Taken in the South Hebron Hills.
Three boys go to explore the colored sands of the machtesh ha’gadol in the Negev. A machtesh is an geological phenomenon similar to a crater that scientists around the globe refer to by their Hebrew name because they can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
“It’s a myrtle branch, a willow branch, a palm branch, and an etrog. They symbolize the four different types of Jews.”
“Can you hold them apart so I can see them better?”
“They’re supposed to stay together.”
Okay, so this photo was not in fact taken in Israel, but that’s what makes it all the more interesting…
I was in Prague a few weeks ago traveling and visiting a friend when I came upon a pretty photo-worthy situation. In this photo are two motorcycle enthusiasts, one of which fits the general stereotypical description of a biker (skinheaded, leather jacket, tight denim, etc.), while the other does not. I invite you to click on the above photo to zoom into it and enjoy the gentleman on the left’s strikingly out of place features (kippah on his head, tzitzit peeking out from below his Polo shirt, and a logo on his bike that reads, “Our Hogs Are Kosher”).
Make no mistake: this is a proud, religious Jew in a country that has very few. All do respect!
Over the past year, I’ve become a bit jaded to the fact that I live literally halfway across the world from where I was raised and socialized. It has become second nature to order my macchiato in another language or to be regularly interrogated by cab drivers about how my day is going, the national news, and what I’m doing here. The novelty has all but worn off as I become further integrated into the society of my new surroundings, and it takes something truly striking to remind me that holy shit, I’m in Israel. One such moment occurred for me last Friday.
I was offered the opportunity to staff-lead a Taglit-Birthright Israel tour group, a rigorous ten-day program that invites young Jews from around the world to explore Israel free of charge. I was responsible not only for logistical considerations, but also for designing and implementing educational activities for participants to explore their identities within the world. It was a fulfilling experience that I will never forget and that I hope to replicate in the near future.
Unfortunately, during the course of the ten days, the strenuous nature of the itinerary coupled with the extreme heat of the Middle Eastern sun caused a few participants to weaken. Dehydration and extended sun exposure were familiar issues, while compromised immune systems allowed three people to catch 24-hour stomach bugs. One participant however, had to deal with a more serious issue, which left her disoriented and detached from the rest of the group in the middle of the Old City of Jerusalem. I found her sitting alone a half an hour later, just as an epileptic seizure began to take hold.
We rushed to find a taxi to take us to the clinic, but as we were in the Old City which is not very car-friendly, the journey took a bit longer than I had hoped for. My participant maintained her composure as best she could as we entered the crowded clinic. Her condition was determined to be serious enough that we were transferred by ambulance to a nearby hospital to be treated. It was there that my holy shit, I’m in Israel moment hit.
I was struck initially by the fact that all dialogue between the crew of the ambulance took place in Arabic. I couldn’t understand a thing, but brief moments of Hebrew instructed me when to open the door and where to sit. This added a bit of confusion to the ride, which was already tense due to the unsettling condition of my participant. Luckily during the course of the journey to the hospital, she stabilized and we were able to relax a bit. The EMT and I chatted for a few minutes before arriving to the hospital. He said we were going to find “Jamal,” and that he would take the best care of my participant. “Who is Jamal?” I naturally inquired. “The best doctor in Israel,” he responded. “Also, my brother,” he smiled.
Believe it or not, there was Dr. Jamal when we arrived in the emergency room, ready to greet us and assess the situation. He proceeded with us in three languages in world-record time, saying a warm hello to his brother in Arabic, asking how I’m doing and what I had observed in Hebrew, and then addressing my participant in English, asking how she felt. She was lucid enough to respond coherently, and Dr. Jamal’s levity and sense of humor managed to remove much of the urgency from the situation.
Because my participant’s condition was no longer emergent, we waited for hours in the ER while the staff tested her blood and made sure her stability maintained. She and I spoke about life and music and Israel until our focus was exhausted, and we continued to sit in quiet observance for a seemingly extended period of time. The whole process was so disorienting that I had completely lost track of time. It wasn’t until one of the Jewish doctors entered the ER and yelled “Kiddush!” that I realized it was roughly sundown on Friday evening.
Aside from those engaged in urgent matters, every Jew in the ER stopped what they were doing to listen and respond “amen” to the various Shabbat evening prayers over the wine. The doctor fulfilled the mitzvah by drinking his share, then proceeded to hand out small cups to everyone else the in ER so that they could participate. Holy shit, I’m in Israel.
Luckily, my participant maintained her stable state and suffered no further attacks. She was released from the hospital shortly after Kiddush, and we were able to return to the rest of the group for the remainder of the tour. Nevertheless, I was appreciative of this reinvigorating reminder of the utter uniqueness of where I was.
This photo was taken last night, during the Jerusalem Festival of Light. Within the Old City were dozens of works by international artists with the intention of introducing more bright, colorful light into the darkness of the Old City at night.
This exhibit was a custom-designed pinball game projected onto the Damascus Gate, the main entrance to the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. It was actually a real, functioning game. There was a line of children waiting to approach a small replica of the projection and have their try at pinball glory—and with quite an audience to watch their every move. What pressure!
I’ve been in this country for a year and I feel less optimistic about the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians than I ever have before. The two parties rarely interact socially in the public sector, and among themselves, they generally speak ill of one another. There are those left-wingers on either side who will cling to a narrative of hope and progress, but the fact on the ground is that there is a huge lack of mutual respect that at times can be uncomfortably palpable.
I come from a society where this kind of behavior is rarely witnessed. I take for granted that New York City is so much of an amalgamation of different cultures that to be prejudiced against another group of people is (1) embarrassingly ignorant and (2) downright unproductive. But here in the Middle East, [yes, the entirety of the region] to be outwardly racist as a matter of confident policy is hardly unheard of.
Of course, in Israel, I needn’t mention why. One party feels as if their livelihood has been greatly disturbed by the presence of an oppressive body. The other party feels that the reason they need to act this way is because of the untamable acts of violent hate that claim the lives of their own people. There’s no easy answer here, but there’s plenty of fuel to maintain each side’s fiery resentment.
And that’s why when I bear witness to one of those uncommon moments of genuinely friendly contact, it helps me to remember that all is not lost after all.
While sitting at a café in West Jerusalem (i.e. the Israeli-controlled half), I watched as a young Palestinian man was waved down by a familiar Hebrew-speaking friend who happened to be my waiter. They embraced and made honest eye-contact, then shared a small cup of espresso before the Arab man made his way along his intended route. What struck me most was that this display of Middle-Eastern warmth and hospitality is what these two men share on a most fundamental level, but so many years of discontent has forced them to mask this behavior from one another. It must be so much more meaningful–even cathartic in some ways—to be able to express this respect for your “cousins,” whom are often deemed unworthy of such etiquette by many of your brethren.
As sad as it is to consider how infrequently these displays of hospitality manifest, they serve as a beautiful reminder as to what could be with a just little bit of mutual respect.
Last month, in the days before the beginning of the Passover holiday, I spent some time traveling around and exploring a few landmarks I had yet to see in Israel. I visited Ramla, one of Israel’s oldest remaining settlements in the center of the country, and an interesting example of Jews and Israeli Arabs coexisting in “modern” society. I visited Latrun, a strategic hilltop that has been the site of countless battles dating back to the Maccabean Revolt of 166 BCE. But by far the most memorable experience of my week, if not my year, was my visit to Abu Ghosh, an Arab Muslim village located on a mountain top about 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem.
Abu Ghosh is famous for being one of the earliest known inhabitations in Israel. As you walk through its streets, it has the feel of an ancient city, as well as the distinct feel of an Arab village. But Abu Ghosh is also famous in the eyes of Israelis for another reason: for it’s hummus. Abu Ghosh is known to be the hummus capital of Israel. There are a myriad of hummusia’s that all claim to be the best in the country; and for me, that was enough to warrant a visit. But while the initial intention of my visit was a delicious hummus lunch, the outcome was far beyond my expectation.
After a full lunch, I began walking with a friend around the village and exploring the sights. After passing some outdoor markets and a few mosques, we came upon a huge walled compound with an old, commanding stone structure. It appeared grand enough to warrant a bit of exploration, so we approached the large, medieval-styled wooden doors and I tapped the small intercom button in the doorway arch, which was marked “The Crusaders Church.”
A few moments later, “Ken?” — Yes?
I responded in Hebrew, “Hello, may we enter and see the church?”
“Ah, yes, one moment!”
We were greeted shortly thereafter by a monk who introduced himself as “Frère Olivier.” The gentleman appeared to be in his late 50s, stood quite short, and wore a full-length robe and ropes. He mentioned that his English was terrible, so we conducted our initial acquaintance in Hebrew, which was a fluent tongue for the monk. But after a few minutes, he began integrating English into the conversation until we realized he could converse quite easily in English. He asked what brought us to his monastery, and we replied that it was mere interest and a bit of luck that we stumbled upon it. He smiled and offered to show us around. We accepted, and the genuine smile barely left his face for the entirety of the visit.
The grounds included beautifully maintained flower and vegetable gardens, tended to by the residents of the monastery. Among the gardens were separate living quarters’ for the eight monks and eight nuns who lived there full time. But the centerpiece of the large compound was the beautiful Gothic church, which I learned was constructed in 1143 by the Knights Hospitallers. It was grand and dominating from the outside, but what was on the inside was most incredible. It had the atmosphere of a thousand-year-old church, with colorful tile mosaics and giant stone protrusions, but the monk’s tour brought the place to life. As it had turned out, the colorful paintings covering the walls were unearthed from a layer of calcium only a decade ago…and they are original. As in, thousand-year-old paintings, perfectly preserved on the walls.
Another thing I noted about the church was its acoustics. Its old stone walls produced a familiar reverb effect I recognized from studying Gregorian Chants during my years of music history class. I noted the phenomenon as he guided us through the crypt and sanctuary, and his face lit up with a smile.
“You enjoy singing, Alex?”
“Absolutely, yes I do.” I wasn’t sure where this was going.
“I also love to sing. I think you will enjoy this.”
The next thing I knew, he began to chant for us in Latin. From the video below, you can also get an idea of the sanctuary, along with the 1,000 year-old paintings on the walls:
Following Frère Olivier’s vocal performance was a long, reflective talk through the gardens where we covered topics like life, contentment, and God. We ambled for an hour, pausing now and then to appreciate a flower or to pick a piece of fruit from a tree. He’s the kind of guy that exhibits such genuine gratitude for what he has, that you can’t help but be humbled by his perspective. His contentedness was contagious. I was in the middle of experiencing one of the most meaningful afternoons of my time in Israel when, much to my surprise, the monk alluded to another little endeavor he takes part in…
“You know, I do something else quite special here – but it’s for celebrations.”
“Well I think me winding up here, of all places, is a reason to celebrate, no?” The monk smiled broadly.
“Yes, yes, yes. So…I make limoncello! Come, I’ll show you…”
[Limoncello is an Italian lemon liqueur traditionally made from the zest of Sorrento lemons.]
He led me into a small kitchen to show me his laboratory, and so that we could “celebrate” over a small glass of deliciously tart, nearly frozen yellow liquid. The toast he gave was moving, and I’ll never forget the moment for the rest of my life:
“Look around… We are a Jew and a Christian monk sharing a drink in the middle of a Muslim village. I really believe the Messiah is coming.”
I don’t believe I have ever met someone so capable of enjoying the simple things in life, and to do so with such a genuine authenticity. If I could define a goal for myself before anything else, it would be to find my own unique path to the enlightened spirit that Frère Olivier embodies. I don’t believe the monk reached his level of contentedness solely as a result of his devout religiosity. It probably helps to have faith in something incomprehensibly greater than yourself, but even that faith needs to be cultivated and refined over years of dedicated meditation and introspection. In other words, our journeys may be different, but their ends are the same.
It will continue to delight and inspire me that people like Frère Olivier exist in the world; and by the slight of the hand of something much greater than I, I had the honor of meeting him.
Today is Yom Ha’Zikaron, or Memorial Day, in honor of those who lost their lives protecting the State of Israel, as well as those who died as a result of terrorist attacks.
Memorial Day in Israel is a bit different from in the United States. Here, almost everyone has a family member, friend, or other relation who has passed away prematurely as a result of an attack. Everyone is somehow touched by the holiday, and it’s palpable in the somber atmosphere. The official ceremony to mark the beginning of the day takes place at 8PM the evening before at the Kotel, or the Western Wall, where this photo was taken. The flag is lowered to half-mast and a siren is sounded, which lasts one minute, and is heard all over the country. At this point, Israelis stop whatever they are doing (including driving) and stand in silence, commemorating their fallen brethren.
Speaking in the background of this photo is Benny Gantz, Chief of Staff of the IDF. Seated next to him is Shimon Peres, current President of the State of Israel. In the foreground (unfocused) is a currently serving solider, listening to the words of one of his highest commanders speaking on the necessity of peace.