For the first couple weeks of my time here in Israel, things were super sababa — chill, mellow, nice, yadda yadda. Things are still nice — I’m have a great time and learning a LOT, but I can’t say that things are as chill as they were initially. The past couple weeks have been incredibly busy — most weekdays I’ve been leaving my house at 6:30am to get to work on time, and after my afternoon internship and evening ulpan (Hebrew language learning) or other programming, I’ve been getting back to my house at around 8 or 9pm. Also considering the law school apps I’m attempting to get in, it’s all back to Penn-level intense.
But thanks to Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — I have a blessed (literally) two days off from school early next week.
Now onto the happenings…
A couple weeks ago, the Nazareth fellows were lucky enough to be toured around by one of the head honchos of the municipality. He walked with us all over Nazareth to show us the sites.
First, he took us to the Greek Orthodox Church of Annunciation, otherwise known as the Church of St. Gabriel. The church was built over a spring, and people of the Eastern Orthodox tradition believe that Mary was drawing water at this spring at the time of the Annunciation.
We then visited the “Holy Caves of Nazareth,” a system of caves and tunnels that date back to pre-Christian times. It is suspected that the caves were built so that Jews and early Christians could hide from the Romans.
Our guide then took us to a gallery and conservatory. The artwork, the floor tiles, and the building itself were beautiful. We were able to meet with the conservatory director, who shared some baklava with us — here in Nazareth, baklava is pronounced “baklawa,” and the kind that we tried at the conservatory was green from the pistachios.
From there, we ventured further up the street into Nazareth’s “Old Market” and stopped at the White Mosque, the oldest mosque in Nazareth. The mosque was built in the early 19th Century in the Ottoman style, and the high commissioner of Nazareth at the time determined that it would be named the “white mosque,” to symbolize the end of an era (AKA the end of the Ottoman governor’s tenure) and a newfound peace and light among the people of Nazareth.
Next, we visited the Synagogue Church, which was built on the site where Jesus studied, prayed, and preached.
And finally, we went to the Church of the Annunciation, which is where — according to the Roman Catholic tradition — the Annunciation occurred. The Church built pretty recently (1969) on the site of earlier churches.
This was my favorite part of the tour. The church was awe-inspiring — incredibly large and ornate, with music echoing from the sanctuary upstairs.
On the ground floor, we walked down into a pit (a very sacred pit) to see the Grotto of the Annunciation, which is supposedly where Mary lived as a child.
Then we walked upstairs to the sanctuary, where a small mass was taking place. On the walls hung “Marion devotions” — culturally distinct representations of Mary, like the Virgin of Guadalupe — from many different countries. Every mosaic was gorgeous, but I think the U.S. depiction was my favorite.
Our final stop of the day was at the Church of St. Joseph, where it is believed that Joseph and the Holy family lived. The church was built on caves, where people during the Roman era stored water and food.
And that was the end of our tour! Before heading back to our apartment, we stopped at a little restaurant in Nazareth for hummus with beans, pita, and salad. Ta’im!!
A couple days later, BINA took all of its programs for a 2-day tiyul (“trip”). We were told that on the first day, we were going on a “hike by a stream” in the North, so most of us were expecting a maybe 1-hr expedition to see some nature. Wrongo wrongo. The hike was actually a pretty serious 4-hour adventure in the Nahal Kziv Reserve.
You can see Nazareth on the map, as well as Haifa, Acre, Tiberias, and the Sea of Galilee (here, called the “kineret”). We were hiking further north (pin drop), close to the Mediterranean and the border with Lebanon.
On one of the mountain peaks, we were able to check out a Crusades-era castle (“Montfort”) and other ruins.
After our hike, we got back on the bus to go to camping pretty close by, on Mt. Camun. In fact, what we thought was going to be an overnight stay in tents or leantos was actually more “glamping” than camping. We stayed in an awesome stone structure with sleeping pads on the floor.
The next morning, we got back on the bus and headed to Haifa,a port city on the Mediterranean. The third-largest city in Israel, Haifa was built on and around Mount Carmel. Civilization in what is now Haifa dates back to 3000 years ago, and today about 80% of the population is Jewish, about 12% Christian Arab, and 4% Muslim Arab.
In Haifa, our first stop was the Baha’i Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Baha’i religion was founded in 19th Century Persia, is monotheistic, and espouses unity and justice among humankind — people of all ethnicities and religions. Sounds v nice to me.
The Baha’i Gardens run up the side of Mt. Carmel — a perfectly symmetrical and groomed set of terraces overlooking the port of Haifa.
Next, a local tour guide took us on a stroll through some neighborhoods in Haifa and through the shuk (“market”), where we had some time to explore and drink coffee.
The following weekend, our new Israeli friends — Michael and Yaniv — from Nazareth Illit took us to the Sea of Galilee (here, called the “kineret”) for a day trip. We drove around to the Golan side of the sea and set up camp with a tent that Yaniv brought. These tents are really great for the beach and seem to be v popular here.
One of the guys also brought a kayak, so Matt and I took it out together first thing, and promptly got lost when we couldn’t identify our tent on the shore.
Since our trip to the kineret, I’ve been getting into my work schedule at the elementary school and at the Arab Association for Human Rights. For my first few mornings at the school, I took two buses to get to the school on time, but now the grounds manager at the school picks me up at the second bus stop on his way to work. He’s probably in his 40s or early 50s, and every day we stop off at a bakery for fresh kaek bel semsem, Palestinian Arab sweet bread rings with sesame seeds, which he insists that I try in the car. He also sometimes gets me something special at the bakery, like a mana’eesh (flatbread) or boureka (savory pastry). When we arrive at school (we’re always the first ones there), he immediately makes me a cup of tea with herbs from the school garden, and insists that I eat more of the kaek with zatar (a delicious mix of herbs, spices and sesame seeds). He is beyond generous, despite the fact that we hardly understand each other.
At the Arab HRA, the office worker also stuffs me with food and has given me the lowdown on the best places to eat in Nazareth. I tried kinisha kanafeh with her, a cheese pastry soaked in syrup and topped with orange blossom water and pistachios. So goodddd.
Last weekend, I was lucky enough to visit my cousin, David, and his family in Jerusalem. I had already met his wife and older son briefly when I was in Israel a couple years ago, but I was able to spent Shabbat with them last weekend and meet their new(er) baby. We ate, we played, I slept (a lot), and we hung out with my cousin, Meir, and his girlfriend. It was a really nice time, and it felt great to be with family.
At school a couple days ago, I was surprised in the morning by a call from Dan, a BINA staffmember. He said that BINA had been offered invitations to the funeral of Shimon Peres, a prominent statesman and one of the founders of the State of Israel. He served in many of Israeli’s top offices — as the Minister of Defense, Finance, and Foreign Affairs, and as both the Prime Minister and President of Israel. He was also one of the architects of the Oslo Accords (a pathway to a two-state solution). My name was apparently picked out of a hat, and so I was invited to attend the funeral. Wow.
Tami — a fellow in Migdal Ha’emek — was also invited to attend, and so we took the bus down to Tel Aviv on Thursday evening, slept over, and then made our way down to Jerusalem’s Mt. Hertzl (the site of Israel’s national cemetary) the next morning for the funeral.
I was expecting something like stadium seating, but the funeral was in fact pretty intimate. We sat in the middle of the audience and watched in awe as foreign delegations from around the world made their ways down the aisles.
The speakers included members of Peres’ family, as well as Bill Clinton, Obama, Amos Oz, and Bibi Netanyahu. Geezum. Also in attendance was Mahmoud Abbas and his delegation from the Palestinian Authority, David Cameron, and the Presidents and/or Foreign Ministers from many other countries.
We couldn’t understand most of the ceremony, but Obama and Clinton spoke about their personal encounters and experiences with Peres, as well as the sense of hope and justice left by his legacy. Amos Oz, in Hebrew, apparently asked, “Where are the brave leaders, Shimon Peres’ successors?”
It felt strange that many people in the audience (ourselves included) were so starstruck by the speakers and attendees and felt content snapping pictures with our phones, while we could see on one of the side screens that Peres’ family members were clearly very upset. While these glimpses of the family on screen humanized the ceremony and the grief of a mourning family, it also felt weird that the cameras were so fixated (and zooming in!) on the gestures of the family — crying, holding hands, hugs, etc. It was an honor to be there, but it felt like everyone in attendance — the family, the politicians, the journalists, the extras (us) — was in a completely different mental place.
Some media outlets — and leadership from the Joint Arab List, the Arab political coalition in Israel — suggested that the funeral didn’t accurately represent Peres’ personal history, not accounting for his role developing Israel’s nuclear weapons capabilities, his championing of settlements, and his more recent “cover” for the conservative polices of Israel as a pro-peace symbol. A lot of Palestinian Arabs are pretty pissed off that Abbas attended the funeral, period, although others believe that it was a great gesture of peace.
It seems like — especially in many countries abroad — Peres is remembered as a symbol of peace-building and unity, and — as Obama said — a reminder of the “unfinished business” of peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
I’m back at our apartment in Nazareth Illit now, and have a few days to relax (and write apps) over the weekend and Rosh Hashanah holiday. Sending love and xoxo! Shana tova! Happy New Year!