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Monthly Archives: March 2009

The title of this post seems particularly harsh and seemingly evil, and as such allow me to explain. The name of the actual location we visited in the Hebrew is derived in several ways, including 1) GeHinnom; 2) the Valley of the Hinnom; 3) the Valley of Ben Hinnom; 4) Gai Ben-Hinnom; and finally, in the Greek loaning from Hebrew of the New Testament, 5) Gehenna. And, in the (much, much later) imprecise use of the English language, it was translated as Hell. In fact, “English” is not really the source of the word, because it is actually the ancient Germanic root word ‘*heljah’ (don’t ask me how to pronounce it), and it has the general meaning “hidden from sight, unable to be seen, away from looking.” This is actually the same root word for modern English words such as “helmet” which, if one considers it, makes a lot of sense: a helmet is a head-covering whose express use is to make the head hidden from site (and ideally, danger).

So whats the story behind the Valley of Ben Hinnom? This is important, because if this is the place that Jesus referenced, it is important to have some idea of the intended meaning in the original language and not be caught up in the added meanings from later translations. Therefore, as I have looked into this thus far (because, as one might recall, my independent study this semester is about the etymology of Hell and how it managed to get derived from “Gehenna” in the New Testament), here is the basic story behind GeHinnom of the Old Testament period. Referenced several times, such as in Joshua, this place was known in the time of the Israelites as the ancient location (preceding the existence of Jerusalem by hundreds of years) of multiple child sacrifices to the pagan god Molech. It is important to note here that Molech (or Moloch, or Molek as it is variously spelled) may be better known to you as Ba’al, the same pagan god whose priests persecuted Elijah and so forth. In fact, it is also very important to mention that this god was known to be associated with fire/sacrifices by fire, and so keep in mind that the real life location upon which Hell is based on originally had a (pagan) sense of fire about it.

The reputation of this small valley beneath Mount Zion didn’t improve so much over hundreds of years; upon the construction of Jerusalem by the Israelites, they made sure not to build anything in the valley, and in fact they continued the tradition of fire being associated with the place, as they burned the garbage, bodies of dead criminals, and bodies of dead animals from Jerusalem in the Hinnom. Somewhat later, non-criminals were buried in the walls of the cliffs in the Valley, and this in turn started another trend for this small piece of land. As such, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and buried many of their dead in the same cliff walls of the same Valley.

At this point, it is important to mention (briefly) the other languages and expressions involved in the transformation from Gehenna to Hell. Prior to Hinnom acquiring the connotations of fire, sacrifice, and death that it got, there existed the Jewish concept of Sheol, which is simply a repository for the dead without having specific moral connotations (so it wasn’t just for the righteous, nor only for the unrighteous). This was a concept of the afterlife, whereas Gehenna was a real place right next to Jerusalem. Interesting enough, Greek pagan tradition also holds that Hades is a morality-free repository for the dead.

This continues in the Roman pagan traditions, which hold that the whole of the underworld, infernus, was the location of the dead, both good and evil. How does this figure? The name of this abode for the dead is derived from Latin for “the dead,” inferi. They went further, splitting this abode of the dead into Tartarus for the unrighteous and elysium for those who lived a good life. This underworld should sound very familiar, as infernus is the root word in English and Italian for “inferno,” which refers to a huge conflagration and Hell, respectively. Even more clearly, the English adjective “infernal” is drawn from the same root word, and it specifically refers to something as being from/of/like Hell. This should also alert a person to the beginning of a change in meaning; infernus is directly drawn from Latin for “the dead,” and yet later English translations into “Hell” have the connotation of fire and immense heat, hence the uses in English and Italian.

Then, of course, where does “Hell” itself originally come from anyways? As was briefly mentioned above, there is a good case for Hell coming from proto-Germanic ‘*heljah’ and as such, one sees two different possible interpretations of it from the very beginning. If words drawn from this root have the direct implication of something hidden, something out of sight, something unable to be seen, one way to interpret Hell is that it is analogous to Hades and infernus in that it is a hidden repository of the dead, sans impression of eternal fire and suffering. A second way to interpret it (the popular conception) is the fiery inferno of Dante and Faust, yet this imagery doesn’t find very much of a basis in the Bible, interestingly enough.

So where does this meaning of fire and punishment of the wicked come in? How is it that we now have the meanings and connotations of Hell that we have today? I can give you a very preliminary and several-part answer: 1) the probable influence of the remnants of pagan religions in and around Europe upon different Christian theologians; 2) specific schools of thought in very early Christianity (only a minority of them, it would seem, but more on this later); and 3) popular literature (Dante’s Inferno, Goethe’s Faust, Milton’s Paradise Lost).

I cannot yet finish this post all the way, as my research for this study is on hold so I can finish my 30 page paper on Anwar El-Sadat first. As such, this post doesn’t even begin to go into the details of how Hell got the meanings it has today in direct opposition to what is said in the Bible (the properly translated Bible, mind you). That said, all of this entry-level understanding stands to be transformed into a fairly interesting independent study this semester, and I hope to post my finished paper on the blog once it is finished (and hopefully published). At the same time, if my continued research contradicts something I said here, I will come back and edit it rather than post the new information in a separate post.

The below photographs (the first 17 at least) highlight my trip with Théo into Hinnom. We walked over to Mount Zion through the Old City, and Théo pointed out that the Zion Gate of the city is so pocked and ruined not from age (what sort of rain falls horizontally into a wall, right?), but from bullet holes… which he is probably correct about. Jerusalem is nothing if not the most coveted piece of real estate continuously through history. We walked down into the Valley and through it, and it wasn’t quite so hot as popular conception would hold, and I will go as far as to say that Hell is kind of a nice place, in reality. Its free from any buildings or development (for now, as one of the photographs shows the intention of the city to develop this area), and is just like any other park, except for the thousands of years of attached history and meaning.

Lucifer (another great exercise in creative and warped translation, as lucifer is Latin for “falling light” or “morning star,” from the Hebrew for “morning star” and not necessarily a name as is usually regarded. In fact, in the Bible, the linked passage from Isaiah seems to indicate a Satan-like figure in character, but “Lucifer” itself can not be considered a name from the Bible as it is the Latin translation. This massive parenthetical comment could go on to discuss “Satan” and so forth, but that shall be left for a different post [and/or academic paper topic]) was not available for comment on his domain.

And, having explained the whole of my trip into the Valley of Ben Hinnom, let me really quickly explain why there are a few followup photographs from Mount Zion. The Valley of Ben Hinnom is not the easiest to get to, as there is nothing in it and therefore no buses stop at it. That, and the fact that I wanted to show Théo some of the sites on and from Mount Zion led us to take that route, and as can be expected, one sees more of a place the second time they go. This is the source of the extra photos from the Dormition Church, and the fact that I now know that the sculpture with the three windows is a famous French work, knowledge compliments of Théo.

Earlier this week, on Tuesday, I got to go to the first Honor’s lecture while here at the Rothberg International School. Not a very big or old program, we number five this semester; Micah, Soly, Keenan, Angela, and myself. We also represent a huge amount of backgrounds; respectively, we include liberal reconstructionist Jewish, modern Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, raised Catholic, and Lutheran. We make up the fairly uncommon abroad student honor’s program (I had never heard of such a thing before I got here and applied for it), and as such we have been asked to attend as many of their events as possible.

In any event, our small group was brought to the huge lecture room 300 in the Boyar building for an hour long lecture and discussion of the water issues facing Israelis and Palestinians. The professor, whose name escapes me, teaches geology here at Hebrew University, with his specialty being in water issues (of particular importance here in mostly arid Israel). He explained a lot of the issues at hand, and I thought I would try and relay this fascinating information here. Obviously, there are a lot of facets to the problems facing the Israelis and Palestinians, namely that they aren’t willing or able to get along. Well, allow me to spread a few more rays of sunshine for you: the water issues here are extremely complicated, and haven’t been solved even though they were a clear portion of the Oslo accords.

First of all, the aquifer (underground natural reservoir where water naturally percolates after rain) for Israel is predominantly under the territory of the West Bank, so all of the water which gets into the aquifer is affected by whatever chemicals and waste-water exists on the lands of the West Bank. This is compounded by a few factors: 1) the Oslo accords hold that all changes to water infrastructure in the West Bank have to be unanimously agreed upon by Israel and Palestine (so basically can never happen); 2) the Palestinians are unable to afford proper waste-treatment facilities and therefore are forced to let the waste-water contaminate the aquifer of the rest of Israel; and 3) their agriculture-based economy is dependent upon water, so Palestine can always claim to need more water that is rightfully theirs as it is under their lands and Israel can always claim it needs additional water because [as the professor relayed the argument to us] “Palestine should develop a ‘real’ economy which isn’t so dependent on water.

Leaving that series of issues where they lay, without any extra contemplation on my part, I relay the other side of this: beyond simply a huge need for water by all people here, the aforementioned waste-water has become a huge issue, beyond how it is described above. So the Palestinian waste-water isn’t treated and simply flows either into 1) the aquifer (as previously explained) or 2) towards Israel, and infects the ground water there. Therefore, Israel has engaged in something I hadn’t heard of before, “unilateral environmentalism.” Specifically, they have constructed waste treatment plants near the borders of the Palestinian lands, and treat their waste-water at Israel’s cost. Then, the lovely issue of where to redirect that contested- but now-clean water arises: to the nearby Palestinian communities who need it for agricultural uses, or to nearby Israelis, who paid for the process and the processing plants? I have no easy answer to this, to be sure.

And then comes a facet of this issue that I am personally involved in, as it turns out (had no idea of this before Tuesday, actually). The city of Jerusalem, beyond being visibly walled off between the east [Arabic] and west [Israeli] portions, apparently also segregates simply infrastructure that all of economics has deemed best should be run by one company (a natural monopoly): there exists what one might call two separate water infrastructures, at first glance. Then, upon closer inspection, the truth comes out quite a bit differently. West Jerusalem has the normal Israeli waste-water treatment facilities and pipelines to reach them. The east part of Jerusalem has a “system” for dealing with waste water too… it flows into the ground, outside the city wherever it can. And, due to the fact that Mount Scopus/Hebrew University is a veritable outpost of the Israeli part of Jerusalem within the eastern partition, it turns out that our waste-water also simply flows out of the city, without ever being treated at all. And, following this line of reasoning, it turns out that the watershed that Jerusalem naturally falls within drains into… the Dead Sea!! Hooray, its just like Lake Eire at home, with waste getting dumped into it… except the Dead Sea is actually a popular tourist location for people to go… swim and float around…. Yuck.

In any event, I am no expert about all of this, but finding out the level of complexity to this problem as only one component of the lovely cornucopia of issues here in Israel/Palestine certainly served to make my day brighter… 😦

That said, I do have to commend Israel’s environmental mindset in one way. For the past few decades, Israel has been the only country in the world to annually (and actively) increase the number of trees within the nation. Keeping in mind that water is so expensive here and that trees need quite a bit of water, that is quite a commitment (although, Israel did pioneer the extremely resource-efficient drip method of irrigation years ago, which assists in keeping resource usage down). Here’s hoping that they can make some more breakthroughs in this regard in the very near future… it seems as though a lot of places in the world would benefit.

The day after my amazing trip in the north, and after spending the morning on Sunday at the Dome of the Rock and attending services at the Church of the Redeemer in the Old City (finally), I went over and spent several hours at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Israel.

The name, “Yad Vashem,” is drawn from a verse in Isaiah. I think it is a fitting name, and the symbol of the memorial is fittingly a piece of rusted barbed wire, artistically rendered to look like it has a new twig representing new life growing out of the end of it.

I would direct you to the photographs (as this is the sort of place that is best understood visually), but the entire museum was off-limits to any photographs whatsoever, so I will try and relate the feel and sense of the place through writing. The building itself is a very long and comparatively narrow building spanning all of Mount Hertzel, and the interior is a sort of zig-zag pattern (where to get through, to go back and forth laterally across the building, and are blocked from walking straight through by smaller exhibits down the main hallway, sort of like: /\/\/\/\/\ ).

The museum is organized chronologically, and goes from pre-1930 issues for the European Jewry and went all the way until the end of the war. Each room was packed from floor to ceiling with various boards containing written information, real artifacts from families, communities, concentration camps, and everything in between. I will say that one of these replica pieces represented one of the two things in the whole of Yad Veshem bothered me more intensely than other parts. Above one of the rooms was an iron replica of the concentration camps’ ubiquitous signs declaring “Arbeit macht frei.” This awful slogan is quite intensely distasteful of course (particularly knowing the history of those signs beforehand), so walking into that room was difficult for me to physically.

The other part of the entire Yad Vashem presentation that bothered me so intensely that it was physically noticeable was outside the museum, when I went into the Children’s Memorial. Or, at least I tried to: being in Yad Vashem alone, and having spent the whole day considering and learning more about the Holocaust, I was not easily able to walk into it so far. Underground, I walked into the first room, and it was pitch-black. Well, completely dark save for the back-lit photographs of children who died in the Holocaust, with audio recordings in multiple languages reading the names and ages of children who were killed in the Holocaust. To be entirely honest, I couldn’t get any farther through that specific memorial than the first room.

To end on a positive note, I am pleased to report that in the midst of all this sadness and edifice built to honor people killed by humanity turning a blind eye to evil/actively participating, there is one part which can still impart some hope. The “Avenue of the Righteous,” it is a walkway through the grounds of Yad Vashem lined with trees of all species. Specifically, though, all the trees lining this avenue were planted by a member of the Righteous Among the Nations, and then the tree has a small plaque with the name and nation of the person being honored. A fitting method of reminding a visitor to Yad Vashem that humanity can never be wholly evil; there will always be at least one person who will stand up and attempt to do the right thing.

This post is the follow-up to a previous post where I described my visit to the Temple Mount, only that this visit involved 1) good weather; and 2) me having a working camera, so attached to this post are the photographs I took there.

So it turns out that there is actually a second Bethlehem in Israel, up in the Jezreel Valley of the north. In fact, there was a church on top of a cave which purported to be the actual birthplace of Jesus. Unfortunately, some Israeli archeologist pronounced the location “of little value,” and the church was plowed over to make room for a house. Not really OK by me, as if one follows the Biblical story of the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, it is more sensible for a woman who was late into her pregnancy to only travel 20 kilometers to another city than more than 100 kilometers. Plus, having walked up the hill of Bethlehem in the south, I can say that it would have been quite the difficult trip for a woman so close to giving birth. Food for thought, but in the northern Bethlehem there is a wall which has been dated to around the time of Jesus’ birth.

And, to follow up to a claim made in a previous post, allow me to explain further the unnaturally and incredibly large amount of food which was put in front of us for Shabbat dinner/Adi’s birthday dinner on Friday night at their home. We arrived and met her family, and were promptly told to sit down and get ready to eat. We did so, but we could have never anticipated just how much food was about to come out. The entire table (which was really 2 long tables put together) was covered with food, and the smaller table off behind me was covered with food. For about 22 people, there was food for something like 7,000 or 8,000 (beating Jesus’ record of the 5,000, although he started with much fewer ingredients whereas Adi’s folks worked for quite some time to make all of that food). That isn’t it, though; quite the opposite, more plates of food were brought as original plates were polished off. It was all delicious, obviously, but the human form can only accept so many calories at any given time before one starts to become ill. I say this because after eating far, FAR more than our fill, out of somewhere in their home (given the sheer scale of food presented to us by that point, I genuinely don’t understand what sort of underground food storage center they must operate in order to have this much prepared food on hand), they brought out two tables’ worth of dessert… all of which was delicious, of course. We were thoroughly, thoroughly full at the end of this experience… enough so that I probably wouldn’t need to eat much of anything for the next weeks (at least). Still, all of that huge quantity of food was all 5-star cuisine 😀

From slightly later historically, and without any Israeli Antiquities Authority possession of the site, there exists near Adi’s house a series of ancient graves of the Maccabees. Adi’s mom took us over there, and we walked in and amongst (and in the case of Adi, Justine, and Théo, crawling through) those ancient graves. Similarly, back at their household, Adi’s mom has a huge collection of ancient pottery fragments, coins, pieces of perhaps stone hookah pipes, and so forth; all verified by the Israel Antiquities Authority and photographed, and then legally given to Adi’s mom as “they already had plenty of those.” I find both of these things fascinating, as she found all of those things in her garden or otherwise in her yard… all I ever find it at home in the yard is either a branch from a tree, or perhaps one of the dogs’ toys 😦

On Saturday afternoon, we went to the spice factory near Adi’s house, where she worked as a teenager. As the photographs will show, the room was a riot of colors of every type, and that doesn’t even begin to describe the panoply of smells… it was like walking into a wall, it was so strong and varied. It was all very, very expensive, but it was also literally as fresh as could possibly be, as right out the back was the fields where all the spices and tea leaves are grown and then processed.

In the late afternoon, we walked down the main street of Bethlehem in the north, stopping for some fresh pressed [they pressed the oranges while you waited] orange juice and strawberries, all of which was quite cheap and quite delicious (I cannot even begin to explain how much I am going to miss cheap and very fresh fruit and vegetables once I leave…). We tried to get into the haunted [i.e. abandoned] house which scared Adi witless in her youth, but unfortunately the place has been locked since then. All in all, an excellent visit to a great place.

Mount Carmel, derived from the Hebrew “Kerem-El” (or vineyards of God), is the mountain which Haifa is built upon and next to, as well as the location of the Baha’i Gardens.

That short introduction finished, we drove into Haifa on Friday and spent a good part of the afternoon there after our time at Akko. First of all, we went part of the way up the hill for the first of several scenic overlooks of Haifa and the bay, and the view was simply amazing. In the far distance, we could see the neighborhood where Eti’s house is located, across the bay. Driving onwards to the next location, we first got out and went to a restaurant located on the edge of the overlook, and this time were able to see down into the Haifa soccer stadium (as pictured below).

We went closer to the middle of the mountain, and walked into the Carmelite Monastery for a time. Therein, the walls, stained glass, doors, and fresco on the dome all featured the prophet Elijah, usually mounted in his chariot of fire. The monastery was constructed there because the top of Mount Carmel is the traditional location of Elijah’s battle with 450 priests of Ba’al (which is deceptive, because “Ba’al” refers to ‘Lord’ or ‘Master.’ In reality, scholars conjecture the pagan god in mind was Melqart), where they each constructed an altar to their god. The altar of Ba’al never caught aflame, whereas Elijah soaked the wood on his altar to Yah’weh in water, and then prayed to God. At this point, the story tells us, the entire altar burst into a raging inferno, clearly proving the superiority of Yah’weh.

After enjoying the beautiful church, we drove the rest of the way up the hill, to the top of the Baha’i Gardens (so go check that post out).

After spending some time enjoying the view from the top of Mount Carmel, and looking around the Carmelite Monastery, we drove over to the top of the mountain to the top entrance of the Baha’i Gardens. The Baha’i religion is a relative newcomer in the world, and at this point it has several million members around the world. Amongst their most holy sites is the aforementioned Gardens, and they are truly a sight to behold.

Consecutive tiered gardens adorn the side of Mount Carmel, from the streets of the German Colony at the base, all the way to the King Louis Promenade at the top of the mountain. Unfortunately, the Gardens operate similarly to many other religious locations around the world; one can only get in at certain times if they are not a pilgrim of the religion at hand, and therefore we were unable to get into the Gardens other than the top tier, from which my photographs were taken. Those photos speak well for themselves, so enjoy!

On the morning of Saturday, we all departed Adi’s house to spend a few hours visiting the widely-known Tel Megiddo. I can describe the place as such, because even if you don’t recognize the name as given above, let me try and tell you the name is a few other, more recognized ways. “Tel Megiddo” is the current name, with “tel” referring to the man-made hill created by successive levels of civilizations which decided to settle upon the ruins of the previous occupants of the area, which has always been called “Megiddo.” Now, lets try it with an older name: har Megiddo (or Mount Megiddo, as translated). Now, take that expression and slur it and try and pronounce it with a Koine Greek accent, and you end up with… ARMAGEDDON. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen; we decided to have a late breakfast on Saturday in order to go visit and enjoy the widely-regarded location of the end of the world, at least in the Christian tradition (drawn from the prophesy of the last battle for the world taking place there, in the book of Apocalypse/Revelation). And, as Théo insisted on adding, we were actually going to look for Bruce Willis (having seen the movie ‘Armageddon,’ he was convinced we would find Bruce there 🙂 ).

Piling into the Chevy mini-van, we drove about 30 minutes away from Bethlehem of Galilee to the tel, and on the way got to enjoy the sights and landscape of the Jezreel Valley. This valley, known as the breadbasket of Israel, is surprisingly green and lush (look at the photographs attached which look down off the tel; you’ll see what I am referring to). It was somewhat difficult to mentally come to terms with, as living in Jerusalem means that we constantly live in a situation of dust and (usually) dry weather, looking out into arid surrounding hills and neighborhoods. Nevertheless, we arrived at the tel and got through “security,” which as Eti rightly explained, didn’t have anything to suspect of us as Eti (someone who very clearly looks Israeli) was driving the vehicle. She also explained that if I were driving, they would have stopped us and at least searched the “baggage (Israeli expression for trunk of a car),” if not more of the vehicle.

We went inside and took a quick look at the small museum there, including a look at the excellent scale model pictured below (hard to visualize all of such a large hill while one is one it), but we were all very keen on simply getting to the tel itself, immersing ourselves in the end of the world as it were. As such, we walked outside into the heat (it is already fairly warm in many parts of Israel by the middle of March, by the way), and up the path towards the ancient ruined gates to the fortress Megiddo. Along the way, I spotted an enormous lizard (almost the size of an iguana but extremely agile), but it ran up into a tree before anyone else saw it… prompting the requisite “oh, we’re sure you saw it Mike…” sorts of comments from my compatriots. Nevertheless, we hiked on, although unfortunately this rocky terrain was no good whatsoever for Eti’s already painful knee, so we took our time and enjoyed the walk.

After helping some elderly American women get down the rubble-strewn field in front of the gates, we walked inside and had entered one of the longest continually-important strategic positions in the world. I say this because it was occupied as everything from a strategic lookout to an actual fortress from pre-Canaanite times all the way up until World War I (specifically, General Allenby of the British Army took the humble title “Lord of Megiddo” during the first World War, and presided over some of the fighting that took place near there). The top of the tel is reasonably worn-down and ruined, given that it has been subject to human interaction and weather conditions for quite a few years at this point. The photographs do more justice than my written explanation, but suffice to say the following. Besides huge palm trees, scattered rocks, and sand, the top of the tel is also home to several sets of ruined houses, a 2 ton ancient grain silo, the remains of King Solomon’s stables, several ruined governing palaces, and a circular site which was consecutively regarded as holy enough to build a new temple on the exact same spot by successive civilizations for thousands of years.

After wandering over most of the top of the tel, Eti and Adi went to walk slowly and carefully back to the cafeteria there, while Justine, Théo and I decided to walk down into the deep underground waterworks. This ingenious system, devised thousands of years ago, allowed the occupants of the Megiddo fortress to hold out indefinitely against besieging forces: since they already had massive stockpiles of food atop the hill, this secret underground tunnel connecting the tell to a nearby spring also allowed them to consume water without ever leaving the safety of the fortress walls. We walked down a inwardly-turning modern staircase and came to the very steep modern staircase to the base of the water conduit… but not just any staircase. As I mentioned to Justine, this staircase was just as awful as the construction of the entire Eiffel Tower, because you can see ALL THE WAY DOWN TO THE DISTANT GROUND BELOW through the grating of the stairs. All three of us quickly made our way down as to avoid the uneasy feeling of being on a slippery and seemingly rickety metal staircase meters above the ground, which unfortunately caused us to be unable to really enjoy our surroundings as we should have. Reaching the bottom safely, we continued along the tunnel to what was the hidden entrance in ancient times, and is now the staircase out of the waterworks. Already tired from hours of climbing and exploring, all three of us huffed and puffed our way out of the tunnel, with Justine deciding to grace us with a hummed-rendition of “Chariots of Fire” as she ran up the stairs, some real competition for Mr. Stallone himself.

We met up with Eti and Adi, and departed to go back to Adi’s house for a delicious late breakfast (delicious bread, salad, and so forth, but with the main course being tomato paste with eggs cooked into it). For the next part of the story, go check out the “Bethlehem 2” post. That said, all in all, the end of the world wasn’t so bad, even though we didn’t end up finding Bruce Willis 😦

This was both the first and middle parts of my travels this past weekend, and I will write the post as such (so to get the other parts of the middle and the end of the weekend, go read those respective posts).

The Pitilon Household at our arrival
After meeting north of the Student Village slightly late (as Théo correctly pointed out, it stands to reason that as the sole American on our expedition, I was the only one on time and waiting for the Israelis and Europeans… 😀 ), we got on the bus and went towards the Central Bus Station. Once there, we immersed ourselves in another Israeli pastime, that of waiting in a queue which had lost all semblance of any line and instead had become a mass of people all trying to push past one another as if we couldn’t see them trying to push their way past us. We eventually got into the station, and played that same fun game again at the bus itself (because Greyhound-style buses which travel longer distances in Israel operate as though they are municipal buses; you only buy the ticket once you’re physically onto the bus), although this time we lost and had to wait for the next one. It finally arrived and we piled on, intent on getting seats; in Israel, they sell “seats” to people willing to make the journey sitting in the aisle, which given my stature, wouldn’t have gone so well, nor would it have been particularly enjoyable. On the bus, Théo and I had another installment of our ever-continuing conversation of comparative politics, this time referring to our respective opinions of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

We arrived slightly later than intended, and climbed into Eti’s father’s van, as well as her brother Itzik in his car for the trip to their house. Traveling there, we got our first look at the city of Haifa at night, and it was similar in many ways to being at home in the US, albeit with a few more Israeli warships in the naval harbor there. At the Pitilon household, we got initiated into the habit of the rest of the weekend: 1) we would enter a house and be joyously greeted by everyone there; 2) we would barely have a split second to put our possessions in a heap on the ground; and 3) we would then be beckoned to a/the kitchen table and ordered to “eat, EAT!!” This trip’s inaugural meal consisted of omelets with vegetables, bread of several varieties, and a plethora of cheeses… all delicious, as we were hungry from the trip and preceding events of the day. Still residing in our false sense of safety, we ate a bit more than our fill, frivolously figuring that “they can’t possibly feed us this much good food at the next meal, can they?”

We were wrong. Utterly, totally incorrect. As other posts will highlight, I ate enough this past weekend as to prevent me from eating anything else for (at the absolute minimum) a month (although 9/10 American doctors suggest leaving 3-5 months of no caloric intake and heavy manual labor between consumption of Israeli Jewish meals, for the sake of safety and good health). Like, to be entirely honest, I can not stay silent on this issue any longer. Any and all claims about Americans eating the biggest meals in the world are actually slightly imprecise. We eat some of the biggest meals in the world, yes; my experiences this past weekend highlight the fact that Israelis eat bigger meals, especially when *gasp* two special events coincide for one monstrous Meal of Doom, such as a combined Shabbat dinner/Adi’s birthday dinner (see the “Bethlehem 2” post for more of why I say this). Don’t get me wrong, it was all so absolutely delicious; its just that the human body can only consume so much before health issues start to occur 😉

In any event , we spent a part of that evening enjoying the beaches that are all of 2 minutes away from the Pitilon home, and regarding the lit night skyline of Haifa across the bay (pictured below).

Pitilon Household 2: Soccer before Departure
Eti, Théo, and I arrived back at Eti’s house a bit earlier than Adi and Justine, as we needed to drop off the car and wait for the earlier bus back to Jerusalem (departed around 7:30pm or so). Once there, Théo and I immersed ourselves in the soccer experience that is nearly universal… except for at home in the US, which is quite a shame. We watched with Mr. Pitilon, and we watched the game on his pride and joy: what he accidentally proclaimed to Eti as “our family’s new LSD,” we in fact watched the game on a beautiful brand-new LCD screen (rather than any sort of hallucinogen 🙂 ). After a great game, and snacking on some more of Mrs. Pitilon’s delicious cookies (because, as we were in a Jewish Israeli household, it would be a crime of the worst sort for us to not eat something; plus it was so good, how could we not?).

Mr. Pitilon drove us to the bus station, and we got onto the 7:30 bus as planned for a fairly quick ride back to Jerusalem. Although this post isn’t the last one from this trip, allow me to reiterate here the following: this past weekend was the best weekend I have yet had while in Israel, and I consider myself very blessed to have had the opportunity. Hopefully, I can try and come close with future weekends, but I cannot hope to expect such a great time to come so easily in the future.

In less friendly and happy news, it turns out that life here can sometimes be very, very close to tragedy without anyone knowing it. This is nothing new, as violence has occurred here consistently for many years, but what is new is that I was so close to a possible issue. The last photograph posted in this gallery is a screenshot of a news article about a very real potential disaster. In the city of Haifa, where I spent a good part of my weekend, there is a large shopping mall which is frequented by a bunch of people at all hours. As a matter of fact, this was the mall that Eti was planning on showing me around so I could try and find some shorts here that wouldn’t be the awful too-short European style that many other stores have seemed to have. This was the mall we drove by several times on our adventures in and around Haifa. This, as it turns out, is the mall where later Saturday evening (around 8:30 pm) a huge car-bomb malfunctioned and only partially detonated, thus allowing police to quickly arrive and safely diffuse the weapon. Thank God, we were already on the 997 bus back to Jerusalem around 7:50 or so, but nevertheless, this was a life-threatening situation that we were right near for most of the weekend. I am not one to dwell on the idea that death could come at any time for any person, nor am I the type to curtail my intended travels and exploring based on the possibility of something going wrong, but I assure you; this news story was close enough to home to give me pause.

That said, this past weekend was by far the best series of experiences I have yet had in Israel, bar none. I was graciously invited to Eti’s and Adi’s households for the Seders at the beginning of Pesach (Passover), so I look forward to the chance to go back to the north, and hopefully even hit up Nazareth, Galilee, Tiberias, the ruins of Capernum….. 😀

So on the second day of this past weekend, Adi, Eti, Justine, Théo, and I all got up early at Eti’s home in the outskirts of Haifa. We piled into her family’s Chevy minivan, and departed for the old city of Akko. Known as Acre during the Crusader times, it served as the headquarters for many of the crusading forces, as well as the major port city for incoming supplies and reinforcements. We arrived outside of the old city gates and were easily able to find parking because it was raining slightly. We started off our exploring by climbing up onto the “DANGER DO NOT CLIMB” walls of the harbor and looking out to the sea. We walked through the first actual shuk I have been to in Israel; there was not any sense of catering to tourism whatsoever, just the vibrant market for the local people and their families (which was a great experience). We walked over to the first of the sites we wanted to visit, the Templar’s Tunnel. This underground escape route was recently rediscovered by accident; a local woman called a plumber and complained about issues, and his resulting discoveries led him to look deeper, thus resulting in the excavation and partial renovation of the tunnels to allow people to walk through them. Being fairly tall, and walking through a fairly short tunnel, I did experience some difficulties in seeing the tunnel normally (a 60 degree tilt of the neck will do that), but it was still fascinating. The water flowing down channels at the edges of the tunnel was some of the most clear and clean looking water I have ever seen, which speaks really positively about the water usage of the city. We emerged out near the ancient port of Acre, and admired the ruins as well as the view of the sea.

Walking north along the sea, we eventually turned east and walked towards the prominent green-domed mosque of the city. Getting closer, it turns out that much of the courtyard and interior was under construction, and so we didn’t go in. We moved on towards the middle of the city, and walked into some very, very old gardens of predominantly ficus trees amongst other species. We inquired as to the other places to see in the city, and based on prices and the time we had to spend there, we ended up deciding on the Acre Citadel. A massive stone fortress of the Crusader era, it was later embellished and expanded by other invading forces. Among them was the British during the Mandate period post-WWI. This is important, as the Citadel served as the major prison for all of Palestine during that period, and thus saw the imprisonment of Zionist sympathizers and forces. The most prominent was named Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and many others were imprisoned with him. The courtyard and some of the cells have been renovated to look as they did almost 100 years ago, and that includes the Gallows Room (as photographed and featured here) where 9 Zionists were executed for their crimes against the Mandate government. For Israelis who visit the prison and exhibits there, there is a sense of reverence that I have seen some people in the US afford to monuments in the Capitol region, or perhaps that people might feel at Gettysburg, that one is present at a location that is integral to the current state of affairs in one’s country. After walking through the middle level of the prison, we went up to the top level to see an older film dramatizing one of the Zionists’ attempted escapes (and were unfortunately immersed in a sea of American Jewish girls, all of whom had a less-than-pleasant label denoting an extreme need for attention in English [I explained to my companions], Hebrew [as Eti explained to us], and French [as Théo pointed out]). The sort of people who go to a prison and then shout to their fake ‘friends”‘ “take a picture of me flashing gangster signs through the bars of a prison cell where people died LOL.” Not our sort of people, to put it very politely and mildly.

After seeing the movie in the prison, we quickly walked over to Said Hummus… which is the best hummus in the world, bar none. We waited for quite a long time, as it is widely acknowledged to be the best hummus available, but the wait was so, so, so very worth it. Like, 14 shekels (all of USD $3.75) for unlimited warm pita, fresh hummus, tomatoes, pickles, peppers, onions, and then either tea or black coffee at the end of the meal. Said is Arabic and a Muslim, but he is friends with a variety of rabbis and pastors, so he closes the place on Saturdays and is only open for half a day on Sundays. Other days of the week, he opens at 5 AM and then stays open only as long as his hummus supply lasts. Delicious stuff, and after eating [far more] than our fill, we departed for the car.

On the way to the car, though, we were interrupted by an unlikely and unexpected event. Coming through the narrow streets of the Akko shuk was a huge procession of wildly dancing Arabic men. Waiting a moment for them to approach, we realized that we were stuck in the middle of an Arabic wedding procession. Behind the two lines of dancing and clapping Arabic men (oddly, clapping with their arms held straight out; perhaps part of the tradition?). Behind them was the groom, in a shining suit and with a cape on horseback. His cape was one-of-a-kind, embroidered with Arabic writing on the back, and cut at a sweeping angle to allow it to flow even when he was on horseback. He was on horseback, and accompanied by so many people, as the tradition holds that the groom needs to go and retrieve his bride from her home. Behind him was a big old cart with speakers on it, and two harmonized soloists sang with microphones plugged into the cart. Behind the cart was a huge contingent of Muslim women, one of whom was keeping the quick beat of the procession on a drum, the rest of whom sang a complementary melody to those of the soloists, all of whom seemed extremely excited to be in the procession.

(In order to have the video be easily viewable, there is a separate post with links to the Youtube videos of the Arabic wedding procession here)