Feeling the stones, experiencing their story

The Shock of Destruction!

Following the rise and fall of American sports teams has always been fascinating to me. I look at the history of nations in a similar way.

2,600 years ago the mighty Assyrian empire is coming to an end. The Egyptians will then briefly rise up but quickly loose out to the new rising empire- the Babylonians. In between these large empires, we have Judah (known today as Israel). At first we had a wonderful king named Josiah, who unfortunately was killed by the Egyptians. The Egyptians, in turn, took is brother, Jehoiakim, and put him on the throne.

We then get to the next stage. The Babyloneans whip the Egyptians and take over Judea. At this point Jehoiakim makes a very bad political decision and he rebels against the Babyloneans. Our next chess move will be Nebbuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, plundering Jerusalem and deporting Jehoiakim with 10,000 nobles, artisans and young men to Babylon.

We’re still in the game, though, as Nebuchadnezzar puts Zedekiah (Jehoiakim’s uncle) on the throne. Serious Game of Thrones going on here. Zedekiah, though, not learning from the mistakes of his nephew, makes another bad chess move. He too rebels against Babylon. The result? A horrible 18 month siege on Jerusalem. Horrific descriptions of a starving Jerusalem “The famine was sore in the city, young children faint for hunger at the top of every street” (Jeremiah).

In the end, of the 9th day of the month of Av (July/August) The First Temple was destroyed along with the rest of the city “..He burned the house of the Lord, the king’s palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem. He burned down the house of every notable person” (Kings 2).

The Jews wept over Jerusalem, as we read in Lamentations “She weepeth sore in the night and her tears are on her cheeks. Among her lovers, she has none to comfort her”.

Jerusalem’s coronation

Experiencing the City of David, the site of ancient Jerusalem, the ‘place where it all began’, is maybe my favorite site to guide as a Tour Guide. This is the best place to walk through the pages of the Bible (Old Testament) & bring it to life, hand in hand, with the archaeological findings that we see on the ground.

For starters, though, let’s take the name Jerusalem. When was the first time that this name was written somewhere?

Dating back to 3,800 years ago, Ursalum (Jerusalem), is mentioned in the Execration Texts. These were found in Egypt. In those times, if the local ruler of a town didn’t pay taxes (protection money) to the stronger ruler in the region, then the stronger rule would break pottery. On this pottery would be names of the towns with the disobeying rulers. If the Ursalum ruler didn’t pay the Egyptian lord, he would then break the Ursalum pottery. This would bring about the downfall of the city (Voodoo style worshiping).

The next time that Jerusalem will be mentioned is going to be in the El Amarna letters, dating back to 3,300 years ago. In this case, the local Jerusalemite ruler is paying his taxes to the Egyptian Pharaoh. The letters describe the local ruler asking the Egyptians to send him soldiers & archers, as he’s being attacked by the ‘Apiru & Chabiiru’ (unclear who they really are). We don’t know what the end result was.

When jumping forward to the time of King David, 3,000 years ago, and his conquering of Jerusalem, we can ask a question- What were the variables that were taken into consideration when choosing a site to build a city? What’s importat?

There are 4 important variables:

1- Protection. You want to be on the high ground. When we tour together in the City of David during your upcoming trip, I’ll show you how the city is high above the valleys surrounding it on 3 of its sides. It’s vulnurable side, though, is from the north. Ancient Jerusalem/City of David is sitting on a slope that’s sliding down from the top of a hill that’s north of it. This leaves the city open to the enemies attack from there.

2- Main road. You want your town to be sitting on the main travel route, for business purposes. Ancient Jerusalem was sitting about 1 mile east of the main road. Not convenient for business.

3- Water. This is the most important resource in the city, for obvious reasons. Ancient Jerusalem does have a spring, the Gihon spring. This spring, though, has enough water for the inhabitants of this city. We’re talking about a city who’s size is 12 acres, with roughly 2,000 inhabitants. If King David is planning on turning this into a larger city, or a place of gathering for pilgrims coming up to the future Temple, then the Gihon spring is not enough.

4- Fertile land. The land around ancient Jerusalem, predominantly limestone, is quite fertile.

We can see that conquering Jerusalem, on a strategic level, may not have been the wisest thing for King David. He might have been better off going to a different hill. If that’s the case, why did he choose the Jerusalem hill upon whiche the Jebosides (an ancient Caananite people) resided?

There can be many answers, and I’ll give 2 here. Political & traditional.

Politics- The Hebrews back then lived in a tribal way of life. The Bible (Old Testament) tells us that there were 12 tribes, and gives us detailed descriptions of where there borders were. The border of Benjamin ran right to the north of ancient Jerusalem, while the city itself sat within the borders of the tribe of Judah. The future 1st Temple, which will later be built by King Solomon, son of King David, actually saw the border of these 2 tribes running through it. It’s important to understand that Benjamin & Judah are rival tribes. The first king of Israel, King Saul, came from Benjamin. After he was killed by the Philistines, King David of the tribe of Judah emerged. This led to a tough Benjamin/Judah Yankees-Red Sox rivalry (sorry, couldn’t help myself..). Now in order to try and unite these 2 tribes, along with the rest of the tribes of Israel, King David chose this site to be his capitol. It is to here that he will later bring the Ark of Covenant & Tablets. He will also lay the foundations for his son, Solomon, to build the 1st Temple.

Tradition- The book of Genesis tells us the story of the binding of Isaac by Abraham, which takes place on Mount Moriah, that is actually the top of the slope upon which ancient Jerusalem resides. Did King David know this tradition? Does this also lead him to here? I can hear the song ‘Tradition’ sung by Tevia from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ playing in my ears..

Life in Shilo

While traveling together through biblical era sites, people often ask me the excellent question “Ami, how do we know that these are the same sites that the Bible (Old Testament) is describing?” In order to answer this fascinating question we need to look at 3 variables:

-Preservation of the name. We know that the name Shilo has been used continually as the name of this site for over 3,000 years. There is a wonderful mosaic, dating back to 1,700 years ago, with the inscription “Have mercy on the people of Shilo”. The local residents have preserved the name “Seilon” throught the centuries. And there is a traveler named Eshtori Haparchi who described this site 600 years ago.

-Geographical description. One of my favorite things is to read the Geo description from the Bible & then show it in reality. In the Book of Judges (Bible) it’s written “…There is the annual feast of G-d in Shiloh, which is north of Beth-El, on the east side of the highway that goes from Beth-El to Shechem, south of Levona”. On your upcoming trip to Israel I will show you exactly how this plays out in reality, and we’ll see this with our 21st century eyes.

-Archaeological findings- The findings at our site work perfectly regarding who lived there & when. What do I mean? There were ancient Hebrews that lived there. We know this because of the shape of jugs & style of homes that we can see there today. The biblical story of Samuel & the Tabernacle (Mishkan) takes place 3,100 years ago. Fittingly, there are remains of charred olives & dates that thanks to Carbon 14 testing are dating back to exactly then! The clincher, though, are the remains of the huge stone frame at the site. It fits PERFECTLY with the size of the Tabernacle described in the Torah (80 by 160 feet).

Now that we understand that the site of Shilo that we’re talking about today is the important ancient town of Shilo, we’re ready experience it together in your upcoming trip to Israel.

There are obviously so many more interesting topics to touch upon as we experience Shilo together. The figures who walked here- such as Hanna, Samuel the Prophet & Eli the High Priest. How the actions that they took here in ancient times impact our lives even TODAY!! In what way do these ancient stones lay out the drama of the tensions between the beginnings of Judaism & the already present Paganism, and so much more..

Purim & Coronavirus

I try to imagine what Jews were feeling in Jerusalem, or in Shushan, Persia, roughly 2,500 years ago. The feeling of dread when Haman came out with his announcement of genocide to the Jews all around the world.
Just to put the Purim story into historical perspective. Whether it really happened or not is up to you to believe, but it is our tradition. And within a historical time frame we have Cyrus, King of Persia, who allowed the Jews to build the 2nd Temple a little over 2,500 years ago. Roughly 50 years later we have the Persian king, Xerses. He is Achashverosh of the Purim story (or the king who beat the Spartans in the movie ‘300’). Living as a Jew at this point will be daunting as Haman’s diabolical plan is hanging over your head. Living in Jerusalem at this time is no picnic either, as the locals non Jews are giving the Jews who returned from Persia a run for their money. These feelings of dread are embodied in the famous words in the Esther Megillah “And the city of Shushan was confused/perplexed”.
At the most difficult point, though, events change dramatically. The fortunes of the Jews take a sharp turn for the better, and they are saved from Haman’s horrible plan. A generation later 2 key Jewish figures, Ezra & Nechamia, come to Jerusalem and help bring the city back to life.
In what seemed like natural events in a roller coaster ride in history, the presence of a force above us (Hashem, G-d, the almighty or karma, call it as you may) steered the historical events in our favor. By the end of the Purim Megillah reading it says “and the city of Shushan rejoiced”.
Jumping forward to the 21st century. Our society, the world as we know it today, is being rocked by the Coronavirus. Humanity is confused/perplexed. There probably isn’t a single person in the world who hasn’t been affected one way or another at this point. I have to say that for me this has been a very humbling experience. Watching in awe the effect that this horrible virus has on our daily 21st century lives, literally bringing the powerful economy that I live in to the eve of a standstill, wreaking havoc on the health of lives of people around the world, and so much more..I can only humbly stand by and pray that this too shall pass and that we shall come out of this much stronger. With all of my academic (and sometimes cynical) way of looking at religion, I feel like G-d is putting me in my place a little bit, and teaching me a lesson of humility.
Just as we rose stronger in our story of Purim with the help of G-d, so too do I pray that we’ll come out of this crazy time stronger, with the help of G-d, בעזרת ה’.

Fields of flowers

When people ask me “What is your favorite place to travel in Israel?” My answer is more connected to my ‘favorite time of year’ then ‘favorite place’.

By the time February/March have arrived in Israel, we have experienced much of the rainy season. This will bring about stunning colors throught Israel. Not only do we travel through green hills (otherwise yellow brown), but they are dotted with colorful flowers that are in full bloom. Nestled amongst Israel’s terrain, are specific areas where we can feast our eyes on fields of flowers that naturally cover hills. Anemone, cyclamen, lupine, daffodil, iris are just a few of the types of flowers that turn our hills into a blanket of flower heaven.

In southern Israel, we can visit the Shokeda forest and walk among the anemone flowers. Make sure to experience this in February, otherwise you may find an empty hill. Outside Jerusalem, in the Ella Valley, we have Lupine hill (yes, that’s its name, literally). Spend 15 minutes climbing this particular hill, and then feast your eyes on the majestic blue/purple lupines. Oh, please make sure to specifically visit this hill in March. If you are visiting the Golan Heights in February, wear your boots and pants that you don’t mind getting muddy in order to walk through a small local marsh and enjoy the daffodil flowers.

So the next time that you want to know where I most enjoy traveling in Israel, here you have it. My favorite places during my favorite season. In my eyes, these sites are truly heaven on earth.

Levi Eshkol

The State of Israel has experienced 12 different Prime Ministers during it’s 71 years of existence. Some PM’s are more well known, while others are less. A few have been colorful & theatrical while others more grey and reserved.

David Ben Gurion, the founding father of the state, has some interesting nuances to his personality. He refused to use the word את, which means ‘the’ in a sentence. Due to this, when one listens to a recording of him today (or reads his writings) it sounds as if the sentences are a little stiff/lacking a connecting word at times. BG was also known for his extraordinary memory. When later on in his life he felt like he was developing memory issues, he would practice Yoga by standing on his head. One can still see him doing this while walking by his ‘head standing’ statue on the beach in Tel Aviv.

Golda Meir used to sit in her kitchen with her closest confidants and brainstorm regarding critical issues in Israel. A kitchen in Hebrew is called a ‘mitbach’. As a result of this, when the security cabinet meets today for critical decisions, they are called the ‘mitbachon’ (I guarantee you that they don’t meet in the PM’s kitchen any more..).

And then there is Menachem Begin, arguably the best & wittiest orater that Israel has ever had. When elected to be PM in 1977, a reporter asked Begin what kind of Prime Minister he was going to be. Begin answered without hesitation “Good Jewish style”. In the heated atmosphere leading up to the elections in 1981, a well known cultural figure named Dudu Topaz blasted Begin’s Sephardi voter base by calling them ‘Chachchachim’, which means ‘riffraff’. The following day, Begin stood in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands and brilliantly turned this around to his advantage. He said that this ‘riffraff’ are all Jewish brothers with all Jews from all nationalities, fighting and living together. Many say that this turned the polls around to his advantage.

We’ll finish with Levi Eshkol, Israel’s 3rd PM, from 1963-69. Eshkol was one of the countries main architects for building Israel’s water system, including the National Water Carrier. Born & raised in the Ukrain, Eshkol was fluent in Yiddish and was known to flavor many of his sentences with that fading language. Can you imagine a world leader constantly using Yiddish expressions today?

We’ll stop here for now. You are welcome to view the link, in it I’m sitting in Levi Eshkol’s seat located in the decision room of what used to be the PM’s official residence (until 1974). Glad that I was sitting there talking to you on a video, definitely would not want to be the one making critical decisions during critical times.

Israeli elections!

Stalemate! Those have been the headlines in the news over the last several months, regarding the Israeli elections. Since March, 9 months ago, we have gone through 2 elections. That’s not all, though, as there is a good chance that in a couple of weeks time new elections will be called for the third time, sending us yet again to the polls, this time in March 2020.

How did this crazy situation come to be?

Israel has a parliamentary system, which includes a dozen political parties. When elections take place (ideally every 4 years), the person who heads the largest party will receive the right to create a coalition. This person will then turn to the other political parties in order to cobble together common denominators that will create the desired coalition. Since the Knesset (parliament) consists of 120 seats, the coalition naturally needs the minimum of 61 seats. Since 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu has been the chairman of the Likud party. The Likud party has usually received the most votes, and as such has headed the coalitions, and Netanyahu has been our Prime Minister.

After the elections last March, the Likud party and Netanyahu won again. The difference this time was, they didn’t succeed in creating a coalition. Netanyahu didn’t succeed in getting a minimum of 61 Members of Parliament. This let to a second round of elections last September. The results of the September elections were similar to the March elections. Again, Netanyahu did not succeed in creating a coalition. This time, the political party called ‘Blue & White’, led by Benny Gantz, actually finished slightly ahead of Bibi’s Likud. When Gantz was given the opportunity to create a coalition, he also failed. We are now in ‘Hail Mary’ time. This basically means that any member of parliament that succeeds in getting 61 Members of Parliament to give him a vote of confidence, can create a coalition.

To add onto all of this, last week the Attorney General announced his intent to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud & breach of trust. According to the law, a sitting Prime Minister can remain in office until a court of law finds him guilty. Despite this, the indictment puts the whole political sphere in Israel into that much more of a mess right now.

So what’s next? Chances are that in a couple of weeks our government is going to call for yet another round of elections. In addition, it seems like the Likud party will have inner elections within a few weeks (for the first time since 2014). This will bring about challengers to Netanyahu’s reign in the Likud. His main challenger is Gideon Sa’ar, a veteran politician and former Minister of Education. What will happen from there? Who will win? How will this stalemate end? Well, that’s anyone’s guess..

The Gate experience

When I was a child, there was an expression that we used, the “olden days”. We would ask “did this happen in the olden days” or ” is this from the olden days”?

What are these olden days? Obviously, it all depends on your perspective. Prior to 2016, my beloved Cubbies last won the World Series before WW1, in 1908. That seems like a long time ago. The US Decleration of Independence took place over 240 years ago in 1776, that’s even longer ago. The walls of Jerusalem were built almost 500 yeras ago, in 1540. That much longer ago.

So when we talk about the ancient gate of Ashkelon dating back to 3850 (!!!) years ago, that can really blow your mind. This gate, mostly made of mud brick, is 50 feet long, 14 feet high & 7 feet wide. It’s part of the fortified wall of the ancient port city of Ashkelon, which resides in the southern area of the coastal plains. Pretty amazing to think about the busy daily life of the many people who were walking in and out of this gate in those ancient times. By the way, this gates claim to fame is that it’s the oldest gate in the world!

A gate can also be a metaphor to entering something new in life. We are now entering the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana. May our gate into the Jewish year 5880 lead us into a year of health, happiness & fulfillment.