Monday, April 18, 2011

Middle East Recap: Days 7 and 8

[Catch up: Days 1 & 2, Day 3, Days 4 & 5, Day 6]

March 15, 2011: In Which We're Reminded How Awesome Life Is After All

Yesterday could not have been a more marked contrast from the sad solemnity of Yad Vashem the day before.  After breakfast at our hostel yesterday morning, we hiked Nachal Jilabun, a canyon in the Golan region of Israel (the light blue region in the upper right corner of the map below).

Nahal Jilabun was the most fantastic hike I've ever been on in my life.  Okay, in fairness, I don't go on many hikes.  But truly, this hike was the kind of experience that makes me want to buy some hiking shoes and take up the hobby.  The canyon vistas were gorgeous, featuring lushly rolling green hills and steep cliff faces.  We heard the story of an Israeli spy who went undercover with the Syrian army in this area.  The Golan area borders Syria, and this chunk of land used to belong to them.  In fact, it may still be disputed territory.

A Syrian army building.

Close-up of the bullet holes in the building.

We observed the wreckage of the Syrian army buildings, which were all surrounded by eucalyptus trees.  The trees owe their lives to this Israeli spy, who convinced the Syrians to plant the trees to shade their military buildings, in the process tipping off the Israeli forces to the location of the army (Eucalyptus marked the spot).

In a eucalyptus.  Photo courtesy of Sara.

Amazingly, while we listened to this story, we watched as first a few birds, then a flock, then almost a thousand flew in front of us and then just stopped midair.  A thermal patch had formed right in front of us over the canyon, and the migratory birds were riding the warm air to greater heights, floating and looping and crisscrossing in tired, loping lines, eventually reaching the top of the patch and flying onwards, continuing their long journey.

The rest of the hike did not disappoint from there.  We crossed creeks by carefully stepping on wet stones and swinging from tree branches; we used both hands to climb up and down the rocks; we jumped and climbed.  It was difficult and tested my agility, but it was such a fun time.  It made me resolve to spend more time exploring the outdoors in the future.  When we finished, the group agreed that it was one of the best things we've done on this entire trip.

The hike itself was pretty strenuous, and it ended with a ten minute climb up a steep hill that spilled out into the parking area.  It will come as no surprise, then, that this enterprising ice cream man who parked himself next to our tour bus made a killing when we reached the top of the hill.  Photo courtesy of Donnie.

After the hike, we had lunch and explored the nearby area via a "scavenger hunt."  I actually hated this activity; we had to run around asking people to dance the hora with us or let us take pictures with their kids.  I felt like the very definition of an obnoxious American.

Scavenger hunt item.  Bottom row: Jared, Sara, Ross.  Top: Laura, Becky.  Photo courtesy of Ross.

Fortunately, the scavenger hunt was just a blip on the radar of an otherwise perfect day.  From there, we proceeded to the Golan Heights Winery where we toured the facilities and sampled three different wines.  I didn't like any of them---the chardonnay and merlot were to acidic and the muscat was far too sweet.

Free wine + fun photo op = I don't care whether the wine is good or bad.

Just when I thought my wallet was safe from indulgent foodstuffs, we crossed the street and entered an olive press, where they make olive oil and olive oil-based products from olive trees grown along the Jordan river.  We learned a bit about how the oil is made and then got to sample several kinds.  Capernaum's olive oil is unfiltered, which is delicious and better for your health, but it somewhat difficult/expensive to find in the states since it has a worse shelf life.  I love olive oil, and I was happy to support a local business, so I absolutely stocked up!  I even bought a wonderful body scrub made from crushed olive pits, olive oil, and lemongrass.  We tried some on our tour---it goes on with the consistency of muddy jelly and leaves your skin feeling soft and smooth.  (Prices were cheaper over there.)

Inside the olive press.

With my several pounds of olive oil safely stored on the bus, we drove to Hamei Tveria, where we relaxed in a natural salt water hot spring.

By the end of this decadent, wonderful day, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep in the middle of an Israeli cultural music activity!  I went straight to bed afterwards, even though there were some after-hours festivities occurring.  I needed my full eight hours!

It was pretty clear at breakfast this morning---at 7:15am---which of us had gotten sleep and which of us had more fun. :-D

We spent the first half of today in the town of Tsfat (also spelled Safed), which is one of four holy Jewish cities in Israel.  Tsfat is the birthplace of Jewish mysticism and the study of Kabbalah is still much practiced there.  (See here.)

We spoke with two American ex-pats who now live and study in Tsfat, one of whom discovered Kabbalah as a college student at U.Mich and has been in Tsfat for the last fifteen years.  He now works as a graphic artist, and most of his work is an interpretation of various Kabbalic teachings.  Each piece comes with a page that explains the symbolism and significance of the piece.

I bought a print depicting the dual nature of humanity, as well as the competing forces within ourselves to give and to take; the message of the image, as well as of Kabbalah, is to elevate our selfish selves into a more selfless self.

Tashuv-Hey, by Avraham Lowenthal.  Courtesy of Avraham Lowenthal, here.

Something about this message really resonated with me.  Interestingly, the Kabbalistic interpretation of my Hebrew name---your given name carries a great deal of importance in Kabbalah---mentions this conflict within me.  I think the struggle to be less selfish and to do for others is probably a universal quest, but I felt particularly vindicated in my purchase after reading that.

The artist himself was quite a character:

The artist, Avraham Lowenthal.  Image courtesy Avraham Lowenthal, here.

This guy was, literally, high on life.  He explained, simplifying, of course, that the main message of Kabbalah is that all beings should ultimately give and receive infinite happiness---or as he put it---to "toooottalllly bliiiisssss ouuuuuuttttt!"  Kabbalah implicates interesting questions of the interplay between predestination and free will, and basically asks people to move from the physical desire to get to the spiritual desire to give.  Certainly something many religions value, and it's nice to find it in Judaism, too.

We had some time to go shopping.  I bought a few trinkets, including a hamsa and a dreidel.  The dreidel purchase was inspired by the revelation that dreidels are different in Israel than in the US.  Let me back up---for those who don't know, a dreidel is the spinning top we play with on Channukah.  We wager candy coins on each spin, and the amount of candy you win depends on which letter lands face-up.  One of the first things Jewish children learn to do is probably to play dreidel.  On the four sides of the dreidel are four Hebrew letters---nun, gimmel, hay, shin---which represent the words "nes gadol haya sham," or "a great miracle happened there." The miracle being that the little bit of lamp oil lasted the Maccabees for eight nights (hence the eight nights of Channukah).  (For a catchy musical retelling of the Channukah story, watch the adorable Yeshiva University's Maccabeats video here.)

A typical dreidel.  The letters showing are hay (on top) and shin (on the bottom; the one that looks like a "w").  You may recognize this image as my default user picture for those of you who comment without a Disqus account :-D

But in Jerusalem, the dreidels have a pay instead of a shin---"nes gadol haya poh"---"a great miracle happened HERE," in the land of Israel.  Of course I needed one!

Hay-Pay ("Haya Poh") instead of Hay-Shin ("Haya Sham").


I also bought a bunch of Shabbat candles, an embellished matchbox, and some Channukah candles to go inside the menorah I bought a few days ago:

Channukah candles.

Shabbat candles.


One of the things I've been trying to feel out on this trip is the role I want my religion to play in my life in the future.  This is a very difficult and complicated question for me.  I was raised "Jew-ish," in which I learned Hebrew prayers and customs in Sunday school, went to temple twice a year for high holy days, and was Bat Mitzvah-ed.  Each generation of my family has seemingly become less and less religiously observant.  I am now dating an ex-Catholic agnostic and don't feel much connection to the religious rituals of Judaism.

This trip made me wonder a bit how to feel more Jewish when all I really do is eat bagels and maintain this domain name.  I'd like to do a little more.  While some Jewish services feel a bit formalistic and culty for me, and I haven't quite found a Jewish community I feel comfortable with, I think it might be nice to take a few moments to light Shabbat candles and reflect a bit---perhaps be a bit more meditative on Shabbat (Saturday pre-sundown).  I don't know.  I'll experiment and see what feels comfortable.  Suddenly though, the idea of being a totally nonobservant Jew doesn't particularly appeal to me.  At least not right now.

In any case, the candles are my commitment to attempt to figure it out.

The candle shop, incidentally, was amazing.  The artists in the store hand-sculpted amazing "candles."  I put the word in quotes since, even though these pieces were made of wax and had wicks in them, I can't imagine anyone ever lighting one up!

Samson candle.

Noah's Ark candle.  ALL WAX!

We finished the afternoon with a lovely nature walk around Mount Meiron, where we could see for many miles around the Israel-Lebanon border.

The border between the countries was easy to distinguish; the INF (Israel National Fund) is diligent about planting trees throughout the country, but obviously do not plant anything in other countries.  You can clearly make out the border because the Israeli trees come to an abrupt end!

Can you see where the green ends and the brown begins?

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