June 4th, 8:00 AM, HaGoshrim Kibbutz
Breakfast, and then checking out of the Kibbutz. Today is going to be a busy day.
June 4th, 10 AM, Ethiopian absorption center near Tzfat.
I really hope I can do justice to this part of our trip. First, brief background on the “Beta Israel”, AKA Falashas, AKA Ethiopian Jews.
According to their history, during the first Temple Period, about 3000 years ago, a band of jews left jerusalem with the Queen of Sheba, who was carrying Solomon’s son, Menelik. They founded a jewish community in Ethiopia, following the jewish laws and customs of the first temple period.
Some stuff they missed in jewish history:
The destruction of the first Temple in 587 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar II
The Babylonian Captivity
The Second Temple
The Roman Conquest of Palestine and destruction of the second temple.
The entirety of the Mishnah, or commentaries on jewish law
The Jewish Diaspora
The Rabbinical period.
The Fall of the Roman empire
All along, while Jewish thought and custom evolved, these folks told legends of Jerusalem, and its temple, and followed laws and customs the Jews couldn’t, since they had no temple.
In Ethiopia, they were oppressed, and termed “Falasha”, or “Landless” to point out their “otherness”. Never really fitting in with their neighbors, their experience was one thing they shared with European Jews – living among, but not really part of – majority Christian communities.
When Israel found out that these people, these ancient cousins of theirs, existed, and after confirming their story as much as possible, Israel proceeded to airlift them out of Ethiopia and neighboring Sudan, and bring them “home” (Beta Israel literally translates to “House of Israel”). Their immigration has slowed to a trickle, but is ongoing. Since these folks tend to be rural, impoverished, and unused to living in a western democracy, they experience significant culture shock. They leave ethiopia to a land where the people look different, speak a different language, use computers, drive cars, go to supermarkets, etc.
Israel houses these folks in Absorption centers, where they are taught Hebrew, contemporary Judaism, and how to function in a modern society. After they leave, the government will help subsidize education and home-ownership.
We visited one of these absorption centers, and the residents shared a traditional Ethiopian meal with us.
It was lentil-based, and tangy, almost too acidic, as if it has some fermented component. I ate it all, along with this giant, flavorful Ethiopian crepe-style thing I’m too lazy to google the name of.
I left the center impressed with Israel. What kind of country would move heaven and earth to get a group of outsiders from another part of the world, different in race, language, beliefs, culture, based on legends and folklore 3,000 years old? Why would they do this?
“Today my Jewish federation group visited an absorption center for new immigrants.
These kids, are learning their first Hebrew words and songs, singing together with many first timers to Israel, and they singing together for peace.
This word Shalom, peace is at the foundation of our people – no matter what shade of skin we are one tribe, with one blessing for all. Peace.
Show me refugee/immigrants of any other culture singing with their family/tribe members they have lost contact with for 2,000 years – for peace!
Come on show me! I challenge you!”
Above video and comment was made by our tour guide Nadav Kersh and posted on Facebook May 29, 2016.
June 4th, 11:30, the Holy City of Tzfat.
Tzfat is the birthplace and center of Kabbalah, jewish mysticism. I think Torah students probably get a much better impression of Tzaf, cause to me it was mostly galleries and knick-knack shops. At least I was able to buy a few souvenirs.
Also, our tour guide, who was becoming more indispensable by the day, gave us a really good crash course on what kabbalah is about, and it was the first time I saw the point of the whole business.
June 4th, 1:30 PM Wine Tasting in the Galilee at Adir Wines
Look, I get it. People like wine. I don’t understand it, but there it is: people like to drink bad tasting spoiled grape juice, even when other things are available. I was impressed with the movie showing how vineyards work in the Galilee, but when the time came to taste actual wines, I made my way to the patio and communed with the honey bees tending to the lavender bushes.
June 4th, 5 PM, Jerusalem
Jerusalem is a city built on hills, so it’s hard to see it all at once. Instead, as you approach you see more and more buildings built out of the local pinkish-yellow limestone, until the next thing you know, you’ve gone through a tunnel and arrived in Jerusalem. The downtown area looked clean, and modern, and I instantly loved it.
We checked into the Dan panorama Hotel, and then after a brief rest, took the bus to the Alliance House. This 19th century schoolhouse building has been partially renovated and used as an artist space/event venue/start-up offices. We were treated to a wonderful dinner by Ruach Hadasha, a group working to make Jerusalem a modern, pluralistic, and tech-friendly city like Tel Aviv.
We also met some Jerusalem LGBT leaders, including several folks working to bridge the gap between the LGBT community and the religious communities. I also met the only trans woman I would meet on this trip, Yizcah Smith. We had dinner together, and I was impressed with her life story, growing up in an ultra-orthodox home, and married with 6 children before transitioning. I wish I’d met more trans women on the trip, but Yizcah was a delight.
June 4th. 10PM, Jerusalem, Old City
After dinner, 4 of us decide to walk the mile or so to the old city, and the western wall.
I found Jerusalem to be very walkable, and even at 11 o’clock at night, families were out with children, strolling through the wide streets, and many shops were still open.
On a rooftop over an empty store front, a group of Israeli teenagers, clearly fucked-up on ecstasy, invite us to climb up and party with them. We pass.
Eventually we enter the old city through the Jaffa gate. The Western Wall is a straight shot through, so we walked on through the Old City, past the shops, many of which were still open. Eventually the narrow streets opened up to a large plaza, with bright floodlights illuminating the wall, and the people praying there.
My description of the Western Wall: It is big. Very big. The stones at the base are the same limestone color as the rest of Jerusalem, and roughly the size of a car. As the wall rises, the stones are different and become smaller at the top, owing to various reconstructions on the temple mount.
The Wall is unadorned. In fact, weeds grow out of it in unruly bushes, and pigeons nest in the cracks. There is nothing here that says “Holy”, except the many people praying, bowing, and touching the wall. I note that as they leave, they walk backwards, so as to not give their back to the Wall.
The wall is sex-segregated, with men having access to roughly 75% of the wall, and women the remainder. This division is strictly regulated by religious folks who police the wall. They also aggressively stop any woman who is “immodestly” dressed. I had some anxiety about approaching the wall on the women’s side, but after noticing that no one seemed to be paying too much attention to me, I relaxed, and tried to take it all in.
The wall, bright, reflective, seeming almost to shine in the night air. Above it, blackness, complete and cloudless.
The people, silently praying, bowing.
The pigeons, staring down, making eye contact.
The Holy of Holies. Exactly where is unknown, but this is as close as I will ever get to the place that can best be described as “God’s own room”.
The silence. All I hear is my own heart beating, and the stillness of centuries since this wall was erected.
The police and IDF. Men and women, no, boys and girls in uniform, no older than 20 in with assault rifles everywhere around us. No one reacts. This is normal for Israel.
I don’t have a spiritual streak. I don’t really believe in the metaphysical, and by and large, I’m comfortable with that. But I must admit, if I could feel the presence of holiness, the Western wall is the closest I’ve come to it.
The walk back to the hotel was uphill, and arduous, and we almost got lost, but we made it back safely thanks to Montefiore’s windmill.