The Month Of Maying

If anyone was thinking May was any less hectic than the two previous months – think again!  Besides Independence Day, I had another study trip with Yad Yitzchak Ben Zvi (the last of the current season), appeared in two concerts with my choir  and enjoyed a Lag B’Omer bonfire party.

On the political front, the seemingly interminable post-election coalition negotiations dragged out, eventually coming to nothing and a few nights ago, seconds before midnight, rather than hand the mandate to form a government back to the President, Prime Minister Netanyahu managed to get the Knesset, which was sworn in barely a month ago, to pass a bill dissolving itself and setting new elections for the middle of September. I am not going to go into all the ins and outs of who is responsible for the failure of the coalition negotiations and whether or not it was all a devious plot by Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Liberman to bring down Bibi (Netanyahu), or whether the blame should be laid on the ultra-orthodox religious parties for opposing a bill which would finally see young ultra-orthodox men share in the burden of military service, together with their non-religious counterparts, or whether it is all down to Bibi trying to avoid being put on trial for alleged corruption, or whether….NO!


Whoever is responsible, it is going to cost the taxpayer millions of shekels and I am just ROYALLY PISSED OFF at the whole damn lot of them!

So, without further ado – let’s get back to some of the things which made this past month ENJOYABLE. I know many of you count on me to explain the political situation and so on, but – I really can’t talk/write about it now.  It’s simply too FRUSTRATING. And the fact that we are in the throes of another sharav just makes it worse!
Not to mention the fact that I had to deal with yet another plumbing problem which involved taking up the tiles in my utility room (they still haven’t been put back). And finally – worst of all – my smart TV is on the blink and I can’t get a technician till next week! 

Now, this final “tragedy”, I see as an exercise in character building.  I can still watch some of my favourite series on the computer, and I have books that have been waiting on my shelves for far too long. And the disaster is greatly mitigated by the fact that the Great Breakdown only occurred AFTER I had seen the last episode of “Game of Thrones”.

Actually, this also leaves me with plenty of time now for blogging.  😉

So, where was I? Ah, yes! The last study trip of the season. And this time, we were in the south Hebron Hills.

We started the day with a lookout from Avigayil, named after Abigail the wife of Nabal, who lived in this region and about whom we can read in I Samuel 25. There she is described as the wife of Nabal, a wealthy man of Maon, whose possessions were in Carmel (not to be confused with Carmel which is in the north of Israel).


How do we know we are in the right place? That is easy, due to the fact that the Arab villages in the area preserved the names of the Israelite sites they occupied. In the Book of Joshua, chapter 15, we read about the inheritance of the tribe of Judah and its borders.  Adjacent towns are grouped together and in verse 55, we read about the cities of Maon, Carmel, and Ziph, and Yuttah.  Lying opposite our lookout point are the Arab villages of El-Kirmil, and Yatta. The archaeological site of Khirbet el-Kirmil lies some 5 km. south of present-day Yatta. Nearby, about 7 km. south of Hebron, lies another Arab village, Zif. Adjacent lies the archaeological site of Tel Zif.  As we know from I Samuel 23, while he was on the run from King Saul, who sought to kill him, the future King David spent a great deal of time in the area around Ziph and the nearby wilderness of Maon. And, sure enough, not far away lies the present day Arab village of Ma’in. So we have all these Arab villages, with similar names to the Biblical towns, grouped together just as the Biblical towns were, plus archaeological remains. This is how archaeologists identify Biblical sites – archaeological remains plus preservation of names plus geographical appropriateness (such as topographical landmarks as described in the Bible, proximity of Arab villages with similar names to the ancient Biblical names, etc.)

It was to see some of these archaeological remains that we had come. The original intention had been to ascend the archaeological site of Tel Ma’on on foot, but the extreme temperatures that day made that unadvisable. Instead, we drove by bus to the site of ancient Sussiya, not far away.

Sussiya was the site of an ancient Jewish settlement on the south eastern fringes of the Hebron Hills, on the edge of the desert. It is not known for certain when it was founded but it reached its zenith in the  Roman-Byzantine period and the Early Arab period.

Archaeological finds document the devotion of the Jewish inhabitants to Jewish religious law. These include over thirty mikva’ot, or ritual baths, attesting to the great importance attributed by the Jews of Sussiya to ritual purity and impurity laws, even after the destruction of the Temple. (The ritual baths are an integral part of the plan of the dwelling arrangement dating back to the 5th-8th centuries CE.) Some of these are large and were probably used by the whole community, while others are small and may have been private mikva’ot belonging to individual families – no doubt the wealthier ones.

Many of Sussiya’s dwelling places were, at least partially, underground. This afforded protection, both from nomadic, desert-dwelling marauders, and from the extreme heat.

Here is one of the dwelling-caves:


Pride of place, of course, goes to the synagogue. Like other synagogues unearthed in the south Hebron Hills region, in Eshtamoa, Anim and Maon, it has its entrance from the eastern side, since the northern side faces towards Jerusalem.



For this reason, unlike synagogues excavated in other parts of the country, one does not find pillars lining one’s right and left hand side, on entering the synagogue, since this would block off the view of the northern wall, containing the holy ark. Instead, there was a niche, with a platform in front of it, surrounded by a balustrade.  The reconstructed platform is on display in the Israel Museum. What you see here is an exact copy.



The floor of the synagogue was decorated by elaborate mosaics, such as these:




As you can see in this latter picture, Jewish symbols, such as the seven – branched Menorah, are prominent.  At the bottom of the right-hand Menorah, you can also make out a lulav together with an etrog.

The outside courtyard of the synagogue was surrounded by porticoes on three sides. In one of them, a mosaic inscription was uncovered, honouring Rabbi Isai the Priest:


Translated, it reads:
Remember for good the sanctity of my master and rabbi, Isai the priest, the honourable and venerable, who made this mosaic and plastered its walls with lime, which he donated at a feast of Rabbi Yochanan the priest, the venerable scribe, his son. Peace on Israel. Amen.


As you can see from this next picture, taken from the upper gallery of the synagogue facing out,  the synagogue in Sussiya was built on top of a hill, in keeping with the Halacha (Jewish religious law) mentioned in the Tosefta: “They build them (i.e. synagogues – Ed.) only in the highest place in the town”.




From Sussiya, we proceeded to Anim. Here, too, like the other synagogues excavated in the south Hebron Hills area, the entrance is from the east, and the wall with the holy ark faces north, towards Jerusalem.

At some stage during the Muslim period, probably in the 7th or 8th century CE, the synagogue was converted into a mosque.

Before proceeding to my next topic, here is a short film I found on YouTube about the Anim archaeological site:


As I mentioned, in May, I also took part in two concerts. One of these was a concert given by the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, at the Notre Dame Centre of Jerusalem.  Here we gave a programme of evening and night-themed music, ranging from Ravel’s Nicolette, about a young girl who goes out to the meadows at dusk, where she is courted, in turn, by a wolf, a handsome young page and an ugly (but rich) old man, to Brahms’ In stille Nacht and from Villa Lobos’s Estrela e Lua Nova (about the new moon and the star-studded sky) through the night until the following sunrise, with the African-American spiritual My Lord, What a Mornin’.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the concert. First of all, a popular Israeli folk song about the shepherdesses drawing water for the flocks at even-tide:





And now, a fragment from In stiller Nacht (only the second verse, alas):



Just a few days later, I took part in the end-of-season Gala of the main Oratorio Choir, at which we performed Aharon Harlap’s Requiem together with selections from Haydn’s The Creation,  with the Jerusalem Street Orchestra. Both concerts were conducted by Dor Magen.  The theme of this second  concert was “From Darkness to Light”  (ie. from the darkness of death to the light of creation). Alas, I have – as yet – no videos of this concert, although it was professionally recorded and no doubt, in time, the DVD will be available, or the film will be posted on YouTube or on the Choir’s Faqcebook page. But here, in the meantime, is a link to a review of the concert.

Now, since today is Jerusalem Day – the anniversary of the reunification of Israel’s capital in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War – and I plan to celebrate, I will bid you Lehitra’ot (Au revoir, Auf Wiedersehen, Arrivederci, See You)  till next time.




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April Journal – Part 2 (a.k.a. April in May)

I promised my readers a second post, describing the other events of April – or, at least, the first half of April but, as so often happens, after starting to write, I took a break for a couple of days, and then there was Pessach (Passover), and – well, you know. Sometimes Life gets in the way of writing about it (lol).

I started drafting this post just after Pessach, but, since I very much wanted to include a clip from another one of our concerts, I put it on hold after describing my weekend in Alon Shvut in the hope that the official video of the concert would be uploaded to YouTube. While I was waiting, the simmering tensions in the south of Israel broke into open hostilities when the terrorist entity of Hamastan (a.k.a. the Gaza Strip) progressed from the steady stream of booby-trapped balloons they have been sending to Israel for about a year, to a hail of rockets (more than 700 rockets over the past two days) – with no word of condemnation from the UN, the EU or the western mainstream media – except for a disgraceful headline from Sky News, The Independent and ITV when Israel finally responded, to the effect that “Israeli airstrikes kill mother and baby” (who were actually killed by a misfiring Palestinian rocket), with no mention of the fact that the Israeli airstrikes were in response to the hail of Palestinian rockets raining down on Israel! No mention either of the Israeli civilians who were killed in those rocket attacks.

As of this morning, a ceasefire was supposed to be in place.  In my experience, this usually means that we cease and they fire – so I don’t know how long that will last. I will take the opportunity, however to try and complete what I started.

So, let’s get right down to it.

Alon Shvut is a religious Jewish community settlement in the heart of the Etzion Bloc. The Etzion Bloc was a group of Jewish settlements in the Judaean Hills south of Jerusalem, built on land purchased from Arab landowners (often at grossly inflated prices), which, under the 1947 UN Partition Plan, lay in the area slated for the Arab state. Even before the withdrawal of British Mandatory forces, the Jewish community in the area was subject to attacks by their Arab neighbours, culminating in a battle in which residents of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, together with Haganah reinforcements, held off the combined forces of the Arab Legion and local Arab villagers for two days, before surrendering on May 13 1948, when the Arabs then massacred many of the survivors. The Etzion Bloc was recaptured by Israel in 1967, during the Six Day War and in September of that year, Kibbutz Kfar Etzion was re-established. On this subject, I should like to reiterate a point which I have often made in the past, namely, that the same UN resolution which is so often quoted in demands for “the Right of Return” of Palestinian Arabs, also referred to the right of JEWS driven from their homes in the part of “Palestine” which had been originally slated for the Arab state. As I wrote in a previous post:

An interesting fact, which is not generally known, is that  UNGA Resolution 302 (IV)  of 8th December 1949 – the instrument which set up UNRWA – did not, in fact, refer specifically to Arab refugees. Resolution 302 (IV) recalls two earlier resolutions, UNGA Resolution 212 (III)  of 19th November 1948 and UNGA Resolution 194 (III) of 11th December 1948 and its terms of reference are the same as those of the two earlier resolutions,  encompassing  “the relief of Palestine refugees of all communities”.
Since Article 11 of Resolution 194 (III) “Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date” and since the preamble to Resolution 212 (III) makes it clear that “refugees” refers to refugees “of all the communities”, there is no logical or legal reason for assuming that this applies only to Arab refugees. There were Palestinian Jews who also lost their homes; for example, the Jews of Gush Etzion (the Etzion Bloc) and other kibbutzim and  moshavim in Judaea and Samaria, who, under the terms of Resolution 194, are to be permitted to return to their homes “at the earliest practicable date”. Since these areas were illegally occupied by the Jordanians between 1948 and 1967, “the earliest practicable date” was not until those lands were liberated by the Israel Defence Forces during the Six Day War. Why, then, does the UN persist in calling the renewed Jewish settlement in those areas illegal?


Alon Shvut (the Oak of Return) is named for a lone oak tree growing on a hill in the middle of the Etzion Bloc, which came to symbolise the yearning of the Jews expelled from the Bloc, to return to their homes.

As I mentioned in my previous post, my nephew got married at the end of March to a girl from Alon Shvut and the reason we travelled down there for the weekend was to celebrate the Sheva Brachot, or Seven Blessings. These are the seven blessings recited as part of the traditional Jewish marriage ceremony. They are also recited at festive meals during the seven days following the wedding. As we had travelled down for the weekend, and as it is a mitzvah, or religious obligation, to honour the Sabbath with three festive meals, this meant that we took part in three recitations of the Seven Blessings.

In addition, it is customary for a bridegroom to be honoured by being called up for the Reading of the Torah during the week following his wedding. So, in addition to the Friday evening service at the big, Ashkenazi synagogue, we also attended the Shabbat morning service at a smaller, Yemenite synagogue, where the bride’s father serves as rabbi amd leader of the congregation and where not only my nephew but also his father (my brother-in-law) and his uncle (my brother) were honoured by being called up to the Torah.

Alas, I cannot share any pictures of our weekend in Alon Shvut with you, as photography is not permitted on the Sabbath.

I had intended to write next about our General Elections, which took place on April 9th, but the situation being what it is, and the coalition discussions not being very encouraging, I am going to skip to something much more pleasant – our second April concert. This took place two days after the elections under the title “Women’s Voices” (קולות נשים – Kolot Nashim). The participants were women from all five Jerusalem Oratorio choirs, under the baton of Danielle Arad, conductor of Cantabile, JOC’s women’s choir. Of course, there was also a significant contingent from my own choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir.

The entire concert was professionally videotaped but the video has not yet been made available (although almost a month has passed since the concert) and so I am going to have to crave your indulgence and ask you to make do with several short extracts filmed by members of the audience on their mobile phones.  First of all, here is the contingent from the Chamber Choir, performing an arrangement for women’s voices of Shabbat Hamalka (שבת המלכה –Shabbat the Queen):



And your humble servant performed, together with a friend, Romy Elbert, also from the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, the duet “Oh Lovely Peace” from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus. Unfortunately, my sister, who was supposed to be filming it on her mobile phone, pressed something she wasn’t supposed to press or touched something she wasn’t supposed to touch,  and, in so doing,  cut off the video less than half-way through 😦  :



The two main pieces of the evening were “David’s Lyre” (כינורו של דוד – Kinoro shel David) by Yehezkel Braun,  based on lyrics taken from the Book of Psalms and from the Midrash, and “Follow the Sea” (בעקבות הים – Be’ikvot Hayam) by Amit Weiner (who was preesent at the performance), to lyrics by the poet Natan Yonatan. Alas, until the official video of the concert is released, I have no way of sharing with you the former, which is, as it happens, one of my favourite pieces of modern Israeli music. However, somebody in the audience (I cannot remember who) did film the latter, in its entirety, so you can at least see that:


The concert ended with a performance of an African-style song, Kuimba, by African-American composer Victor C. Johnson. Here, too, alas, I can bring you only a fragment:


I am well aware that this post is somewhat disjointed. You can put that down to the difficulty of concentrating when there are so many worrying things going on in my little neck of the woods. However, I did promise, in an earlier post, and at the request of one of my readers, to continue with my “Hebrew Word of the Day” and so, before I go, here it is (closely linked to one of the subjects of this post).

Nashim (נשים) – Women.
Singular: Isha (אשה) – Woman

Sometimes, we have to fight to make our voices (קולות – kolot; singular: קול – kol) heard. And sometimes, to do that, we just have to sing.














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April Journal – Part 1

It seems I have been so busy lately, I haven’t had time to post more than once a month. April has been no less hectic than the last couple of months and we are not even two thirds of the way through it yet!  March ended with the wedding of my eldest nephew on Sunday March 31st. The following fortnight was fully occupied with lectures, a particularly strenuous field trip involving a hike up Mount Sdom (Sodom), an opera, two concerts (in both of which, I had solos), a weekend in the religious settlement of Alon Shvut in the Judaean Hills and, of course, elections to the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament.

Where do I begin?

Perhaps the best thing to do would be to stick to the chronological order.

So let’s start with two days after the wedding. Although I like to relax on the day of a concert, the morning of April 2nd was fully taken up with two lectures which I attend at the Israel Museum. One of these was in the framework of the Bible studies course which I have been attending for the past few years, and the other was part of a course analysing all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies. There was barely time to rest before leaving home again for an afternoon concert by my choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir at Jerusalem’s Natural History Museum.  This was supposed to take place in the garden, as it does every year, only this year’s concert was much earlier in the year than usual and rain was expected, so we moved indoors. (In the event, not only did it not rain but the sun came out and it was actually quite warm.)

I had two solos in this concert, one of which I will share with you – Ravel’s Trois Beaux Oiseaux du Paradis, in which I shared the soprano solo with two others, and in which the tenor solo is sung by an alto.  I apologise for the background noise. This was an informal, child-friendly afternoon concert, so don’t go expecting the hushed audience of the Carnegie Hall – or the crystal clear image and sound of a professionally-made video 😉  .




The following day, Wednesday, I had another tiyul  with Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi (about which I have written often in the past) to Nachal Peratzim and Mount Sdom, overlooking the Dead Sea.

Nachal Peratzim is a narrow gorge formed by flowing water eroding soft, sedimentary rocks, creating fantastic patterns in the rock face.










How about this one, that looks like a frieze that has been carved into the rock face?




Here it is in close-up:




This one looks like a pillar that has cracked under the impact of some unknown cataclysm, such as the one which engulfed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  With very little effort, one could almost imagine it was the carving of a face:



Eventually, we arrived at a cave known as the Flour Cave, so named for the fine, white, powdery sand found there:



This used to be one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area, but a partial collapse near the exit in 2005 led to the cave being closed to the public and it has remained so ever since. Warning signs are posted at the entrance, and although Israelis are known for their disdain of such signs, our guide, Shai, insisted that we behave like law-abiding citizens 😉  .

In any case, it was time to proceed with the next part of our hike – the ascent of Mount Sdom, which, in many places, felt like an exercise in extreme sport, requiring us to scramble up, over and around rocks in temperatures which, for the beginning of April, were quite high (in the mid to upper 20s C). Since I was fully occupied with this and needed my hands free to hold on to whatever I could so as not to fall and break a leg (or possibly even my neck), I have no photographs of these most scary parts of the hike, but when we finally made it to the top, the views of the Dead Sea and the surrounding mountains were spectacular and made all the effort worthwhile.








The culmination of the climb was this view of the salt formation known as “Lot’s Wife”, because it resembles a woman looking back in the direction of the city of Sodom (as far as we can tell, as the exact location of that city is a matter of dispute).  Of course, it is rather large for a woman but – who knows?



I have to say that the descent was, in many places, quite as difficult as the ascent – worse, even, in some aspects as it was so much easier to slip and slide on gravel and loose stones. However, we made it safely back to the bus and returned to Jerusalem, exhausted.

The following evening,  April 4th, I went to the opera in Tel Aviv, where I saw a beautiful, traditional production of Puccini’s “Tosca”. This is one of my three favourite operas and I was delighted to see that, instead of one of those  dreadful, updated versions I so hate, the Israel Opera had  chosen to recreate the original 1900 production, with lavish sets that actually looked like 19th century Rome, where the story is set.

Pure heaven…

All this richness in the space of less than a week! And there is still so much more to tell. I don’t want to leave anything out. There is nothing for it.  I will have to take a break to finish my Pessach (Passover) preparations, since the festival starts tomorrow evening. Next week, during Chol HamoedI will hopefully have more time and will be able to tell you about my weekend in Alon Shvut, the elections and the second concert in which I took part this month.

In the meantime, I want to take the opportunity to wish those of you who, like me,  celebrate Pessach, Chag Sameach and, since the two festivals coincide this year, I also wish my Christian friends Happy Easter.  See you (I hope!) next week with the continuation of my April Journal 🙂  .



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March Meanderings

A week and a half ago, on March 21st, we marked the first day of Spring. Here, in Israel, that delightful season made an appearance at the beginning of the month already, in time for a delightful tiyul in the Hills of Binyamin, a region in the southern Samarian Hills, which approximately covers the lands  allotted to the Tribe of Benjamin, in the Bible.

So far, we have had considerable good fortune with the weather on these field trips, because despite the heavy rains just before, and in the days following, we enjoyed pleasantly vernal weather.

Our first stop was the community  settlement of Kochav Hashachar (the name means Star of the Dawn), where a (mostly uphill) hike led us through fields vibrant with wildflowers.



Red anemones vied with wild tulips, wild orchids gave way to irises, the purple and white bracts of annual clary sage clashed with the yellow of flowers whose names I don’t even know and wild barley swayed in the breeze.


Overlooking the settlement is a hill known by the Arabic name Kubat a-Najma, or in Hebrew, Kipat Hakochavim – Dome of the Stars.

I see it is time for our Hebrew Word of the Day.
Kochav (כוכב) means “Star”. Plural – Kochavim.  The same word is used for a star in the world of entertainment, by the way, except that in  such a case, a female star would be a Kochevet (accent on the second syllable and the CH is pronounced as in Johann Sebastian Bach).

To get back to our field trip, Kubat a-Najma, at 724 metres above sea level, forms a high vantage point from which, on a clear day, one can see over a very wide area, ranging from Jerusalem, in the south, to Mount Hermon, in the north.  Despite the mild weather, the skies were hazy and visibility was poor. We could not see Jerusalem but we could just about discern the outlines of Sartaba in the Jordan Valley.





Sartaba was one of the hilltops where beacons were lit in order to relay to the Babylonian Jewish diaspora,  the news that the New Moon had been sighted in Jerusalem. These beacons were lit first on the Mount Scopus/Mount of Olives ridge. However, that ridge is not visible from Sartaba, and it is believed that Kubat a-Najma, which lies between Jerusalem and Sartaba, was a connecting link in the chain of bonfires which announced the start of the New Month. It is not known exactly when the practice ended but it is believed that the cause was sabotage by the Samaritans, who lit false beacons on the wrong dates, in order to break the connection between the Jews of Israel and the diaspora in Babylon.

From Kubat a-Najma, we travelled to the Saboneto soap factory, a small family business founded by Shlomo Keshet, a Kochav Hashachar resident.  Shlomo founded the factory initially to provide work for his son, Elnatan, who was born with Down’s Syndrome. Later, Saboneto gradually expanded to employ other individuals with special needs.  There, we met Shlomo, who explained to us his vision and showed us how the soap was made.




I do not usually allow myself to be tempted to purchase anything on these field trips, but on this occasion, I made an exception, for two reasons. One – my desire to fight BDS (the anti-Israel, antisemitic Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement) by purchasing from one of the Jewish settlements in the so-called “West Bank”,  and two, my wish to support a small family business which provides a livelihood for people with special needs. Besides which, I have been to the Saboneto factory before and I love their soaps, scented with lavender, sage, lemongrass, cinnamon, mint and rosemary. I highly recommend them and no – I am not receiving any remuneration for this endorsement! They are simply jolly good soaps – if a bit gooey -and you can actually try some for yourselves. They are available for purchase on Saboneto’s own website.

Our next stop was a curious site shaped like a footprint, near Moshav Argaman, which some believe to be the site where the Israelites erected an altar immediately after crossing the Jordan and entering the Promised Land. Some half a dozen such sites have been discovered in the Jordan Valley.  They are thought to be places of worship and may, perhaps, explain why the Hebrew word for pilgrimage is Aliyah LaRegel (עליה לרגל) – literally, Ascent to the Foot.  They were literally ascending a ceremonial path to a place of worship shaped like a foot. Why would the ancient Israelites build a place of worship in the shape of a human footprint, immediately after crossing over into the land God had promised them would be theirs? Possibly because, in the ancient Near and Middle East, one symbolically took possession of a piece of land by literally walking its borders. 


Our final port of call was Einot Petzael, where we saw a Herodian reservoir. The massive pool had fallen into disrepair and been renovated by an Arab landowner who was astounded to discover that the spot he had chosen for a reservoir to benefit his village was none other than the selfsame spot chosen by Petza’el, the brother of King Herod, centuries earlier. But the massive Herodian stones forming the lower rows of the pool left no room for doubt.

Now, overgrown with vegetation, it reminded me of the pools in the Wood Between The Worlds, in C.S. Lewis’s tale of the Creation of Narnia – The Magician’s Nephew.



I don’t know why. C.S. Lewis’s pools certainly had no walls and – unlike this abandoned reservoir – they actually had water in them. But imagination someimes – nay, often – defies logic. Narnia and the Land of Israel intermingled in my mind as we journeyed back to Jerusalem under the setting sun, “tired, but happy”, as they say.

Only two more tiyulim left to go this season.

Join me later this month for another one.


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Fabulous February

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 😉  .

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I’m So Busy, My Head Is Spinning…

Apologies to Tommy Roe for the paraphrase but…

My stepmother warned me that, after I retired, I would find myself busier than ever I was while I was working.

What can I say?

The last few weeks have been so full of music, tiyulim and related activity that I haven’t had time to write about them.


That’s generally considered to be A Good Thing, isn’t it?

Be that as it may, if I don’t write about them now, before  I  get swept up in the next round of Activities, I probably never will.

January finished on a high note (literally), with an opera, a tiyul and our annual Gilbert and Sullivan singalong.

I will start with the opera – Richard Strauss’s Salome at the Israel Opera.  This was a completely new, Israeli production, directed by Itay Tiran. The sets, costumes and lighting were all Israeli-designed, the choreographer and video designer were Israeli, and so, too, were the conductor and many of the soloists (depending on which day one saw the performance, of course).  I actually saw one of the guest artistes, the Swedish soprano, Elisabet Strid, in the title role and thought her excellent. I did not quite understand the intentions of the costume designer, whose sci-fi like costumes all included necklaces, or other accessories, made of lights. I did, however, find Eran Atzmon’s set quite fascinating, especially the giant, revolving sphere which was present throughout the opera, doing duty first as the moon, which so fascinates Narraboth and the Page, at the beginning of the opera, and later as the rock covering the entry to Jochanaan’s dungeon. The changes are effected by the brilliant lighting design of veteran Israel Opera lighting designer, Avi Yona Bueno (Bambi).  In fact, the lighting was crucial to the set – so much so as to be an inextricable part of it.



I did read, in one of the reviews, that the sci-fi costumes were intentional and that the whole thing was designed to make it seem as if the action was taking place on an alien planet. A friend of mine from my choir, who had seen the production a few days earlier, remarked that Herod resembled Jabba the Hutt from the Star Wars franchise. Perhaps, then, the light necklaces were supposed to remind us of the light sabres wielded by the Jedi knights?

Whatever the case may be, this production won rave reviews from the Israeli press and, believe me, it deserved it.


Next up was a study trip with Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi to Einot Tzukim (Ein Feshkha) and the Judaean desert, in the wake of the people, flora and fauna who have made the area their home.

Einot Tzukim is a nature reserve and archaeological site on the north-west shore of the Dead Sea. It is divided into three parts – a closed reserve, used by researchers, an open reserve, which contains mineral pools where one can bathe, and the so-called “Hidden Reserve”, where access is limited to organized groups and by special arrangement only.
In the open reserve, one can see the remains of a Herodian villa and industrial complex. The purpose of the latter is unknown, although some have theorized that it might have served for the production of the famous afarsimon perfume for which the region was famous.

The villa, too, judging by its remains, was impressive:



As we passed the mineral pools, our guide pointed out to us the plant known in Hebrew as תפוח סדום (tapuach sdom – Apple of Sodom). Its botanical name is calotropis procera.



The fruit is large, round and somewhat resembles an apple, but when opened, it is almost completely hollow, save for the seeds to which fibres are attached. The milky sap is toxic.

It has an alternative name in Hebrew – פתילת המדבר (p’tilat hamidbar – desert wick) and is so-called because the fibres attached to the seeds could be twisted into wicks for lighting oil-lamps.

Next we entered the Hidden Reserve, where you might find it hard to believe you were in the middle of the desert:



See the contrast!







How did the freshwater St. Peter’s Fish (tilapia), commonly found in the Sea of Galilee, and the River Jordan, reach this pool on the shores of the extremely salty Dead Sea?!
And not just any St. Peter’s Fish, but the most genetically pure members of the species in Israel?



From the Hidden Reserve, we proceeded to Wadi Nuhil:






Here, besides indigenous crops like date palms, a (successful) attempt has been made to grow imported fruits, such as the papaya:




In ancient times, however, the Wadi was home to hermits’ caves rather than to agriculturalists:


We made the steep climb up to one of these caves:



Those hermits certainly knew how to choose a room with a view 😉


The Judaean Wilderness has its share of Muslim shrines as well – not the least of them being Nabi Musa, the reputed Tomb of Moses. Of course, this does not fit the Biblical narrative, according to which, Moses died and was buried by the hand of God Himself, on Mount Nevo, east of the River Jordan. Indeed, originally, Nabi Musa was known merely as a vantage point on the route of travellers making the hadj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, from where they could look beyond the Jordan to Mount Nevo. Over the years, it became confused in the mind of Muslim believers with the actual Tomb, as happens with many shrines and thus, history is reinvented. Such reinvented histories continue to cause strife right up to the present day.



At the time we visited, extensive renovations were being carried out, under the aegis of the Palestinian Authority which plans to build a hotel on the site (where there was once a khan or caravanserai).

Unusually for these study trips, we returned to Jerusalem before the sun had completely set, but this would be offset by the next trip, much further afield. About that – more in my next post.

January went out in style with the Jerusalem Gilbert and Sullivan Singalong of Trial By Jury.  Although not formally staged, we always make an attempt to add “atmosphere” to these singalongs, by, for example, having the men wear sailor’s hats (as in the production of H.M.S. Pinafore two years ago).  This year, we were asked to come dressed as we would if we were going to appear in court. Naturally, I thought this would be a cinch. All I needed to do (as I fondly imagined), was to wear one of my “lawyer’s suits”, which have been hanging in my wardrobe since I retired.
Alas! I had forgotten that clothes left hanging unused for more than a year, inevitably shrink at least two sizes.
It’s a basic law of nature 😉 .

And on that note, I will leave you.
Till the next time – Lehitra’ot (להתראות).

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The Bridges of Beit Shean County

2018 ended with some pretty cold, rainy weather but 2019 got off to a good start with several sunny days in succession – at least in the east of the country, which is the focal point of the current series of Yad Ben Zvi study-tours in which I am taking part.
Two days into the New Year, we headed north-east in the direction of the Beit Shean valley, in the Lower Galilee district of northern Israel. This is the area known as the Valley of the Springs (Emeq Hama’ayanot – עמק המעיינות), lying at the foot of the Mountains of Gilboa.  It is a popular region for hiking, because of the many streams and springs which are found there.

Our first stop was at the Al-Kantara Bridge, which we reached by travelling along the ancient Nachal Amal  (the Amal Stream).  The bridge, which was built in the Mamluk period (1260 – 1517), carried an aqueduct which brought water from Nachal Amal to the agricultural areas north of Nachal Harod (the Harod Stream), which it crossed.



In this close-up picture, you may be able to see more clearly the travertine wall which the calcium carbonate-rich waters of the stream have created below the bridge.



The bridge originally had three arches. One of them collapsed and was repaired by the British Mandate authorities – efficiently, no doubt, but with little regard for authenticity, as you can see, for they used concrete rather than stone or bricks.

I mentioned earlier that we were blessed with bright, sunny weather, although it was far from being a hot day. The Beit Shean Valley can be unbearably hot and humid in summer, but on January 2nd, it was hovering around a comfortable 20 degrees C and I felt no need or desire to discard either of the two light sweaters I was wearing. However, the heavy rain of the previous days had had two effects. One, the ground was still exceedingly muddy and, in many places, one had to take great care not to slip. The other – more pleasant – was that everywhere around us was green and bursting with life, although the carpets of wildflowers which mark the beginning of spring were not yet visible. However, there are some growing things that follow the rain, as surely as night follows day:



The next place on our itinerary was the Twin Flour Mills, also known as the Bridge Mill, one (or perhaps I should say two?) of the approximately 30 flour mills located along the course of the Harod Stream and powered by its rushing waters.











Known as “the Twin Mills” because of the two identical water funnels situated between them, they were powered by water flowing along the river from the bottom of a 7-metre high cascade into a central aqueduct dating from the Byzantine era and thence, into a secondary aqueduct built some time in the pre-Arab era.


As I said, the mill is also known as the Bridge Mill, because it is situated beside a bridge originally built by the Romans, but later renovated by the Ottoman Turks.

Speaking of bridges – we were now on what is known as “the Bridges Trail” – for obvious reasons, as you will see from the pictures below. As we wandered along the Harod Stream, everywhere we looked was green and growing.






















Eventually, we reached the so-called “Truncated Bridge”.



Built on mighty arches towering 14 metres above the Harod Stream, the remains of this enormous bridge testify to the power and importance of Beit Shean (Scythopolis) in Roman times.  But the bridge collapsed in the earthquake which destroyed the city in 749 CE. There is, however, a local Arab legend which tells a different story of how the bridge came to be broken. According to this legend, the Crusader king, Godfrey of Bouillon, was a mighty warrior, who wrought havoc upon the Muslims, by virtue of a magical crown which had the power of rendering him invisible. He was thus able to break through the Muslim lines and cut down his enemies at will.
In despair, the Muslims called upon their greatest hero, Ali Ibn Abu Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammed, for assistance. (Ali actually lived and died some 440 – 450 years before Godfrey, but facts are facts and legends are legends.)
Ali sallied forth at the head of his army, and actually succeeded in besting the Crusaders – until Godfrey donned his magic crown, at which point, the tide of battle turned and Godfrey managed to wound the Muslim warrior in his arm, forcing him to retreat to the as-yet-unbroken bridge. There, Ali prayed for assistance from Allah. Allah heard his prayer and sent his servant El-Khader (identified by some as Elijah the Prophet), who flew over the heads of the protagonists and snatched off Godfrey’s magic crown. Thus, the Crusader warrior became visible to his rival. Ali then raised his sword and smote Godfrey such a mighty blow as to cleave him, his horse and the bridge on which they fought, in two.
As I said, facts are facts and legends are legends. Historians relate that Godfrey actually died in Jerusalem, after a prolonged illness (attributed,  by some, to poison) some 450 years after Ali was assassinated in Kufa  (Iraq).






Continuing our walk beside the stream, we saw many fascinating sights, such as this shed snakeskin:



We were accompanied by the babbling of rushing water:






And everywhere, cranes were flying overhead:




Eventually, we reached our next port-of-call, the Nachal Tavor railway bridge:




The bridge was built by the Ottoman Turks as part of the Hejaz Railway in the first decade of the 20th century. This was a narrow-gauge railway, intended to connect Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, with Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Construction was halted by the outbreak of World War I, in which the Ottoman Empire found itself on the losing side, and thus, the line only got as far as Medina.

The Nachal Tavor Bridge was part of the branch line connecting the Port of Haifa to Dera’a in Syria, on the main Damascus-Medina line. Its last stop within Mandatory Palestine was at Al-Hamma, now known as Hammat Gader, and it was part of the legendary Jezreel Valley Railway.
Regular services on this part of the line ceased after Israel’s War of Independence (1948 – 1949), partly because of the incompatibility of its narrow gauge with the rest of the Israeli rail system, not to be renewed until 2016!

As we walked back to the bus, the sun was beginning to sink slowly in the west, its rays reflected in the many fishponds in the vicinity:




I was fascinated to see many “islands” of what looked like tiny windmills, scattered across the ponds.  I was told that, in order to ensure the quality of the water, dozens of little pumps serve to make sure the waters are well-mingled and the oxygen content evenly distributed:



Our final destination (I couldn’t resist that one, in view of the previous railway references) was the Gesher lookout point, offering a magnificent view of the Jordan Valley, all the way beyond the river  into the Hashemite Kingdom:

This was an opportunity to summarise all we had learned today, about the history of the bridges of Beit Shean County.

Our next tour is due to take place next week. Before that, however, I must just add a brief update on my previous post and tell you that last week, the terrorist Assam Barghouti, who carried out the terror attack at the Givat Assaf Junction last month, and who, together with his brother Saleh, was responsible for the murder of the baby Amiad Yisrael Ish-Ran at Hanukkah, was finally arrested last week. He was apparently planning yet another terror attack which, thankfully, was thwarted by his arrest.  As members of his victims’ families noted, his arrest brings no real comfort, other than the prevention of future attacks,  because he was taken alive and will very likely be released some time in the future, as has happened with other terrorist murderers. However, I join the Security Services in hoping that, besides preventing the attack he was planning at the time of his arrest, they will also be able to extract from him information about other terrorists who were involved in the attacks at Givat Assaf and at Ofra, and who may still be active in terror cells.

And, to be quite honest – I care very little what they have to do to extract that information from him.

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