February was scarcely less busy than the previous month – starting with a concert, continuing with an opera the very next day, then another field trip, and ending with a very special party.
I will start with the concert. As I have mentioned on numerous occasions, I sing with the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, one of the five component choirs which make up the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir. Last month, we took part in a concert, entitled “From the Desert”, together with the Capellatte Choir, the Oratorio Singers, and”The Sounds of Hasadna” children’s choir. The concert consisted entirely of Israeli music, including Haim Permont’s “Ishmael” – a yearning plea for peace between the brothers, Isaac and Ishmael, fathers, respectively, of Israel and the Arabs – as well as a new piece by Emanuel Vahl, called “Yetsiat Mitzrayim” (The Exodus from Egypt). The latter, with its description of the Israelites waiting on the shore, trapped between the Egyptians who are determined to take them back into the slavery they have only just escaped, and the sea which they must cross in order to win their freedom, brought a lump to my throat, because what I was seeing with my mind’s eye was not the Children of Israel of Biblical times, but the survivors of the Holocaust, a mere 70 years ago, trapped in Marseille and Genoa and other ports along the Mediterranean coast, desperate to escape the continent that was, for them, no more than a mass graveyard, to outrun the British Mandatory blockade and find freedom in the Land of Israel.
Here is a videoclip of “Yetsiat Mitzrayim“, performed by the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, the Capellatte Choir and the Sounds of Hasadna Children’s Choir. My apologies in advance for the quality of the video, which, as you can see, was filmed on a mobile phone:
The concert was held at the Shalva National Centre, Jerusalem. Shalva is an organisation which cares for, and nurtures, people with disabilities and their families. Among its activities, the organisation has its own band which successfully competed in this year’s “The Rising Star” reality TV series and would, in all likelihood, have won the competition and with it, the right to represent Israel at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest (to be held in Tel Aviv, in May), had they not chosen to withdraw, after it was made clear that, were they to represent Israel, they would be required to take part in the dress rehearsal which would take place on the Sabbath. I have nothing but respect for the way they stood up for their principles and think it shameful that no way could be found to get round this difficulty, considering that Israel – the Jewish State – is hosting the competition!
Needless to say, earnings from the concert went to support the children of the Shalva Centre and their activities.
And while we’re on the subject – today’s Hebrew word for my non-Hebrew-speaking readers to learn is שלווה (shalva – calm, serenity, peacefulness).
The following evening saw me in Tel Aviv, at the Israel Opera‘s production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (in its original, censored, Bostonian setting), conducted by Daniel Oren – which I enjoyed, despite some strange costume choices. The men, for example, were all dressed in army uniforms which resembled Purim fancy dress and which would not have shamed a stereotypical South American dictator. But I did like the scene in the fortune-teller’s dwelling and its sequel, in the forest, which was satisfyingly spooky 😉 .
Next up was a study trip the following week to the archaeological site and caves of Maresha-Beit Guvrin in the Maresha-Beit Guvrin National Park. The Biblical town of Maresha dates back to the Iron Age and is mentioned in the Book of Joshua as part of the inheritance of the tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:44). We hear of it again in II Chronicles 11:5-8, where it is mentioned as one of the cities Rehoboam fortified against the encroachments of the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak. Rehoboam could not prevail against Shishak, however and the latter, while forbearing to destroy the city of Jerusalem, nevertheless exacted a heavy tribute from Rehoboam.
The next generation, however, saw a complete turnabout, for some time in the 9th century BCE, Shishak’s son sent an army against the Kingdom of Judah, under the command of Zerah the Ethiopian (II Chronicles 14). However, by that time, Rehoboam’s grandson, Asa, was King of Judah, and since he “did that which was good and right in the eyes of the Lord”, he was rewarded with a crushing victory over the enemy, near Maresha.
However, the wheel turned yet again, and in Zedekiah’s rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, in the 6th century BCE, not only Jerusalem, but the rest of the cities of Judah fell to the Babylonians and Maresha ceased to be a Judaean city. In fact, many Edomites (Idumaeans as they were later known) settled there and it became a major Idumaean city. With the conquest of the former Persian empire by Alexander the Great, it enthusiastically adopted Hellenistic customs and, in fact, developed into a cosmopolitan city, where many cultures thrived side by side until the Hasmonean king, John Hyrcanus, conquered Idumaea, giving its inhabitants the choice of conversion or death, and laying waste to Maresha. The forced conversion – at complete odds with Jewish tradition and practice and never recorded before or since – was to boomerang because from these Edomite converts sprang none other than Herod the Great.
Maresha itself was rebuilt as a small settlement, which was completely destroyed in 40 BCE by the Parthians.
Here is the site of the original Biblical settlement, Tel Maresha:
When an Israeli speaks of Beit Guvrin, one immediately thinks of caves, for reasons which I shall explain presently, but above ground, everything spoke of spring. Wildflowers were everywhere:
and the almond trees were in full blossom:
One might say it was almost a crime to spend most of the day in the bowels of the earth, but an interesting feature of Maresha is the fact that much of its “architecture” was, in fact, underground, in natural or quarried caves. For example, the so-called “Polish Cave”.
This was originally a water cistern, hewn during the Hellenistic period, having in its centre a stone pillar which supported the roof – the remains of which can still be seen.
At some stage, the floor was raised and niches to house doves or pigeons were carved in the walls.
The cave is known as “the Polish Cave”, due to the fact that in 1943, at the height of the Second World War, Polish soldiers from General Anders’ army, stationed in British Mandatory Palestine, visited the cave, leaving graffiti on the central pillar.
Many of the caves found had been used as dovecots and apparently, the raising of these birds was a major source of income for the inhabitants of Maresha – as, indeed, it was for the entire Shefelah region, during the Hellenistic period. Doves, or pigeons (the Hebrew word yonah, plural yonim, can mean either) were used as food, as sacrifices to the gods of various religions and as sources of guano, a valuable and profitable fertiliser.
One of the largest of these caves is known as the Columbarium, as its walls are lined by over 2000 niches which were painstakingly carved to house the winged commodity.
It seems the pigeons find it as desirable a residence today as it was more than two millenia ago.
Another major industry in Hellenistic Maresha was the production of olive oil. No less than 22 underground oil-presses have been unearthed there. We visited one of the most impressive:
As I mentioned, Maresha, during the Hellenistic period, was a cosmopolitan town, inhabited by Idumaeans, Sidonians, Greeks and also some Jews. At this time, it was customary to bury the dead in caves with niches. We visited one of these caves, known as the Apollophanes Cave because of an inscription found there mentioning Apollophanes son of Sesmaios, leader of the Sidonian community in Maresha.
After the destruction of Maresha by the Parthians in 40 BCE, it was replaced as the main town of the district by the neighbouring Beth Gabra or Beit Guvrin, a mixed Jewish-Hellenistic town, conquered by the Romans in 68 CE, as the Jewish historian Josephus tells us. During the Bar Kochba Revolt, it was completely destroyed and re-established as a Roman colonia. In 200 CE, the Roman emperor Septimus Severus granted the town the status of a city and changed its name to Eleutheropolis (City of the Freedmen). The new city controlled an important junction, connecting east to west, north to south, and flourished, becoming an important Christian city during the Byzantine era. A Roman amphitheatre and Roman baths have been discovered there, as have Crusader churches.
Here is the 3,500 seat Roman amphitheatre – the only Roman amphitheatre in Israel open to the public – in which, no doubt, many of Bar Kochba’s defeated warriors were forced to fight as gladiators:
And here are the remains of the Roman bath-house:
Hard by the bath-house, are the ruins of a Crusader church, later converted into a mosque:
Of all the Beit Guvrin caves, the most famous are the Bell Caves, used as quarries during the Byzantine and early Muslim periods.
Apparently, they are called “Bell Caves” because of their shape. This was a surprise to me, because I had always thought they were so named for their amazing acoustics. At any rate, knowing that the Bell Cave complex is sometimes used for concerts, I was determined to test those acoustics:
Once again, the setting sun forced us to leave before the Park rangers came to throw us out 😉 and we reached Jerusalem before nightfall.
And now to that very special party I mentioned.
My eldest nephew is getting married later this month to a girl of Yemenite origin and, as it was important to her to honour Yemenite wedding traditions, my sister organised a pre-wedding henna party for her. During the course of the evening, she appeared in three different costumes, each one from a different Yemenite town or village (the bridegroom, my nephew, only got to wear two different outfits, but – after all – the henna party is for the bride) and many of the guests, including Yours Truly, also donned traditional Yemenite festive garb. Here are a selection of pictures from the evening. Pay particular attention to the first costume worn by the bride, with the tall, conical red and white head-dress. This is the dress worn at the actual wedding ceremony – and it put me in mind of a picture in a book published in Israel in honour of ten years of independence, in 1958, which, as a child, I used to pore over with my father, when my mother went out to evening classes. My father would read the Hebrew captions to me (this was long before I could read Hebrew – and possibly even English) and I would always demand, first and foremost, to see the picture of the Yemenite bride. Now I feel I have come full circle!
And here we see the preparation of the henna:
Well, that’s it. Another extremely busy month has gone by and March looks as if it, too, will be full of fun. Today saw the start of the second semester for the Ascolot/Open University classes I am taking (one on the Bible, one on the symphonies of Beethoven). Tomorrow, I have another study trip. Later this month is Purim and then there is The Wedding.
When will I find time to blog? That’s anybody’s guess.
Being a retiree is really hard work 😉 .