White Nights, Red (Letter) Days

No doubt many of you have been wondering where I had disappeared to and what I have been up to over the past couple of months.

Wonder no more. All shall be revealed.      🙂

Earlier this month, my choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, had the privilege of taking part in the Fifth European Jewish Music and Choir Festival, held this year in St. Petersburg, Russia. Naturally, this had required much rehearsal time – at a time when we were also busy with several other projects, such as the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir’s annual Gala, the Chamber Choir’s own end-of-year concert (which was also a fundraiser for our journey to Russia) and a singalong performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” which took place only a few days before we were due to fly (via Moscow) to “the Venice of the North”. In addition to all the time and energy devoted to preparations for the journey, I – and other members of my family – were also busy with preparations for an important family event (about which, more later).

This trip marked the first time I used my Israeli passport for anything other than exiting Israel. Usually, for reasons of convenience, I use my British passport while abroad, since most of my travels have been within the EU and (until now, at least), there has therefore been no need to obtain a visa. What will happen after Brexit is anybody’s guess. Even when I travelled with JOCC to New York, in 2010, my UK passport made me eligible for the Visa Waiver Program.  However, it turns out that while Israeli nationals do not require a visa to visit Russia (and that is something no one even dreamed of, when I got my first Israeli passport more than four decades ago), nationals of almost every other country do. The two Americans and the German citizen in our group had to go running back and forth to the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv – and the German citizen, one of our basses, eventually gave up and didn’t come on the trip.

Trips abroad with JOCC are almost invariably enlivened by hitches of greater or lesser severity. Arriving at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, early in the afternoon of Wednesday July 5th, we were met by a representative of our hosts, who informed us that we had to wait 20 minutes or so for another choir which was due to arrive and travel with us to the same hotel. The 20 minutes turned into over an hour, during which we whiled away the time doing what we nearly always do in such situations. We started singing. Judging by the number of passers-by who whipped out mobile phones to film us, we didn’t give too bad a performance 😉

When the other choir (or rather, choirs) eventually arrived, we were exceedingly irritated by the fact that they were sent off directly to the hotel, whereas we had to wait for another coach. As a result, we arrived at the Azimut Hotel two hours later than planned. We had intended to dump our suitcases and go directly to the Hermitage Museum, for which we had pre-paid tickets (valid for six months) and which is open till 21:00 on Wednesdays.  However, by now, we were all hungry so instead, we went out for our first glimpse of the city and to find somewhere to eat. As a result, we missed the Welcome Party (at which, apparently, there was no real food) which caused some ill will. But after being kept hanging around at the airport for almost two hours, I hold that a decent meal was a necessity and so my conscience is clear.

My first impressions of St. Petersburg are of a beautiful, majestic city which, with its rivers and canals, strongly reminded me of Amsterdam, rather than Venice.

 

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Returning to the hotel at about 22:00, I was able to enjoy the splendid sunset (St. Petersburg is so far north – on the same line of latitude as Oslo – that it doesn’t get completely dark till after midnight in July and the dawn breaks at about 2.30 AM) before going to bed after a very long day which had started when I got up at 3.30 AM on Wednesday morning to catch my 07:00 AM  Aeroflot flight to Moscow.

 

20170705_221734From my window at ten fifteen pm

That was the view from my room on the fifth floor. The views from the Sky Bar, on the 18th floor, were no less spectacular!

 

 

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Panorama from the Sky Bar

 

The following day, Thursday, started with a rehearsal in one of the hotel’s conference rooms, of three pieces to be sung at the Gala Concert by the combined choirs – over five hundred singers, together with the orchestra. One of these pieces was Israel’s National Anthem – Hatikvah.  Who would have imagined, thirty or forty years ago, that in Israel’s 70th year, Jewish choirs from all over Europe – including two local Jewish choirs from St. Petersburg – would be singing the Israeli National Anthem here in St. Petersburg? St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was known during the Soviet era) where, under the Czarist regime, Jews – who were normally confined to the Pale of Settlement – required a special permit to live and where, under the Communists, Jews could live – but could not be Jews.

I think I was not the only one with a lump in my throat.

 

 

The opening concert of the Festival was that evening, at the St. Petersburg State Capella, which started life as the St. Petersburg Court Chapel and which is also known as the Academic Glinka Capella or the St. Petersburg Music House. We were amused to note that the presentation was strongly reminiscent of the Eurovision Song Contest, with two compères, one male, who spoke in Russian and one female, who presented the singers in heavily-accented English.  The ten participating choirs were preceded by a full-throated non-Jewish Russian choir. I didn’t catch the name of the choir but I believe it was the Capella’s own choir .

Our choir was one of the first to perform.

 

Appearing at the Capella

 

Each choir presented a short programme of 3 or 4 songs. Even so, with so many choirs taking part and with introductions in between by the compères in two languages, as well as an interval between the two halves of the concert, what was supposed to be a two hour concert actually took almost four hours.  No wonder, when everyone was enjoying themselves so much.

 

 

 

 

Nor was that the end of the evening because the concert was followed by a reception and a dance party (with real food, this time) back at the hotel,  where the festival participants were beguiled by the music of a klezmer band until the early hours of the morning.

The following morning, Friday, the organisers had laid on a coach tour of St. Petersburg for us. After seeing the main sights, such as The Bronze Horseman (a statue of Peter the Great),  the monument to Catherine the Great, the Kazan Cathedral, the Sphinxes on the University Embankment facing the  Imperial Academy of Arts, the Admiralty Building, the Hermitage Museum – in front of which, some kind of military graduation ceremony was taking place

 

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and the Church on Spilled Blood  which we had seen on our first evening and where we now had the opportunity to be photographed in full Russian aristocratic regalia

 

 

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and also to experience Russian public toilets – where they have some strange ideas about what the people who use them might be tempted to get up to –

 

IMG-20170707-WA0017 Public toilet ticket

to name but a few, we arrived at the Grand Choral Synagogue, where we were welcomed by the Chief Rabbi of St. Petersburg, Menachem Mendel Pewzner, who got us all singing – another emotional moment it would have been hard to imagine forty years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

After a (very) light lunch at the synagogue, we were free until Kabbalat Shabbat later that evening.

And that is how we found ourselves at the famous Sever Bakery and Cafe on the even more famous Nevsky Prospect, sitting at an outside table, watching the passersby, sipping cappucino and sampling to-die-for pastries, such as these:

 

 

IMG-20170717-WA0009At Sever's Cafe

 

 

Returning on the Metro (deeper than any undergound railway I have ever seen, anywhere – I was told that the Soviets built their Metro lines so deep as to allow for them to serve as bunkers and bomb shelters in the event of a nuclear war with the United States, but I am not sure this was the real reason),  I barely had time for a shower before it was time to go downstairs for Kabbalat Shabbat and the festive Shabbat meal.

 
P1030152 On the Metro

 

 

This was another emotional experience, the participating choirs taking turns to sing Shabbat evening songs. We had a hit with Shabbat Hamalka  (Shabbat the Queen), which was also the first item in our concert the following afternoon (see a video of the whole concert below).

The following morning, we walked to the Hermitage Museum and spent a rather frenetic couple of hours there.  In fact, for me, it was also frantic for a good part of the time, as I became separated from the rest of the group. I had hoped to see the museum’s Impressionist collection, but that is housed in a separate wing and the tickets we had purchased on the internet prior to leaving Israel could only be used once in each of the different buildings of the Hermitage. So I contented myself with relics of Ancient Egypt, mediaeval and renaissance Italian paintings and 17th century Dutch art. The museum buildings are themselves pretty impressive, as these pictures show:

 

 

 

 

I do, however, greatly regret not having caught so much as a glimpse of the famous Hermitage cats!

Of course, it is impossible to see more than the merest fraction of the museum’s collection on a two and a half hour visit – and, in any case, I think two to three hours at a time  is as much as most people can manage without going into meltdown. (When I visit London, I usually make two or three visits to the National Gallery or the British Museum, over a course of several days.)
Besides, as I already mentioned, we had a concert that afternoon – at the Lutheran Church of St. Peter and St. Paul on the Nevsky Prospect. This concert included Adon Olam, with the solo sung by Yours Truly. It was the third item on the programme and you can find it at 6:50 on the recording below.

 

 

Some of us had hoped to be able to return to the Hermitage after the concert, but this concert, like its predecessor, went on longer than expected. Two other choirs also took part, both of them local choirs – the Choir of Jewish Song Lovers “Eva”, part of the St. Petersburg EVA Charitable Foundation, and the EVA Jewish Youth Choir – something else that would have been unthinkable in the Soviet era. It is particularly heartwarming to know that  Jewish life in the former Soviet Union has enjoyed such a comeback that there is a new generation ready to carry on the tradition!

 

 

 

 

The following day, a group of us visited Peterhof, Peter the Great’s Russian version of Versailles, in the western suburbs of St. Petersburg.  As we had a concert that evening at the renowned Mariinsky Concert Hall and had to be back in town for a rehearsal there by early afternoon, we knew we would not have time to see both the palace and the gardens and so we opted for the gardens. Tickets for the gardens alone can be purchased at a separate ticket office behind the palace.

 

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The gardens and parklands surrounding the Palace (or rather, palaces) are beautiful. Some are in the formal style to be found at Versailles, others more closely resemble an English country estate:

 

 

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One of the lesser “palaces” to be found on the grounds is Peter the Great’s private “retreat” – Marly Palace. It looks out over a man-made lake which is crossed by a couple of elegant bridges.

 

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On one of these bridges we decided, quite spontaneously, to entertain the ducks by rehearsing our pieces for that night’s Gala Concert.

 

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I have to hand it to them, they were a very enthusiastic audience 😉
As we sang, more and more of them gathered around to listen, as did a couple of park keepers.

Peterhof is actually situated on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, so if you are a seashore buff, as I am, you can wander down to the beach and watch the seagulls.

 

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Peterhof is most famous for its fountains and gilded statues. Most famous of all is the Grand Cascade which is switched on and plays to a musical accompaniment at exactly 11 AM.

 

 

 

To save time, we decided to return to St. Petersburg by hydrofoil.  Back in town, we found that several major streets had been closed for the White Nights Marathon. While none of us can claim to be Marathon runners, we had to leg it pretty fast over to the Mariinsky Concert Hall, for our rehearsal. Then some of us went out to eat but I thought a shower would be a better pick-me-up so I walked back to the hotel (it’s a quarter hour walk), where I found others had had the same idea. I had less than an hour to rest but we took a taxi back to the Mariinsky, where we had now to rehearse the three pieces to be sung by all the choirs together. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Fortunately, backstage at the Mariinsky (this was the new concert hall), there is a cafeteria where, for the price of no more than 90 Rubles (less than 6 shekels!) I could have a cup of much needed tea and a smoked salmon sandwich before it was time to dress for the concert.

 

P1030261Backstage at the Mariinsky Concert Hall

 

Rather unnervingly, our choir was on first.

 
Gala Concert at the Mariinsky Concert Hall2

 

On the other hand, that meant that once our performance was over, we could sit back and enjoy the rest of the concert. Like the previous two concerts, this one also lasted much longer than anticipated – and was followed by a Farewell Party in the Grand Choral Synagogue, after which many members of our group went on a night cruise on the Neva. I was not one of them. I intended to go – but when I got to the meeting place with another member of the group, and found the boat about to leave, no-one else from our group was there. I decided to go back to the hotel, as we were supposed to be leaving the following morning at 6 AM, to catch a 9:20 AM flight.

Silly me. It turns out that everyone else had left on another boat, with English-speaking commentary. I could kick  myself. I would have liked to see the bridges opening.

However,  it’s not worth eating myself up about all the things I could/should have done but didn’t. At least I got a few hours of sleep that night. The others got back to the hotel at about 2:30 AM, and still had to pack. And I can always look at their pictures.

 

 

 

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I was up at 5:25 the following morning. When I checked my WhatsApp messages, I saw that our departure from the hotel had been postponed to 6:30 to allow us to eat breakfast. Unfortunately, the coach which was supposed to transport us to the airport failed to materialise!
Mild panic ensued, there were frantic phone calls to the organisers, who called the hotel and had them organise taxis to take us to the airport (at no charge to us, I must add). When we finally got there, we discovered that our flight had been been postponed to 10 o’clock.  Would we reach Moscow in time for our connecting flight?

We did.
We landed in Tel Aviv slightly earlier than anticipated and arrived back in Jerusalem just as several major traffic arteries were being closed in preparation for the Maccabiah Night Run.

My brother had arrived from England the day before – to celebrate my father’s 90th birthday with a party we had been planning for the best part of 6 months. This took place two days after my return.
In the same way as the celebration of Jewish music we had just attended in St. Petersburg represented the victory of the Jewish spirit over the Soviet regime which had tried to destroy our nation spiritually, so the celebration of my father’s 90th birthday represented the triumph of the Jewish spirit over the Nazi monsters who tried to wipe out our nation physically. When my father, a frightened 12-year-old boy, sailed for England at the end of August 1939,  one of the few fortunate Jewish refugee children from Europe (less than 10,000) allowed in as part of the Kindertransport,  I doubt that he, or his parents (whom he was never to see again) imagined that 78 years later, he would be celebrating his 90th birthday in his own home in Jerusalem, capital of the independent Jewish State of Israel, surrounded by his children and grandchildren.
And yes – I thought of that too, as we sang Hatikvah in St. Petersburg, and wondered how many more could have been saved if we had then had a state of our own.

Shabbat Shalom to you all.

 

 

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A Tale of Two Cities

I hold two cities in my heart and in my thoughts today. With one I rejoice. With the other, I mourn.

I mourn with the great city of Manchester, as she buries twenty-two of her sons and daughters, the youngest no more than eight years old, victims of a brutal act of terror committed earlier this week by an evil Islamist fanatic, who, as is the case so often with Islamist extremists, deliberately targeted the weakest and most defenceless, children and teenagers. Just as Boko Haram and the Taliban target schoolgirls, just as Chechen Muslim terror groups targeted schoolchildren in the 2004 Beslan school attack, going so far as to deny their hostages food and water, just as “Palestinian” Muslim terrorists murder Jewish children in their beds, so did Salman Abedi, the British-born son of Libyan Muslim parents, choose as his target a concert where he must have known that a large segment of the audience would be in their teens, or even younger.

 

Mancunians are tough and in the face of terror, have displayed the same spirit of defiance which typified Britain during the Second World War. In this, they resemble Israelis, who have faced the brutality of suicide bombers over and over again.  It is a spirit expressed to perfection in this poem by Tony Walsh, written in 2013 and performed by him yesterday, at the public vigil following the horrendous attack:

 

I salute you, Manchester – and I share your tears.

 

I hold two cities in my heart and in my thoughts today. With one I mourn. With the other, I rejoice.

I rejoice with the Holy City of Jerusalem, Capital of the reborn State of Israel, as she celebrates her Golden Jubilee, half a century since her liberation from the illegal Jordanian occupation and her reunification, under Jewish sovereignty once more, for the first time in 2000 years. Whether or not the rest of the world chooses to recognise it as such, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Any dictionary you choose to look in will tell you that a nation’s capital is its seat of government, its administrative centre. No other city in Israel meets that definition. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is in Jerusalem. The President’s Residence is in Jerusalem. The Prime Minister’s Residence is in Jerusalem. The seat of the Supreme Court is in Jerusalem. All the major government offices are in Jerusalem. When foreign ambassadors present their credentials to the President of Israel, they do so in Jerusalem – thereby recognising her status as Capital,  de facto if not  de jure.  And most important of all, the Old City of Jerusalem, situated in that part of the city that was liberated in June 1967, in a war that was forced on Israel, contains the holiest site in the world to the Jewish People – the Temple Mount, at whose foot stands the Western Wall, last remnant of the Second Temple.

 

This afternoon, tens of thousands are marching through the streets of Jerusalem in the annual “Dance of the Flags”, so called because of the row upon row of Israeli flags carried by the participants, a veritable sea of blue and white. Their destination – the Old City and the Western Wall. And they will reaffirm, to all the world, that (in the words of Gen. Moshe Dayan, Israel’s Defence Minister at the time of the Six-Day-War) “We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again”.

 

The song “Jerusalem of Gold” (ירושלים של זהב – Yerushalayim Shel Zahav) is probably the most famous song to emerge from the Six Day War, although it was actually commissioned by the legendary Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek for performance in the (alas, now defunct) annual Israel Song Festival  on Independence Day, which that year fell on May 15th. Composed by Naomi Shemer and sung by Shuly Nathan (an unknown singer at the time), the song derives its name from the golden diadem said to have been given by the great scholar Rabbi Akiva to his wife, Rachel.  When it was first performed, three weeks before the Six-Day-War, it seemed like a bittersweet song of never-to-be assuaged longing for a divided city, where no Jew (let alone an Israeli Jew) was permitted to set foot by the Jordanians – a longing which is reflected in the first three verses. After the Israeli victory, and the liberation of the hitherto unattainable Old City, Naomi Shemer added the fourth verse, which she herself performed before the IDF soldiers who had liberated the city, and in response to their enthusiastic applause, remarked: “It is much easier to change a song than to change a city”. (This works better in Hebrew, as the words for “song”  – shir – and “city”  – ir –  rhyme.)

At all events, here is Shuly Nathan, singing the whole four verses.

 

And here is the translation:

Mountain air as clear as wine,
And the scent of pine trees, 

Are carried on the twilight breeze,
With the sound of bells.
And in the slumber of tree and stone, 

A prisoner in her own dream,
The city which sits solitary,
And in her heart – a Wall.

Refrain:
Jerusalem of Gold,
And of copper and of light,
Am I not the harp for all thy songs?

How have the water wells dried up!
The market square is empty.
And nobody visits the Temple Mount
In the Old City.
And in the caves within the rock

Winds howl
And no-one goes down to the Dead Sea
By the Jericho Road.

Jerusalem of Gold etc.

But when I come today to sing to thee,
And to attach crowns to thee,
I am but the youngest of thy sons,
And the least of thy poets.
For thy name sears the lips,
Like a Seraph’s kiss.
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
Who art all of gold.

Jerusalem of Gold etc.

We have returned to the water wells.
To the market and to the square.
The Shofar calls from the Temple Mount
In the Old City.
And in the caves within the rock,
A thousand suns shine!
And once again, we will go down to the Dead Sea,
By the Jericho Road.

Jerusalem of Gold etc.

After the Six Day War, “Jerusalem of Gold” became a kind of unofficial, second national anthem, although it is unpopular with some left-wing Israelis, such as the writer Amos Oz, who castigated the song’s alleged “inhumanity” in ignoring the Arab presence in Jerusalem. Naomi Shemer replied to this criticism, stating – quite simply – that for her,  Jerusalem without Jews is an empty city.

I hold two cities in my heart and in my thoughts and in my prayers today. With one I mourn. With the other, I rejoice.

For both, I pray for peace.

 

 

 

 

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You Can Shove It, U.N.E.S.C.O …

Last week, U.N.E.S.C.O. – an organization whose purpose, according to its own Constitution, is “to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations,” passed a blatantly one-sided anti-Israel resolution (the latest of many), which denies Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem (including western Jerusalem) and condemning (amongst other things) “persistent excavations, tunneling, works and projects in East Jerusalem, particularly in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, which are illegal under international law.”

Quite apart from the fact that determining questions of sovereignty is no part of U.N.E.S.C.O.’s mandate, one might ask, where was U.N.E.S.C.O. during the 19 years between 1948 – 1967, when the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was illegally occupying the Old City of Jerusalem (which, according to the U.N. Partition Resolution of November 1947 – UNGA Resolution 181(II) –  was supposed to be a corpus separatum, under a Special International Regime) and systematically destroying Jewish holy sites such as the ancient cemetery on the Mount of Olives, and the synagogues of the Jewish Quarter? Where was U.N.E.S.C.O. when, in the 19 years between 1948 – 1967, Jews (not just Israeli citizens) were denied access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem (not to mention the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron), in defiance of Resolution 181, which clearly states: “In so far as Holy Places are concerned, the liberty of access, visit and transit shall be guaranteed, in conformity with existing rights, to all residents and citizens of the other State and of the City of Jerusalem, as well as to aliens, without distinction as to nationality, subject to requirements of national security, public order and decorum“?

Where was U.N.E.S.C.O. in the 50 years since Jerusalem was reunited under Israeli sovereignty, when the Muslim Waqf carried out illegal excavations and building on the Temple Mount to enlarge the Mosques and deliberately and systematically destroyed any archaeological evidence they could find of the Jewish presence  on the Mount, which predates that of the Arab Muslim invaders by at least 1600 years?

In another section of this infamous Resolution, U.N.E.S.C.O. “Deplores the military confrontations in and around the Gaza Strip and the civilian casualties caused, as well as the continuous negative impact in the fields of competence of UNESCO, the attacks on schools and other educational and cultural facilities, including breaches of the inviolability of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) schools” – which would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic, considering the fact that UNWRA schools were used – with the full knowledge of UNWRA personnel – for storing missiles to be fired at Israeli civilians!

We are told that Israel can be pleased that all the European Union members of U.N.E.S.C.O.’s Executive Board, with the exception of rabidly anti-Israel Sweden, either opposed the shameful resolution, or abstained.  Frankly, as far as I am concerned, any country that abstained, is scarcely better than those who supported the measure. They are moral cowards.

Any organisation that so violates its own Constitution as to adopt such a disgraceful resolution does not deserve the name “United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization”.

Any resolution that can so blatantly ignore history as to deny the sovereignty of the Jewish State over Jerusalem deserves  to be used for toilet paper.

That being the case, U.N.E.S.C.O. you know where you can shove your antisemitic resolution.
Somewhere the sun doesn’t shine.

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Words as Weapons: Islamophobia

Have you noticed how, in today’s Politically Correct climate, anyone who dares to criticise anything about Islam – such as its attitude to women or to non-Muslims- or to mention the fact that the perpetrator of a terrorist act was a Muslim, is immediately accused of being a hateful bigot and branded by the Thought Police of the Left as “Islamophobic”?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “phobia” as: “an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation“.

Other dictionary definitions are similar: “a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object,activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it.

The medical definition is similar: “Specific phobias are an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of objects or situations that pose little real danger but provoke anxiety and avoidance.

Note the emphasis, in all these definitions, on the illogicality, irrationality and unreasonableness of the specific fear.

Let us ask ourselves – just how irrational is the fear of Islam and, by extension, of Muslims?
A survey of the views of British Muslims, commissioned last year by Channel 4, revealed that while, to a high degree, they feel at home in Britain, on certain issues, notably those supposedly close to the heart of truly liberal, tolerant people, such as women’s rights and “gender-equality” (I have deliberately used the Politically Correct terminology here, to show up the hypocrisy of the PC Thought Police), British Muslims are significantly at odds with the general population. For example, almost a quarter of British Muslims (23%) support the replacement of British law with Sharia law in parts of Britain. Almost a third (31%) believe it is acceptable for British Muslims to have more than one wife. 39% believe that wives should always obey their husbands.  Almost half of all British Muslims (47%) believe that homosexuals should not be allowed to be schoolteachers – hardly surprising when the survey shows that fully 52% believe that homosexuality should be illegal in Britain. Think about that. We are not talking here about whether or not homosexuals should be allowed to marry one another. More than half of Britain’s Muslim population believe that homosexual acts between individuals, in the privacy of their own homes, should be criminalised. Bear in mind that, as I mentioned above, almost a quarter of British Muslims believe British law should be replaced by Sharia law.
The penalty for homosexuality, according to Islamic law, is death.
When it comes to freedom of expression, 4% admit to sympathising with those who commit terrorist acts as a form of political protest, while almost a third (32%), while not admitting to sympathising, refuse to condemn those who take part in violence against those who “mock” the Prophet. If the Charlie Hebdo massacre had taken place in the UK, almost a third of Britain’s Muslim population would have refused to condemn the murderers.
When you consider that the Muslim population of Britain is growing much faster than the general population, more than doubling over a a ten year period, and now numbers well over 3 million, even a “mere” 4% who are ready to admit to sympathising with terrorist acts is surely a reasonable cause for concern.

In France, a recent poll conducted by the Institut Montaigne found that 29% – almost a third – of French Muslims favour Sharia law above French law, while a quarter support the wearing in public of the full-face veil (niqab or burqa) by women.  A quarter of those questioned were defined as “hardline”, supporting also polygamy. Particularly worrying is the fact that about half the Muslims under the age of 25 fell into this hardline category – and this is, of course, the fasting growing demographic group.

Add to this the many terrorist attacks carried out by Muslims, and in the name of Islam, in Europe and in the US, over the past couple of years, criminal incidents such as the grooming of British adolescents by Muslim paedophile gangs, mass sexual assaults such as the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, combined with the increase in the Muslim population in the West, whether by natural increase or by migration, and we must ask ourselves: is the fear of Islam – and, by extension, of Muslims – really so inexplicable, irrational, unreasonable or illogical as to constitute a phobia?
The only possible answer to that question must be a resounding “No”.

And just for the record – Fear and Phobia are not necessarily synonymous with Hatred.

 

 

 

 

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“The high mountains are for the ibex; the rocks are a refuge for the hyrax”: A Trip to Ein Gedi and Nachal David

This month’s field trip with Yad Ben Zvi saw us exploring the area of Ein Gedi, in the wake of King David and the Book of Psalms.

As many of you no doubt recall,  when David – not yet king – was forced to flee from King Saul, for part of the time he took refuge “in the strongholds of Ein Gedi”
(I Samuel 23:29).

It is easy to understand David’s choice of hiding place. The rocks and mountains around Ein Gedi are riddled with caves, some of them quite large, and the mountains afford a vantage point which would enable a fugitive to have plenty of warning of the approach of his pursuers.

We started our day at the foot of Tel Goren, an Israelite settlement dating back to the end of the 7th century BCE, at the entrance to Nachal Arugot. Nachal Arugot is one of two perennial streams running through the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve (the other being Nachal David, about which, more later). What we had come to see there – besides the spectacular view – was a poignant memorial to the eight young victims of a terrible tragedy that occurred here in April 1942 – Chol Hamoed Pessach.  A large group of teenagers, from Tel Aviv and Petach Tikva, most of them members of the Hashomer Hatzair Youth Movement, set out on a hike to the Judaean Wilderness, Masada and the Dead Sea. On the last day of Pessach, the young hikers reached Ein Gedi, and after touring the area all day, encamped overnight at the foot of Tel Goren, meaning to proceed north before dawn the next day.
At 3 a.m. the youngsters were woken. In the chill air of the wilderness, they kindled a campfire and as they huddled around it, there was a sudden explosion. No-one knows for certain exactly what happened, but it is probable that a knapsack, belonging to one of the Palmach escorts and containing concealed hand grenades – as the British did not allow armed escorts to accompany these youth groups – had been placed too close to the campfire and the extreme heat caused  one or more of them to explode. Three boys and a girl were killed instantly. Fourteen more people were injured, four of them critically. In those days, there were no mobile phones and three volunteers set off on foot for the nearest Jewish settlement, where help might possibly be obtained – Kalia, more than 50 kilometres away, over mountains and through steep gullies. It took them nine hours. Meanwhile, those left behind tried to signal a boat passing on the Dead Sea, but in vain. It was only later that a second boat, belonging to the phosphate company in Sodom, noticed and responded to their signals and turned inshore. The injured and the dead were evacuated by boat and taken to Jerusalem.

It was not until 5 o’clock in the afternoon that the wounded began arriving at the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. Some were then transferred to the Sha’arei Zedek Hospital. The four critically injured all died in hospital – no doubt because of blood loss and other complications stemming from the delay in receiving treatment. All of the dead, with the exception of one, the group leader and Palmach escort Zvi Reisenberg, were aged between 16 – 18.

On the site of the tragedy is a memorial stone, bearing the simple epitaph (inspired, it is said, by Simonidas’ epitaph to the fallen of Thermopylae):

Oh stand, you who pass by!
              Here fell (followed by the names of the fallen)
              At the ascent of Hashomer Hatzair to Masada,
              Passover 5002.
              They forged paths.
              The journey did not end.”

 

 
P1020865Tel Goren memorial

 

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View from the memorial site towards the Dead Sea

 

Getting back to the Biblical Ein Gedi, our next stop was Nachal David, and a hike which was to prove almost as challenging as last month’s 😉 .
Nachal David is wheelchair accessible as far as the first of the lower waterfalls, by means of a concrete-paved path, along which there are benches under shade-giving trees, and visitors will be happy to know that the ibexes and rock hyraxes here are sufficiently used to human presence that they approach quite close  and even let themselves be photographed, although, if one is unable to scramble along the bank of the stream, one might be forced to make do with a zoom lens in order to capture them on camera:

 

 

Beyond the first waterfall, however, it helps not only to have the use of both legs, but also some of the ability of an ibex or mountain goat:

 

 

P1020905 Ibex high in the rocks of Nachal David

It’s well camouflaged, but look carefully in the upper left-hand quarter of the photo…

 

 

P1020908 Ibex in the rocks of Nachal David

This ibex was a little more cooperative – or possibly simply less camera-shy…

 

Some of the waterfalls cascade into pools deep enough to bathe in:

 

 
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We stopped and rested beside one of these, while our guide, Shai, read to us from                I Samuel 24. For those who do not remember the story, King Saul had been informed that David was hiding out in the wilderness of Ein Gedi, so he set off in pursuit, with an army of 3000 “chosen men”.  There are, as I said before, many caves in the area. David and his men were hiding in one of them. By a stroke of fate, this was the very cave which King Saul chose to enter “to cover his feet” (a Biblical euphemism, according to our guide, meaning Saul had to go to the bathroom). At this point, Saul was alone and David could have, literally, caught him with his pants down. Indeed, his men urged him to do just that. But David refused to raise his hand against the King, saying (v.6) “The LORD forbid it me, that I should do this thing unto my lord, the LORD’S anointed, to put forth my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’S anointed.
Instead, he contented himself with cutting off the corner of Saul’s robe, which he then showed to Saul, as proof that he could have killed him, but did not, at which the King admitted (v.17) that David was more righteous than he himself.
This was the first of two occasions when David had King Saul in his power and could have killed him, but forbore to do so, because he would not raise his hand against the Lord’s anointed. The second is described in I Samuel 26. According to Shai, our guide, in the first instance, it might have been possible to argue that David’s refusal to slay the King could be attributed, not to the righteousness of the former, but to his prudence and forethought. David, after all, was trapped with a handful of men in a cave while Saul had an army of 3000 men waiting outside. Had the King failed to reappear after a reasonable length of time, his soldiers would have come to look for him and David and his warriors would not have stood a chance. In the second case, however, such an argument would not hold water. David stole into Saul’s camp with one companion only, took the spear stuck in the ground and the cruse of water at his head, refused to allow his companion, Abishai, to kill the King even though everyone in the camp was sleeping and got clean away. Thus, we know that his refusal to smite “the Lord’s anointed” really was due to his being a just and honourable man.

David must have felt that God truly was watching over him, when he was hiding in the cave and Saul was at his mercy, even though he, himself, showed mercy and refused to kill him. This is clear from Psalm 57, “A Psalm of David; Michtam; when he fled from Saul, in the cave ” and from Psalm 142, “Maschil of David, when he was in the cave; a Prayer.

This rest stop was also an opportunity to admire some of Ein Gedi’s  vegetation. Since the area is much warmer than Jerusalem, as well as being blessed with abundant water, many plants grow here which are unique to the area. The Dead Sea is, after all, the lowest spot on earth. For this reason, in ancient times, it was famous for the perfume produced in the area. But there are also edible fruits – not all of them having the most pleasant taste. One of the most interesting, I thought, was this one, although it is not found only here, but grows in hot,dry places all over the Middle East and Africa.

 

P1020884Desert date or Balanites aegyptica or Tam'r el abd זקום מצרי

 

This is the desert date or Jericho Balsam, Balanaites Aegyptica – זקום מצרי (Zakum Mitzri) in Hebrew, or, as our guide told us, Tamr-el-Abd  (Slave’s Date) in Arabic.  Its fruit does indeed resemble the date, but it is bitter, whereas that of the date palm is sweet. In Islamic tradition, the bitter Tam’r-el-Abd is fed to the wicked in hell, as punishment.

We pressed on, sometimes walking through the stream bed, sometimes over and under waterfalls, often meeting other groups of hikers. This is one of the most popular hiking trails in Israel, after all. In fact, I was surprised – and delighted – to meet school groups from all sectors of the population, including some which one does not normally expect to find taking part in this kind of activity.  A group of Bedouin schoolgirls from the Negev, for example. A group of Haredi  (Jewish ultra-orthodox) primary schoolboys, with their Rabbi. And a group of Zionist Religious schoolgirls (whose affiliation can be gauged by the way they dress and by their teacher’s headcovering).

 

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On we trekked, until we reached Mapal David – David’s Waterfall, surrounded by lush, green vegetation.

 

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Could this have been the cave in which King David hid, I wonder?

Note the tree trunk to the left which has been cut in half, in a vain attempt to prevent further growth.

This was the furthest point of our hike. Now, we turned back. It is a circular trail, which I, at least, found somewhat easier on the way back, although “easy” is a relative term 😉 .

 

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Our last stop was the ancient synagogue of Ein Gedi, a short drive away. Here, a magnificent mosaic floor has been unearthed:

P1020911 The ancient synagogue of Ein Gedi

 

Another, smaller mosaic contains, amongst other things, a curse on any of the townspeople who might dare to reveal the settlement’s secrets (presumed to be the method for producing the fabled – and extremely expensive – perfume for which Ein Gedi was famous).

There was a Jewish settlement at Ein Gedi at various periods, but the synagogue apparently dates back to the 3rd century C.E. and was destroyed by fire during the 6th century C.E.  From the latter period, archaeologists found what appears to have been the Holy Ark, and inside it, burnt remnants of parchment. Only in 2015, forty five years after its discovery, was there sufficiently advanced technology to decipher the scroll, which turned out to be a part of the Book of Leviticus.

As the sun was by now sinking in the west and as a large group of rather noisy Haredi schoolchildren and their Rabbi were waiting, with a tour guide, to inspect the site before it closed for the night, there was no time for us to see more and we left. On our way back to Jerusalem, we stopped for a last, lingering look at the Dead Sea, whilst our guide, Shai, recounted the story of how Ein Gedi came to be included within the borders of the Jewish State, back in 1949.

But that, my friends, is another story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Bible In Song

This month’s field trip with Yad Ben Zvi was different from its predecessors. Instead of concentrating on a particular book or chapter of the Bible, our band of intrepid explorers ( 😉 ) set off in pursuit of the many ways in which the Bible has inspired the world of song.
Whether it’s musical settings of Biblical texts, the influence of Biblical concepts and phrases on the Hebrew language, or contemporary takes on Biblical narratives, the Bible provides an endless source of inspiration.

A word first about the weather. Our trip took place three days before Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for the Trees. Technically, we are still in the middle of winter, but throughout Israel, round about Tu B’Shvat,  many wild flowers are already in bloom and, traditionally, it is on Tu B’Shvat that the almond trees which symbolise the Holy Land (Land of the Almond Tree) burst into blossom. At the same time, however, the weather at this time of year is often cold and rainy. And, in fact, as we left Jerusalem, the grey, lowering skies threatened heavy rain and as we drove north, they made good on their promise.

The cold and the rain didn’t seem to bother this camel whom we met at the Almog Junction, where we stopped for morning coffee:

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Although it was no longer raining by the time we reached the Dubi and Eran Shamir Observation Point, at one of the highest points in the Gilboa Mountain Ridge, it was still very, very windy.  Dubi and Eran Shamir were a father and son, both of whom loved hiking around the Israeli countryside, and both of whom fell in defence of Israel. Dubi was killed in 1977, in a training accident and his son, Eran, fell in battle in the Lebanon in 1997.
At the entrance to the observation point is a stone bearing a fragment of a poem by Yosef Sarig, who was himself killed in battle on the Golan Heights, in the Yom Kippur War.

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The fragment translates as follows:

“We always loved our home,
The sun, the field that opens in the soul
And now we have returned to them,
Uncomplicated as ever
But there is no breath in us.”

In the last line, as you can see, the poet is echoing the expression used in Ezekiel 37:8, to describe the dry bones which are “the whole House of Israel”.

As I said, it was very windy at this spot on the Gilboa Ridge. In fact, it is one of the windiest spots in the country, which is why there is a wind farm there.

 
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I always feel slightly nervous, looking up at huge wind turbines, like this. They seem to me like strange, other-worldly aliens towering over the Biblical landscape.

The Gilboa, overlooking the Jezreel Valley, is most famous as the site of King Saul’s final battle against the Philistines – a battle in which not only Saul, but also his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malchishua met their deaths (1 Samuel 31:1-6).The battle inspired the songwriter and poetess Leah Naor and the composer, conductor and music teacher Yosef Hadar, to present the following song – which links that ancient battle with later, contemporary battles – at the 1969 Israel Music festival:

 

 

This is such a beautiful song that I cannot resist translating it for the non-Hebrew speakers among you. (The Hebrew speakers can follow the words in the subtitled video-clip.)

 

“Lovely is the summer in its season
On Mount Gilboa.
Saul leaned on his spear
On Mount Gilboa.
Only a lad was with him,
A lad of the sons of Amalek.

Dry and hot, dry and hot

In summer, in the Emeq  (Valley of Jezreel).
The earth is the colour of coal,
In summer in the Emeq.

Perchance there was a Sharav,

Perchance it was the hour of sunset,
Perchance a golden sunset,
Like today, at the same hour.

The Emeq was spread out at his feet

On Mount Gilboa.
The summer was as it is now,

On Mount Gilboa.
Lying opposite, Mount Tabor,
And Mount Hermon in the distance.

As if years haven’t passed

On Mount Gilboa.
The same rocks – arid rocks
On Mount Gilboa

Perchance there was a Sharav etc.”

 

Almost a quarter of a century earlier, in 1945, Nathan Alterman published his poem “Hineh Tamu Yom Krav” (הנה תמו יום קרב – Behold the day of battle is ended), in which he describes the bringing of the terrible news to King Saul’s mother. Written in the wake of World War Two, it was set to music in 1960 by the Israeli composer Mordechai Zeira and can be heard every year on Remembrance Day, the day which precedes Israel’s Independence Day. It’s rather long, so I will only translate parts of it, but you can hear the complete recording here:

 

 

 

 

“Behold, the day of battle and its evening are done,
Full of the cry of the rout,

When the king fell upon his sword
And Gilboa was clothed in defeat….

As daylight illuminated the mountains,
The runner came to his (Saul’s) mother’s threshold,
And, falling speechless at her feet,
Covered them with his (Saul’s) blood…

Then she said to the lad, Blood
Will cover the feet of mothers,
But seven times as many, the people will arise
Even if defeated on their land.

The King has met his fate
But a successor will arise…

So she spoke, with trembling voice.
And so it was. And David heard.”

Our next stop was Nachal Yitzpor, a seasonal brook which leads  from one of the peaks of the Gilboa Ridge down to the Valley of Beit Shean. From the lower reaches of the brook, which has no springs and is fed only by rainwater, one can see the mountains of Gilead – hence the name of the brook, which reflects the Biblical story of Gideon and the 300 men who defeated the Midianites.
Now therefore make proclamation in the ears of the people, saying: Whosoever is fearful and trembling, let him return and depart early from Mount Gilead.” (Judges 7:3)
“Depart early” is the translation given to the Hebrew word yitzpor (יצפור), as it is understood to be related to the Aramaic word for morning,  tzafra (צפרא).

The sky was still overcast and threatening rain when we started what turned out to be a three-hour hike down paths which were still muddy in places from the previous days’ rains, over rocks and through narrow gullies – parts of which could only be negotiated on one’s posterior and parts of which made me genuinely fearful that I was about to tumble off into the void. It did not help being overtaken by several school parties following the same route, teenagers oblivious to the danger and apparently sharing some of the DNA of mountain goats!

 
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All around us, Nature was beckoning. And everywhere, Anat, our guide, found cause to reference the Bible. For example, almost before we started, we practically stumbled across a clump of mandrakes:

 

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“The mandrakes give forth fragrance, and at our doors are all manner of precious fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.”  (Song of Songs 7:14)

 

And here it is, (to 2:35) set to music by Zvi Sherf and sung by the all-girl group Sexta:

 

 

Besides the mandrakes, there were anemones, red and white, and everywhere, growing between rocks and crevices, cyclamens, that most humble – and most beautiful – of flowers.

The cyclamen shows its humility in its bowed head, but legend has it that the flower once stood proudly erect. When King Solomon ascended the throne of Israel, an angel appeared before him and told him to go forth and choose the loveliest of flowers and to fashion a crown for himself in its shape. Solomon went forth and saw the beauty of the cyclamen, whose petals bore the shape of a crown. He therefore ordered his craftsmen to fashion a crown for him, which would resemble the cyclamen. For this reason, the cyclamen was also known as “Solomon’s Crown”.
The crown itself was handed down, generation after generation, until the Babylonians battered down the walls of Jerusalem, looted the Royal Treasury, stole the crown and took the people of Judaea into captivity, together with the surviving members of the Royal Family. From that day onward, the cyclamen’s head drooped in sorrow. So it is until our own times. The legend says that only when the crown of Solomon is placed once more on the head of the King of Israel, the Son of David, will the cyclamen once again hold its head erect.

 

 

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A white anemone

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Cyclamens

 

 

 

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And finally, an almond tree in blossom

 

 

 

At one point, we stopped in a steep gorge to allow one of the aforementioned school groups to pass us, while Anat read to us Psalm 104, which is all of it a hymn to the glory of God as the creator of Nature. We discussed, in particular, verse 18:

“The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the hyrax.”

The word I have translated as “hyrax” (שפן – shafan) is often mistranslated into English as “rabbit” – and indeed, these furry, short-eared little creatures are also sometimes known as “rock rabbits”, but they are not to be confused with the larger, long-eared bunnies so popular as pets in Europe. According to Anat, there are hyraxes in abundance in the Gilboa, but they only emerge from their hiding places when the sun is shining.
It was not shining – yet – although the further we descended along the channel of the now-dry stream, the warmer it got, and the sun did eventually emerge. We did not see any hyraxes, however. They are very shy creatures.

By the time we reached the end of the stream bed, it was already half past two in the afternoon. We had a late lunch at Beit Hashita, where I had an excellent houmous, before proceeding to the shores of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and the cemetery of Kvutzat Kinneret, last resting place of many leaders of the Zionist Labour movement, but most importantly, from our point of view, the place where the poetess Rachel  (1890 – 1931) and the composer-songwriter Naomi Shemer (1930 – 2004) are buried.

Both women were heavily influenced by the Bible. Rachel identified strongly with the Matriarch Rachel. In one of her poems, Hen Dama (הן דמה – Behold, her blood), she compares herself to the Biblical Rachel:

“Behold, her blood in my blood flows,
Behold, her voice within me sings –
Rachel, herding the white flock,
Rachel – my mother’s mother.”

In another poem, Zemer Nogeh (זמר נוגה – A Melancholy Song), better known as Hatishma Koli (התשמע קולי – Will you hear my voice?), and made famous, in the setting by Shmulik Kraus, as the song which Rona Ramon dedicated to her husband, Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut,  on board the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia, the poetess foresees that “My final day is already at hand, perhaps.
Already the day is near, of parting tears.
I will await you, till my life is extinguished,
As Rachel awaited her beloved.”

As Anat pointed out, the Bible tells us that Jacob waited seven years for Rachel – only to be tricked into wedding her older sister, Leah. We are told that those seven years “seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her.” (Genesis 29:20). We are never told about Rachel’s feelings during those seven years – but Rachel the Poetess gave voice to Rachel, our Mother.

And what of Leah, the unwanted wife, the one whom the Bible describes as “hated”?
Did Jacob continue to hate the woman who bore him six sons and a daughter, more children than all the rest of his wives put together? The Israeli songwriter Ehud Manor refused to believe he could have done so, and in his song “I love you, Leah”, he puts into Jacob’s mouth these words:

“Behold, many days have passed
And my two hands have grown weary,
And how beautiful your eyes have become,
Like Rachel’s eyes.
I love you, Leah.
I love you, proud one.
If I forget thee, Leah,
My name is not Israel.”

Note the Biblical allusion in the words “If I forget thee”, reminiscent of Psalm 137 – “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning” – an allusion hinted at also in the words “my two hands have grown weary”.Here is the song, set to music by Zvika Pik, and sung by Lior Sa’ado on the Israeli talent show “A Star is Born” (the Israeli version of “American Idol” or “Britain’s Got Talent”).

 

 

Perhaps the most poignant of Rachel the poetess’s comparisons of herself to her Biblical namesake is the poem “Barren” (עקרה – Akara), written in 1927/8. Rachel the poetess never married and her love life was tragic. She compares herself to our mother Rachel who, for many years, longed for a child but was forced to behold the fecundity of her elder sister Leah, the “hated” wife, before finally giving birth to Joseph, and then dying at the birth of Benjamin. In this poem, she compares herself, not only to Rachel the Matriarch, but also to Hannah who, though herself “the favoured wife” of Elkanah, had no children of her own until she came to the Tabernacle at Shiloh, where she prayed silently for a child, though her lips moved, was rebuked by Eli the High Priest, and finally gave birth to the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1).

“If I only had a son! A little boy,
Black-curled and clever.

To hold his hand and slowly walk
Through the garden paths.
A child.
A little one….

I will yet complain bitterly like Rachel, our Mother.
I will yet pray, like Hannah at Shiloh.
I will yet await him.”

This poem has been set to music many times, by such diverse composers as Paul Ben Haim, Yehuda Sharett and Mordechai Zeira. In fact, there are at least sixteen melodies to the song, some of whose composers are unknown and which have been considered “popular” or “folk” melodies. Here is is one of these settings, by the prolific composer Anonymous 😉 performed by Dorit Reuveni and Hanan Yovel.

 

Unlike the poetess Rachel, who was already nineteen years old when she first came to the Land of Israel, the composer and songwriter Naomi Shemer was born in the kibbutz on the banks of the Kinneret and the language of the Bible was hers from birth.

Naomi Shemer makes reference to the Bible in many of her songs, which Anat played to us. We discussed them, as we stood at the site of her grave which, like that of Rachel’s, overlooks the Kinneret. One such is  Kad Hakemach  (כד הקמח – “The Jar of Meal”) – a modern retelling (1986) of the story of Elijah and the Widow (1 Kings 17).

 

 

 

 

“I read in the Book of Kings,
In the 17th chapter,

I read about the Man of God
Who said

The jar of meal shall not be spent,
Neither shall the cruse of oil fail
Until the time that rain shall fall
Upon the land.

And when the rivers dried up
And the rain tarried,
That man hewed the words
From his heart…

And in these hard times,
Days of neither dew nor rain,
Always I return to that man,
And then I remember…”

Those familiar with the Bible will recognise many Biblical turns of phrase and allusions in this song, and in particular, the reference to the lack of dew or rain, echoing both Elijah’s prophecy (1 Kings 17:1) and David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:21)

“Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew nor rain upon you, neither fields of choice fruits; for there the shield of the mighty was vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, not anointed with oil.”

 

I could go on forever about Naomi Shemer, but since sunset was rapidly approaching and we were obliged to take leave of the Kinneret, I, too, shall end here and leave you with this view of the lake, and of the quiet graveyard which the founders of the Jewish Labour and kibbutz movements, soldiers, farmers and fishermen share with poets and musicians, all of them dreamers who, together, helped rebuild a nation.

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In Search of Edom

Yesterday saw the third field trip in the current Yad Ben Zvi series of Bible tours, “929 on the map of Israel“, about which I have written in the past, on more than one occasion. We are now well into the study of the so-called “Twelve Minor Prophets” and today, we finished the reading of the third and final chapter of The Book of Habakkuk. The Yad Ben Zvi field trips, however, take place only once a month and cannot possibly cover all the smaller books of the Bible. They have to pick and choose. Yesterday’s field trip was therefore devoted to a prophet whom we actually finished reading several weeks ago – Obadiah.

The Book of Obadiah must surely be the shortest book in the entire Bible, consisting, as it does of only one chapter – a mere 21 verses. Moreover, that one chapter is addressed, not to Israel or Judah, but to Edom.

We do not know exactly who Obadiah was. With most of the other prophets, we know at least their father’s names and where they came from, and often, they tell us in whose reign they prophesied. But Obadiah is anybody’s guess. The Talmud tells us he was that same Obadiah who was in charge of the household of Ahab, son of Omri, King of Israel (and husband of the infamous Queen Jezebel) and that he was, himself, an Edomite convert to Judaism. On the other hand, many scholars believe that the language of the book indicates that Obadiah actually witnessed the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, and the treacherous behaviour of the Edomites at that time, over two and a half centuries after Ahab’s reign, and so could not have been the same man.

At any rate, in order to understand the Book of Obadiah, it is important to remember that the hostility (if that is not too mild a word to use) between Israel/Judah and Edom went back many generations – even before the birth of Esau and Jacob, from whom they were descended.

The Bible tells us (Genesis 36:1) that Esau and Edom were one and the same. In addition, we are told (Genesis 25:21-26) that the brothers struggled with each other while still in their mother Rebekah’s womb and that God told her: “Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.

We also learn that hundreds of years later,the Edomites refused passage to the Israelite former slaves, on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land (See Numbers 20:14-21). In their request, the Israelites refer to the kinship (“your brother”) between themselves and the Edomites. It is this relationship which makes the behaviour of the Edomites so execrable in the eyes of Obadiah (Obadiah v.10, v.12).

For the violence done to thy brother Jacob shame shall cover thee, and thou shalt be cut off for ever…..But thou shouldest not have gazed on the day of thy brother in the day of his disaster, neither shouldest thou have rejoiced over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction; neither shouldest thou have spoken proudly in the day of distress.

Bearing all this in mind, we set off yesterday, on an unusually mild day (for January), in search of Edom (or, at least, Edom in their expansionist mode) in the northern Negev. (Edom’s heritage, according to the Bible, was beyond the River Jordan, in today’s Kingdom of Jordan.)

Our first stop was Tel Arad. Arad is mentioned in the Bible (Numbers 21:1), in connection with the hostile actions of its king against the Israelites. There are Canaanite remains at Tel Arad, but it was the later levels which interested us. Tel Arad was one of a series of fortresses guarding the southern approaches of the Kingdom of Judah against Edomite encroachment. Archaeological excavations have unearthed many layers of settlement, pre-Israelite, Israelite and post-Israelite. One of the most interesting is the fortress from the 8th century BCE, which contained a Sanctuary which appears to have been a scaled-down version of the Temple in Jerusalem, with a hall, shrine and Holy of Holies.

 

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The ruins of the Sanctuary can be seen in the lower right hand corner.

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Close-up of the Sanctuary, with the Holy of Holies and two incense altars in the foreground

 

You may recall that in the Book of Kings, we are told of each king in turn either that “he did that which was evil in the eyes of the Lord”, or that “he did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord”, but even of the latter, there is the almost inevitable rider “Howbeit the high places were not taken away; the people still sacrificed and offered in the high places.”  This is not necessarily to be taken as meaning that they worshipped other gods but that, in violation of the prohibition on bringing sacrifices to the God of Israel anywhere but at the Temple in Jerusalem, they set up altars to Him in other places. It is possible that there was a measure of religious syncretisation, with offerings being made, both to the God of Israel and to foreign (Canaanite) gods, as we shall see shortly. It appears that the Sanctuary found at Tel Arad (as well as similar temples elsewhere in Israel and Judah) was one of these “high places”.

It is not until we reach the reign of Hezekiah, that we find a King of Judah who not only “did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done” but also put in place a religious reformation and “removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah”.

If we look closely at the Holy of Holies in the Sanctuary at Tel Arad, we can see two standing stones and two incense altars, still containing remnants of incense. Why two? It is possible that this indicates joint worship of the God of Israel and the female deity, Asherah. At all events, this Sanctuary was destroyed sometime in the 8th century BCE (round about the time of the reign of Hezekiah), by the building of a wall right through it, but the incense altars, instead of being smashed, or re-used in later building, had been laid reverently on their sides and that is how they were found, two and a half millenia later. This might be because they did, indeed, serve in the worship of the God of Israel and so those responsible for abolishing “the high places” would not have wished to destroy them utterly, but preferred to store them (Genizah), as Torah scrolls are stored, prior to religious burial, but never destroyed. Or, possibly, those who participated in some form of syncretised worship of the God of Israel and the Asherah, faced with the order to cease, merely “stored” the altars, with the hope of returning to them at some time in the future, when the government in Jerusalem was more favourable to such things, or, at least, ready to turn a blind eye. It is impossible to know for sure.

Another important find at Tel Arad was a collection of dozens of ostraca, many of which date to the last decades before the Babylonian conquest of Judah (597 BCE). The Edomites, as we know, sided with Babylon and therefore it is easy to understand the alarm evident in ostraca #24 and #40.

#24

From Arad 50 and from Kin[ah]…
and you shall send them to Ramat-Negev by the hand of Malkiyahu the son of Kerab’ur and he shall hand them over to Elisha the son of Yirmiyahu in Ramat-Negev, lest anything should happen to the city. And the word of the king is incumbent upon you for your very life! Behold, I have sent to warn you today: [Get] the men to Elisha: lest Edom should come
there.

#40
“Your son Gemar[yahu] and Nehemyahu gre[et] Malkiyahu; I have blessed [you to the Lor]d and now: your servant has listened to what [you] have said, and I [have written] to my lord [everything that] the man [wa]nted, [and Eshiyahu ca]me from you and [no] one [gave it to] them. And behold you knew [about the letters from] Edom (that) I gave to [my] lord [before sun]set. And [E]shi[yah]u slept [at my house], and he asked for the letter, [but I didn’t gi]ve (it). The King of Judah should know [that w]e cannot send the […, and th]is is the evil that Edo[m has done].”

The Arad fortress was also well-supplied with water, having a large reservoir, into which we descended via a tortuous, winding staircase.

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I mentioned that Tel Arad was one of a series of fortresses guarding the southern approaches to the Kingdom of Judah. It is strategically positioned on high ground above the surrounding desert and is within view of other fortresses, such as our next stop, Hurvat ‘Uza, a multi-layered site where both Israelite and Edomite artefacts were found and which controls a strategic path into the Judean heartland, through Nachal Kina, which it overlooks. 

The view over Nachal Kina is spectacular – and frightening. I was careful to stay well clear of the edge, fearful of the enormous drop to the riverbed below.

 

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Nachal Kina is so-called because the Kenites settled there. The ancient name is preserved in the name by which it is known to the Bedouin – Wadi Kini. The Kenites were on friendly terms with the Israelites. For this reason, when King Saul attacked the Amalekites on the border with Egypt (ie. in the Negev), he warned the Kenites, who were living among them:

And Saul said unto the Kenites: ‘Go, depart, get you down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them; for ye showed kindness to all the children of Israel, when they came up out of Egypt.’ So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.
And Saul smote the Amalekites, from Havilah as thou goest to Shur, that is in front of Egypt.” (I Samuel,15: 6-7)

The Kenites, therefore, moved eastwards and settled in the area of the wadi which now bears their name.

However, it is time to return to the Edomites. I mentioned that, at Hurvat ‘Uza, both Israelite (Judean) and Edomite artefects were found. I would like to mention  in particular, an ostracon in Hebrew, listing Israelite names – men’s names, including their fathers’ name and their place of origin. According to our guide, this is part of a list of men called to serve in the fortress. Why else would you have men from different towns gathered together in one place? He likened it to IDF reserve duty (miluim) call-up papers.

As for the Edomite ostracon, from shortly after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, it illustrates for us the Edomite encroachment into Judean lands and explains Obadiah’s anger at the way the Edomites took advantage of the fall of Jerusalem to lay their hands on Judean possessions:

In the day that thou didst stand aloof, in the day that strangers carried away his substance, and foreigners entered into his gates, and cast lots upon Jerusalem, even thou wast as one of them….Thou shouldst not have entered into the gate of My people in the day of their calamity; yea, thou shouldst not have gazed on their affliction in the day of their calamity, nor have laid hands on their substance in the day of their calamity.” (Obadiah v.11, v.13).

The days are short in January, so we did not have much more than an hour or so at Hurvat ‘Uza – having spent much longer than intended at Tel Arad. The day was already waning and with the setting of the sun, the wind was rising. It can get very cold at night in the Negev desert. We therefore had to cut short our visit, reluctantly, and return to the bus where we could sum up the day’s lesson in warmth and relative comfort, before heading home for Jerusalem.

 

 

 

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