Before we started Ulpan classes and before we had any homework we decided to visit the Israel Museum, which is located near the Knesset. From our place in Katamon it’s about a 30 minute walk with part of it uphill.
I would say that no other museum has such a mix of the sacred and profane, ancient and modern under one roof as the Israel museum. In the same day I saw an excellent exhibit on Dadaism and Surrealism (where Duchamp’s infamous Fountain was on display) and the Dead Sea Scrolls and Aleppo Codex. That’s Israel for you. Who the heck knows what type of archaelogical treasures are buried beneath our modern apartment.
Unfortunately, the rest of their exhibits will not be on view for three years because the museum is undergoing a much needed renovation. These exhibits encompass art as well as archeology, judaica and ethnography. Oh well. Even if you’re in Jerusalem over the next few years, I still think you should see the Shrine of the Book and the sculpture garden.
Last week, we took in the other mainstays in Jerusalem: the Old City and the Kotel (or Western Wall). I got lost in the Jewish quarter trying to met Eric at the Wall, but it’s hard not to. The Jewish quarter was rebuilt after the 1967 war when Israel took back the Old City from Jordan–so most of the buildings look fairly new.
This June marked the 40th anniversary of the reunification and there’s been some interesting soul-searching from both the right and left about where Israel is right now and what will happen to Jerusalem. From what I’ve read, secular Israelis don’t look to Jerusalem as the center of Israel–they look to Tel-Aviv. The non-religious are increasingly leaving the city and the city faces problems such as unemployment and a weak tax base. I am sure I will learn more about this as time goes by.
Being in Jerusalem feels like a spiritual vortex, and the feeling intensifies when you get into the old city. And so does my claustrophobia. Arab and Jew live wholly separate lives, and yet they live right on top of each other. Two holy sites for two religions–the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock as well as the Kotel–are adjacent to one another. When I visited the Kotel last year, I was struck by the jarring contrast between the klezmer music being blasted from the roof of one of the kollels (places of Jewish learning) and the Muslim calls to prayer from the minarets.
The amazing thing about the Kotel is that it is a tiny, tiny piece of the wall that surrounded the Second Temple of King Herod’s (Jewish Roman puppet king) time. And this wall goes much further underneath the plaza. The stones further up the wall were actually not part of the original Temple wall. The larger Herodian stones are at the bottom, the second layer dates from Emperor Julian, and the top layer dates from the Ottomans in the 1500s. (Eric knows all of this info like the back of his hand.) On our honeymoon, Eric and I took a tour of the underground excavations where you could see even more of the original wall. Now, the Muslim and Jewish quarters are built on top of this, so you realize that there are many, many layers to this city. Understanding this part of the world certainly feels like peeling back layers of an onion.
Leaving profound statements aside, the plaza in front of the Kotel is a terrific place to watch people–people who come from all over the world. Dress varies widely depending upon religion, observance level, interpretation of halacha (Jewish law) and religious sect. The completely clueless tourists come to the Kotel in shorts and tank tops only to be berated by the Tzniut (Hebrew for modesty) brigade and given a scarf to cover their bare shoulders (I don’t think that’s there official title, but there really are women at the plaza whose specific job is to ensure that women are dressed respectfully enough to visit the Kotel). Haredi men walk by in the full regalia of the long black coat and streimel (fur hat). Then there was the woman in painfully high heels and a short ruffled skirt. A tour group of Russians wearing conspicious white hats walked by the wigged Haredi women. We also noticed a confluence of Israeli soldiers, who were probably in basic training since they didn’t have any rankings insignia on their uniforms. They certainly got a kick out of taking a picture with the tourists (including me!).
Last week we also checked out two films at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival. The first film we saw (for free!) at the Old Train Station is called Beaufort. The film is a fictional account of a group of Israeli soldiers guarding a Crusader fort in southern Lebanon before the 2000 withdrawal. It is a stark and relentless look at the futility of war, and has been a popular as well as controversial film here. I can’t say that I understood everything that was going on in the film (the subtitles were in Hebrew) but I got the gist and came away from the film quite shellshocked. One of the interesting aspects of the film is that you never saw the enemy. You just heard and saw the rockets pitilessly falling down on the soldiers, who looked like sitting ducks.
The second film was a documentary about the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The film, Storm of Emotions, focused more closely on the police officers and soldiers in charge of withdrawal then it did on the settlers. After watching countless scenes of Israeli settlers crying out to the soldiers and of soldiers tearing up, Eric and I decided that our next film needed to be a comedy! That’s not to say that we weren’t glad to see the film because it provided a personal look into a difficult chapter of Israel’s recent history.
All right, it’s 11 pm here and I should be in bed! So I will bid you good night (is anyone still reading this???). Tomorrow, I’ll post some images from the Israel Musem and the Kotel, so check back later! Hugs and kisses to the family!