Sunday, August 30, 2009

Post by Morgan: Stuck at Ben Gurion

Ben Gurion Airport, August 28,2009 1:50 AM

We are STUCK. Tonight’s attempt to arrange ground transportation to the airport was a comedy of small errors, which, compounded by mishegaas at Ben Gurion, resulted in our suffering what I had always thought was my worst traveling nightmare: we missed our flight. It all started innocently enough. Rich checked Egged’s web site, and learned that from the central bus station in Jerusalem, there were busses running direct to Ben Gurion every half hour until at least 9:30. The 9:30 bus would get us to Ben Gurion around ten, just right for the three hour window that El Al’s website had recommended as a pre-flight arrival time. Pretty much any bus from the area of our hotel would go to the central bus station, and we calculated that we had to leave around nine for everything to work. When we checked out of our hotel, the woman at the desk offered to call a sherut for us--much nicer than bus way to travel--but Nesher wasn’t answering their phone any more, so we returned to our well-laid bus plans.

We had a lovely last dinner at the Cafe Hillel near our hotel. I even managed to ask, in Hebrew, that my dish be made without walnuts. I must have even been comprehensible, as I am still alive. After dinner, we walked to the bus stop and waited only a short time for a random bus to take us to the station. Unlike busses in the US--or at least the Twin Cities--Egged busses can make CHANGE, meaning you don’t have to worry about having the exact fare, or even about knowing what it is. Moreover, you can pay for two people and get a single ticket that indicates that it’s for two. And you can do this RIGHT ON THE BUS. I was impressed. The ride wasn’t hugely fun, but a bus ride with a backpack never is: you can take it off and it becomes the most awkward thing on earth to schlepp around, or you can leave it on and sit really uncomfortably and have the thing take up a whole seat by itself. I elected to do the latter.

When we arrived at the central bus station, I was awed. The thing is basically a multi-story shopping mall--worthy of being a destination in itself. Awkwardness ensued as I had to take off my pack and send it through an x-ray. By the time I got through the metal detector and reclaimed my stuff, my husband, who had been right behind me, was nowhere to be seen. Not knowing if he was behind or ahead of me, I put on my pack and stared around stupidly until I sighted him on the other side of the metal detector. Once we were reunited, we decided to check out the nearby book store, since it was just after nine and we had time to kill until our connecting bus. Or so we thought.

When we finally made our way up to the ticket station, the woman there told us that she thought the busses to Ben Gurion were no longer running, but sold us a ticket to Tel-Aviv anyway. We figured that from there we could get a cab or something if she was right, and it turned out that she was. We had just sorted out the process of getting on the Tel Aviv bus, when what should arrive but the bus that we thought we could take to BG. We jumped off, thinking that we would be saved the inconvenience of arranging yet another leg to this trip, only to be told that no, this bus really wasn’t making any more trips. So we got back on the TA bus, and ended up sitting right in front of some young men who proceeded to talk loudly the entire trip. Loudly enough that at one point the driver yelled at them. It was a comfortable bus, and Rich and I both took off our packs and held them on our laps. I might have enjoyed the ride if I hadn’t been so worried about time. I think it was almost eleven when we finally got there.

The TA bus station doesn’t have as sophisticated security as J’lem. There was just this table and a couple of guys with portable wands looking in people’s bags. I think I was pretty fried by then--he had to ask me several times to open my bag, using vocab that I usually understand, and when I finally got it (after he asked in English), I exasperated him further by assuming that I had to open every little compartment on my VERY many-compartmented backpack, when all he was interested in was the main one. He must have thought I was a complete idiot. I started to get really worried when we got inside and saw how dead the place was. Most of the information counters--make that all--were closed. We finally found a ticket counter that was staffed by a helpful guy who told Rich the number of the bus to catch to get to the airport. When we got to the platform we found out that there were two left that night, one at 11:00 and one at 11:40. We caught the 11:00, but I was getting increasingly worried. We were well outside our three-hour window, and edging into the two-hour window that I usually leave for domestic flights. Moreover, this was a local bus route with lots of stops and people getting on and off. I began to contemplate the possibility that the evening might become grueling and expensive.

When we arrived at BG, we wandered around until some helpful airline staff told us where to go. An innocent further ‘where do we go’ question lead to us being ushered through the start of the security process BEFORE I had a chance to use the bathroom and this was NOT A GOOD THING. The security interview was brief and pretty much the same as the one at JFK. They weren’t even interested in x-raying our carry-on luggage at that point. We were shown where to go for check-in, and made the mistake of grabbing the nearest line, which proceeded not to move for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. It was around 12:15 now and I was seriously nervous. Moreover, my feet were hurting, I still needed to use the bathroom, standing around with a heavy pack on my back in a hot muggy atmosphere was making me want to puke, and my left knee was starting to act up. The knee was the bit that I was really worried about. It can be fine and then pop suddenly and be real painful, and tonight was seriously provoking it.

At one point Rich asked if he should try to find a faster line while I stayed there. I lost it and informed him that I was in pain and couldn’t stand much longer. He went to talk to someone or see what was going on or something. The party of women ahead of us was also doing the same thing. Yelling ensued. I had no idea what was going on. I had kind of hoped he was going to find a place where I could sit, but it didn’t sound like that was what was happening. I heard the word “supervisor” a couple of times. When he came back, I learned that 1) the flight was already boarding and therefore we had missed it and 2) the clog seemed to have been caused by a party that didn’t even have tickets trying to get onto the flight. He went back to the counter and there was more yelling. Finally, I had had it. I stepped out of the line intending to just sit down on a clear space of floor, because I really needed to sit. But I lost control of things and belongings and body parts when flying. A very kind family retrieved my water bottle and asked if I was OK, and I felt like a complete dork having to explain that actually, I was better off on the floor.

Right after that, stuff did start happening. A supervisor or something came and we learned that we’d have to go someplace else for re-ticketing. That took a long time, but fortunately didn’t cost any more money. Our new itinerary is: depart BG at 4:30 am (OY!), arrive not at JFK but at Newark (not sure whether this is an OY! or not--never been to Newark but JFK was pretty bad), spend most of the day in Newark (OY!), get on plane for MSP at 6:00, arrive MSP after 8pm Friday night (OY!). And BTW the only seats they had were on two separate aisles, but we can try to fix that at the gate (right). This is a bit of a grrr.... but all things considered, it could have been worse, and at least it wasn’t expected. Also, one of the things I most fear about the logistics of air travel, missing the flight, has happened, and the sky did not fall. It didn’t even cost us extra money, just time and aggravation.

[Rich Adds:]
When we checked in at Newark for our Northwest Flight, Morgan found she could book us on a flight that left at 1:30. We booked it and got to the gate to find that another plane headed to MSP was boarding. I asked if we could get on that flight, and we could, so we got home at 2pm instead of 8pm.

Post by Morgan: Another View of the Kotel

I had not been sure that I wanted to go to the Kotel. Gender-segregated spaces are things that I avoid like the plague. On the other hand, it’s an important site, and I’m pretty certain that for a pair of Jews to go to J’lem and NOT see the Kotel constitutes “doing it wrong”.

It had been a grueling day in many respects. We had, at my insistence, paid a second visit to Yad Vashem, and then had ended up paying way too much for the cab ride home. I was physically tired and emotionally exhausted, badly in need of catharsis for the roiling feelings left me by the day’s events. Rich had suggested earlier that we go to the Kotel in the evening, when it would be cooler and the shops mostly closed. I wasn’t sure though, after Yad Vashem, that I wanted to visit the remnant of the Temple, the site of another of our great disasters, on the same day.

I don’t know how we started discussing coffee, but the mention of it shook me out of my blah-ness, and we agreed to get coffee at Cafe Hillel and then head to the Kotel. I had read somewhere that women pretty much have to wear a skirt when visiting the Kotel, so I dressed accordingly, and in doing so learned an interesting lesson about how things work in Jerusalem: an ankle-length black skirt will get you tons of space on the sidewalk. It was Rich who first pointed it out to me: “People are giving us a wide berth” he said--and it was true. Usually all you get is enough space to squeeze by each other--no one really steps exaggeratedly out of someone else’s way like they do in MN. But we were getting plenty of passing room that night.

The walk down to the old city was pleasant, and there were places where I wished I could have lingered over beautiful vistas or beautiful architecture. It was a cool but muggy evening--one of those where you can be chilled and sweaty at pretty much the same time. Part of the time we were walking on a road where you shared the space with cars--sometimes with the benefit of metal or concrete posts protecting the pedestrian area and sometimes not. We only had to fend off one guy who really wanted to sell us stuff.

There are separate entrances to the plaza for men and women. This is something that Rich had warned me about. When we arrived, there were a lot more women than men waiting. I was somewhat uncomfortable as I broke away from him to join the women’s line. He and I are seldom apart. The men’s line moved quickly. The women’s line crawled. Bags were being opened, and of course everyone in the women’s line had a purse or something that needed inspected. Suddenly the men’s line was completely empty, everybody had gone through. After a few seconds, the bunch of women immediately behind me charged the men’s entrance. More women who had just arrived joined them. My line still wasn’t moving, so I said “lamah lo?” and joined the other line. The last woman in line and I exchanged giggles. This was pretty much the last thing I had expected to happen.

From the security checkpoint it’s just a little walk to the plaza, but nevertheless, the space seemed to open up really suddenly, and there was the Kotel right in front of me. It was, honestly, a smaller space than I had expected it to be, and the ancient wall itself seemed to be hemmed in by the stuff around it. But the thing that struck me most on seeing it in person was the same thing that always strikes me in photographs: those plants. Those big, humongous plants that grow in the spaces of the wall. They really are huge. I think some of them are longer than a person is tall.

I took some photographs, and then stood there for a while just looking through the metal screen that tops the wall that separates the plaza from the area in front of the Kotel. I could see where the mechitzah was, and for a long time I stood right there, right on the border between the men’s and women’s sections, just watching. I couldn’t help noticing that the women’s side is much smaller than the men’s, and it made me angry. The whole thing made me both angry and sad--very, very sad. Here, in that wall that divides the prayer area in two, is a tangible articulation of how far we have not come in bringing justice to the world, how far we have yet to go, how impossible it is that my own eyes will live to see justice here or anywhere else. The heartbreak that I found at the Kotel was not the heartbreak that I had been expecting: it’s hard to feel the national loss that the Temple’s destruction must have been when the plaza is crawling with live Jews, when this site is so obviously ours again. I contemplated a couple of times just swallowing my objections and going down to the women’s side, to daven or to just touch the stone, but I couldn’t do it. Every time I thought about it, my stomach turned over, and I realized at last that I would be happier, and have more respect for myself, if I did not make this particular compromise. Instead, I took out my sketchbook and did several sketches of the site, focusing on the things that delighted me most: those beautiful huge plants.

At some point, Rich had sat down in a chair behind me--there are plastic chairs available all over the place, in case one needs to sit down. When I been standing long enough that my feet started to hurt, he gave me his seat and went to get another chair for himself. I realized that I had ended up sitting right behind the men’s section. Rich pulled up a chair and sat beside me but a little way away. I had an inkling of what he was doing before he said anything. He had positioned himself just behind the women’s section. No one cared of course; we were still on the plaza, separated from the segregated area by a wall that I had to stand on tiptoes to really see over, and plenty of other people were observing what was going on on the opposite gender’s side. We took out Paths of Faith and davened Ma’ariv from it. It was a symbolic protest of course, meaningful, perhaps, only to us. But nevertheless there was a certain power in having found a way to pray together as a couple, here in this place where we were so vehemently NOT supposed to do so. It was a cool, peaceful night, relatively quiet despite the number of people there. It was satisfying to be able to pray. As we reached the end of the service, there was no question but that we would say Kaddish for those of our people who were killed in the Shoah. Here, in the peace of the cool night, in the ancient words of the Kaddish Yatom and its familiar rhythms, I found the catharsis that I had needed since our visit to Yad Vashem earlier that day. I experienced once again the power of Jewish ritual to heal the soul, and experienced also the powerful truth that ours is a religion where what you do matters. I had been unsettled by a welter of emotion all day because of a need to do something--a need to do what there was for me, as a Jew, to do in order to honor the memory of those whom we all have lost.

I left the Kotel feeling both at peace and uplifted. I had found a way to pray there, and to do it in my own way, without making any compromises.

The Food in Jerusalem

Point the first: if anyone tells you that Starbucks pulled out of Israel because of politics; they are wrong. ארומה - Aroma is the local corporate coffee behemoth, and, well, Starbucks falls so completely short of what they deliver in both food and drink that Starbucks must have seen itself a grasshopper in comparison. The smaller chain, Hillel, is a full service restaurant which serves Shakshukah, and a wide variety of pastas, salads and sandwiches made fresh in its own kitchen. During our stay, the manager came to know our habits. She called us "Chocolate Junkies."

The Falafel, from a stall on Ben Yehudah, of course was grand; 50nis got us both a full sized falafel with everyhing and two beers. The falafel was beautifully balanced in its seasoning, not overpowered by cumin as our American falafels tend to be, and it was crisp outside without being hard, and tender inside without being gloppy. And "everything" really was, even fries were used as toppings.

The next evening, after our feet had time to recover from our Shrine of the Book adventure, we found a place near Independence Park called The River Noodle Bar, where we had a lovely beef noodle soup with a hard cooked, deep fried egg. No, not pho - the stock held the spicing characteristic of Korean food, with strong hints of sesame.

The following evening we dined at a place called New Deli, a bit like Subway, but even here, the chicken for Morgan's sub was grilled to order and the pastrami tasted like top-flight Chicago pastrami.

Also, the fleishig cafeteria at Yad VaShem does an awesome beef stew.

Final Verdict: the food is better here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Shrine of the book.

Morgan and I are staying at the Jerusalem Inn, on 7 Horcanos, about a a block from Yaffo and Heleni Hamalka. Those of you familiar with Jerusalem's geography and topography will probably raise an eyebrow when I tell you that we decided, on Tuesday to walk to the Shrine of the book to see Dead Sea Scrolls and (drum roll please . . .) the Aleppo Codex! We started out early walked Yaffa to HaMelech George to Ramban. After about 3/4mi on Ramban we crossed a really big street and followed a street whose name I can't recall to the Israel Museum Complex. Once in, we looked for a while at the model of Late Second Temple Period Jerusalem. I turned on the Audio Guide and a British voice gushed lovingly in my ear about the sheep pools. I turned off the Audio Guide. Morgan took this picture of the model Temple:

There is an amazing amount of care and detail that went into the model, but it is unpeopled, empty; even architectural models place people in their landscapes to suggest a place in use. This model, however, suggests a place in disuse.

After ascending the stairs to a plaza we came across this lovely fountain:

The "fountain," of course, is the Shrine of the Book. It is designed to look like the lid of one of the pots that contain the Dead Sea Scrolls; appropriate since it itself contains them. The fountain is a very effective cooling system, keeping the interior in the 60's or so, even when the exterior is in the 100's. Jerusalem's dry climate is part of its effectiveness - evaporating water cools the dome.

Inside one steps down through a series of small displays concerning the material culture of the Qumran community, and then one enters the rotunda which has displayed the scrolls, or copies thereof depending on their condition. We saw part of the rule of the community, and the battle of the sons of the darkness and the sons of the light. A copy of the Isaiah Scroll was displayed at the center. One is struck first by the legibility of the texts - the letter forms, penned more than 2000 years ago, are not strikingly different than those we use today. The English alphabet has undergone more changes in about a quarter of that time. Most of the scrolls are in Hebrew, so to the reader of Hebrew they are comprehensible as well as legible. To read a scroll written that long ago is to stand in direct communication with its scribe across millenia.

Downstairs a special treat awaited us. The Aleppo Codex, edited, according to Maimonides, by no less than David Ben Asher himself is the crowning achievement of the Masoretic Tradition. It's not much to look at - penned in a plain hand with nikkud, cantillation marks, and Masoretic notes it is a text whose writer clearly valued function over form. This was the text that Maimonides used as his exemplar when he wrote his own Sefer Torah, and provided the basis for his Hilchot Sefer Torah which remains to this day an essential body of Halachah for the scribe writing a Sefer Torah for Synagogue use. The text remained in tact until 1948 when parts of it were lost in a pogrom.

Another item on display was called the "Small Codex." It is a small codex penned by an Ashkenazic scribe using the Aleppo Codex as its exemplar. It was opened to a spread containing the last page of Eichah and the first page of Esther. It was stunningly beautiful, rich with creative formatting of the text. In some ways I found this text more remarkable than the Aleppo Codex itself - it testified to what a scribe can do to wed form and function when presented with a reliable exemplar and a kavannah for hiddur mitzvah.

Other things we learned that day - the Art Garden is torture at midday. Israeli Feta and Watermelon are a fantastic pairing. And one side of Agron St. is closed to Pedestrian Traffic between the Conservative Center and HUC Jerusalem. The following morning we found a very nice apothecary who provided just the thing for our blisters. It was a transaction conducted entirely in Hebrew, though that entailed me showing her the blister because I have no idea what the generic name is for Moleskine, let alone how to say it in Hebrew.

The Kotel and the Liminal

So there I was at the Kotel. I had just inserted a woman's prayer on the men's side. Then I davenned Ma'ariv from Paths of Faith, complete with the matriarchs. I choked up during Hashkiveinu, something about reciting a prayer of protection at the site of so much conflict. When I got to the risha'im in the Amidah, I realized that I was thinking of the ultra-frum all around me, even as they would be thinking of me when they encountered it in their siddurim. As I finished praying the golden dome of the Al-Aqsa mosque, just visible over the Kotel, emanated its call to prayer. I turned and looked up at the Plaza and there was Aish HaTorah's new yeshiva side by side with Chabad's Soup Kitchen. These two competing ideologies in ultra-orthodoxy looked to me to be looming over the Kotel, over Judaism, like Godzilla and Mothra locked in struggle, careless of how many Tokyo residents became collateral damage, careless that the quid-pro-quo theology that ultra-orthodoxy teaches can produce only zealots or atheists. And beyond these august institutions was visible the dome and cross of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Kotel stands at every border: borders of faith, theology, gender, past and present. I choked up at Hashkiveinu because I was praying for protection while standing in front of what I can only describe as a wound in history. And I think that in one way or another, every prayer offered at the wall is a prayer for the healing of that wound, however that healing may look to the petitioner.

The Old City and the Kotel

On Sunday, Morgan spent most of the day recovering from her accidental seafood exposure. I went to the Old City to see if I could figure out how to get to the Kotel. The Old City is crowded and tightly packed. Streets are often shared between vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The narrow sidewalks are often choked by tour groups and the vendors hawking their wares are often agressive. I decided to buy Morgan a pomegranate since electrolytes are always a good thing. The vendor showed me a lovely view from a roof top and introduced me to his brother who succeded in selling me a 80NIS mezuzah case for 150NIS. When he tried to sell me a 150NIS Magen David for 900NIS we had an argument in Hebrew about whether God did or did not want me to spend 900NIS on a Magen David from a Bedouin in the old city. When I left his shop the price came down to 200NIS, but he had already swindled me on the Mezuzah Case, had just shown me the depth of the swindle he tried to pull on the Magen David, and I was not kindly disposed. I left the Old city then, rebuffing an offer to be shown David's tomb (in a place within the Old City, though it is in fact outside the walls) and a come-on from a self-proclaimed purveyor of "schmattes and chazerai" near the Jaffa gate.

Why all the attention? Perhaps because of my mannter of dress. At the time I looked rather like the image on the left. I clould be seen coming from a mile away and everything from the shirt to the shorts to the uncovered hair says: "American Idiot on Vacation." So later that evening, as a small experiment I donned a pair of black Chinos, a white cargo shirt, a black corduroy jacket, and a canoeing hat to create a mode of dress that I call faux-frum. No one spoke to me. I looked frum to the hawkers, and I looked, I will assume, strange to the chabadniks and charedim. And in this garb, with a copy of Chaim Stern's Paths of Faith tucked underneath my arm, I headed out for the Kotel.

To get to the Kotel from the Jaffa gate, one takes the Armenian Patriarchate road through the Armenian Quarter, and then makes a hard right into a parking lot. Follow that until you see a sign that says "No Traffic on Shabbat or Holidays." and follow that road down hill until you reach a switcback with a pretzel stand. Robinson's Arch is directly across from the switchback. If you actually reach the pretzel stand, then the Kotel is behind you. This is a view of the Kotel from the Plaza:
Women are to the left, men are to the right. The privacy fence serves as the mechitza. The wooden items stacked near the mechitza on the men's side are shtenders, basically portable reading stands. I entered the Men's side and located a good spot to deliver the note I had been asked to deposit there and davened. That deserves its own post.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

In Jerusalem

I had thought to order posts chronologically to form a cohesive narrative of events, but my attempts to do so are futile. So I'm going totally non linear.

The City
It reminds me of Manhattan in the '80's, before gentrification. A little bit TriBeCa, a little bit of the east Village, a little bit of midtown - times square especially. It pulses with restaurants, nightclubs, cafes, people selling their wares. And on Shabbat it is, to borrow a phrase from Leonard Cohen "dead as heaven on a Saturday Night." An ironic description since on Saturday night the city wakes from its sabbath slumber as if in answer to Isaiah's charge in this week's Haftarah "התעוררי התעוררי קומי ירושלם" - "Awaken, awaken, rise up, Jerusalem." We read this Haftarah in Shul this morning when we davened at the IMPJ affiliated Har-El synagogue next to the Bezalel Artists' house on Shmuel haNagid Street.

This is what happens on Shabbat Morning at Har El - More P'sukei d'Zimrah than in typical American Reform congrregations, but fewer than in Conservative. Morning Blessings are read as follows - the Shaliach Tzibbur reads a blessing, the Congregation says Amen to that blessing and then reads the next blessing to which the Shaliach Tzibbur says Amen. Thus the roles of reader and respondent are passed between the Shatz and the Congregation. The Torah Service includes seven aliyot, maftir, and haftarah, with additional honors of lifting the Torah and dressing the Torah. The service is kept to about an hour by the use of the triennal reading cycle, and is followed by a kiddush, wherein the person making motzi washes the hands prior to doing so and the bread is salted. I had the honor of lifting the Torah, and Morgan had the honor of dressing it. I was also asked to make motzi, and did so, grateful that I had the handwashing prayer in my head.

There are some restaurants and clubs that don't necessarily wait until Havdallah to open. They cater to secular Israelis and may serve things that put them outside of eligibility for a heksher. Seafood is not uncommon, but pork seems very unusual. Smoked goose breast seems to be used in its place. People with seafood allergies would be well advised to seek out a Heksher when dining out, because it is a guarantee that there can be no contamination from shellfish. How we became aware of this is left as an exercise for the readers imagination.

I have been asked about cigarette smoke. What we have found is that most places prohibit smoking indoors, and provide generously for it out of doors. Smoke tends not to linger near the ground here, but is pretty quickly lifted away, making proximity to smokers less problematic than we thought.

We went for an evening walk in Independence Park and as we were walking back up to the hotel, were invited into a Judaica shop by a vendor. We ended up getting a fair price on the earrings, paying about 20 NIS less than the originally quoted price, and they really do pick up the blue in Morgan's eyes quite nicely.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The flight up.

We departed Minneapolis for a flight to New York where we will be connecting to an El Al flight to Israel. I have in my pockets four dollars of money from each of 3 people and Temple Israel to be given to those who may need it. This is a סגולה, a charm, for safety. No harm will come to the traveler on a mission of charity. I am also carrying a prayer for the Western Wall, and though I don't hold that prayers tucked in to the wall are more effective. but the petitioner does. So that is another mission. I myself may have different feelings after doing this.

I also carry fears and expectations. My biggest fear is that I will find that the Israelis smoke everywhere and I won't be able to tolerate it. Or that MM will get a nut - She's allergic. Or that there will be zealot trouble on a bus.

I am looking forward to discovering the liberal davennen scene. Har-El on Shabbat, someplace masorti for the week. Looking forward to coffee in the land that spit out Starbucks. ארומה, Aroma is the big chain. And I am looking forward to bookstores. Steimatzky's is the chain. And looking forward to food. I want to walk the city, to conduct life without a car - impossible in Minnesota. I want to feel the history washing over me. Not interested in details right now; just want to contemplate what it means to be in a city where so much has happened, a city 10 times older than New York.

Shabbat Shalom