Vaeirah: Jerusalem Diary II


The Lowest Place on Earth

Friday, January 18

Go down to the Wall for Friday night services. Am surprised by the large number of people gathering. Last time I was here (11 months ago) there were maybe 2000 people at the Wall on Friday night. Tonight there are close to 10,000!

Under the heavens, without a synagogue structure, in the shadow of the ancient, broken Wall, Jews of all backgrounds stand and pray as one. Could this all-inclusive unity ever be replicated in our shuls and synagogues? “Why is it,” I wonder, “that in our synagogues – some of them so ornate and beautiful – we don’t easily find a place that welcomes all people, regardless of affiliation or other class distinction? Shouldn’t a house of G-d receive every person?”

I guess we need a remnant of a Wall to wake us up to our inherent connection. Prosperity and our elaborate structures tend to divide us.

Following services we march up the 200+ steps (I should’ve counted) leading up to the “rova” – the Jewish Quarter, where some 600 families live. I am told that this area is only 1/10th of the entire Old City. The other 9/10ths are comprised of the Armenian, Christian and Arab Quarters. No comment.

Friday night meal at the famous Schlass table. What a meal? Only around 37 different types of salad, one tastier than the next. Much Torah talk, some laughter, many songs. And what do you know? My good buddy Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz of Los Angeles, lovingly known as “Schwartzie,” is sitting at the table. I seem to be bumping into him all over the place. Shlomo is personally responsible for introducing thousands of Jews to their heritage. How many people have I met whose first Jewish experience was on UCLA Campus with Shlomo Schwartz, or at his thousand-plus High Holiday services in LA?

We sit and farbreng into the night. Cannot help but feel the surrealism of the situation. Sitting and eating all this wonderful food, singing together, sharing ideas and stories – and yet… yet, we are just a hundred yards away from the Temple Mount – the holiest place on earth.

I remember what a Jerusalem friend once told me. “Want to feel the depth of galut – spiritual displacement? Here, I’ll warm you up a frozen pizza, eat it while you look out the window at the Temple Mount?”

In New York complacency doesn’t seem so vulgar. But here in Jerusalem, ahh, how it hurts. I’m sure if I stayed here long enough I could “get used to it” – but that’s not saying much… I finally understand why one great Rebbe never moved to Israel. He explained:

“The dissonance is just too much to bear. To live there complacently and not make a daily protest about the dichotomy between people’s ordinary lives and the intense sanctity of the land – is something I cannot do. And to make this protest is something I do not want to do.”

So our work is cut out for us. We must wage all out war against complacency – both in Israel and outside of it.

I cannot sleep. I wander out later at night onto the rooftop of the home in which we are staying. The full view of the Old City stares back at me. Crucifixes, the golden crowns of the Greek Orthodox Church, stone rooftops, backdropped by the Mount of Olives in the distance. And of course, the grey-lead and golden domes of the two Mosques on the Temple Mount. How heartwarming…

And then, at 5AM, as dawn breaks, the muezzin’s Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, echoes over the hills and rooftops of Jerusalem.

Some may say, “How beautiful to see all this multi-religious diversity and co-existence.” Others see the historical insult to Judaism – the ultimate expression of the churban beit hamikdash (destruction of the Holy Temple) and galut (exile), in which everyone tried to bury the Holy Temple and replace it with their own religious sites. Why else would they choose Jerusalem? And if they love Jerusalem that much, why don’t they move their religious centers from Mecca and Rome to Jerusalem?…

And of course, the billion-dollar question: What does the future hold? Who will dominate over this holiest piece of real estate?

Roaming the rooftop of the Old City – a place, like no other, that bridges the past and the future – elicits some of the biggest questions of our times.

Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues stood at just such a spot when they diverged in their reaction to seeing a fox roaming the Temple Mount rendered into a wilderness after the destruction by the Romans. As his colleagues cried, Rabbi Akiva smiled. They saw the destruction. He saw the redemption. I guess, you can see many things looking out at the rolling hills of Jerusalem.

I notice another thing. The buildings in the Arab Quarter are covered with satellite dishes. Not so in the Jewish Quarter. Do the Arabs simply watch more TV stations? Later I find out that this is due to the propaganda that Israel may cut their lines of communication, including the TV wires that run underground. They therefore install the dishes as a backup should their TV lines be sabotaged. But if Israel wants to sabotage, it could also find ways to block the signals and prevent them from reaching the dishes? “A kasha oif a maaseh,” as they say in Yiddish (you don’t ask a question about a story – stories can be absurd is the implication).

Enough said. All I am doing is reporting. You can interpret for yourselves.

Monday, January 19. Today I visited the lowest place on earth, the lowest of the lowest. A place of death that does not allow for any form of animate life. Indeed, any living thing entering this place is killed instantly.

The air is thick with sodium, drying out any moisture.

And what do you find in this dead place? Water. A beautiful turquoise lake, backdropped by rising mountains.

The place is called the Dead Sea. No seaweed or plants of any kind are in or around the water. No fish live in the water. Any fish accidentally entering into the waters from one of the several freshwater streams that feed the Sea are killed instantly.

You would imagine that this place would look, well, dead. But no. Instead the view is stunning. If you did not know better, driving down the 90 south on Israel’s West Bank you could think you’re driving down Highway One on the American West Coast.

But dead it is. The only living creatures that can enter these waters are humans. We can swim in them – actually float. The very salt that kills all life is the thing that makes you float and never allows you to sink. Interesting.

Reminds me of the profound words of a local drunk (Zalman der shiker).

“You drink to drown your tzoros (troubles). Then you find out that tzoros float”… But when they float you can also recognize and deal with them, something that cannot be done when your problems are submerged in denial.

Salt kills all life in the Dead Sea. Yet, salt is the greatest preservative of all, a force that heals. Hence, all the healing minerals extracted from the Dead Sea. To be exact, the water of the Dead Sea contains 21 minerals including magnesium, calcium, bromine and potassium. 12 of these are found in no other sea or ocean. Interesting.

The air is arid and dry. Yet, this is precisely why this region offers unpolluted and pollen-free air with low humidity. Due to the constant evaporation, the air contains high concentrations of several minerals, mainly bromine, providing a genuinely relaxing effect. Because of the high barometric pressure it has approximately 8% more oxygen than anywhere else on earth and consequently makes breathing easier.

The Dead Sea has no outlet. Which explains why it is so salty, in fact 6-10 times as salty as average seawater. The heat in this wide-open, below sea level, desert region evaporates the water at a very high rate, leaving heavy deposits of salts and minerals.

And most amazing of all. The Dead Sea is almost exactly as it was in Biblical times – first mentioned in Genesis 14:3.

I stand and stare at this paradoxical sight.

Jerusalem is 2700 feet above sea level. The Dead Sea, a mere 12 miles east, is 1300 feet below sea level – a drop of 4000 feet from the holiest city on Earth to the lowest place on Earth!

As you breathe in the saline air, your nasals get so dry that you need constant water replenishment. And replenish I did. I didn’t stop drinking water.

From the Dead Sea we climb Ein-Gedi. Ein-Gedi is a beautiful oasis nestled in the Judean desert around halfway down the Dead Sea. It abounds in brooks, waterfalls, as well as rich and diverse tropical vegetation. Filled with caves, this is the place where David hid from King Saul.

I look around and peer into the caves. Perhaps I can find the one that was miraculously covered by a spider web so that King Saul’s soldiers wouldn’t pursue David hiding inside the cave. We are told that David was able to uncover the indispensable role of every creature on Earth, except for a… spider. G-d showed David the value of a spider when it saved his life.

Search as I do, I cannot find the cave nor the spider web.

Tuesday, January 20. Visit a newfound friend in the District Court of Jerusalem. No simple feat. You see, the courthouse is situated in East Jerusalem. As I drive through the Arab neighborhood, I notice the heavy presence of security all over the place. The American embassy is here, as are some other official buildings. I can’t find the building I need, I drive around and around, until an Arab gentleman directs me to a parking lot, run by Arabs, where you can park your car for 10 Shekel and then enter the courthouse.

The security to enter the District Court is intense. The building windows are all covered in mesh. The courthouse will be closed this weekend, when the Muslims celebrate one of their holidays and march down the streets in multitudes.

I am told that this District Court building was formerly a Jordanian courthouse, captured after the 6-Day War, and converted into an Israeli courthouse.

Make myself a mental note: Must come back to East Jerusalem and do some more surveying.

Go out for lunch at Yoga, an Asian restaurant in Jerusalem’s German Colony, on Rechov Emek Refaim. Named so because German Templers built this area in the 19th century. The original occupants of the neighborhood were Protestants from southern Germany who had rebelled against the established church and sought to return to their sources. Their goal was an educated, healthy community with no priests and no formal church. During World War II, the British expelled the entire community because its residents kept in close contact with the fatherland, and many of them became Nazi supporters.

The rest of the afternoon is spent preparing to return back to New York, after a full, rich week in the Holy Land.

Flight leaves 12:01 AM from Lod Airport. El Al is much more efficient in the NY and Newark airport than in Israel. Here, as they say, “the customer is always wrong.” Two flights are scheduled, one for Newark departing at midnight, the other for NY departing at 1 AM. Confusion ensues as to which passengers get priority. You would think that someone knows how to tell time. But others argue, first come first serve. One Israeli begins yelling, with the cultural flailing of the arms punctuated by Hebrew expletives, “If you have a flight next month, and you happened to come to the airport today, you also want to be served first!” Another retorts, “Hey, I’ve been waiting in this line for a full… 15 minutes. Now you tell me that it’s only for Newark passengers!” The woman at the counter is intimidated (she must be American) and serves him immediately– though his flight is two hours away and the Newark passengers have only 30 minutes to go.

Just a final taste of Israeli brashness.

Wednesday, January 22. Land at Newark 5AM. Haven’t slept in two days. Tonight is our big night at the SoHo Playhouse, with my brother, Yosef Yitzchak and Peter Himmelman discussing important issues of our time, the spiritual search, relationships today, suffering and some other relevant topics. I am so out of it that I might as well be in it.

We have a sell out crowd. Remarkable evening. Very entertaining. I enjoy my brother’s passion and cannot stop laughing at Peter’s wit. (I can’t comment on my own performance for obvious subjective reasons; besides, I am basically out of time). “This venue can truly break new ground,” I think to myself. Profound and entertaining.

Maybe we’ll take the show on the road and bring it to Israel – ahh, now that’s an idea. A way to bridge the two hemispheres. We do need each other after all.

One thing is for sure: Love and pain, tears and smiles, sighs and laughter – all of life’s true emotions – are not very different among citizens of America and Israel, and for that matter, the rest of the world. So what makes us different? Only superficials. But superficials that have taken over our lives.

Let’s hope that we feel their tentacles instead of celebrate them as freedom. Then we can begin to get beyond that which divides us and access that which unites us.


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