2011
05.06

SYNOPSIS:

With a rental car along the Dead Sea:  A TV interview with born-again Christians from LA at Qumran, a dip into the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi, and a chance meeting with Howshua Amariel, a Cherokee Chief – Igbo Rabbi from Chicago…!

Renting a car and getting out of town was not as easy as we had hoped.  Between getting wrong directions, having a broken fuse (which neutralized our GPS system) and exchanging the car for a different one, it was noon before we were on our way.

Instead of making the trip to Masada, we decided to visit Qumran, the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Ein Gedi, a public beach at the Dead Sea.  I had been to Qumran recently, so when a small team of young people approached us asking if we would volunteer for a short TV interview, I agreed.  With my big sunglasses on and my hijab (I still use that to shield my head from the sun), I was pretty much unrecognizable. I know what people do with interviews – after enough cutting and pasting you don’t recognize a word you supposedly said…

The folks, Trish, Mark and a chubby guy whose name I did not catch, would not let on what the interview was about, but within minutes it became clear that it was about Christianity and Bible History.  What better backdrop for that than Qumran?  First I had to answer some questions such as:  Who is Martin Luther King?  What are the two parts of the Bible?   Who led the Israelites out of Egypt?  Then they dove into concepts such as sin.  Did I ever lie, steal anything, or commit adultery?  And before you knew it, they started to proselytize and we had a heated discussion going about God and religion.  I was supposed to feel bad that I did not believe in the Bible as the absolute truth and in God and Jesus as my saviors.   But I was not about to roll over.  I really enjoyed this discussion and am sure that none of it was usable for their purposes; way too much cutting and pasting would have to be done.  I am also sure they were hoping for some repentance and strokes of divine enlightenment on the spot.   The crew did not appreciate my travel pantheon of Ganesh, Baishayaguru, and St. Christopher.  They were mightily interested in Mary Magdalena but not happy with my appropriation of her as a virtual travel companion.  I hope God is bigger than their interpretation of Him.   They were so concerned about my well-being that they all promised to pray for me, even for my parents who obviously had gotten Christianity all wrong!  Thanks, guys, keep praying.

After all that heat, it was time to cool off in the Dead Sea.  We were ill-prepared for this.  Having no water shoes was the biggest problem.  Ein Gedi is known for its rocks and its rough beach, but at least it was free and access was open to the general public.  Earlier in the day we had looked for a bathroom and came across a beach which had a $15 entrance fee per person!  No way!  The sand was so hot that all four of us burned our soles…  Three of us made it into the water past the slippery, spiky, and uneven rocks; Jack had to pass.  And then you are in.  It sort of feels like water, but it also is a bit like dipping into some slimy substance.  The beach signs were full of good advice like:  Don’t immerse your face, don’t get any water near your eyes, don’t swallow anything, and so forth.  This is serious stuff.  The Dead Sea is eight times saltier than any Ocean and it consists of about 30 percent of solids.  Sinking is impossible, dipping your entire body into the water (except the head of course), is very difficult, swimming is strange – you kind of “tip” as you try to swim – so all that is left to do is to float.

When you come out of the water, your entire body feels slimy and the quick shower you get afterwards at one of the 20-second shower heads provided at the beach can hardly remove anything.  So, you feel sticky for the rest of the day.  It’s part of the fun.  We got what we came for – the experience.

The road back home took us down to the southern shore of the Dead Sea and past Arad, a small desert town.  It was dinner time and we stopped for food.  It was also Shabbat and everything in Israel closes down; well, almost everything.  A lone pizza joint was open and if you are hungry and unprepared as we once again were, you can’t be choosy.  The town seems to have a lot of Russian immigrants; the owner of the pizza place was one of them.  For the first time we also noticed a number of black residents.  We had not yet seen much ethnic variety in Israel, except for the tourists who come from every corner of the world.

One of them was Igbo Rabbi and Cherokee Chief Howshua Amariel from Chicago.  Within seconds he had pegged us as Americans and was ready to hug us all!  Arad is not exactly a tourist spot and he must not see many Americans – if he does, he put on a great show.  He puts on a great show in any case!  I don’t even know how he got onto the topic, but in no time we had been roped into a lecture on Tel Arad, the sanctuary, a peace proposal, genetic research proving that African Americans can be Cherokee chiefs, talk about a unique translation project, life in Arad, and on and on.  Howshua was a one of a kind; you could see that even if you would never exchange a word with him.  His dreadlocks hanging down his back and his tin-man-like knitted hat as well as his gregarious laugh and his big smile gave him away as a character.  He immediately offered to befriend us on Facebook and gave us his full name so we could look him up online.  It is completely unclear what he does for a living.  But he surely knows how to market himself.  From National Geographic interviews to Oprah Winfrey, to community organizer, to participant of the Million Man march in the US, to propagating the need for reparations for slave descendents – he seems to have his hands in everything.  Have fun.  His name is all you need to Google him for more information.  How much of an actor if not charlatan is he?   We don’t know.  But his claim to have worked at Tel Arad since 1986 seemed a bit in question when the guard at the site whose father already had worked at Tel Arad did not recognize the name when we mentioned it the next day…

Once again, a day that had a rocky start ended with a wealth of experiences and encounters!

Good night.

2011
05.06

SYNOPSIS:

A visit to the Sephardic Synagogues, and a walk along the ramparts of the Old City.

Why the four synagogues in the Jewish quarter are a full story below street level has led to many legends and speculation. The most plausible explanation, perhaps, is that the sultan who allowed the restoration of these places in the 19th century demanded that none of them top the surrounding buildings or stand out as a place of worship.  Going below ground was a logical solution to get the space needed without violating any official restrictions.  Four synagogues were built at different times for different congregations.  Each of them entered at their own door, had a few customs unique from the others, and performed a few rituals their own specific way.

These synagogues were in use until 1948 when this part of Jerusalem among others was conquered by Jordan.  Until 1968 there was neglect and decay.  Cows were kept in the synagogues and debris collected.  After the capture of Jerusalem by Israeli forces, reconstruction began as elsewhere in the Jewish Quarter.  Today, these synagogues are both functional and museums, open to the public.  A photo history and a few precious objects that date from before 1948 are on display.  This is a quiet spot.  Few tourists get lost so far out in the quarter; most tourists flock to the Christian site or to the more flamboyant Hurva Synagogue.  But here, below the ground you can study the layout of a synagogue and find the defining features of this religious place:  the Bima in the center for reading the Torah, the Ark to house the Torah, the balcony for the women, the pews for the men.  Each synagogue has elements borrowed from other cultures and religions, for example: the pointed arch from Medieval Christianity, and the perforated dome reminiscent of the Arab Hammam.  Together with about four other synagogues in the Old City they now form a healthy group of religious Jewish structures, but still, if you would count churches, they by far outnumber their Jewish cousins.

The rest of the afternoon was spent on the ramparts surrounding the Old City.  Not much can be said about them, except that the famous stone walls which now surround Jerusalem’s Old City have been built and repaired in their current form by Suleiman the Magnificent, from Istanbul.  He never set foot into Jerusalem, but sent the funds along for this project nonetheless.  You get your exercise on this walk!  Up and down rugged stairs and along uneven stones you’d better watch out for your safety.  You can observe people from up there almost unnoticed and get views into the more intimate back yards of the houses in each quarter.  You see the water tanks and the satellite dishes side by side with the church steeples and the domes of the mosques.  Jack said this walk was the hardest he ever did since his days in the army — and that was during the Korean war…  I did not think it was that hard, but it wore us out.

The Armenian Quarter is the smallest of the four and the most exclusive one.  Seminaries and churches are closed to visitors except for a few select hours a day and tall walls prevent you from peeking in.  But the Armenian Tavern, a nicely decorated and conveniently located Armenian restaurant was open and we got our well-deserved dinner and libations there after the rampart adventure.

Good night.