienced goes far beyond that simple explanation.  Before we went to Israel, many people inquired if we had family there.  My answer was “no.”  We leave Israel, knowing in our hearts that we will return, because we now have family all over the Sovev Kinneret region.
Monday, we were picked up at our hotel by Partership Director, Levana Caro-Regev, and taken to Kibbutz Afikim, where Gaby Osem, a partnership staff member, who grew up at Kibbutz Afikim and currently lives there, met us.  Afikim is very different from Lotan.  It is much larger, much older and currently privatized.  From its early days, and now, the population of this Kibbutz has been close to 1,000.  Russian and Polish Jews who wanted to create a radically different kind of community organized and settled in the Upper Galilee in 1924.  They relocated to their current location in the Jordan Valley, a few miles from the Sea of Galilee, in 1932.  Afikim means riverbeds and refers to the Jordan River. 
In the early days of the Kibbutz everything was owned communally and everything was decided by consensus.  And, I mean EVERYTHING.  Abby explained that when a baby was born, the community decided the baby’s name – not the parents.  All meals were prepared and eaten in the shared dining room.  Everyone was assigned a number, which was written in every item of clothing and all laundry was dropped off at the community owned laundry service.  Where individuals were assigned to work, and what kind of work they did, was decided by the community.  Everything was done to free women from tradition childrearing and home-making roles to allow them to work and serve the community.  While many of the ideas sounded pretty great to me (I would be happy with someone preparing all my meals and doing my laundry) it was the radical child rearing practices that are certainly the most questionable to these 21st Century eyes.  From a very young age children were moved into the Children’s house, and spent only from 4 – 8 PM with their biological parents.  Having Gaby escort us into the current building that is now a colorful kindergarten, and say, “This is where I lived when I was two years old,” gave the history a personal face. 
The Afikim of today is very different.  First of all, the days of the “children’s house” are long gone.  Children are raised, by their parents, in their own homes.  It is still a large and vibrant community, but after an economic crisis in the 1980’s it began a process of privatization.  The kibbutz grows bananas, dates, and grains.   It operates two large factories.  One that produces dairy equipment and another, which produces a kind of electronic wheelchair.  Kibbutz members now own their own homes and cars, and the dinning room is more of a restaurant where members can choose to have, and pay, for their meals.
After the tour of the Kibbutz, Abby took us to coffee at a wonderful store that featured all varieties and products made with dates (Oh if I only had a bigger suitcase and knew things could get through customs!) and then we went to the Jordan Valley Dance Center where I taught a modern technique class to a group of about 20 high school age girls.  The students were athletic and energetic and I enjoyed working with them. 
Tuesday was almost entirely unscheduled, which was lovely.  Josh and I walked the promenade by the Sea of Galilee.  That particular morning there was a light haze and it was impossible to tell where the sky ended and the water began.  The Sea of Galilee, or Kinneret, as it is called in this area – is incredibly beautiful.

The Sea of Galilee
In the evening we were picked up by a young dancer and her mom, Adva Shayak, and taken to their home for dinner.  We had a delicious dinner (we have been very well fed the entire week!) and so enjoyed this family’s hospitality.  It is difficult to explain how sometimes you can just meet someone for a short time, yet feel like you developed an enduring connection.  I cannot predict where or when but I know the Shayak family and the Rusinko-Weisenfeld family will connect again.
Wednesday morning the Partnership had arranged a taxi to drive us to Kibbutz Ga’aton.  It was just over an hour’s drive, but it allowed me to see more of the northern part of Israel. Ga'aton is located in western Galilee.  In 2006 it had a population of 409.
Kibbutz Ga'aton is the home of the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (KCDC). Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company performs all around the world and has been widely identified with the works of its Artistic Director Rami Be'er.  Yet it is the story of the company’s founder, Holocaust survivor, Yehudit Arnon, which first put this Kibbutz on my radar, and identified it as a place I really wanted to visit.

Anon was born Yehudit (Judith) Schischa-Halevy, in 1926 in Komárno, Czechoslovakia.  Schischa-Halevy and her parents were sent to Auschwitz in 1944.  In the Jewish Women’s Archive, dance historian Judith Brin Ingber , recounts the story that has become legendary in the Israeli dance community

Just before Christmas Eve of 1944 the Kapo (an inmate appointed by the Germans to head a work gang of other prisoners) told Yehudit that the SS wanted her to dance at their Christmas party in Auschwitz. When she refused she was forced as punishment to stand barefoot in the snow. There and then she decided that if she survived, she would dedicate herself to dance.

(Judith Brin Ingber’s entry about Arnon in the Jewish Women’s Archive:

And dedicate her life to dance she did.  After surviving the freezing cold, the labor camps and a death-defying experience in front of a firing squad, she was released and moved to Budapest where she joined the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and in began her life’s work in creating through dance. During this period she met and studied with a disciple of Kurt Joos, met and married her husband, Yedidya Ahronfeld and decided to move to “Palestine.”  Prior to moving, her husband changed their family name to Arnon, and Yehudit took a three-day crash course in dance theory and modern dance technique.  In 1948, Arnon and her husband moved to Israel and joined Kibbutz Ga'aton, located in the Western Galilee, where she lives to this day.  Arnon pioneered the cause of dance in the Kibbutz Movement with the establishment of a dance center in Ga'aton and devoted herself to dance education. Shortly afterwards she established the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, drawing talents from the various Kibbutz Movements.

After touring the facilities and watching the beautiful dancers in the DANCE JOURNEY Program (a five month program including dancers from all over the world, part of MASA: Gateway to Long-Term ISRAEL Programs, For details: we traveled back to Degania Aleph in the Kinneret region where we were met by Shay Shoshany, Levana Caro-Regev, and Hadar Binya for a fabulous lunch.  Following our meal, Shay (a member of the Kibbutz and a wonderful storyteller) gave us a tour of the Kibbutz.

Hadar, Shay, Me and Josh at Degania Aleph
Degainia Aleph is often referred to as the “mother of the collectives and the kibbutzim.”  Here is what the pioneers wrote of their intentions: “On the 28th of October 1910, there arrived at Umm Juni, ten men and two women.  We came to establish an independent settlement of Hebrew laborers, on national land, a collective settlement with neither exploiters nor exploited – a commune”.

Degania was a landmark in the history of the kibbutzim in Israel.  It was here that the principles of independent work and collective life materialized.  After Degania, hundreds of kibbutzim were established throughout Israel, some of whose members received their training at Degania.  Although it is "the mother of the collectives and the kibbutzim," Degania is also different from the other kibbutzim and collectives which arose after her.  Degania never had separate sleeping quarters for the children - they always slept at home within the family unit.  Hired labor always existed, as well as a liberal approach and an understanding of the needs of the individual.
Moshe Dayan, was born and raised at Degania.  Many, many historic meetings took place on the grounds of Degania.  It is also the site of the legendary “Battle of Degania” – where in 1948, settlers held off the Syrian army using “Molotov cocktails.”
Posing with the younger students at the Jordan Valley Dance Center
After feeling well steeped in the history of the Kibbutzim movement, Hadar drove us back to the Jordan Valley Dance Center where I was able to teach two more classes, then met dancer/teacher Doron Gueta to see a brilliant performance of the Vertigo Dance Company in Tiberius, which brought a close to an overwhelming rich day of history and dancing. 
Hadar, Levana, Yaron, me, Doron
On our final day in the region, I met Hadar, Levana, Doron, and theater director, Yaron Ruach, for yet another wonderful lunch, before teaching two dance classes at the Tiberius Dance Center.  Doron Gueta, a former dancer with one of the dance companies from Kibbutz Ga’aton, is in the first year of building a dance program in Tiberias.  The first class, was for younger students, and the second class was for more mature (18 years old +) students.  Many people have asked me if I was “required” to be teaching classes during my sabbatical.  There is no requirement here – just a deep love.  After all these years, I still love teaching dance, and I love getting to know new people by dancing with them.  I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere Doron has created with his students.  At the end of class, I found myself getting teary.  I was not ready to leave the friends and family I had made in this area. I could only promise the people I had met I would do my best to return, and would welcome them warmly if they ever journeyed to Minnesota. 
Friday morning, Josh and I caught a bus to Jerusalem, and then a taxi to my friend Michal’s home.  I had met Michal twenty years ago in an “Introduction to Body-Mind Centering” class.  We would spend our last 30 hours in Israel, by spending Shabbat with her.  For now I will simply say it was the perfect closure to our three-month journey.  I promise to write more about that another day.
In her book, StoryCatcher, author Christina Baldwin talks about red line families and green line families.  Your red line is your family by birth, your green line is your family by choice.  “The blood line and the chosen line.”  The color “green” also speaks to me of gardening and sustainability.  So many seeds were planted during our weeks in Israel.  My green line family is scattered all over Israel, and my heart is filled with lush green memories.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Kibbutz Lotan

Three or four years ago, Josh came home from religious school at Mt. Zion Temple, in St. Paul, and informed me that during our “year in the world” we needed to spend part of it at Kibbutz Lotan.  I had no clue what he was talking about and when I asked him to please say more, he told me to “Google it, it is spelled L-O-T-A-N, Kibbutz Lotan.”  Josh did explain that someone from Kibbutz Lotan had visited his religious school class, and he thought it looked like a really interesting place.

Not that I always do as instructed, but I was intrigued and did “Google” the Kibbutz.  What I found fascinated me.  Kibbutz Lotan was founded in 1983, by a group of Americans and Israelis, most of whom were graduates of the Reform (Liberal Jewish) youth movements as part of the larger Kibbutzim movement in Israel.    What most intrigued me about the 21st Century Kibbutz Lotan was the integration of Reform Judaism, Environmental Awareness and active engagement in issues of Social Justice.  Sounded like our kind of place.

We arrived here after a hectic morning getting to the Tel Aviv Central bus station, a quick orientation from a Go Eco staff member (Go Eco is an organization based in Israel that administers Ecological and Humanitarian based volunteer opportunities around the world), followed by a four-hour bus ride through the Arava Desert.  (Which is a huge desert, which at moments looks like Arizona, until you see a camel or an ostrich.)  We were picked up at the bus stop by Leah Zigmond (the Eco Center Academic and Educational Director, and a master gardener), taken to the Kibbutz, given delicious date goat yogurt drinks, and shown to our guest cottage.  The sun was beginning to fade and all I could hear was the sound of children, birds and a few dogs.  Almost immediately I felt like scales were dropping off my body and I was able to drink in the environment through my entire sensory system.  I knew then and there, spending time here was a good choice.

We slept “late” the next morning, arriving at breakfast after 8:00 AM.  At 9:30 we met for a tour of the Kibbutz with an emphasis on the environmental programs.  Our tour guide was Alex Cicelsky, a passionate founding member of the Kibbutz and a current researcher, designer and builder.  While the Kibbutz was founded in 1983 it was in the mid 90’s that members started to think more about re-cycling and environmental sustainability.  The innovative programs they have developed since that time is nothing short of remarkable.  (Take a moment to visit their website for a more complete description of their programs, and a cool YouTube video that gives a great overview:
Scrap art.

Kibbutz Lotan consists of 50 adults and 60 children living on 143 acres in the fragile desert ecosystem in the far south of Israel, 30 miles north of Eilat and less than 200 feet from the Jordanian border.  There are also about 30 non-member residents, and many visitors, including college students participating in the fall semester-long “Peace, Justice and the Environment” course, less traditional students attending the seven-week long “Green Apprenticeship,” and avid “birders” watching some of the millions of birds that pause in this beautiful little green patch during spring and fall migrations.  In addition there are volunteers who spend anywhere from a few days to a few months at the Kibbutz.  We are in this later category, here for a week and known around the Kibbutz as the “Go Eco family.” There are also two college students both named Nicholas (one from University of Minnesota, Duluth, and the other from San Paolo, Brazil) that are here at this time as Go Eco volunteers.

On Tuesday afternoon we worked with Shahaf, a remarkably poised 18 year-old, doing a year of service between high school and her military service.  Shahaf, coached us in mud construction (actually mud + sand + straw) as we worked on building a mini-golf course in the Center for Creative Ecology.

Bob and Josh working on the mini-golf course.

Wednesday morning we began our workday at 6:30 AM, had it been summertime the work shift begins at 5:00AM.  We met first with Mike Kaplin, co-creator, director, and head permaculture teacher, of the Center for Creative Ecology, and as a group did some yoga-like stretching.  It was in the low 40’s and very chilly to be working with mud and water, so we spent a few hours pulling an invasive vine called “livia” that was creeping into other gardens and hoarding the water from the other plants and trees. We worked for about two hours pulling the livia, and then took a break for breakfast.  Much to Josh’s dismay, fresh greens, and all sorts of salad fixings, are a standard part of an Israeli breakfast.  After breakfast we went back to work on mud-sculpting the mini-golf course.  We worked until about 1:00 then stopped for lunch, which is the main meal of the day on the Kibbutz.  After lunch I sat in on a two-hour class with the Green Apprentices (Green Apprenticeship in Permaculture and Ecovillage Design) that covered the theory and techniques of mud construction from around the world.

On Wednesday evening they do not serve dinner in the Dining Room, so we were invited to join the Green Apprentices (called GA’s) for a potluck dinner at the eco-neighborhood, or as it is known here – Bustan, which means orchard in Hebrew.  The GA’s live in geodesic domes that have been constructed using the metal pole frames, straw bales and mud plastering techniques that the GA’s are studying.  In fact, the “dome-itories” were designed and built by previous generations of Green Apprentices.  Like everything at Lotan the construction was based on the principles of Permaculture , which is really a contraction of the concepts of “permanent agriculture” and  “sustainable culture.”  Mike Kaplan, describes Permaculture as “a culture, philosophy and design method that teaches us to look at the whole system or problem, to observe how the parts relate, and to mend what needs fixing by applying time-tested sustainable practices.”  We sat around an open fire in an oversize geodesic dome skeleton, and enjoyed homemade food and lively conversation.  This particular group of GA’s had only been together for a week and a half.  They had come from different parts of Israel, Europe and the U.S.  It was a clearly a group that had bonded together and had a comfort with each other.  We headed back to our guest cottage fairly early, since our workday would start at 6:30 AM the next morning.

One of dome-itories in Bustan

Thursday we spent our entire shift working in the organic garden.  We raked up that last of the straw from where bales had been removed, deposited it in the compost, other compost bins were turned over with pitchforks, and lots of time was spent weeding.  Now I don’t really care for weeding back home in mosquito plagued Minnesota.  But sitting in the sunshine, pulling renegade grass from rows of heavenly fragrant basil, was more therapy than work.  I discovered an unknown passion for pruning as I removed all the old growth from feathering fennel plants.  But perhaps my favorite moment was when Josh asked me if we would be home from China in time to get our garden planted.  I told him we would not be home in time, but perhaps Dad and a few of our friends could get it started for us.

Me, pulling weeds.
Friday we did not work.  Josh went for a very long hike with the two Nicholas’, and I spent as much of the day as possible, relishing the quiet.  There is fabulous and funky somewhat steampunk sculpture all about the kibbutz.  A thrifty yet creative and whimsical spirit permeates the place.  Friday night there was a community Shabbat service, followed by a sit-down dinner.  Saturday was another quiet and restorative day, and I began to steel myself for another day of travels and transitions.  Saturday evening we visited two of the Kibbutz members’ homes.  We joined Eliza’s family for dinner, and Alex’s family for tea afterwards.  I love hearing the stories of the various pathways that had brought different individuals to this community.  And I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of this community for this past week.  Like so many experiences this one will take time to process.  However, this much I know.  I came here with my nerves on edge, and feeling depleted.  This week has been nourishing on many levels.  I feel restored.
Amazing sunset on Friday night.

Tomorrow we travel back to Tel Aviv and Bob heads back to the U.S.  I am so glad he was able to join us for these weeks and share in this experience.   Josh and I will travel to Tiberius for four days, then back to Jerusalem for about 36 hours, and then home for three weeks.  Home. One week from tomorrow.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year!

Ever since I arrived in Israel I have felt like a child with a sensory integration disorder.  My nervous system does not seem to know how to make sense of sensory input it is receiving.  Some of the sensory messages a big and bold – angry voices, loud traffic noise, color-saturated fruit stands.  Other input is more subtle but pervasive – people are edgy, there is an underlying tension to everyday interactions.  Prior to arriving, my Israeli friend, Michal, warned me, “Israelis are tough, rude, pushy, drive insanely... be prepared...” She later added, “I hope you arrive in Israel well and strong to bare us.” But side by side with this “toughness” is also an unbelievable beauty to so much of Israel.  In the Babylonian Talmud it is written, “Ten measures of beauty were bestowed upon the world; nine were taken by Jerusalem, and one by the rest of the world.”  It is this beauty and brutality bumping up against each other that does not find a small, neat compartment of understanding in my experience.

We arrived in Tel Aviv on Monday, December 26th, after a long day of travel from Paris.  Arriving at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, it was easy to locate the check-in spot for El Al airlines.  It was the one surrounded by machine gun carrying French soldiers.  Each individual, or family, traveling to Israel needed to go through multiple security checks.  The first was basically an interview to determine the purpose of your travel.  We had a very nice, young security agent, who asked us in many different ways if we were bringing anything into Israel for anyone else.   After we had assured him we were not carrying anything for anyone else, and we were fine with Israeli stickers on our passports, he shrugged and said with acknowledged understatement, “Some people don’t like us so much.”

A fruit juice stand in Tel Aviv.
The flight was filled to capacity and well beyond the number of seats on the plane being as there were so many babies and young children on laps.  Two rows behind us was a young couple with twins that looked to be about 5 or 6 months old, and possibly suffering from some thing on the lines of double ear infections.  The poor babies cried the entire four and half hours of the flight.   As annoying as the crying was, I could only feel sorry for the parents – who looked exhausted beyond measure.  After arriving in Tel Aviv, we waited for well over an hour to have our passports checked, and, again, our reasons for traveling to Israel thoroughly vetted, and finally, we were off to grab our bags and head to our hotel.  It was a wild cab ride but we were prepared – thank you, Michal!

Tel Aviv is hip and cosmopolitan.  And during the just less that two days we were there it was WARM!  In fact, Tuesday was down right tropical – sunny and in the 70’s.  We sat down at a café just off the beachside promenade and Bob had a beer and Josh and I had fruit smoothies.  Looking out over the sunbathers, bronzed senior citizens, and families enjoying the day at the beach Josh said, “This must be the Miami of the Middle East.”  And that is exactly what it felt like.

On Wednesday we arrived in Jerusalem, along with a change in the weather.  The cold, grey and rainy weather that followed us all over Europe caught up with us in Jerusalem.  That said, the only thing that felt familiar was the weather.  We clearly were not in Kansas anymore, or any American or European city. 

Mosaic with Jerusalem as center of universe.
The history of Jerusalem is so complex there is no way I can attempt to do a one-paragraph synopsis.  For all of you with a far better religious education than me, feel free to skip over all of this.  But is impossible to put contemporary Jerusalem in context without some understanding of its history, so here goes.   About 3000 years ago, David made Jerusalem the capitol of the Israelite nation.  In transferring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem he made it the religious and well as political center of the Kingdom. When David died, his son Solomon became King and built an incredible Temple in Jerusalem.  Under the wise King Solomon Jerusalem expanded and thrived.  In 586 BCE, the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem, and King Zedekiah surrendered Jerusalem, ending the 400-year rule by the ancestors of David.  The Temple, King’s Palace, and all the houses were all burned to the ground and the walls of the city were destroyed.  50 years later, Babylon fell to Persia, and the Jews returned to Jerusalem, rebuilt the Temple and the city. Even though it was a Persian province, the Jews were granted cultural and religious freedom.  But even then, the peace was short lived.  Jerusalem was conquered by Alexander the Great, and eventually was under Greek rulers who attempted to stamp out Jewish religious practices by desecrating the Temple.  This lead to a revolt by the Jews lead by the Hasmonean family  - where the altar was rebuilt and the flame restored.  This is the story celebrated during the festival of Hanukkah.  

For about 80 years the city again thrived, until it became a Roman province.  A few decades later, King Herod, started a number of ambitious building projects including refurbishing the Temple to make it one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.  It was during this time, under King Herod, that Jesus of Nazareth lived, developed a following, and was crucified on the cross.

In 66 CE, the Jews revolted against the Romans, which ended catastrophically with the Temple burned to the ground, much of the city destroyed, and the Jews enslaved and deported.  (Many to Rome – to build things like the Colosseum.)  The Romans developed a new city on the ruins of Jerusalem and called it Aelia Capitolina, and banned Jews from entering its gates.  By the 4th Century, the land was part of the Byzantine Empire and Jerusalem had become a Christian city, attracting large groups of Christian pilgrims.

Dome of the Rock
During the 7th Century, Muslim Arabs, under Caliph Omar, conquered Jerusalem, built the Dome of the Rock, on the site of the First and Second Temple, and Jews were, once again, permitted to live in the city.  For the next four centuries the city was under Muslim rule from Damascus, Cairo and Bagdad.

Next came the Crusader Knights, vowing to “liberate Jerusalem from Islam” which lead to the slaughter of both the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants.  For almost 100 years Jerusalem was the capital of the “Latin Kingdom of the Holy Land.”  Finally in 1187, Saladin, a Muslim Kurd, conquered Jerusalem and the Muslims and the Jews returned to the city.  This was followed by seven centuries of Muslim rule, during which time the city remained mostly in ruins, and the population diminished.

It was during the 16th Century, under the Ottoman Turkish rule that the city began to rebuild and regain its elegance.  By the 19th Century the Ottoman power was diminishing and Europeans were rediscovering the Holy Lands.  By the mid 1800’s the population had increased dramatically and over half the residents were Jewish. 

Toward the end of the WWI (1917) the mayor of Jerusalem surrendered to Britain’s General Allenby and Jerusalem became the headquarters of the British Mandate. This was actually a period of prosperity for the city.  It was in 1917, the Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, wrote a formal letter that would become the statement of policy by the British government:

His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

This became known as the Balfour Declaration.  Of course it took until 1948 for the State of Israel to be established, and sadly, all are still waiting for the day when the Prophet Isaiah’s words, Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore, come true.

Long history lesson, but the past and present, historical and holy, all contribute to Jews, Muslims and Christians feeling passionately about this parcel of land.  Perhaps no place is this as evident as the Temple Mount where the Dome on the Rock is located.  More significantly, it is the “Rock” or “Foundation Stone” above which this Dome is built that carries so much import.  Muslims believe the rock is the spot from which Muhammad ascended to Heaven accompanied by the angel Gabriel.  In addition to being the location of the First and Second Temple, Jews believe this is the Rock where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. Because Muslim authorities refused to permit Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, the custom developed of praying near the Western Wall, since it was the site nearest to the Foundation Stone, or on the Mount of Olives facing the site of the Temple.  (Of course, this was after Jews were allowed back into the Old City, which they were not when it was under Jordanian rule from 1948 – 1967.)

The Citadel - ancient walls.
We arrived in Jerusalem on Wednesday, and on Thursday we walked to explore the Old City.   Outside the Old City walls the streets are filled with tourists, pilgrims, soldiers and multi-ethnic residents.  Once you walk through the Jaffa gate into the Old City, the tourists are clearly in the majority. This entrance is closest to the Citadel (which is now are really well displayed museum of the history of the city) and almost immediately tosses you into the market streets, which are colorful but feel like row about row of souvenir shops.  Of course prices are not marked on anything, and bargaining is an expected part of the buying process.  We explored the markets, wandered through the ancient streets, watched a festive procession with drummers leading a young man to the Western Wall to become a Bar Mitzvah, and visited the Temple Mount area.  We found a small café and ate chicken shawarmas, drank freshly squeezed juice and jostled our way back out of the Old City and headed back to our hotel.

Friday morning, Bob and I went to the Mahaneh Yehuda Market, to stock up on food before everything closed for Shabbat.  Between 2 – 3 in the afternoon, shops, restaurants, basically everything – begins to shut down.  Not only was in Shabbat, it was New Year’s Eve.  Figuring that any hotel restaurant that was open would be packed, we decided to toast in the New Year in our hotel.  We stocked up on bread, pasteries, hummus, eggplant dip, avocado dip, dried fruit, nuts and oranges.  In the end the decision to “eat in” for New Year’s Eve turned out to be a good one because by about three o’clock, it began to rain, and it rained and poured almost non-stop until the next morning.  I loved this market.  My only regret was not buying more baked goods.  Should have gotten at least a dozen of those rugelach.

Friday morning at the market
On Saturday, New Year’s Day, we went to the Citadel and toured the museum there then spent time exploring the Armenian Quarter.  On Saturday evening, about 7:00PM the city comes back to life.  That evening, Josh and I met my friend, Michal, for dinner and later Michal and I walked along the Jerusalem promenade, caught up on each other’s lives, and saw the beautiful lights of the city.  I met Michal at a Body Mind Centering Introductory workshop in Northamption, MA, exactly twenty years ago.   We have only seen each other twice in the past twenty years, but we picked up right where we left off.  Spending time with her, and hearing her experience as a person born and raised in Israel, somehow grounded me.  In two weeks, Josh and I are going to spend our last few days with Michal, before we leave Israel.  I am looking forward to that.
Jerusalem at night.

We returned to Tel Aviv on Sunday, and early this morning, took the bus to Kibbutz Lotan.  We will be here for a week, and right now it feels like a welcome retreat from the noise and tension in the cities.  I still don’t really know what I feel about my experience in Israel.  I can only compare it to the feeling you get when you arrive at someone’s house and you sense you have walked in after a big argument.  Everyone is being polite, but the atmosphere just feels charged and fragile like an argument could erupt at any moment.  That is how Jerusalem feels to me – on edge.   Drivers lean on the their horns non-stop.  Individuals don’t speak into their cell phones – they yell into their cell phones.  There are thousands of years of violence embedded in the walls of the city and no one quite takes their armor off.

And yet, there is this incredible majesty to much of this city.  It has been destroyed over, and over again, but it has been rebuilt, time and time again.  There is a mosaic on a government building that depicts Jerusalem as the center of the universe.  And for so many, Muslims, Jews and Christians – it is.