September 2009

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An Egyptian vulture (Neophron pernopterus) - one of many species of birdlife in Northern Israel

Field Notes from Northern Israel

-- Mike Weilbacher

This summer, our family—my wife, two teenage girls and I—had the incredible opportunity to spend three weeks in Israel, headquartered in northern Israel’s kibbutz Elon, perched just a mile from the mountainous Lebanon border and within sight of the massive Rainbow Arch, a stone span above Shelomi.

My wife’s brother, a Conservative rabbi, made aliyah here two years ago, and as his son was becoming a Bar Mitvah, it was the excuse we needed for my first trip ever to Israel and my wife’s first trip back in 25 years. (She was born in Israel in the 1950s but moved to the States when she was only two years old.) Happily, her brother had just finished his intensive two-year training to be a certified tour guide in Israel, so we were the lucky beneficiary of his training, guinea pigs in his wielding his newfound interpretive skills. . At last, I would visit the sites I’ve read about in the Tanakh in both lifetimes, my current as a Jew and my former as a lapsed Catholic.

It was, in short, overwhelmingly moving and stunningly beautiful.

We spent four days in Jerusalem, praying at the Kotel and playing on Ben Yehuda Street, weeping at Yad Vashem and haggling at the shouk, seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls and driving to the Mount of Olives at sunset to view the Old City in its totality.

We spent three days at the Dead Sea, bobbing in the super-salty sea, smearing ourselves in mud, hiking Ein Gedi to wade into the David waterfall’s plunge pool, exploring Masada (we copped out; it’s August and excruciatingly hot, so we took the cable car up), visiting with Lot’s Wife, the stone pillar of salt along Mt. Sodom, and even hiking into a cave beneath her.

We have been to the Hula valley, Safed, Nahariya, Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Netanya, Herzliya, Nazareth, Tzippori, Caesarea, Capernaum, Tiberias, and the Arbel; my brother-in-law gave me a personal tour of the Golan, where we found griffin vultures in Gamla, and Canaanites gates and ancient stone sun calendars nearby. We peered at Mt. Hermon in the distance, peeking at Nimrod’s castle through binoculars.

A delicious plate of shakshuka (the Israeli answer to heuvos rancheros).

We’ve eaten schwarma, falafel, labaneh and cheeses of all kinds, Israeli salad (for breakfast?!), pickles of all shapes and sizes, margaz (spicy hot Moroccan sausage), shakshuka (the Israeli answer to heuvos rancheros), kebab, majadra (lentils and rice with a wonderfully crunchy bottom), schnitzel, boureka, malawakh (Yemenite pancakes), sticky-sweet Moroccan desserts, sabra and a million other fruits, and uncountable olives, which we’ve washed down with pomegranate juice, Turkish coffee, Goldstar beer, Golan wine, and gallons of limonana (lemonade with mint—how could we not have this in America?).

I swear food tastes better in Israel.

Naturalist and inveterate birdwatcher that I am, I have been reveling in a new world of Egyptian vultures, fan-tailed ravens and cliff martins spiraling over Masada, of white storks settling into a farm field in the Hula valley as the advance troops in autumn’s migration, of Tristam’s grackles and blacktails harassing us at a picnic area, of hoopoes, the new national bird—winner of a recent online poll—and bulbuls and sunbirds and hooded crows and graceful prinias and white breasted kingfishers and ring-necked parakeets and the endangered marbled teals and black-winged stilts and short-toed eagles and red-rumped swallows and …

In a sentence sure to delight every seventh grade boy, I saw a pair of Great Tits on my visit to Israel, small chickadee-like birds, my first in the exquisite Baha’i Gardens in Haifa.

As someone who has been trying desperately to understand Israeli politics, I discovered doves for days: collared doves, laughing doves, turtledoves, and rock doves, the latter the scientific name for the generic city pigeon, here as common as ants. Does it mean anything politically that doves outnumber the hawks easily 100-1? I naively Googled “Israeli hawks” to find out if I had really seen a peregrine falcon, and up popped images of Sharon, Netanyahu, et. al. I burst out laughing at my obvious blunder. But I did, in fact, see a peregrine, fittingly at Masada, iconic for Israeli hawks.

Everyone talks about Israel’s history and culture, but its nature is equally impressive. Astonishing animals: griffin vultures (check them out on the Internet), packs of jackals called at night from nearby Elon, a roadkill Indian porcupine that boasted the longest quills I have ever seen on any animal anytime, fruit bats inhabiting the chalky caves at Rosh HaNikra on the Mediterranean.

We successfully negotiated the written and spoken language, street signs and menus, checkpoints and metal detectors, streets too small even for our rented Mazda, crowds of secular sunbathers and Muslim shouk shoppers, Orthodox worshippers and teenage revelers. One day, we drove through an ecstatic Druse village celebrating an election victory as a parade of cars overflowing with kids waved orange flags. Swept up in a delirious traffic jam, we had little to do but smile and wave back.

The Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue in Safed. Built in the sixteenth century, the synagogue is named after Rabbi Isaac Luria, (1534-1572), who was known as the Ari. He was a great kabbalist who arrived in Safed in 1570.

We have been lucky to have Rabbi Eitan Julius as our guide and Ziva, his wife, phenomenal pottery artist and native Israeli, to help us navigate the country and customs. Aside from that, this trip has been astonishing, breathtaking, miraculous, mystical—and impossible to believe. Here, the room where the Zealots drew lots to see who would kill their remaining brothers as the Roman legions came in for the kill. Here, the synagogue where Isaac Luria davened and deepened kabbalah, meeting the Shabbat bride on a Friday night. Here, where Rabbi Akiva met his gory and gloried death at the hands of the Romans, chanting the Sh’ma. Here, where Jonah jumped onto a boat to avoid his destiny—and we know where that went. Here, the waterfall where young David hid from an enraged King Saul and lived to become king himself.

And here, where history collides. I was startled to walk through the crowded Arab shouk to get to the Kotel, the collision of noise and color and endless hawking of T-shirts, mango juice and rosary beads jarringly unbearable, then falling away as I finally reached the Wall. When I realized I had walked a section of the Via Doloroso, the alleged path of Jesus during his crucifixion, the collision of cultures and religions was almost dizzying. In Nazareth, Eitan gave us a tour of the church where Mary heard news of her immaculate conception (our devout Christian stepmother asked for this stop). As the Conservative rabbi explained a central miracle in Christianity, Muslims started chanting from the minaret nearby, neatly encapsulating the beauty and curse of Israel, monotheisms cheek-to-jowl in every inch of countryside.

Sometimes, the weight of this history feels unbearable…

But the country feels vibrant and exuberant—the shops and restaurants are crowded, the nightlife splendid. Our kids went to concerts in Nahariyah and coffeehouses in Elon with their cousins, staying out unbelievably late-- and loving it. Cranes are throwing up new buildings everywhere: new condos alongside our aunt and uncle in Netanya; new houses here in Elon; a huge new Habimah theater in Tel Aviv; an expanding Israel Museum in Jerusalem; and new highways everywhere. Israel is thriving.

Beneath this surface, however, one is always aware of undertows. Soldiers are remarkably commonplace—remarkable for this American anyway—in malls, on corners, at bus stops, rifles casually slung in their laps and over their shoulders. Our car got a fierce look-over at one checkpoint; our trunk has been frequently inspected. Guns were going off tonight at artillery practice north of us, which likely doubles as a message to Lebanon. The PLO held a congress in Bethlehem during our time here, and while the international press gave favorable coverage to Abbas, Israelis looked on with disdain as the PLO announced that peace is predicated on a complete return of Jerusalem (now there’s a non-starter!) and blamed Arafat’s death on Israel.

A street scene, Jericho, Palestine.

On our return from the Dead Sea, we drove straight up the Jordan River valley, which meant for 20 minutes we had physically left Israel and were in the Palestinian controlled territory near Jericho; the difference was jarring, depressing, like driving through the South Bronx in the 1970s. During the trip, we paralleled the border with Jordan, three layers of menacing barbed wire fencing. In the Golan, ghostly stone homes deserted in 1967 were commonplace.

Scratch any Israeli, and they will tell you the current situation is untenable. Solutions, however, are elusive.

So the country is confusing and confounding, extraordinarily beautiful while wickedly harsh (we hiked the Arbel’s cliffs in 100-degree weather and almost died). But I have a much larger stake in its future than I ever imagined: since my wife is a native, we learned on this trip that our girls are considered citizens, too.

Suddenly, I am the only non-Israeli in my household.

Back home in Lower Merion, what has this meant?

Still knee-deep into my life as a Jew, as I mull over the experience, I am hoping this trip gives me, in addition to lessons in geography, culture and history, a stronger sense of my own hopes and aspirations for Israel politically, still forming but desperately needed. I am hoping memories of this trip will allow my convictions to harden, like glaze in Ziva’s kiln.

And I find myself paging through my field guide’s sections on doves and hawks, wondering on which side I cast my own lot.

Naturalist Mike Weilbacher directs the Lower Merion Conservancy, frequently appears on public radio, and davens at Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.

To view previous editions from our Israel section, please click here.

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