Broadening Our Perspectives - Part I

As I write this, it is early Friday morning and we are flying over the Labrador Sea toward Newfoundland on our way to Newark (where we'll connect for home). In the event our perspectives and imaginations hadn't been stretched and twisted up until this point in the trip, that stretching and twisting took on new shapes as we began to wind down for our departure.

A few words back to our speaker on Tuesday morning. As I wrote, she was a councilwoman in the Jerusalem city government. Yes, she represents one of the far left parties and they are definitely in the minority-- but her words gave me hope. She articulated the three major challenges facing Jerusalem (as a microcosm of Israel): 1) rich/ poor, 2) Palestinians/ Israelis, 3)  across religious groups. If you think of Israel as a very detailed, intricate tapestry with many threads and patterns converging and diverging, that's it. Extraordinarily complex. For instance, many of the ultra-Orthodox (Israeli) Jews are very poor. They don't send their children to the public schools (and this is sanctioned by the State), so they don't build marketable skills, and as a result, they cannot or will not work and, as a result, receive financial support by the State-- with an allowance that increases per child. These individuals have no interest, whatsoever, in sharing (or exploring the possibilities of co-existence) with the Palestinians (indeed, our speaker described this group as racist). So, the cycle continues.

When our speaker was asked what she thought President Obama and the U.S. should do, she responded that we should dish out some very tough love (my words) to Netanyahu. Not to get political here (but I will), but we need very strong leaders (with immense amounts of intestinal fortitude) to address the conflict and it just isn't happening.

On Tuesday afternoon, some of us headed back to the Old City for some retail therapy-- where we entered through the Damascus Gate. 

Those are spices stacked into a pyramid!
We were successful on that point-- but here we were exposed to the rough and tumble elements of Jerusalem. One member of our group was jostled to the ground and his cell phone was stolen. Another member was hit by one of the large, unwieldy, fast-moving rolling carts . She needed stitches in her leg. So the perspectives' broadening continued.

On Wednesday morning, we headed north toward Haifa with planned stops at the Sea of  Galilee, Capernaum, and Safed / Tzfat.  First, we took a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. (Emily stayed behind to try her hand at "walking on the water".)
For many of our group, this was the most moving experience of the trip as this was where Jesus actually walked. Our ride was lovely and became part of the dual narrative when Yuval exuberantly initiated an Israeli dance-- several of us joined in. The skipper played the Star Spangled Banner at the outset and raised the American flag. While the flag of  Israel was also flying on the mast, there was no Hatikvah played-- perhaps out of political correctness and respect to Husam? This was one of those painful "dual narrative" moments (more on that later).

Our next stop was Capernaum, where Jesus lived and healed Peter's mother. The old synagogue (circa 4th century AD) was remarkably well preserved. 

Next, we journeyed to Safed / Tzfat, a Palestinian city taken over by the Israelis in 1948 that has become a center of Jewish mysticism (through Kabbalism), an art colony, and a retreat for the 1960's hippies' spirit.

We saw all three of these influences converge when we visited David Friedman's art studio. David made Aliyah over 30 years ago from Denver and acknowledged that the music of the Grateful Dead (plus the drug culture) influenced his art. His works are stunning and reflect many Kabbalistic elements, which he beautifully and spiritually spelled out. Many in our group were moved to purchase his artwork (your writer among them).   

After the time at David's studio, we visited a stunning Ashkenazi synagogue...

...and then proceeded down a beautiful alley full of amazing galleries and the best opportunities of the trip for significant and meaningful retail therapy.

Alas, we didn't have time for anything but high level browsing. Note to self: must return to this must not miss spot. (If readers are concerned I did not get in my usual shopping quotient, no fear as the Yad Vashem gift shop offered many fine opportunities to fill my extra bag-- and fill it I did.)

We ended the long day in Haifa at Maxim restaurant-- a Palestinian restaurant that was the site of a suicide bombing incident about 12 years ago. (The restaurant is "in the family" as one of our staff members is related to the owners ).  Of course, as elsewhere on the trip, the Palestinian food and hospitality were outstanding. More importantly, though, we were joined at dinner by 60 Hands of  Peace kids and their parents; it was electric and inspirational to hear their stories of hope and understanding.....
...while nearby was a reminder of today's reality:
We were fortunate to be seated alongside Judy and Amit (she is an American who made Aliyah  20+ years ago and now writes for Ha'aretz-- the left-leaning Israeli newspaper that many American Jews enjoy-- and he is a university professor who was on Rabin's team at the time of the assassination). Their son was in our San Diego Israeli Jewish delegation this past summer.  It was fascinating to hear their perspectives (they now live in Tel Aviv and love it there-- they used to live in Jerusalem but left because it was so intense-- this reminded me just a bit of the dichotomy we experienced between Shanghai and Beijing several years back). Most heart-wrenching though was to hear their story from this past summer. They have four children. Their oldest is in an elite infantry unit of the IDF so of course was on the ground for the Gaza operation this past summer.  They heard from him most evenings. Their next child, a daughter, is taking a gap year before entering the army. Their third child was in San Diego this summer attending our program during the Gaza operation. And their fourth child was at home. As Judy told the story of the family's angst, my heart burst for her. So difficult.

We checked into our hotel in Haifa to get some rest before our last day of touring. We started Thursday morning with a visit to the glorious Baha'i shrine and gardens. This was quite a fitting "last day" stop to our trip as the Baha'i faith speaks to all faiths and reinforces unity, diversity, and peace. While the narrative was interesting and somewhat compelling, several of us were surprised to hear how very conservative the doctrines are. That aside, the views were spectacular. 

Last stop-- a Druze village where we heard from a non-devout gentleman and a devout woman. (You may be aware that George Clooney's bride, Amal Alamuddin, has a Palestinian Druze background-- though she is not devout-- as intermarriage is definitely not permitted). Developed partly from Shia Islam, this ancient faith believes in reincarnation and very little reverence for the dead.
We were told that many Israeli Druze families support Israel (there are also communities in Syria and Lebanon).  Druze families go so far as to send their children to the army. Husam informed us (as it has been his role to do), however, that the Israeli Druze support for Israel is not unilateral.

In a journey punctuated by memorable dining (and when has that not been the case?), our lunch at the Druze village was an absolute standout. The platters kept coming and included (but were not limited to): hummus, home made flatbread with Zatar -- a zesty Mideast spice made from dried herbs including oregano and sumac, home-made flatbread with tomato sauce, roasted eggplant, rice, mini stuffed cabbage leaves, mini stuffed grape leaves, kebabs in Tahini, chicken, and amazing cookies .

All of this was accompanied by a tangy and sweet Tamarind tea.  We bid our good- byes and headed back to Tel Aviv for our late-night flight home.
As for our departure, security and check in at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion's airport are really something else. We prepped our group that they should not volunteer that we had spent considerable amounts of time on the West Bank. It was " Kosher" for us to be there-- but a detailed description might be problematic for Israeli Security, so we were strongly advised to stick to a straightforward and simplistic script. As tour leader , I was singled out by security for fairly extensive questioning.  Good thing my mental and physical exhaustion did not affect my brain cells as I was able to answer the following questions with some semblance of agility: Why were you here?  Who was your leader? Did you have meetings? Why? What cities did you visit? Who was your guide (here, we had been explicitly coached not to identify Husam as a guide)? Why did you come early? Did any of your group separate from the rest? Why? Etc., etc. Then, I had to walk alongside our group with my new BFF Security guy to verify our group members (I was pretty pleased I did not have to recite names as by this point, I was wiped!), but that wasn't all. After my bags went through the initial screening, I was pulled aside so the friendly Security folks could do a deeper dive into my baggage for something suspect.  (Luckily, my laundry was elsewhere). Low and behold (gift spoiler alert!!!), they discovered that the Dead Sea salt gifts had set off some kind of alert on the X-ray machine. Fortunately, this discovery did not at all affect my ability to keep these gifts and continue through the security labyrinth. 

From the stirring moments at the Galilee and Capernaum to the mystical visit to Tzfat to the inspiring kids and parents and the Baha'i and Druze experiences, our last two days absolutely exposed us to yet additional narratives for this rich and emotional trip.  The last blog for this journey will contain our reflections. Stay tuned.

Peace, shalom, salaam,

wendy and emily

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