July 26, 2013

Echoes From The Arch of Titus

I sat at the Kotel and mourned the destruction of Jerusalem on Tisha B'Av. Exactly one week later, I stood under the Arch of Titus in Rome. I had not planned this. I was on a whirlwind family trip. We had 48 hours to see the sites of a city that could take a lifetime to explore.

It was hot and humid, a typical July day in Rome.  The  cobbled streets burned underfoot and our sticky clothes stuck to our perspiring bodies. We were exhausted from standing in lines that snaked around ancient walls and running after guides while dodging a million other tourists who were also running after guides.

Our guide said goodbye, leaving us in the shade of a towering Mediterranean pine. He had just told us that the Roman army brought the pine seedlings from Lebanon and planted them along the roads of the Empire so the soldiers could march in shade. I imagined huge legions of fighters weighed down by glistening armor marching along roads in formation, leaving a trail of dust and fear with every footstep.

We walked a few steps and spied an arch. It sat alone, abandoned, at the far end of Palatine Hill, where a large road once stood. We walked up to it and searched the carvings. And there it was; engraved in the stone, we saw a group of soldiers carting off a large menorah. They held it high, victoriously.

 The soldiers in this carving had just returned from ransacking Jerusalem. It was 70 AD. They broke through the fortified walls , then torched the city, murdering every Jew they could find on their rampage. It was written that there was so much blood flowing, it could extinguish the flames. Yet Jerusalem burned and smoldered until it was a pile of rock and ashes. The Romans then chained 90,000 Jews and shipped them to Rome to sell as slaves.

I read about these tragic events just one week ago in the kinnos, the sad poems of Tisha B’Av. And when I stood under the arch seven days later, I had a deeper appreciation of the second part of this story. I rested where the Jewish slaves had worked. I had just toured the massive Coloseum and learned that it too was built by Jewish slaves and with money from the booty that was pillaged from Jerusalem, Jewish homes and the Second Temple.

The Arch of Titus was built by the Jewish slaves who had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and who had lost loved ones, all possessions, their freedom and their homeland. The soldiers proudly paraded the sacred vessels they had captured and forced the Jews to inscribe this on a victory arch for perpetuity.  And Rome rejoiced.

Today the Roman civilization is gone. Tall columns stand in parched fields that were once a busy metropolis. The Colosseum is crumbling, gaping, most if its materials carted off by the church to be recycled into grand basilicas.

Yet that arch stands untouched by the ravages of time, the menorah clearly visible to modern eyes. Why? I wondered.
We all sat in silence and could feel the 2,000-year-old pain, the sorrow, the loss. We cried. My daughter said she felt the same sadness here as she did in Auschwitz. It was a Shoa.
And then I realized why the arch still stands in perfect form. It is a reminder for us and for the world.

The fact is, we can trace this ancient, significant story from the ruins of Jerusalem to the streets of Rome. We just happen to have foggy, selective  memories. And because of this, history repeats itself. 

We picked ourselves up, dusted off the dirt and sand, then slowly and silently made our way back to the bustling streets of modern Rome, thinking ‘never again.’

July 19, 2013

Tisha B'Av and the Little Wailing Wall

Tisha B’Av was this past Tuesday night and Wednesday. It is a day when we fast from sunset to sunset, much like Yom Kippur. Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning.

In the Jewish calendar, this was the date both that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, which resulted in the exile of the Jewish people. In 135 CE on this day, Bar Kochba’s fortress Betar was defeated by the Romans, and 100,000 Jews were slaughtered. This was also the date of the first Crusade which began in 1096 and eventually resulted in the death of 1.2 million European Jews.

On this very day in 1290, Jews were expelled from England; and on this day in 1306, Jews were expelled from France; and on this day in 1492, Jews were expelled from Spain.

In our century, this date in the Hebrew calendar marks the start of the First World War, which was August 1and 2 in 1914. Himmler received a go ahead from the Nazi Party for the Final Solution on this day and this was also the date for the final deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.

This calamitous date also represents tragedy for Jews in recent history. This was the day the Jewish community center was bombed in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injuring 300 others; and this was the very day of Hitnatkut, when the Israelis disengaged from Gush Katif, forcibly removing Jews from their homes and communities.

Yes, this is the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. Yet when one walks through the streets of Jerusalem, or sits at the Kotel on the eve of Tisha B’Av, there is a sense of euphoria and renewal. Yes, the Jewish people are a strong, growing nation and have gathered together from all corners of the world. There is prosperity and economic growth. We have an army to protect us and an independent Jewish state to govern us.

This year, I left the bustle of the Western Wall, leaving behind thousands deep in prayer, the chatting of teens and the swirling horas, and slipped down a rabbit hole into another world. Together with a small group of friends, including one who was armed with a hand gun, we entered the Arab Quarter. The sights, sounds and smells were shockingly different; the tension was palpable.

It was Ramadan and colorful lights twinkled from the archways above. Boys played soccer in the alleyways while men sat in silence puffing their houka pipes. Smells of hyssop, sweet licorice and cumin wafted from shops and shuttered windows. Women in long buttoned coats and silken scarves floated by.

I dared not stop for one second, fearful of losing our group which was carefully navigating the alleys in a large, compact huddle. Occasionally, we saw Hebrew writing on a wall or a sign and felt an irrational sense of relief. Suddenly, at the end of an alley was a small sign: “HaKotel HaKatan.”

We entered a low archway into a courtyard and there it was; a small section of the Western Wall, isolated, quiet, modest. A few people were sitting there reading from the Book of Lamentations, others were praying. 

Men and women sat together. Crumpled notes were jammed into crevices, countless supplications placed near the original Holy of Holies. Not far from here, some 2,000 years ago, sat the Aron Kodesh, where the high priest would connect directly with G-d. This small part of the wall, along with the tunnels below, are the closest Jews can get to the holiest place in the world.

Yet this very place is unknown, abandoned,  and sits in a neighborhood that is dangerous for Jews to walk. It is controlled by the police and has been a place of contention with the Arabs. It smelled a bit like urine and I later read that this place was once used as a toilet. Black cats fought over garbage, fiercely seeming to stake more claim here than the praying Jews.  The cats hissed and spat and rolled in a fight, sending a few young girls running. We sat briefly and said a few kinnos, poems that mark Jewish tragedies, then left.

As I walked away, I had a deep sense that we still have much to mourn over. We risk our lives to pray in this tiny place that has utmost significance to us. We are not free to wander through all the streets of Jerusalem and yes, just like Jews over the centuries, we must still live in fear.  Suddenly Tisha B’Av became strangely significant and incredibly sad. We hurried through the Arab Quarter and into the abandoned and dark alleys of the Christian Quarter.

Finally, we exited through the New Gate, practically bumping into a group of police. I felt safe, but only for a second. Within minutes, a group of people marched by, waving Israeli flags and singing Am Israel Chai, the Jewish nation lives. They were walking around the Old City Walls, including the walls in East Jerusalem. Organized by Women in Green, this is the 19th year people participate in this walk. However, this was Ramadan and flying Star of Davids is akin to putting a red flag in front of an angry bull.

We joined the crowd and started to walk into East Jerusalem. It was lit like a Christmas tree, with lights strung across streets and homes. Pavilions set up on grassy areas were serving food. Muslim men, women and children were out and we created quite a scene.

The police were ready to quell a riot. In some places, there was a barricade between us and the Arabs. The Arabs stared at us, some filming the procession with their iphones. We stared back at them.

And then there was a ruckus. Immediately, I saw a group of police run chase after young teens. Then again. A skirmish on the left. Commotion on the right. We marched on.

We passed police men sitting high above on horseback. Even the horses  were wearing protective gear. I shivered. The last time I felt this kind of tension, I found myself in a New Delhi market, with vendors madly shuttering down their shop doors, fleeing before an angry mob.

Yet the police presence stilled all potential violence and on we marched. Our group finally sat in the middle of the road and mourned the fact that Jews still cannot pray at Har HaBayit.

Tisha B’Av 5774 (2013). Some two thousand years after the destruction of the First Temple, , we have much to pray for. We all want the violence to end and we are still living amidst hate.

As a postscript: That very night around 9 p.m., outside the Damascus Gate, a Jewish man was stabbed multiple times by Arab youth. He was returning from his Tisha B’Av prayers at the Western Wall.

July 12, 2013

Hitting the Trail (again)

Hiking boots, backpack and a beautiful wilderness trail. These three simple ingredients provide for an uplifting, life changing experience.

It has been a year since we hit the trail, last summer spending five days hiking the pristine Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). This summer we do not want to travel too far from our son who is serving as a soldier.

I plan to write in detail about each day of our journey. To start, I want to share the inspiration for what may appear to be a physical challenge filled with discomfort. The trip will require us to walk over 20 kilometers a day in the intense heat of an Israeli summer, crossing very challenging terrain.

But can one find the same vast, open wilderness and sense of freedom that the PCT offers in a tiny, packed and populated country that is the size of New Jersey?

Here is yet another Israeli paradox; Israel offers a choice of incredible trails in the most dramatic settings. The longer Israeli hikes are not comparable to the PCT as we do run into roads, pass olive groves, skirt small villages and pass through farm fields. Yet we quickly leave them behind, plunging again into wilderness.

For serious 'thru hikers,' there is the Israel National Trail, which extends the length of the country from the heights of Mount Hermon to the far reaches of the Negev near Eilat, a trip which can take from six weeks to months or a lifetime of inspiring trails. There is the Golan Trail, a 125-km hike that traverses steep rifts, splashing waterfalls and cool refreshing pools. 

And there is the Yam L'Yam, a mix of trails that travels approximately 89 kilometers south-east from the Mediterranean to the Kinneret. Yam le Yam means Sea to Sea in Hebrew. We chose this hike, which can be done in three, four or five days.  The custom is to fill a bottle with sea water when you start and to empty it into the Kinneret at the finish.

We parked our car near the Achziv beach and groaned under our shockingly heavy packs. I trudged to the beach, not sure how I was going to pull this one off. I could barely lean down to fill my little bottle with sea water, my knees already moaning under the weight. But it was the start of an adventure. The waves sparkled in the morning sun and the trail beckoned.

“Why?” people ask. And my answer is always the same. Long-distance hiking is a spiritual, transformational experience. It allows us to shed the noisy world of technology and comfort and enter a place of simplicity and strength. Here we find deep tranquility. I start my hike with an erratic mind tousled with thoughts, a super highway racing with worries and blocked on ramps of negativity. Thoughts zoom in and out, creating stress and anxiety.  This is called the monkey mind, a Buddhist word that means restless, confused and uncontrollable.

Yet with each step, the mind settles. I walk into a forest, feet crunching on silky leaves. The sun dapples and dances. Crickets chirp and a curious lizard peeks up from a rock then slides away. My mind slowly opens, noisy thoughts melting, tiny raindrops dissolving into a stream. I become aware of each footstep touching the ground and of each breath.

With a clear mind, I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude. If I feel hot, discomfort dissolves by the soft breeze across my neck. If my feet ache, I am assuaged with the knowledge that I have strong legs and the ability to walk.

This is the magic of the trail. And this is where I can truly shed the weight of living in a busy, noisy, aggressive, stressful hi tech world and return to a place where humanity works in harmony with nature. 

Walking in Israel, we tread ancient paths which were formed by the Jewish people thousands of years ago. We follow remnants of Crusader roads where horses once trotted, bringing supplies to castles atop craggy cliffs and we wend our way down roads designed by Roman engineers, alongside ancient water aqueducts. These civilizations came and are now gone, yet we are here and each step in this country is a blessing.

The essence is captured in Shlomo Carlbach’s lyrics:

Return again, return again
Return to the land of your soul
Return to who you are
Return to what you are
Return to where you are
Born and reborn again

Hiking boots, backpack and a beautiful wilderness trail. This is just the beginning of a wonderful adventure and a return to simplicity, strength and to who we really are.