Triplog: Israel (Part 4)

In Haifa, we briefly stopped at the Bahá’í Gardens, a beautiful terraced garden in the heart of the city, overlooking the sea. The Bahá’í are a modern religion movement premised on the underlying unity of the world’s major religions. This movement was a spin-off of Islam founded in the late 1800s with the ambitious goal of uniting the world in peace and harmony. In Islamic countries, Bahá’í followers have been persecuted and killed. The international governing body of the Bahá’í was established in Israel in 1963 with the blessing of the Israeli government, and by all accounts they have been good citizens.

There aren’t many Africans to be seen in Israel, so a member of our party asked the African guard if he was Bahá’í. I can’t remember where he said he came from (possibly Uganda?), but he spoke Hebrew as well as English and said that he was volunteering at the temple for a year. I would have liked to have learned more about the Bahá’í. But of course, that is a common theme of these entries.

To compensate for some of the shortcomings of the trip, and to get a different perspective on things, I struck out with two other members of the group during Shabbat downtime in Jerusalem for an unauthorized walking tour. From our hotel it was a straight shot to the Old City, and we explored some of the Christian and Muslim quarters, including accidentally stumbling upon a claimed site of Christ’s burial, a beautiful monument known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the church, we were berated for not removing our hats. How disrepectful, the man said. Which struck me as funny, since almost everywhere else in Israel, hats are pretty much required, in keeping with the Jewish practice of wearing a kippah, the traditional head covering worn to symbolize God’s constant presence.

The transition for Christian to Muslim quarters was obvious, with a massive increase in crowds, noise, and appearance of traditional Arab dress. Hundreds of stalls were packed together in small, untidy streets, with wares hung and displayed in every crevice. It was quite a sight to behold.

On our walk back to the hotel, we witnessed a large protest march by ultra-Orthodox Israelis angry about a proposed parking lot near the Old City. Riot police, ambulances, and officials were out in force. The parking lot would be open on the Sabbath so that non-Jewish tour groups would be able to easily access the Old City, only one quarter of which is Jewish and closed down on those days. Apparently this controvery has been ongoing, with protest marches like this common.

From the silly to the solemn: the next day was Holocaust day. Perhaps because I have gone through multiple other museums, seen movies, and learned about the Holocaust in so many ways over the years, or perhaps just because I am jaded, the Yad Vashem museum did not make much of an impact on me. It was painfully exhaustive in its cataloguing of atrocities, with personal testimonies on video screens, documentary evidence, and interactive exhibits. My feet hurt. The museum took forever to get through. Our tour guide was strangely cheery, saying things like “okay friends, let’s proceed to Auschwitz.”

After Yad Vashem and a pizza lunch, we visited the cemetary on Mt. Herzl to the east of the museum. Named for the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, the “mount of memory” features the graves of Israeli notables including Yitzhak Rabin and Golda Meir. Along the northern slope of the mountain are graves for Israeli war dead, analogous to Arlington Cemetary in Washington, DC. The plots are uniform and sized as proscribed by Talmudic teaching. No distinction is made between any fallen soldier, regardless of notable achievements or acoldates. However, modern graves have gotten more elaborate, with pictures, inscriptions, keepsakes, and whole little gardens. Some of them are gaudy, or at least verge on it.

The cemetary itself was quite striking. Abundant trees and vegetation graced the hillside, and the effect was to make one feel connected to nature and the cycle of life, a nice change from the flat, sometimes barren, often spooky graveyards of America.

And perhaps to emphasize that cycle, the following activities were very much about life: a visit to a bird watching station, where the small animals are captured in nets, identified, tagged, and weighed, followed by tree planting on a nearby hillside. The bird business was straightforward but really neat. Lightweight nets strung between trees and poles snare the animals, which are then put into breathable cotton bags and hung on pegs, where they flap about a bit while waiting their turn. Each one is expertly pulled from the bag, examined, catalogued, and then released. As a child I was always told not to touch birds, and I’ve never seen them so close up, held in human hands. The station shares its findings with other observatories in Israel and the surrounding countries so that bird migration patterns can be plotted and the health of flocks and species tallied.