As I mentioned briefly in a previous post, our visit to Israel was coinciding with a series of major Jewish holidays, specifically including Sukkot, a weeklong celebration in Israel with no work, also called “the time of our joy”, that involves the building of a sukkah (essentially an outdoor fort with palm fronds for a roof, where people eat and sleep), and a mandatory daily waving ceremony of four plants (fruit from a citrus tree, date palm tree frond, myrtle tree boughs, and willow tree branches with leaves). This all signifies the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and subsequent 40 years of nomadic travel through the desert to reach what is now Israel. What it meant for us, was that many stores were closed, beyond the typical Shabbat from Friday sundown to Saturday sunset. It also meant that the people we did meet, were extremely hospitable and welcoming.
We left the Nes Ammim kibbutz, surrounded by cotton fields and banana tree plantations to head to Safed (Tz’fat), a hill town that is the center of Kabbalah, also known as Jewish mysticism. We had hoped that our Sunday visit would allow us to see more galleries and museums, as the town is also famous for its’ artist colony, but Sukkot interfered with our plans once again, as much of the Sephardic city was closed. However, we were not the only tourists tramping through the narrow pedestrian-only streets in search of the few open galleries, specializing in mystical paintings, and finely crafted Jewish ritual objects, like menorahs, mezuzahs, and wine chalices. We ended up happening upon a trio of musicians performing some ecstatic, inspirational tunes, including Hava Nagila. It was a joyous performance with onlookers clapping in time and dancing happily.
The next day was the final day of Sukkot celebrations – the Simchat Torah, when all-day temple celebrations involve drinking, eating, dancing with the Torah, and being happy! While walking the quaint streets of Rosh Pina, we passed people celebrating at a synagogue, and they invited us in to join them. Dan and Gabriel entered the main, male only part of the temple, and Stella and I went to the women only side to drink blessed wine, share a meal, and surreptitiously peek through a muslin curtain, and a wooden grate, to watch the men. Meanwhile, Dan was plied with multiple glasses of vodka or arak, as the men sang and drummed on the table (no instruments allowed) working themselves to a happy state of dancing. We had to break ourselves away from the festivities to continue our drive through the Golan Heights and onward hike to the Banias Falls. We were thankful to be out in nature, also exploring the ruins of Pan’s Temple. Surprisingly, our drive took us by the border junction between Israel, Jordan and Syria, where we literally heard what sounded like an explosion from far off Syria, on the other side of the Jordan River.
We had based ourselves in Tiberias, the largest city on the Galilee, and an aesthetically challenged one at that. Thankfully, our car allowed us to escape the unappealing aspects of “city” life, and spend our final day in the region doing a loop around the Galilee Sea, which is really a lake. This day we focused on many of the Christian sites of Jesus’ life in the region, including the Mount of the Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered a sermon with the Lord’s Prayer, and the lakeside village of Capernaum, part of the “Jesus trail” and where he recruited disciples and healed the sick. The latter half of the day was spent finding the best beach spots. We eventually landed in Ein-Gev on the East coast, finding a quiet rocky shore off a kibbutz, where Gabriel was able to fish like Jesus’s friends, with much success.
Our final road trip south of the Galilee, we visited Nazareth, now Israel’s largest Arab town, with an old town of stone-paved alleys. Our first stop was visiting a Greek Orthodox church believed to be built on the spot that Mary was fetching water when Angel Gabriel informed her that she would be the Mother of God’s son. Of course, the exact location of the Annunciation is debated, and we also visited the Basilica of the Annunciation, believed by many Christians to be the actual locale of Gabriel’s message, as well as where Mary’s home once stood. Both churches were beautiful in different ways. The Greek Orthodox churches are all full of vibrantly painted artwork, often with gold leaf, many hanging glass and brass lanterns, and religious tokens of jewelry, and beads laden on icons. However, in my opinion, the Basilica of the Annunciation was the most incredible church I have ever been in. It was built in the 1960’s in a modern style, with stunning abstract stain-glass windows, full of art specifically depicting the Mother Mary and baby Jesus, donated from countries all around the world, and beneath it all was the preserved ruins of Mary’s home, and parts of the original Byzantine and crusader era churches that had once stood in the very same locale. Our only non-religious stop in the city was to see some Ancient Roman baths that were discovered beneath a shop, and are dated over 2000 years old.
On our final leg to the holy city of Jerusalem, we stopped for a quick introduction, in the home of Micah and Shoshanna (the Mother of our friend, Natan). We talked travels, and our safety concerns about Jerusalem. They insisted that Israel was the most safe country for us and them to be in, and that the likelihood of experiencing violence was higher in the United States (a sentiment that we had heard before, just as frequently as we were cautioned). They gave us a tour of their exquisite harp building business – The House of Harrari.
With the sun descending over the pine-covered outskirts of Jerusalem, we entered one of the most coveted cities in the world…