May 20, 2006

Two weeks ago I visited Israel for the first time. I lived on Kibbutz Givat Brenner with some of my distant relatives and visited some of the sights in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during my one-week journey. I've already been asked when I'm coming back; the short answer is "I don't know yet."

I visited Jerusalem twice during my week in Israel. On Thursday I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and on Friday I went with Hezi to the old city.

Getting to Town

On Thursday I was on my own so I took the bus from Rehovot into Jerusalem. Searching any news site for the keywords "bus" and "Jerusalem" suggests that I'm completely crazy, but I bit the bullet and went anyway. Egged (pronounced "EGG-ed" as two syllables) is the largest bus line in Israel and charged me about NIS 36 for a round-trip ticket. I felt secure since Rehovot's major bus terminal/mall has security guards at every entrance, but then I saw more passengers get on the bus on the side of the road like in any other place in the world. Since that made us all potentially unsafe, we all had to go through metal detectors again upon arrival in Jerusalem. That was the only time I felt that security checks were annoying more than they were beneficial.

One can get to Yad Vashem by bus from the Jerusalem central bus station, but the combination of security concerns (no checkpoints anywhere), traffic, and the preponderance of bus stops led me to just call a cab. To get down to Yad Vashem cost me NIS 25; to get back cost me NIS 30, but I had to haggle down from initial offers that ranged as high as NIS 42. Taxis are about as reckless as you might expect of a Middle Eastern city, though I appreciated that taxis and buses have dedicated traffic lanes to sidestep normal traffic patterns.

Israel Never Forgets

I expected Yad Vashem to be a single museum but it is actually a whole complex with several museums, halls, monuments, and parks. Some areas are still undergoing construction and expansion. This is also a must-see area for tourists though the gift shop doesn't offer many items specifically marked as Yad Vashem souvenirs. Most of the exhibits are marked in Hebrew and English. All of the exhibits are free of charge though there are donation boxes that are filled with a rainbow of dollars, shekels, and the occasional euro note.

The main hall is a large prism. When you stand at one end you can see all the way through to the exit, but to see the exhibits takes over an hour of meandering through rooms on both sides of the naturally-lit corridor. The exhibits move through the history of World War II as shown from the perspective of Jews living throughout Europe. There are the requisite pieces of Nazi memorabilia along with a recreation of a street scene in the Warsaw ghetto, many video interviews with survivors, and exhibits representing every country, large and small, that was affected by the Holocaust.

The main museum is very tastefully-presented and is something that must be seen to be appreciated. The museum is truly focused on the war itself; unlike Tel Aviv's Diaspora House (Beth Hatefutsoth), there's very little mention of any other period in the history of the Diaspora. The formation of the state of Israel is given but one corner of the final exhibit room; more detail would certainly be found in one of Jerusalem's many other museums of Israeli history.

Outside one finds a courtyard with a small cafeteria, a small and sedate museum of Holocaust artwork, and a synagogue. There is also a media library where one can view footage in short and long form. Had I stayed all day long I could have watched the entirety of Life is Beautiful, but I instead watched some of the Nazi propaganda films that were so skewed the museum placed a "STAGED NAZI FILM" bug in the corner of the video image.

I regret not picking up a map at the entrance to Yad Vashem, because just walking around I found a whole campus of memorial buildings. I found the Children's Memorial particularly haunting: after descending a sandstone walkway visitors first see a montage of happy children's faces, then walk into a mirrored room where infinitely many candles provide the only light. In this final room a voice-over announces the names of children and the camps where they were killed.

Just walking around is an awesome experience. The site of Yad Vashem affords beautiful panoramic views of the city of Jerusalem to send an uplifting message: after the Holocaust, the state of Israel came together and built a vast city up from nothing. On my next trip into Jerusalem Hezi pointed out the many neighborhoods that were not built until after 1948 (Israeli independence) or until after 1967's Six-Day War when Jerusalem's borders were asserted. After a very depressing trip through a dark point in history, the views outside speak for themselves.

The Old City

The next day was Friday, a day off for many Jewish workers as the Sabbath runs from Friday evening to Saturday evening. (Sunday is a normal working day in Israel.) Hezi and I drove to Jerusalem using a winding scenic route through the Judean Mountains. Hezi pointed out that many of the roads we were taken were also used as strategic routes during the Independence War in 1948. A direct trip on the major highways takes as little as 30 minutes from Rehovot to Jerusalem; including a stop for taking pictures of a valley, we made it in 45.

We parked and made our way through the various Russian historical structures of Jerusalem (later taken over by the British government, then the current Israeli government) to find ourselves at the Jaffa Gate of the Old City. Inside we found a bustling scene of activity with street vendors (including the best bagels I've ever had), small shops, and much to my surprise, car traffic.

Walking around the Old City provides a mix of old architecture with modern tourist traps. I resisted the temptation to buy Hebrew Coca-Cola shirts, Hebrew Budweiser shirts, and Hebrew Steelers shirts at the many tourist shops. The cramped interior roads of the Old City actually open up to residences -- I didn't know this, but many people regard it as a rite of passage to live in bright apartments in the heart of historic Jerusalem -- and more small shops. It is here where you can get a great falafel, a cup of coffee, or some traditional gifts at reasonable prices if you know what you're doing. Hezi as my guide had the command of Hebrew needed to establish himself as someone not to be ripped off. However, watch your pockets in some of the crowded markets; little kids run through the crowd and if they get your wallet, you won't get it back.

The Wall

Of course the main attraction of the Old City for Jewish visitors is the Western Wall, which locals call the kotel, or "the wall."

The Wall dates to the second Jewish Temple, the last remaining bit of a structure that was demolished in 70 CE (A.D. 70). It is undoubtedly the most sacred site in all of Judaism, yet it is in an area that is not uniquely Jewish. The gold-topped Dome of the Rock is a sacred site to Muslims and is visible in most photos of the Wall. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, regarded by many as the site where Jesus was crucified and buried, is a short walk away. Hezi astutely pointed out that if any one of these structures is attacked, particularly the Wall or the Dome of the Rock, World War III would start in Jerusalem.

After passing through a security checkpoint we donned yarmulkes and walked to the base of the Wall. On Fridays, in advance of Shabbat, cameras and mobile phones are prohibited in the "area designated for prayer." Many large tables are spread out in front of the wall and one must be respectful of the Orthodox Jews davening at this sacred site. Detracting from the experience, many of these same Jews beg for money at the base of the Wall and are not deterred by a tourist's indifference or lack of language skills. (There is also an official donation box for upkeep of the Wall itself, which is where I put my money.)

Just inside at the Wall is a small library of liturgical books that one can freely borrow and read from while seated or standing in front of more segments of the Wall. You can also look down to see just how deep the Wall goes, which is particularly remarkable as it has survived for nearly 2,000 years following the destruction of most of the temple it surrounded.

It is common for visitors to write a small note containing a wish or prayer, to fold this note up, and to place it in one of the Wall's cracks. I did this, putting a small blue note from my PicoPad beside dozens of others in a wad that resembles discarded chewing gum.

Jerusalem's Struggles as a City

I was surprised when Hezi told me that Jerusalem was a "poor city." As the capital of Israel, there are incredibly upscale houses and condominiums that target diplomats, politicians, and the very wealthy. Not far away, you see where pilgrims and other religious people live a life of poverty. Panhandling, as I saw at the Wall, is obviously an important thing to fund such an austere life. Hezi also told me, with some degree of disdain, about how the government provides public assistance to these same people based on the number of children they have -- and Orthodox Jews don't use birth control. This leads to a definite conflict between those trying to make a modern living and those who live in Jerusalem as a religious obligation.

I've also been told that the ultra-Orthodox haredim make life more difficult for people who want a modern life in Israel. Though they make up about 6% of the total population, the haredim are so influential that they count the mayor of Jerusalem among their numbers. On Shabbat, the haredim take matters into their own hands to enforce the fourth commandment, "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy." They block streets, hassle store owners, and shame those who are performing any sort of work (including writing or driving) between Friday at sunset and Saturday at sunset.

Many have told me that Jerusalem is a city so rich in history that I could easily spend over a week in Jerusalem alone. Indeed, many tourists come directly to Jerusalem and stay there for their entire vacation. I would definitely like to return one day to see more of the sights.