A Most Extraordinary, Ordinary Man

This is the post I have been putting off writing for the past two months – the hardest post I have ever yet had to write, or expect ever to write.
My father’s obituary.

Abba passed away on the evening of Thursday, November 24th, 2022 – Rosh Chodesh Kislev according to the Jewish calendar. My brother managed to catch a flight from London that same evening and arrived just a few hours before the funeral, which, according to Jewish tradition, was held the following day (actually, the same day, since in Judaism, the day starts at sunset). As it was Friday, the eve of the Sabbath, we were told the latest the funeral could take place was at 11 am. The alternative was to wait till Saturday evening, Motzei Shabbat, as funerals are not held on the Sabbath. Moreover, as we were informed when we arrived at the cemetery, on Rosh Chodesh, it is customary not to deliver a eulogy as part of the burial service. Since both my sister and I had gone to considerable lengths to prepare what we were going to say, it was a relief to be informed by the rabbi from the Chevra Kadisha that it would still be possible to deliver a few words after the official burial service.

I was luckier than some, in that I got to say goodbye to my father. He had been in failing health since his operation the summer before last and was, in any case, already in his 96th year, so I cannot say his passing was unexpected. Knowing that, and never having overcome my grief at not having had the opportunity to say goodbye properly to my mother ז”ל, who passed away fifty years ago next month, I had made it a practice to take a loving farewell of him at every parting. So it was the day before he died, when I spent the afternoon and early evening with him. And so it was on his last evening on earth. On this particular evening, knowing he was in the habit of going to bed at around 8 pm, I phoned him at about 7:35 pm to wish him goodnight. I told him I loved him and hoped he would have a good night’s sleep and pleasant dreams, as I did every night.
At two minutes to eight, my sister phoned to tell me he was gone.

Of my father’s history, as a child refugee who came to England in 1939 in the Kindertransport, thus escaping the Holocaust which claimed his parents and much of his near and extended family, I have written before, when I reviewed Abba’s own autobiography. I mention it again now, partly because tomorrow, January 27th, is the International Holocaust Memorial Day, but chiefly because during his last months, I would often find him weeping silently, trying to hide the tears when he saw that I had noticed, apologising (!?) for having upset me or caused concern by his “loss of control”, but when pressed, admitting that he was grieving for his murdered family, blaming himself for “not having done enough to save them” – as if a 12-year-old boy could have done anything! I understand now the meaning and depth of “survivor’s guilt”. I understand, too, why it was so important to him to write his memoirs and to build his family heritage website – to preserve as much as possible of their memory and to recreate, at least on paper or in cyberspace, the family that was so cruelly taken from him.
He used to talk about Shabbat evening meals with his parents, brother and sisters and how he missed them – so much so that, standing over his grave that Friday noon, I could not help but think that now, at last, for the first time in more than eight decades, he would once more be celebrating Shabbat with his beloved parents. And not only them, but with his brother and sisters (all of whom survived the Holocaust, but who predeceased him) and, most of all, with my mother.

On Abba’s tombstone, we had inscribed a quotation from Psalms 15, verse 2:

הוֹלֵךְ תָּמִים, וּפֹעֵל צֶדֶק;    וְדֹבֵר אֱמֶת, בִּלְבָבוֹ

(Holech tamim upo’el tzedek, vedover emet bilvavo)

One who walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh truth in his heart.

The Hebrew word tamim (תמים), here translated as “uprightly”, has connotations in modern Hebrew of naivete and innocence. I do not think my father was naive, in the negative sense of the word. In his own biography, he states clearly that the circumstances of his life influenced his attitude to the world. There was a kind of distrust, a feeling that if we Jews do not look out for ourselves, nobody else is going to do it for us.
And yet, with it, he always looked for the good in people and, as a corollary of that, tried to make the best of the cards life dealt him. In this, I think innocence – in the most positive sense – was, indeed, one of his qualities.

Abba sometimes used to castigate himself for not having been able to provide more for his family in the way of material goods or to help us – his children – more, financially. But I know now, if I didn’t then (why didn’t I know then? My younger brother did!) that on more than one occasion, he and my mother denied themselves so that we children could have the best possible. I remember that one year, for my birthday – presumably because they could not afford to buy me something new – Abba gave me his own Parker fountain pen and propelling pencil set, with my name engraved on them in gold letters. I still have it – and cherish it all the more, knowing that he gave me something of his own – although few people use fountain pens these days and ink is hard to obtain.
Would that have been the year I started secondary school? That would have been at the age of eleven. The use of fountain pens was mandatory – no ballpoint pens in my posh, fee-paying girls’ school (to which I won a scholarship). I remember Abba accompanied me to school daily throughout my first year there, at least, navigating the intricacies of the London Underground on a journey that took well over an hour and involved at least one – or possibly two – connections. And when he and my mother decided I was old enough to go to school on my own, I remember that on the way back, by bus rather than train, I would stop off in Lower Regent Street where my father worked in Rex House, to visit him – and then we would travel home together. That stopped when my school moved to new premises in the Barbican.

During the school holidays, in summer especially, when military bands used to give lunchtime concerts in St. James’ Park, a stone’s throw away from Rex House, my mother would bring us three children to meet my father in the park, where we would picnic on the lawn and listen to the band. How unhappy we all were when he had to leave us at the end of his lunch break to return to the office!

And that recalls another memory, still earlier. I could not have been more than about four, as we were still living in a one-room flat – my parents, my brother and sister and myself. When Abba would leave for work in the mornings, I would cry and beg him not to go and then, I would stand at the window looking down into the street and wave goodbye, until his receding figure disappeared around the corner.
Did I, in fact, stand? Or was my mother holding me in her arms as I cried? So many decades have passed since then that I can no longer be certain.

So many memories come flooding back now, welling up from the mists of time, as the tears are welling from my eyes as I type. Myself as a little girl of two or three at the most, sitting next to Abba in the men’s section of our shul (synagogue), on his lap or curled up on the floor at his feet, playing with the fringes of his tallis (prayer shawl).

I remember him taking me to the ballet, to see a matinee performance of Swan Lake at Covent Garden. In those days, like many a little girl, I wanted to become a ballerina when I grew up.

His pride, and that of my mother, when, at the age of eight or so, I won an essay-writing competition sponsored by our local Borough Council, or several years later, another one sponsored by the Israeli Embassy in the UK or when I placed second in the Junior Examination of the London Board of Jewish Religious Education.

His grief when my mother died, when he came into the room I shared with my sister to tell us that the phone call which woke us late at night was from the hospital and that she was gone. I think that was the first time I ever saw him cry, as he asked, in despair: “What will I do without her?” Wrapped up in my own pain, it was only much later that I fully grasped the depth of his sorrow, this new blow compounding the loss of so much of his family in the Holocaust.

But Abba was strong, stronger than even he knew. Just as he had had to rebuild his life after the Second World War, now he brought us to Israel, remarried, adopted my stepsister and rebuilt his life for the second time. And then there were grandchildren, and eventually, great-grandchildren too. He loved them so much. But the pain of losing his original family was always there, as I was reminded every time I found him silently weeping during these last few months.

The theme of this year’s International Holocaust Memorial Day is “Ordinary People“. Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said: “What is abnormal is that I am normal. That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life – that is what is abnormal.

My father was not a Nobel Prizewinner. He was not an inventor or a statesman or a great surgeon or a sportsman or a celebrity of any kind. He was an ordinary man. Yet he overcame the catastrophic events of his childhood, he survived, he rebuilt his life – not once, but twice. He lived. He loved. He loved Us, his children. He loved me, as he often told me in the last few months, “even before you were born”.

Not “ordinary” at all.

My Dad.
An ordinary, extraordinary man.

Rest in peace now, Abba – till we meet again.
I love you.

Posted in Autobiography/biography, Uncategorized | Tagged | 33 Comments

When Hanukkah Meets Christmas

One day last week, half way through Hanukkah and at the height of the count-down to Christmas, I joined a Yad Ben Zvi tour in the Old City of Jerusalem to explore the celebration of those two festivals. Although Jewish festivals are fixed according to the lunar calendar, and Christian festivals follow the solar calendar, both holidays fall round about the winter solstice and many scholars claim, not without some justification, that their dates were very likely chosen to conform to a much older tradition, one celebrating the turning of the year, when the shortening days reach their climax on the shortest day of the year, and then start to lengthen, so that it must have seemed to primitive man that the dying sun had been reborn. For example, can it be coincidence alone that both festivals involve the emergence of light from the surrounding darkness (the Hanukkah candles, the candlelit Christmas tree topped by a star, the Yule log), or that both fall on the 25th day of the month (Hanukkah on the 25th of Kislev, Christmas on the 25th of December)?

As far as Hanukkah is concerned, the First Book of the Maccabees (which, in Judaism, is not considered part of the Hebrew Bible), describes how the Seleucid ruler Antiochos IV Epiphanes defiled the holy Temple on the 25th day of Kislev, in the 145th year, by sacrificing to an idol which had been set up on the altar there (I Maccabees 1: 54 – 59). Therefore, when the Maccabee army liberated Jerusalem three years later, they chose the anniversary of the heathen profanation – the 25th day of Kislev – to rededicate the altar (I Maccabees 4: 52 – 59).

As children, we were taught that Hanukkah celebrates the Miracle of the Cruse of Oil. When purifying the Temple prior to its rededication, only one cruse of oil was found which had not been desecrated by the Seleucids and their supporters. This was the olive oil used to light the Temple Menorah, which was supposed to burn continuously. But the amount found was sufficient for one day only. Miraculously, however, it lasted for 8 days, until new oil could be prepared.

However, the Miracle of the Oil is not mentioned in the Book of the Maccabees. In fact, the earliest mention of the Miracle is in the Babylonian Talmud, and dates to the 5th century CE. For comparison, I Maccabees, the earliest of the Books of the Maccabees, was written in Hebrew in the mid 2nd century BCE, but survives only in Greek translation. Since Antiochos IV reigned from 175 BCE to 164 BCE, this means the earliest extant mention of the Miracle of the Cruse of Oil dates to several centuries after the event.

Our guide posited that the sages who composed the Talmud, having witnessed the devastating effects of rebellion against Rome, were anxious not to encourage the kind of military adventurism they saw in the story of the Maccabees, and thus placed the emphasis on the divine miracle of the oil, rather than a military victory wrought by mortal men.

Thus it was until the rise of modern Zionism, which saw every reason to glorify the actions of the patriotic Maccabees and to restore the emphasis on human endeavour.

At all events, these days, both traditions are celebrated. Thus, upon entering the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, we were greeted by security officers/guides dressed as Maccabees, who waved us in the direction of the narrow streets where chanukiot (Hanukkah menorahs with 9 branches, rather than the 7-branched Menorah of the Temple) burned brightly in windows or outside the front doors of the houses.

There were also a lot of cats roaming the narrow streets and alleys.

Emerging from the residential area, we entered the central square of the renovated Jewish Quarter. The rebuilt Hurvah Synagogue rose up before us, blazing with light, and beside it, the replica of the Temple Menorah:

We turned next to the Cardo – the main street of Roman-Byzantine Jerusalem, now lined with shops, where glass-topped piers permit one to view the relics of the city’s defensive walls from the First Temple and Hasmonean periods, below the present pavement.

It was time now to visit the Christian Quarter, to taste the sights and sounds of Christmas.
We had already glimpsed our first Christmas tree in the courtyard of Christ Church, hard by the Jaffa Gate, where we entered the Old City. It is a church where I have often appeared with my choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir – a fact which I happened to mention to our guide, and was then delighted to hear that he not only knew of our choir, and was well-acquainted with our conductor, but also conducted a choir of his own when not engaged in guiding tours around Jerusalem!

Here it was that our guide explained how the date of Christmas had probably been fixed to coincide with one or more ancient Roman festivals – either the Saturnalia (17 – 23 December), or the Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) festival, which was celebrated on the 25th of December and celebrated the rebirth of the sun after the Winter Solstice. Again, this fits with the idea of having a festival of light in the middle of winter, when it seems as if the sun has been dying with the shortening of the days, only to be reborn when the days start to grow longer again. Interwoven with this belief was the Christian belief that the birth of Jesus signified the coming of light and rebirth in a world made dark by ignorance and sin.

Now we wandered among the streets decorated with coloured lights, the shops selling Christmas paraphernalia, and the very popular Christmas market.

One enterprising resident of the Quarter, having lived for a while in the United States, and missing the manifestations of Christmas prevalent in the West, created his own “Santa’s House”, where people were lined up round the block to have their pictures taken with Santa Claus, or Baba Nuwil (Papa Noel) as he is known in Arabic.

By the way, in case you were wondering how Santa travels in this part of the world, singularly unsuited to reindeer – he rides a camel, of course!

In the middle of all the Christmas symbolism, we found one house which has been bought by a Jewish organisation, Ateret Cohanim, and turned into a yeshiva.

At which point, it seems appropriate to remember that there were times when openly displaying a menorah outside one’s door, or in the window, represented a genuine threat to one’s life and yet Jews were not deterred. Who can forget this image and what it represents?

At last, it was time to return to the Jaffa Gate, where our tour had begun and where it now ended:

I made my way back through the Mamilla shopping mall, where the cafes were full to overflowing and the shops all had chanukiot displayed in their windows. At the far end of the mall, I was just in time to witness the end of a candlelighting ceremony:

From there, I decided to walk down the road to the Jerusalem International YMCA, judging it would be easier to get a taxi from there – and also because they always have beautiful Christmas decorations, not to mention two Christmas trees, one outdoors and one indoors.

And since it has been all too long since I shared any music with my readers, here is a recording of my choir’s 2016 Christmas concert in the beautiful YMCA Auditorium, where we have appeared many times. Enjoy Benedetto Marcello’s (1686 – 1739) setting of the traditional Hanukkah anthem, Maoz Tsur, followed by selections from Handel’s Messiah.

What better way to end this virtual Hanukkah-Christmas tour of ours?

Posted in Religion, Tourism, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 20 Comments

Bible in Hand: The Altar of Mount Ebal

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses, knowing he is destined to die east of the River Jordan, and not enter the Promised Land with the Children of Israel, whom he has led since leading them out of Egypt, takes his farewell with a long speech which comprises most of the Book, in which he reminds them of their history and, in order to ensure that it remains forever etched in their collective memory, charges them to build an altar and offer up sacrifices, and to write all the words of the Torah down on large, plastered stones, which they are to set up, on Mount Ebal, on the day that they cross the Jordan. (See Deuteronomy 27: 1 – 8).

According to the Book of Joshua (Chapter 8:30 – 35), Joshua did, in fact, carry out the charge Moses had laid upon him, but not, apparently, on the very day the Israelites crossed the River Jordan (as Moses commanded in Deuteronomy 27:2), since the building of the altar was preceded by the conquest of Jericho and of Ai (the latter, at the second attempt only, the first having failed as punishment for the taking of loot at Jericho by Achan the son of Carmi – see Joshua 7).

Be that as it may, the Bible is very clear that the altar – an altar of unhewn stones – was built on Mount Ebal, burnt offerings were offered up there, and Joshua wrote down on the stones a copy of the Law of Moses. So – where was Mount Ebal and what can be learned from the archaeological finds there? This was what we set out to discover earlier this month, when I joined another study tour with the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, deep in Samaria.

In the Bible, Joshua is commanded to divide the people up and set half of them on Mount Gerizim, to pronounce blessings and the other half on Mount Ebal, to pronounce curses. The two mountains lie on either side of the city of Shechem, Ebal to the north, Gerizim to the south. Shechem itself is in the hands of the Palestinian Authority, as are the villages lying on either side of the main road leading to that city, but the road itself is in Israeli hands (Area C according to the Oslo Accords). On the way to the archaeological site, we drove through the town of Huwwara, which lies in Area B, meaning municipal matters and regular daily life is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, but security is in Israeli hands. I am not sure how good the security aspect is, since, minutes after we “escaped” from a seemingly interminable traffic jam near the northern exit from the town, there were reports of stones being thrown at Israeli vehicles using the road, which is lined on both sides by “Palestinian” shops and garages.
Perhaps it was just as well that our bus was bullet-proof – a fact which added several tons to its weight and thus, reduced its manoeuvrability.

In light of the security issues, it will come as no surprise to learn that civilians can only visit the Mount Ebal site with a military escort. In fact, we joined a convoy that was delivering supplies (including petrol) to the IDF base further up the mountain.

Mount Ebal, as I mentioned, overlooks the “Palestinian” city of Shechem. The Arabic name of the city is Nablus (a corruption of the Greek name Neapolis, or Flavia Neapolis – the name given to the city by the Roman emperor Flavius Vespasianus aka Vespasian). From the mountain, there are spectacular views of Shechem and the surrounding countryside, such as this one, taken from the bus:

And these:

Take note of the steep path in the foreground. I shall have more to say about it later on.

Leaving the bus, escorted by a couple of good-looking young servicemen 😉 , we began walking down what started off as a paved road (for the use of military vehicles, one assumes) and which eventually morphed into an unpaved dust track, towards the site of what the archaeologist Adam Zertal (whom we mentioned in connection with the Footprint Site last month) has identified as the site of Joshua’s Altar. This identification has been hotly disputed by other scholars (of course, it would be. Such is the nature of archaeological research, especially archaeological research in the Holy Land).

The ground was covered with early crocuses, of the kind known in Hebrew as Hanukkah Candles (נרות חנוכה – Nerot Hanukkah) because their white petals, with a golden heart, are reminiscent of white candles with a yellow flame.

Mingled among them were the delicate blossoms of meadow saffron, or stavanit (סתוונית) as it is called in Hebrew, no doubt from the Hebrew word for autumn (סתיו – stav), which is when it blooms:

As we drew closer to the site, even the natural rocks seemed to take on the appearance of mythological creatures, such as this one, centre foreground, which reminded me of the White Horses to be found on the chalk Downs of southern England:

Finally, we reached the site which Prof. Zertal identified as the altar. The excavations which took place during the 1980s uncovered scarabs, seals and animal bones dating to the early Israelite period (13th – 11th centuries BCE).
Note what appears to be the remains of a ramp leading up to the altar:

Here is the ramp seen from the side:

Here is the altar seen from the other side:

Still not convinced? Well, Prof. Zertal also discovered plaster plates at the site of the supposed altar. Remember the commandment given to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 27:2?

And it shall be on the day when ye shall pass over the Jordan unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, that thou shalt set thee up great stones, and plaster them with plaster.

And if that isn’t enough to make you think, remember the further charge laid upon the Israelites by Moses:

And it shall come to pass, when the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, that thou shalt set the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal.

Among the archaeological finds excavated on Mt. Ebal in the “soil dump pile”, and only deciphered earlier this year, was a tiny lead tablet dated to the 13th century BCE, written in very early Hebrew text – and bearing a curse in the name of “Yahweh”.

Of course, like everything else surrounding the Mt. Ebal site, this, too, is disputed by many scholars, many of whom have a political axe to grind. I should add that last year, roadwork carried out by the Palestinian Authority (which has civil jurisdiction over the site, which lies in Area B) destroyed part of the site, by grinding stones from the exterior wall, as well as some from the site itself, into gravel to pave the road.

On our way back to the bus, we now had to walk up the steep path we had previously walked down. About half way along, I began to feel difficulty breathing and was forced to stop several times to catch my breath. Eventually, I started to feel faint and dizzy and had to take the arm of one of the young soldiers who were escorting us, until we reached their jeep. As it was still some way to go before our own bus was reached, one of them gave up his place in the jeep so that I could be driven to the bus – where I nearly passed out. That, however, happened only after I boarded the bus – not before taking a cordial farewell and thanking our military escort. And I wasn’t feeling so “out of it” that I couldn’t feel a faint pang of regret that I wasn’t 30 or 40 years younger 😉 .

We were supposed to be visiting the Biblical site of Shiloh next, but our guide decided that there would not be enough time to do the site justice, so instead, as we were passing the settlement of Havot Yair, and one of our group happened to have a cousin living there, our guide suggested we take in the sunset from the walkway and lookout point in the settlement, which overlooks the Nachal Qana Nature Reserve. This we did – and it was well worth it, as I think you will agree:

After admiring the view to our hearts’ content, we were invited to join the aforementioned cousin (whose name, alas, I have forgotten) in the settlement’s beautiful synagogue, which overlooks the lovely valley depicted above, and hear about her life in the Samarian heartland, from the earliest days of coping without electricity, to the present day.

Note that the Holy Ark, seen above, contains both Ashkenazi and Sephardic/Mizrahi-type Torah scrolls.

It was, by now, completely dark and it was a long way home, so, regretfully, and with a promise by our guide that we would visit Shiloh on a later trip in the series, we boarded the bus and set off homewards, back to Jerusalem.

Posted in Archaeology, History, Tourism, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

An Afternoon in Ein Karem

Like London, there are neighbourhoods in Jerusalem which still preserve their pastoral atmosphere – villages and moshavim which have been incorporated into the municipal boundaries but which have, so far, managed – often after protracted legal struggles, some of which are ongoing – to resist the attempts of City Hall to turn them into ordinary urban neighbourhoods. Alas, the current municipal administration cares little for beauty, and the assault on the environment continues unabated.

One such neighbourhood is the village of Ein Karem, in the south-west of the city, below the Hadassah Hospital campus. I had an afternoon free, and some points to use up by the end of the year, dating back to the cancellation of a couple of Yad Ben Zvi‘s full day tours two years ago during the first COVID lockdown, so one day last month, I took the time to renew my acquaintance with one of the most beautiful, and still mostly unspoilt, areas of the Capital.

Ein Karem is mostly known to Christian visitors as the supposed birthplace of John the Baptist and, as such, has a very high concentration of churches, convents and monasteries of all the major denominations.

Here, for example, is the Russian Orthodox “Gorny” (Mountainous, in Russian) or “Moskobiya” Convent – which we did not have time to visit.

We did visit two of them – the Catholic monastery of St. John ba-Harim (Hebrew for “in the Mountains”) and the Catholic Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion. Since the churches all close to visitors at 5pm, according to our guide, we had to visit them first.

The former really does have the Hebrew name written in Latin characters over its gateway:

Our guide explained to the all-Jewish group, the ways in which one can identify which sites belong to the various Christian denomination. In this case, the most obvious giveaway is the official flag of the Franciscan Order’s Custody of the Holy Land flying over the gateway, bearing the symbol of a large cross, with four smaller crosses, one in each corner, which is also carved into the stone lintel above the gates.

In the courtyard are many panels, donated by organizations all over the world, containing the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:67 – 79) in many languages. This, as our guide explained, was the song of praise uttered by John’s father, who had been mute since expressing his scepticism when informed by the Angel Gabriel that his elderly wife Elizabeth would bear him a child, and who only regained his voice after writing at his son’s circumcision ceremony (for he could not speak) that the infant was to be called John, as had been prophesied:

The church itself is under restoration (and has been, it seems, for several years). It was possible, however, to visit the Crypt beneath the altar which is said to be the actual site of the birth of John the Baptist:

The second church we visited was the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, an Order founded by the Ratisbonne brothers, Theodore and Alphonse, who were Jewish by birth but converted to Christianity and who saw it as their mission to convert other Jews to Christianity. We were there to meet Sister Régine, a 101-year-old Jewish-born nun from Bulgaria. She told us her story of how she and her family escaped the Holocaust, how they travelled on a ship that was wrecked off the coast of Turkey in a storm, how her mother and brother drowned, while she and her father were rescued and Régine found her way to a kibbutz. Since, in Bulgaria, she had been educated at a school run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, the nuns back in Bulgaria, hearing what had happened to their former student, sent word to their community in what was then known as Palestine, and they offered to take care of her and invited her to Jerusalem. Eventually, she converted to Christianity and joined the Order. She did not explain why – but, after Sister Régine left, our guide told us that he had had many talks with her, and that, although she would not say so, her decision was, in a great part, made in anger at God for allowing the Holocaust to happen. I don’t really see the logic here. Jews who had converted to Christianity were not exempt from the Nazi race laws, after all. But who am I to judge? I know there were Jews who completely lost their faith in God in the wake of the Holocaust, and there were others who emerged from that Hell with their faith strengthened. We who were not there, who did not endure its horrors, have no right to judge.

By the way, the convent church is where, years ago, my choir made our first professional recording, for the disc The Seventh Gate. Unlike most Roman Catholic churches, it is minimalistic in style, with a very simple, almost austere interior. Note, for example, this frieze showing the Stations of the Cross:

The images look almost like ancient cave paintings, don’t they?

By the time we had concluded our visit in the convent, it was already dark and we wandered around the largely unlit lanes and alleyways of the village until we came to the Hotel Alegra.

This boutique hotel, a favourite with couples seeking a romantic getaway, is located in an old Arab house that used to be known as “The House of the Jewess” – and here is the bitter-sweet Romeo and Juliet story behind the name.

Once upon a time, about a hundred years ago, in the village of Ein Karem, lived a young man called Jaber Rahil, the eldest son of a wealthy and respected Christian Arab family. One day, Jaber rode on his white horse to Jerusalem, and there, he espied a group of young Jewish girls. His eye was immediately drawn to one in particular. Her name was Alegra Bello, daughter of a prominent Sephardic Jewish family. In fact, her father was the Chief Undertaker of the Jerusalem Sephardic community.
Nor did the dashing young horseman go unnoticed by Alegra. The two began to meet secretly, but it was not long before news of the affair reached the ears of their families – both of whom strenuously objected to such a scandalous relationship.

But young love brooks no obstacles and one day, the pair simply vanished. They had eloped to Bethlehem, where Alegra converted to Christianity in order to wed her beloved.

It was only several months later that news of their marriage reached the ears of their families, who turned their backs on the wayward pair. Indeed, Alegra’s father went so far as to mourn her as dead and to sit shiva for her, in accordance with the Jewish custom. Jaber’s father eventually came round, after Alegra gave birth to her first-born son, Youssef, who was, after all, his grandchild. Moreover, she had accepted their faith and converted to Christianity. According to one story, he declared that he would not have his grandson grow up in poverty, and built a house for the young couple in Ein Karem. Another version of the story says that it was Jaber himself who built the house for his bride, and that their first child was born there. Whatever the truth of the story, the house came to be known as “The House of the Jewess”.

When, years later, Alegra heard that her father had died, she took her children to Jerusalem to visit her family, but although her mother initially embraced her, she told her that her father had declared Alegra was never again to be admitted to the house – and sent her away. And in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, the Arab inhabitants of Ein Karem fled to Jordan – among them, the Rahil family, including Alegra and her children.

Alegra never saw her Jewish family again, but our guide told us that after the Six Day War, contact was re-established by descendants of the two families.

The house in Ein Karem where Alegra lived with her husband and children changed hands – and purpose – several times, at one point serving as a museum, until it was converted to a hotel some ten or twelve years ago.

Our final visit in this enchanting neighbourhood was to the home of a friend of our guide – the ceramicist Ruth Havilio, who lives and works in a renovated Arab house in the heart of Ein Karem, so that we could get an idea of what a traditional Arab village house looks like from within.

As is customary in Arab villages, the house is intended for the dwelling of the extended family, and has several wings built around a small central courtyard. All around the house and courtyard were flowers, including late-blooming roses (in November!) and flowers spilled out of huge earthenware pots all along the stairways and balconies.

Most of these old houses also had a section on the ground floor where domestic animals, such as chickens and goats were kept, and for use as storerooms. Of course, when such houses are renovated – as in this case – such spaces are converted to other uses.

Ruth’s studio was on the top floor of one of the wings:

It was by now almost 8pm. The tour had already lasted an hour longer than planned. With a last, lingering look across the valley to central Jerusalem, we were obliged to drag ourselves away and head for home.

Posted in History, Religion, Tourism, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

The Death Merchants

I had intended, today, to finish the post I was working on, about an afternoon walking tour in one of Jerusalem’s loveliest neighbourhoods. But yesterday, two deadly bomb attacks by “Palestinian” terrorists drove all thoughts of the beauty of Ein Karem from my head, and, although I have mostly refrained from writing about the many terror attacks that the “Palestinians” have carried out over the past few months, preferring to escape into the world of archaeology, nature, and music, I can no longer keep silent.

This is 15-year-old Aryeh Schupak, a yeshiva student who held both Israeli and Canadian citizenship (otherwise, I doubt the Canadian government would have so much as taken notice of his vile murder, let alone condemn it). He and his fellow-student Elchanan Biton were on their way to morning classes at the yeshiva (Jewish religious seminary) where they both studied when, just before 7 o’clock yesterday morning, a massive explosion which was apparently remotely detonated near the bus stops at the Givat Shaul exit from Jerusalem, mortally wounded him, and a man in his 40s, and severely wounded Elchanan and many others. Aryeh was pronounced dead on his arrival at the Sha’arei Zedek Medical Centre. Of the 39 wounded, two are still in serious condition and one, the man in his 40s mentioned above, is fighting for his life*.

Less than half an hour later, another huge explosion rocked the bus stops at the Ramot Junction in north Jerusalem. This bomb was also detonated remotely. Both explosive devices, which forensic experts say were prepared to professional standards, were filled with nails and ball-bearings to maximise injuries. That is how despicable are our enemies, who worship death and who love it even more, the greater the suffering they can inflict on their victims! The spawn of Satan responsible for the attacks have not yet been caught and it is highly possible that they have more such vile actions planned for the near future. Intelligence experts say the attacks were well-planned, by people who know Jerusalem well and who may, actually, be “Palestinians” from east Jerusalem.

In another serious incident, Tiran Fero, an Israeli Druze from Daliyat el-Karmel, who would have celebrated his 18th-birthday today, November 24th, was critically injured on Tuesday afternoon in a traffic accident near the “Palestinian” town of Jenin. He was therefore taken to the hospital in that city, while his companion, who was also injured, had the good fortune to be evacuated to an Israeli hospital. Tiran’s injuries were so severe, he had to be placed on life support. But armed “Palestinians” forced their way into the hospital, disconnected the teenager from the instruments that were keeping him alive, and in so doing, ensured his death – and then snatched the body, before the horrified gaze of his father and uncle, who had rushed there to be with him. There have been claims that he had already been pronounced dead by the hospital, but his uncle and father, who were at his bedside, and who hid in order to avoid being kidnapped, or murdered, by the attackers, have stated categorically that Tiran was still alive when he was abducted. For long hours, it was not certain who had actually abducted the boy (or snatched the body), but the Al-Aqsa Martys Brigades claimed responsibility and demanded a “prisoner exchange” in return for restoring Tiran’s body to his family. After negotiations in which Israel reportedly threatened to take military action, Tiran’s family nobly requested that not one Israeli soldier be endangered in order to bring their son home and armed Druze youths demonstrated in front of the Daliyat el-Karmel Town Hall, threatening that if the body was not returned by this morning, they themselves would go to Jenin and bring their brother home, by whatever means necessary, the body was returned and the funeral is scheduled for this afternoon.

Tiran Fero

How despicable our enemies are, to murder a teenager lying helpless in his hospital bed, and then use his body for blackmail and extortion!

And these are the people with whom we are expected to make peace.

*UPDATE: On Shabbat, November 26th, Tadasa Tashume Ben Ma’ada, an oleh (immigrant) from Ethiopia, succumbed to his wounds sustained in the bombing, becoming the second fatality of the terror attack.

Posted in News, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Touring With the Bible: The Jordan Valley In the Footsteps of Joshua, Elijah – and John the Baptist

I have never been fond of Autumn, the saddest of seasons. We put the clocks back the night between 29 – 30th October, and so it is now dark by 5:30 pm. I find that singularly depressing.

On the other hand, the month of November is a month of new beginnings. Not the least of these was the General Election on the 1st of the month. The Israeli electorate seems to have made its feelings very clear, paving the way for the return to power of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the losing side.

Last week saw the opening of the Israeli Opera 2022/23 season, with Offenbach’s final opera, Les Contes d’Hoffman, and this week marked the start of two new courses for which I have signed up with the Open University – one on mysticism in Judaism and one on art.

November also saw the beginning of a new series of hiking tours with Yad Ben Zvi – renewing a tradition I had more or less given up in the wake of the COVID pandemic.
This series of tours is called “With the Bible in One’s Hand”, and it got off to a cracking start with a tour in the Jordan Valley, starting with a visit to a lookout point known as the Dead Sea Balcony. Situated in the religious Jewish settlement of Mitzpe Yericho, it offers a stunning view over the Jordan Valley, Jericho and (on a clear day) the northern Dead Sea. I could not see the Dead Sea but we could, and did, enjoy some spectacular views of Jericho and its surroundings, as we discussed the story of Joshua, the Israelite spies and Rahab the harlot and tried to envisage events in the context of the region’s topography.

The Book of Joshua (Chapter 2) tells us that after the death of Moses and the end of the 30 days of mourning, Joshua sent two spies across the Jordan to spy out the land. They came to Jericho, the nearest big city, and the first thing they did was head for the house of Rahab the harlot (one wonders why). It seems they weren’t very good spies, because their presence – and whereabouts – were discovered almost immediately, and the King of Jericho sent his police to Rahab’s house, to demand that the spies be handed over. Rahab, however, not only hid the spies, but sent the King’s men off on a wild goose chase, all the way to the Jordan fords. She then gave the spies information about the low morale in Jericho and the other Canaanite cities, and let them out of the city through a window (her house being situated on the city wall) – not before extracting a promise from them to save her family and herself when the expected Israelite attack came, in return for her kindness. She also told them where to hide for the next three days, until the pursuers returned,

From our viewpoint on the Dead Sea Balcony, we could see a series of caves in the mountain opposite – a mountain known in Arabic as Jebel Quruntul, overlooking the town of Jericho which lies to the east. It was probably here that the spies hid, watching the unsuccessful search by the men from Jericho, and probably able to overhear their pursuers, learn the makeup of their military units, and even their passwords. Eventually, the soldiers gave up the search, no doubt assuming that the Israelite spies had already managed to re-cross the Jordan and were long gone. Only now did the spies return to the Israelite encampment at Shittim.

Jebel Quruntul was the location of a Seleucid, and later, a Maccabean fortress called Dok, and was the site of the assassination of Shimon (Simon), the brother of Judah the Maccabee (Judas Maccabaeus), together with two of his sons, by his own son-in-law, Ptolemy, the Seleucid governor of Jericho, at a feast (Game of Thrones, anyone?)

In one of the Christian traditions, a cave on Jebel Quruntul is supposed to be the site where Jesus fasted for forty days and nights following his baptism by John the Baptist and the mountain itself is said to be the high mountain where the Devil tried to tempt him. The forty day fast led to the mountain being named Mount Quarantine – a name which is preserved in the Arabic name, Jebel Quruntul.

During World War 2, the area was the scene of another spy drama, known as Operation Atlas. In October 1944, five German spies belonging to the Waffen SS were parachuted into the area of Wadi Qelt, near Jericho. Three of them were members of the German Templer movement. The other two were Palestinian Arabs closely aligned with the Nazi-supporting Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini. Their intention was to establish an intelligence-gathering base in Mandatory Palestine, to recruit and arm anti-British Palestinian Arabs, buying their support with gold, and to foment tensions between Jews and Arabs, thus creating problems for the British Mandatory authorities and forcing them to divert military resources which were badly needed elsewhere. Some researchers believe that the mission also included a plan to poison the drinking water resources of the residents of Tel Aviv (poison was found in the cargo boxes, although some claim it was intended to poison Arab “collaborators” with the British). Fortunately, none of this came about, as the British authorities discovered the scattered boxes of supplies (including weapons, explosives, radio equipment and money), and deduced that an enemy operation was in progress. Two of the Germans and one of the Arabs, hid in a cave in Wadi Qelt – perhaps the same cave used by the Israelite spies, who can say? – and were captured nine days later. The other two parachutists were not caught and the search for them was eventually called off.

From the Dead Sea Balcony, it was just a short drive to Qasr el-Yahud, (the Tower of the Jews) – traditional site of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Qasr el-Yahud is, strictly speaking, the Arabic name of the old Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. John the Baptist which was closed down in the 1970s, but recently reopened. There are several other monasteries of various Christian denominations in the area, leading to the region being nicknamed “The Land of the Monasteries”.

The site is believed to be the place where the Israelites crossed over the River Jordan. There are, in fact, several places in the vicinity of Jericho where the water is fairly shallow and the river is narrow enough to make a crossing feasible. On the day of our visit, the waters were sluggish and it was hard to believe that there would have been any need for the miracle described in Joshua 3:14 – 17, when God parted the waters of the raging river, just as he parted the waters of the Red Sea. But our visit took place at the very beginning of autumn, after many months during which no rain falls. The crossing of the Israelites took place on the 10th day of Nissan, just before Pessach (Passover), when the river would have been swollen by the winter rains. Even today, people can be swept away and drowned when the Jordan is in flood. This actually happened, about twenty years ago, to a former member of my choir.

The day of our visit, however, was hot and sunny and the river was, as I said, slow-moving and posed no threat to the parties of Christian pilgrims who had gathered on its banks to relive the baptism of Jesus:

John the Baptist no doubt chose this region because he saw himself as the spiritual heir of Elijah the Prophet, who is believed to have ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot in this same spot, as described in II Kings 2.

The description of the Israelite Crossing in Joshua 3, mentions the city of Adam – identified by most scholars as Tell A-Damiya, a nearby archaeological site. The Adam Bridge (Jisr-A-Damiya), the oldest of the Jordan Valley bridges, was originally built in 1266 by the Mamluk ruler Baybars. The stone bridge was still in existence at the beginning of the 20th century, but was no longer in use, as the River Jordan had changed course slightly, leaving the bridge high and dry. During the period of the British Mandate, a new bridge was constructed, which was blown up by the Palmach in the operation known as “the Night of the Bridges”. Another new bridge was built nearby, which was bombed by the IDF during the Six Day War. It was replaced in January 1968 with a Bailey Bridge and was in intermittent use until the 1990s, when its functions were transferred to the Allenby Bridge. Now the bridge is out of bounds to civilians. We required a special permit from the IDF to visit the site.

To get a proper view of the bridge itself, we had to make our way up to an IDF lookout post, reached by a path delineated by barbed wire, taking care not to step off it as it lay in the middle of a minefield. In the shrubbery bordering the path, we caught sight of an Asian Green Bee-Eater, or, as it is known in Hebrew, a shrakrak gamadi (שרקרק גמדי). I had to be very quick off the mark to catch it with my lens:

From the lookout point, we could enjoy a much clearer view of the damaged bridge:

And the views over the Jordan Valley were spectacular:

We  even caught a glimpse of a Jordanian soldier, patrolling his side of the Bridge:

While we were at the lookout post, the weather which had been hot and sunny, changed. The sky clouded over, some (not very heavy) rain fell and we could hear the roll of distant thunder.

This had more or less cleared up by the time we arrived at our final port of call, the so-called “Footprint Site”, so called because, seen from the air, its outline of rough-hewn stones resembles a human footprint in a sandal.

Nobody knows exactly what its purpose was although it has been suggested that this was the site of Gilgal, the place mentioned several times in the Book of Joshua as the first encampment of the Israelites after crossing the River Jordan (see Joshua 4:19, where it is described as being on the eastern border of Jericho).

In the centre of the irregularly shaped site is a ramp leading to what, at first glance, appears to be an altar – although it does not meet the requirements of an Israelite altar, whose dimensions are clearly delineated in the Torah. Moreover, although animal bones were found there (but NOT the bones of pigs or other forbidden animals), there were far fewer than one might expect had the place served as an Israelite altar for many generations. The bones, and pottery shards unearthed here, indicate a site dating back to the 13th century BCE, which is when the Children of Israel would have entered the Land of Canaan, so from the point of view of the timeline, this place is certainly suitable for identification as the site of Gilgal.

Our guide demonstrated to us that if thousands of people were to ascend the steps of the rocky basin which partly surrounds the site, a person standing below on the ramp can be clearly heard by those seated above, as in an ancient Greek theatre. It has therefore been suggested that this might have been the place where Joshua spoke to the Children of Israel after they crossed the River Jordan, as described in Joshua 4:21.

There is a clearly delineated, paved pathway around the “altar”, and some researchers have suggested that priests, or pilgrims, might have encircled the altar as part of a religious ceremony. It has even been suggested that the word chag (חג – festival, holy day) derives from the word לחוג (lachug – to circle), and that the ancient Hebrew term for making a pilgrimage (לעלות לרגל – la’alot laregel – To Ascend to the Foot), as well as the term used for the three pilgrimage festivals, Pessach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (Tabernacles) – Shalosh Regalim (שלוש רגלים) which literally means “the Three Feet” (or, as we used to call them, the Three “Foot” festivals), actually dates back to a time before the existence of Solomon’s Temple, or even of the Sanctuary at Shiloh, when the Israelites would literally make a pilgrimage to “the Foot” (this one, near Moshav Argaman, or one of four others excavated by the archaeologist Prof. Adam Zertal), and encircle it in solemn procession. By the way, of the three pilgrimage festivals, the one which is often referred to simply as chag in the ancient Jewish sources is Sukkot – a festival which is, to this day, marked by carrying the Four Species in a circle around the synagogue! Coincidence?

And now to the question, why would the Israelites build a pilgrimage site shaped like a human foot?

Well, if the site really is the place where the Israelites first encamped after crossing the Jordan, the clue might lie in the symbolism. In Deuteronomy 11:24, God promises the Children of Israel:
Every place whereon the sole of your foot shall tread shall be yours: from the wilderness, and Lebanon, from the river, the river Euphrates, even unto the hinder sea shall be your border.”
This promise is reiterated in Joshua 1:3 –
Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, to you have I given it, as I spoke unto Moses.”

The symbolism of the placing of one’s foot on a certain piece of land to mark one’s ownership lasted throughout the generations. The placing of the foot is not only a legal act, but also reflects God’s dominion, as we see in Ezekiel 43:7 – “this is the place of My throne, and the place of the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel for ever…”

By now, the sun was starting to set and it was time to head for home. I will leave you then, with one last picture of this mysterious site, little known outside of Israel (and scarcely visited even by Israelis, except in the framework of specialised courses such as this one) – and an invitation to next month’s tour, which will take us to Mount Ebal (another site discovered by Prof. Zertal) and Shiloh.

Until then – להתראות (Lehitra’ot).

Posted in Archaeology, History, Tourism, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

A New Year Is Just Around The Corner

Shame on me, allowing almost three months to pass without writing about anything. And now, lo and behold – Rosh Hashana is less than a fortnight away, the children are all back at school (the almost “traditional” teachers’ strike having been averted – as usual – at the last minute), choir rehearsals have started again (we are working on Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, which it has long been an ambition of mine to sing), and earlier this month, I took part in an afternoon walking tour with Yad Ben Zvi – my first in a very, very long time (thanks to the impact of COVID-19).

This tour was (for me) a very local tour, from the old Ottoman Railway Station (now converted into a restaurant and cafe quarter), to the Bible Hill opposite (so called because Ben Gurion wanted to open a Bible Institute on the hill but now, best known for the wildflowers that cover it in spring and autumn, especially the squills which bloom there at the end of the summer and are known as harbingers of the Fall), past the Khan Theatre, taking in St. Andrew’s Scottish Church with its rather tenuous connection to Robert the Bruce, an ancient necropolis dating back to the First Temple period, and ending with a monument to peace made of the debris of war.

Opposite the old Railway Station is a piece of street art, which many people pass by without noticing, except maybe to ask themselves, why anyone would park a car in such an awkward place.

Actually. whenever I see this statue, the work of the sculptor and painter Gavriel Klasmer, I am reminded of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince and the painting of the boa constrictor digesting an elephant, which the undiscerning mistake for a picture of a hat.

A few yards further on is a drinking fountain, donated as a parting gift to the people of Jerusalem by General Sir Arthur Grenfell Wauchope, who served as the British High Commissioner for Palestine between 1931 – 1938.

By the way – it doesn’t work!

Not much further along the road is the Khan Theatre, which I have always been given to understand to have been originally built in the Ottoman Turkish period as a caravanserai – a roadside inn where caravan travellers could rest overnight on their way to Jerusalem in the days when the city gates were closed at sunset. However, it appears there is some disagreement about that. Even the Jerusalem Municipality seems to be unable to make up its mind about the origins of the Khan, which would explain the existence of not one, but TWO plaques, one at each side of the entrance. One of them claims that the building dates to the Mamluk period (1250 – 1517 C.E.):

The other dates the building to 1853 and claims it originally served as a silk factory, before being converted to a hostel for Christian and Jewish pilgrims on their way to Hebron and Bethlehem.

The latter story does seem more likely, as the present building does not bear the distinguishing characteristics of Mamluk architecture as found elsewhere in Jerusalem, such as alternating layers of different coloured bricks, for example. Moreover, the date, 1853, is very specific indeed.
I imagine that there are elements of truth in both stories and it is entirely possible that the present building (which was, itself, renovated in the late 1960s and early 1970s) was built on the site of a pre-existing caravanserai.
Nowadays, as I already mentioned, the building complex houses the Khan Theatre repertory company and serves as the venue for various cultural events in its courtyard and restaurant cafe.

Just beyond the Khan, passing an old stone building which, until quite recently, housed the British Consulate in Jerusalem (well, in western Jerusalem, at least), is the turn-off to what is known to every Jerusalemite as “the Scottish Church” – St. Andrew’s, where I have appeared many times with my choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir. The church, also known as the Scots Memorial Church, was built as a memorial to the Scottish soldiers killed in the region while fighting the Ottoman Turks during World War I. Designed by the British architect Clifford Holliday, the foundation stone was laid on the 7th of May 1927 by Field-Marshal Lord Allenby himself and the church opened its doors in 1930.
Built on a rocky outcrop high above the Hinnom Valley, the church and adjoining hospice, designed to evoke a Highland castle and keep, enjoy a magnificent view of the Old City.

One of the most poignant legends associated with the church is connected to the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce. The story goes that the king had taken a vow to undertake a crusade to fight the “Saracens” in the Holy Land. As he had failed to fulfil that vow, on his deathbed, he instructed that after he died, his heart was to be removed from his body and brought to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Accordingly, after his death on the 7th of June, 1329, his heart was removed and placed in a silver casket, which was entrusted to Sir James Douglas (Black Douglas). The latter, for some reason, was sidetracked to Spain where he joined a campaign against the Moorish kingdom of Granada, in the course of which, he was killed. King Robert’s heart was found and brought back to Scotland, where it was buried at Melrose Abbey, but the Abbey was sacked during the Reformation and later fell into complete disrepair. Over the years, the King’s heart was lost and found and then lost again – and not found again until 1996. It was finally reburied in Melrose Abbey, in 1998. For this reason, there is a plaque set in the floor of St. Andrew’s Church, commemorating the Scottish king’s pious wish for his heart to be buried in Jerusalem – reminding me, at any rate, of the poem by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi: “My heart is in the East, Whilst I am in the utmost West”.

Adjoining the church is the guesthouse, which contains some beautiful examples of Armenian ceramics created by the artist David Ohanessian, whose tiles also decorate other Jerusalem landmarks, such as the Rockefeller Museum, and the Jerusalem House of Quality:

Ohanessian, a Turkish-born Armenian, survived the genocide wreaked by the Turks on his people and came to Jerusalem as an almost penniless refugee in 1918, to work on the restitution of the tiles of the Dome of the Rock. He founded the Dome of the Rock Tiles ceramic workshop in the Old City’s Via Dolorosa and almost single-handedly, created the Jerusalem Armenian school of ceramics, on the basis of Turkish Ottoman ceramics.

The church and guesthouse are surrounded by a beautiful and well-kept garden, in which one can find the graves of two dogs:

Popular legend has it that these are the graves of two dogs that fought with the Scots troops in the battle for Jerusalem, but according to our guide, they were actually the faithful pets of the guesthouse’s House Mother. Since one of the tombstones states that the dog known (fittingly) as Bruce was born in 1942, this seems much more likely.

Sandwiched between St. Andrew’s Church and the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre lies the small, but fascinating, Ketef Hinnom Archaeological Park, housing a network of tombs from the First Temple period. During that time, it was customary to place the dead on stone benches hewn around the walls of the burial cave. The head would repose in a hollowed out space, as if on a pillow. After about a year, when it could be assumed that the flesh had decomposed, the bare bones would be collected and placed in a chamber hewn under the “bench”, where they would rest with the bones of family members who had gone before. Hence the expression “he was gathered unto his fathers”.

Seven family tombs were discovered here in the 1970’s, containing the bones of 95 people, obviously people of means, to judge by the objects found with them. The latter were discovered almost accidentally, by a 13-year-old boy. They included pottery, coins and jewellery. One of the most important finds was a pair of silver amulets in the form of scrolls. These were so fragile, it took several years before it was possible to open the tiny scrolls without damaging them. When they were finally opened, they were found to be inscribed with the words of the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6: 23 – 27), still recited by Jews today. Dating back to the 6th century BCE, they pre-date the Dead Sea Scrolls by several hundred years and are the oldest Hebrew texts known to be in existence. They are on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Leaving the archaeological park by the back gate, we now ascended the Bible Hill as the sun slowly sank behind us.

From the ridge, on a clear day, one can see far out into the Judaean Desert. But it was starting to get dark, so we descended the hill on its eastern side and proceeded to the Jerusalem House of Quality.

The building which, nowadays, serves as a centre for showcasing art and artists, was originally built as a wing of St. John’s Eye Hospital – which explains why the entrance courtyard is covered with the coats of arms of Knights of the Order of St. John (the Hospitallers), and why the Cross of the Order (the famous “Maltese” Cross) features prominently among its decorative features:

Like the Scottish Church described above, this building was also designed by the British architect Clifford Holliday – and like the Scottish Church, here too can be seen fine examples of David Ohanessian’s Armenian ceramics:

After an all-to-short twenty minute period to enjoy the more modern art and crafts displayed in the building, it was time for our last stop. Between the Jerusalem House of Quality and the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre is a monument to peace designed by the controversial Israeli painter and sculptor Yigael Tumarkin. and made out of pieces of broken weapons:

You could not say more clearly: “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – and that verse is, indeed, engraved on the pillar.

Nearby, reminiscent of the famous handprints in the Hollywood Boulevard, are the handprints of those who contributed to the cost of erecting the monument, the largest being that of Jerusalem’s legendary mayor, Teddy Kollek:

With that, our tour ended. I hope you have enjoyed reliving it with me.



I started writing this article a week ago today, and before I was even half way through, I was stunned to hear the news of the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. She was Queen before I was born and I always imagined her living to be 100 at least, like her mother – but it was not to be. I left England 48 years ago, but for me, she will always be THE Queen. Talking about King Charles III still feels surreal to me. I suddenly feel very old. It sounds trite but an era has, indeed, ended – the Second Elizabethan Age.
Rest in Peace, Your Majesty. You’ve earned it.

Posted in Archaeology, Art, History, Tourism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Corona Chronicles – Back To Business

I spoke too soon. COVID-19 is still with us, now mostly in the form of the latest variant, BA-5.
The Ministry of Health dashboard, last updated at 11.06 this morning, gives the Transmission Rate (R) as 1.37 although on the morning news programme, it was reported as 1.55. That was at 9 am, however – and, in any case, the figures are not (cannot be) completely up to date to the minute but refer to the last 24 hours. At all events, it is clear that COVID is once again spreading. The Ministry of Health has “recommended” that we resume the use of face-masks in closed spaces. However, in line with the current policy of learning to live with COVID, no restrictions have (as yet) been imposed. Some of the “experts” think we are witnessing the start of a Sixth Wave. On the other hand, a few weeks ago, the Transmission Rate rose to 1.42, right after Purim – but fell again and remained well below 1 for several weeks, without any special measures being taken to contain the spread of the virus.

At choir rehearsals, some people are once again (or maybe, still) wearing face-masks and this was the case also, at our concert the day before yesterday (in the audience, that is).

Yes, it’s back to business for Israel’s cultural institutions – the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir amongst them. All of the five component choirs have produced, or will be producing, concerts this month – and that is in addition to the big choir’s Gala concert which is set to take place on the 5th of July, in the Henry Crown Auditorium, with a full orchestra, just like in the days BC (Before COVID).

The day before yesterday, it was the turn of my own choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir.
The first part of the programme consisted of music from the Renaissance to the 20th century, based on Jewish and Christian liturgical texts (although even the Jewish texts, from the Psalms, were in Latin) – three motets by Bruckner (who must have hated sopranos, judging by the incredibly difficult vocal feats he demanded of them), two of Duruflé’s Four Motets on Gregorian Themes, and – my personal favourite – O Magnum Mysterium by Tomás Luis de Victoria, which resounded magnificently in the acoustic of Christ Church, an Anglican church just inside the Old City of Jerusalem, opposite the Citadel.

Unusually for us, apart from the a cappella portion of the programme, we also were accompanied by a string quintet in the central item of the evening, the Stabat Mater by Josef Rheinberger. The quintet actually consisted of the Across Quartet, and the contrabass player Kai Jack. The Quartet also added diversity to the evening’s programme by treating us all to the First Movement of Dvorak’s Quartet no. 12 in F Major opus 96 (the “American” Quartet) – one of my favourite pieces of chamber music.

The second half of the programme was rather lighter in mood, and more varied in language, encompassing works by the contemporary Canadian composer, Stephen Chatman, the 19th century English composer and conductor Henry David Leslie, the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos and ending with Cole Porter.

After three years of truncated, on-and-off musical activity, it feels so good to be back!

Posted in Health, Music, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 10 Comments

The Corona Chronicles – Gerusalemme Liberata

Fifty five years ago come Sunday, in the midst of the Six Day War, all Israel was electrified by the announcement of Motta Gur, Commander of the 55th Paratroop Brigade, which liberated the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jordanians: Har Habayit Beyadeinu (הר הבית בידינו – The Temple Mount is in our hands).

In the years that followed, however, that miraculous victory was virtually thrown away by successive Israeli governments.

The first mistake was that of Moshe Dayan, then Minister of Defence, who ordered Gur to remove the Israeli flag which the Israeli soldiers had raised over the holy site, and who personally returned the keys to the Muslim Waqf. Since then, Israeli sovereignty over the holiest site in the world to the Jewish people, has been under attack and steadily weakening.

Just think of it! A Jewish government prevents Jews from praying at our holiest of holy places! And I’m not just talking about organised prayer. Nobody is suggesting converting the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock into synagogues. But the fact is that when Jews visit the Temple Mount, they are accompanied by Waqf guards – with the agreement of the Israel Government and the Israel Police – and any Jew who dares even to utter a prayer under his breath, or don a tallit (prayer-shawl), risks being attacked by Muslims and arrested by the Israel Police for causing a breach of the peace!!!

What other country, after winning a war which had been forced upon it, in the course of which it regained control of its spiritual heart, has EVER made such a concession to its defeated enemies?!

Last week, the Police arrested three Jewish teenagers who had committed the terrible “crime” of prostrating themselves on the Temple Mount and reciting the Shemapossibly the oldest and most important prayer in the Jewish tradition. Among the conditions for their release, they were banned from the Temple Mount for 15 days. They appealed the decision and the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court (Judge Tzion Saharay) overturned the Police ban, remarking: “I believe that one cannot say that prostrating and saying Kriyat Shema can be suspected of being behaviors which violate public order. It is hard to accept a situation in which saying Shema Yisrael on Temple Mount could be deemed a criminal act and one that could bring a violation of the peace“.

Unfortunately, Israeli weakness on this subject, the way successive governments have backed down in face of the “Heckler’s Veto” exercised by the Waqf every time a Jew dares to claim the right (which no Israeli government has actually denied and which the Supreme Court has upheld) of “quiet prayer” on the Temple Mount, has merely fueled the demands of our enemies and their threats to take violent action if Israel dares to alter the Status Quo on the holy site (as the Muslims have been doing for years) – and so the Police, backed by the District Attorney’s Office hurried to appeal to the District Court. The District Court apparently lacks the courage of the lower court and upheld the Police ban.

On the other hand, the Government has not given in (yet) to Hamas demands to curtail the traditional Jerusalem Day March of the Flags (or Dance of the Flags) and prevent the marchers/dancers from entering via the Damascus Gate, though Hamas has threatened to fire rockets at Jerusalem if the march proceeds as planned (which they did, in fact, do last year, even though the route was changed).

To which I say – bring it on, boys. With any luck, your rockets will fall on your precious mosques and blow them to kingdom come.

Of course, should that happen, no doubt CNN would conduct another of their laughable “independent investigations” and find Israel guilty of deliberately destroying the mosques, just as they found Israel guilty, on the testimony of blatantly biased witnesses, of the deliberate assassination of Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh, when, in fact, she was almost certainly killed by Palestinian terrorists (and that is why the Palestinians are refusing to produce the bullet which killed her). CNN, as we all know, is incapable of objectivity where Israel is concerned, but concocting this blood libel is a new low, even for them.


As the COVID statistics continue to decline in Israel, and almost all restrictions have now been abolished, this will probably be my last post to contain the title “The Corona Chronicles”. Should further developments make it necessary, that series can always be resumed. I hope, however, that that particular crisis is behind us – and that the rest of the world will be able to say the same in the very near future.
I only hope I am not going to have to start a new series – the Monkey-pox Saga.


In honour of Jerusalem Liberation Day, which, as I said, falls this coming Sunday, I will leave you with one of the loveliest songs I know about Jerusalem – Or V’Yerushalayim (אור וירושלים – Light and Jerusalem), words and music by Yossi Sarig, who was killed in the Yom Kippur War, performed by the Parvarim duo.

It’s such a beautiful song, I feel sure you will want the translation:

Again the silence falls here from the evening sky.
Like the soaring red kite (bird) above the abyss.
And a red sun kisses, like a flaming sword,
The peaks, towers and walls.

I saw a city enveloped in light (or: enveloping light)
And it rises in all the colours of the rainbow
And it plays within me like the ten-stringed harp.
I saw a city enveloped in light.

Behold, the shadow creeps from among the pine-covered hills.
It draws near, secretly, as a lover, to the neighborhoods.
And lo, before him, winking- a myriad eyes of light.
Suddenly his eyes opened as if amazed.

I saw a city enveloped in light (etc)

In the silence of the last night watch the city breaths,
And in the velvet sky a last shard pales.
But dawn’s golden dome is already turning red,
In the warm, soft touch of a young light.

I saw a city enveloped in light (etc).

Posted in News, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Corona Chronicles – Never Forget

Today, in Israel, we are marking Holocaust Remembrance Day – or, to give it its full title, Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day. And I stress the word Heroism. Because while many people think Jews went like lambs to the slaughter in Nazi-occupied Europe, we are learning more and more about Jewish resistance, whether physical resistance, as typified by Jewish partisans such as the Bielski brothers, (whose story you may know from the film Defiance) or spiritual resistance, as expressed in the valiant efforts to preserve Jewish values, education and culture in the face of the Nazis’ and their helpers’ determination to suppress these.  

The Nazis attempted to dehumanise their victims before killing them, by denying them education, medical care, even food. Jews fought to retain their humanity by organising schools, welfare services, an underground educational network, both religious and secular, as well as cultural activities.

Spiritual resistance took many forms. I have written before about a concert “in blue” held in the Kovno Ghetto in July 1943, in which the participants expressed their defiance by means of their choice of programme – a Zionist programme through and through. And what about the opera Brundibar, performed by children in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) Ghetto?

Other forms of spiritual resistance included the keeping of diaries. The Nazis wanted to extinguish all trace of the Jewish people. Diaries ensured that the memory of those murdered remained alive. The Diary of Anne Frank is well-known. But what of the Lodz Ghetto diaries of David Sierakowiak, or the Vilna Ghetto diary of Yitzchak Rudashevski, who describes the establishment of a library in the Ghetto to preserve Jewish culture and learning?

Every year when Holocaust Remembrance Day comes round, I tell myself I am not going to watch any more of the films and documentaries which replace the usual television schedule, that I can’t take any more of it. But I can’t help myself. More than thirty years ago, I bought a six-volume Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust, in Hebrew, published by Yad Vashem. There is also a four-volume English version. Each year, I discover there is still more to learn. Each year, I am appalled to discover how ignorant so many people are about the Holocaust. People like the covert antisemite Whoopi Goldberg, who chose the name Goldberg as her professional name because she believed it would be useful to her in what she believed to be a Jewish – controlled Hollywood, and who still insists that the Holocaust wasn’t about racism “because it was whites doing it to other whites”.

I am angered too, by those who ignorantly compare mask mandates with the Nuremberg laws! Whether or not you agree with mask mandates, such a comparison trivialises the Holocaust!

And each year, I am enraged by those who tell us to forgive and forget. Because how can a people that still commemorates the destruction of our Temple, two thousand years after the event, be expected to forgive the destruction of six million of our brothers and sisters a mere 80 years ago, when there are still men and women alive today who suffered under the Nazis and their helpers?

And when I hear of some Nazi, who has managed to escape punishment for 77 years, finally being brought before a court to answer for his crimes, and I hear people say: “He’s 95 years old, why can’t you let him live out his remaining years in peace?”, I think of my own father, nearly 95 years old, weeping silently for his murdered parents, and apologising to me for losing control – and I remember King David’s instructions to his son, Solomon, regarding one who had injured him and committed murder: “Do not let his grey head go down to the grave in peace”.

Never forget.
Never forgive.

I swear I never shall.

Posted in History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments