All posts by YehuditR

Watching Birds Migrate in the Galil

Migrating cranes fly to Agmon Hula to spend the night on the lake in the Galil , Israel
Migrating cranes fly to Agmon Hula to spend the night on the lake in the Galil

Nir, the guide at Agmon Park Nature Reserve, told us to hurry and get off the bus. “The cranes are already coming. You can hear them.”

As I walked toward the lake, I could hear a faint sound.

Nir pointed towards the mountains to our south. “See?” he shouted. “Here they come!”

I looked towards a depression in the line of mountains, but I saw only gray clouds. And then I saw a large group of black specks, slowly getting larger as they came closer, resolving into tiny v-shapes, and then into bird silhouettes. The cries of the birds steadily grew louder, as the birds came closer, and as more and more flew towards the water. The cranes were coming from the surrounding fields to the lake where they would spend the night. The first group came near and circled over the lake. Another group appeared from over the mountains. A large flock flew in from the north and circled. The flocks kept coming—thousands of birds.

Israel is on the second largest migration flyway in the world. In the fall the birds fly over us on their way from Europe to Africa. In the spring they fly back north. More than four hundred species, five hundred million individual birds transit Israel twice a year.

Draining the Swamps

Throughout history, the Hula Lake and its surrounding swamps were major attractions for birds. In the 1950s, however, David Ben Gurion decided that draining the swamps should be a major project of the young state of Israel. The project was necessary to provide additional land for agriculture The new settlements being built for the influx of immigrants needed land for housing and to farm. Draining the Hula Valley would also decrease disease. Too many early pioneers had died of malaria, and the mosquito-borne disease continued to affect too much of the population.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL) built canals on both sides of the valley and deepened the channel of the Jordan River to the east. It was not until the swamps were drained that they discovered they had done too good a job. Swampy soil needs to stay wet or it becomes dry dust, unsuitable for growing crops. Migrating birds now found little food. Migratory paths were disrupted.

Farmers and ecologists realized the water engineering had gone too far. So the JNF-KKL undertook a project to restore the swamps and lake. They renovated the canal system to channel the water and keep the soil wet all the time. Today the water table is about a meter below the surface. The swamps are now much smaller and healthier—no anopheles mosquitoes. Agriculture flourishes in the area. The birds returned, and tourism has become a local industry. And the birds are happy—particularly the cranes.

Not all the birds migrate to Africa

The fall bird watching season runs from October through November. But every year several thousand cranes don’t continue on to Africa. They stay in Israel. That many cranes pose a problem to local agriculture. Farmers complained about the birds eating all the seeds and tiny sprouts, destroying the crops before they even started growing. Bird lovers became upset because it’s not right to wantonly destroy creatures who are just trying to survive. The birds that stayed were fledglings not yet strong enough to fly to Africa and their mothers, as well as injured birds. Eventually, a compromise was worked out.

When a farmer seeds his fields, Agmon Park workers keep the birds away from the field until the plants are too big to be eaten. Park employees scare the birds away from newly seeded fields by driving equipment through the field several times a day. They also put out food for the cranes in another part of the park, so the birds have no need to forage in the farmers’ fields. This bird feeding program runs from December through February every year.

The bird feeding program is a successful venture. The farmers are able to grow crops, and the cranes get the food they need. About 30,000 cranes overwinter in the vicinity of Agmon Hula.

Cranes are not the only birds that like the Hula Valley. We were too late in the year to see the eagles and storks. However, with the help of binoculars, we could see a small flock of fifteen white flamingos standing together on the far side of the water. My first reaction when Nir pointed out a pair of ducks flying over the canal was that Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were far away from the swan boats of Boston Garden.

Birds of prey encouraged

The park encourages birds of prey because they help control the rodent population. We walked past one of the many owl houses, which are not occupied at this time of year. The owls are such good hunters, when park staff clean the owl houses after the birds have left for the season, they find many uneaten carcasses of rats, voles, and other small rodents.

Despite the predations of the raptors, the rodent population seems to flourish.

Black Shouldered Kite rests on treetop at Agmon Park Nature Reserve during migration through Israel
Black Shouldered Kite rests on treetop during migration through Israel

We walked by numerous holes dug by a variety of rodents. But the only rodent we saw was a river rat, also known as a nutria. It looked a long dark brown furry blob crossing the road. I had never seen one before—I had no idea nutria were that big.

Around a bend in the road, we spotted a large black and white bird sitting on the bare top branch of a tree. It was a Black Shouldered Kite. It obligingly sat there staring off into the distance long enough for all of us to snap its photo. This species of kite is rarely around, so we needed those photos to prove we had actually seen it.

Cranes fly to lake at sunset

The highlight of the afternoon was watching the cranes come in for the night. Although they forage in the fields during the day, they spend the night on the water. Between sunset and nightfall they all leave the fields, fly over the valley, and land on the water. The first flock flew in from the south. And the next one, and then the next—too many birds in each flock to count. We were so focused on these birds, we did not notice those flying to the lake from the north until they were directly overhead. More flocks flew from the fields closer to the Jordan River on the east, and then a few from the mountains of Naphtali to the west. And still more came from the south.

There were too many in each flock to count. Nir had told us earlier that there were 33,000 cranes in the park that week. How, I asked him, do they know the number? He said staff count the cranes early in the morning, before sunrise when the birds rise from the lake to forage in the fields during the day.

Cranes settling on the water for the night at Agmon Hula during migration through Israel from Europe to Africa
Cranes settling on the water for the night at Agmon Hula

We stood there more than ten minutes, watching as more and more cranes filled the sky. After flying in large circles over the park, they began to land on the water, just a few at first, who were soon joined by others. The water in front of us began to disappear under its cover of birds.

The light had faded. The group coordinator told us we had to get back on the bus, but we stood there mesmerized by the cranes. Finally, the coordinator made the ultimate threat: if we wanted a bathroom stop on the way home, we had to leave immediately. Reluctantly, we headed back to the bus.

After finding my seat, I looked out the window. In the growing darkness, cranes were flying in from the east and the north, flying from Europe to Africa, as they had for millennia, as, God willing, they will continue to do for all the years to come.

Where is Agmon Hula Nature Reserve?

Treating Wounded Syrians in Tsfat

Mural in lobby of Ziv Medical Center in Tsfat (Safed), where almost a thousand wounded Syrians have been treated over the past five years.
Mural in lobby of Ziv Medical Center in Tsfat (Safed), where almost a thousand wounded Syrians have been treated over the past five years.

Health care in Syria is almost nonexistent after six years of civil war. Yarden, an Arabic-speaking social worker at Ziv Medical Center in Tsfat (Safed), cited a few illustrative statistics: “Their medical system is 70% destroyed. About a million people live in the border areas, but there are only seven doctors.” One doctor for every 143,000 people? The number was shocking.

My husband and I were on an Honest Reporting trip to learn more about how wounded Syrians were receiving care in Israel. Ziv’s program has evolved in response to a need.

In March 2011, when the civil war startedi Syria, the IDF had a policy of watchful waiting. But then, on Saturday, February 16, 2013, seven badly wounded Syrians crossed the border into Israel. IDF medics evaluated them and transported them to the nearest hospital. Ziv doctors were called to come in for an emergency. They had no idea who the patients were or what the problem was until they reported for duty and met the wounded Syrians.

Syria has been at war with Israel since May 1948. Syria’s leaders have refused to participate in any peace talks. They have never considered negotiating a treaty. These wounded men were our enemies. But the doctors did not hesitate—an injured person is a person in need of care. The men were treated. When they recovered the IDF took them back to the border and sent them home. Since then Ziv Hospital has treated almost 1000 patients who have made their way over the border.

Yarden instructed us not to take any photos. Photos could endanger the men and their families. We never learned any patient’s name. All newspaper and TV stories about treatment of Syrians in Israel change patients’ names and either blur their faces or photograph them from an angle which does not reveal their identity.

Dr. Lerner describes care

We met with Prof. Alexander Lerner, the Director of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery. He first described the care of a young bearded Syrian man whose left arm looked like it was caught in a metal cage. The elaborate fixation device was attached by pins to his arm. Dr. Lerner explained that the man’s elbow joint had been destroyed. The hinge in the middle of the device was locked to keep the reconstructed joint still. As the bone and muscle start to heal, therapists will release the lock to perform physical therapy. Later, the patient will also need a skin graft.

Like many of the injured Syrians who are treated at Ziv, this young man will probably go home with the fixation device still in place. The devices cost $2000 to $3000 each. For local patients, they are used several times. But Syrian patients do not come back to the hospital for follow-up; the expensive devices are not returned.

Another young man walked out of the room with his left leg in a cage-like fixation device that was longer than his leg. His foot hung in the air several inches above the end of the device, which rested on the floor. Despite the disparity in the lengths of his legs, the device enabled him to walk. He had arrived at the hospital with a partial amputation of his leg. When he recovers from a leg elongation procedure, he will receive a special shoe to enable him to walk.

Both Yarden and Dr. Lerner pointed out that they know nothing about these patients. Unless the Syrians themselves choose to reveal something, the medical staff have no idea if they are civilians or fighters. Many of the men say they were injured in an accident, and leave it at that.

The lack of medical history is a serious problem. Previous injuries, chronic diseases, even allergies are all unknown. The doctors can only hope the patient is not allergic to needed antibiotics.

Complicated trauma frequently results in infection. Dr. Lerner said that similar injuries treated at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington have an infection rate of 17%. However, the Syrians at Ziv are all infection-free by the time of discharge. It’s not just a matter of antibiotic use. Dr. Lerner believes the difference lies in continuity of care. By the time injured US military personnel arrive at Walter Reed, they have already been treated at a field hospital, a local military hospital, and the military hospital in Germany. At each point, a different doctor with a different approach cares for them.

At Ziv, one doctor directs all care from initial admission until discharge. He plans the first surgery with follow-up care, future operations, and

Dr. Alexander Lerner's book about what the staff have learned about complex trauma from treating wounded Syrians
Dr. Alexander Lerner’s book about what the staff have learned about complex trauma from treating wounded Syrians

rehabilitation in mind. He can follow those plans throughout the patient’s hospital stay.

Someone asked what Dr. Lerner had learned anything caring for these patients. Had he published anything about such complex trauma?

The doctor smiled. He proudly showed us a photo on his phone of his latest book, Complicated War Trauma and Care of the Wounded, which he co-edited with Salman Zarka. The book describes not only orthopedics and other surgical treatment, but also psychological therapy and ethical issues involved in treating soldiers and civilians from an enemy country.

Getting to Ziv Hospital

As word spread that free medical treatment was available in Israel, more and more Syrians started showing up at the border. They always arrive at night; it is impossible to safely cross the border during daylight. The IDF carries out initial stabilization of patients, and transports them to Ziv or to Poriya hospital for treatment. Because they arrive at night, it is often easier to get time in an operating room than during the day. The patients arrive with nothing. After an incident when a fighter pulled a weapon hidden in his clothing, the hospital only accepts patients in their underwear. The Red Cross provides them with clothing, a toothbrush, soap, and other necessities.

The patients are unaccompanied. No family member or friend can visit during their entire hospital stay, which can last several months. The only exceptions to this rule are children; a parent accompanies patients less than 18 years old.

Recently, Ziv has opened a free one day pediatric clinic. Every three weeks a bus brings Syrian children from the border. A parent accompanies each child. The clinic provides standard well child checkups as well as treatment for more complicated problems. Most of the children return to the border at the end of the day. Occasionally a child will stay for further treatment. Although they arrive during the day, like the wounded men, they probably travel to the border under the cover of darkness.

All patients are given a summary of their medical treatment when they return to Syria. Written in Arabic on plain paper, the summary has nothing on it to indicate they received treatment in Israel. I suspect the Syrian doctors know where their patients were treated. Injured people could not have found the sophisticated treatment in their home country’s collapsed medical system. And they could not have afforded care in Lebanon or Jordan.

The wounded Syrians are not charged for their care. It is paid for by the Israeli government, Ziv Medical Center itself, and by individual contributions to Ziv. The medical center brochure we received points out that contributions to Ziv are tax deductible in both the US and Israel. (Friends of Ziv Medical Center, Inc. is a registered 501(c)(3) charity).

We’re not the only visitors who have come to observe the treatment of Syrians at Ziv. A few weeks ago Conan O’Brien stopped in during his tour of Israel. His team was allowed to film in the Syrians’ room, on condition that they not show any of the patients’ faces. His hospital visit became part of his Israel show.

Rainy Succot

Decorations to hang in succot for sale,
Decorations to hang in succot for sale,

I was pulled out of my sleep by a five note snippet of an unfamiliar tune, repeated over and over. My first thought was, Why did I change my alarm sound? As I picked my phone up from the windowsill, I realized the notes were coming, not from my phone, but from the succah just below the open bedroom window. Although I not changed my alarm sound, I would be awakened by this musical snippet for the rest of the Succot holiday.

That’s what the holiday is like in Jerusalem. With so many succot built in almost every conceivable spot, you’re never out of earshot of one. And since the holiday is at the end of summer, before the winter rains start, many people sleep in their temporary huts. Thus, the alarm clock ringing outside my window at 6:15 AM.

Okay, it does rain here during succot almost every year. Usually the rain is a light drizzle, lasting only a few minutes to an hour. Depending on what time it falls, it may chase people into the house for their meal or cancel  plans to sleep outside. But it is rarely the cold drenching October rain familiar to North Americans, nor is it the significant heavy rain of Israeli winter.

Rain on Jaffa Road, Jerusalem Photo by Marc Israel Sellem,Jerusalem Post
Rain on Jaffa Road, Jerusalem — Photo by Marc Israel Sellem, Jerusalem Post

This year it was different. Late Monday morning the skies opened up and it poured. It rained almost everywhere in the country. On Facebook, people posted photos and videos of the rain in their succot. Rain was even reported falling near Jericho, which normally receives about 4 inches of rain a year. Compare that with Jerusalem’s 22 inches, or to Philadelphia’s 47 inches.

Several roads flooded in the north of the country. As usual for the first rain, electric outages were reported from several localities. You would think that the electric company in high tech Israel would know by now that heavy rain falls every year. Even the Bible mentions yoreh—the heavy fall rain. You would think they would take preventive measures to protect against such outages.

A flash flood near the Dead Sea temporarily stranded 150 hikers. Since it takes only about an inch of rain in Jerusalem to cause flash floods near the Dead Sea, that story isn’t unusual. That it happened during succot, before the “official” start of winter’s rains made it newsworthy.

Most people’s succot suffered some damage. The rain washed all the dirt off the s’chach, the bamboo or palm leaves used as roofing, leaving a coat of mud on chairs and tables. Paper decorations were ruined, and some succot were even moved or knocked down by the wind.

Our succah survived intact. However, even though it was dry by dinner time, we didn’t eat in it Monday night. A nearby ant nest was flooded, which might not have been a problem if it was normal sized. But this one, apparently, was no ordinary anthill; I suspect it was the capital city of the ant kingdom of Jerusalem. When we inspected our succah in the afternoon, large black ants, some with translucent white wings, were swarming out of hundreds of small holes in the ground. Pouring an ant-killing mixture of soap and red pepper solution down the main entrance to the nest didn’t affect the population in the succah, nor did pouring it into the holes on one side of the table. There were just too many exits from the city, and too many ants.

 In Wilkes Barre we used to worry about the local skunks visiting our succah uninvited. One annoyed skunk could ruin the succah for the season. The local wildlife in Jerusalem is primarily feral cats. Although they like to explore succot looking for treats, they generally run away when people approach. But the six legged creatures are not shy, and when they want to take over a space they can do so.

Perhaps by next year, one of the families that builds their succah in the parking lot will move away. Then we’ll be able to use their space. I don’t look forward to another ant-infested holiday.

On Thursday, the last day of the holiday season, we prayed for rain. That prayer officially initiates the winter season. After the Prayer for Rain on Shemini Atzeret/ Simchat Torah, rain can fall at any time. Most years, however, the yoreh holds off until the beginning of November.

But whenever it falls, rain is welcome—as long as it doesn’t knock out your power.

Evidence from Lachish Confirms Bible Story

Remnants of the city tower at Lachish, viewed from the city's 8th century BCE gate.
Remnants of the city tower at Lachish, viewed from the city’s 8th century BCE gate.

According to the Bible, Lachish was once the second most important city in the Kingdom of Judea. But after the land was conquered by the Babylonians, it disappeared. There was a local tradition that a certain massive hill about 40 km southwest of Jerusalem was the location of ancient Lachish. Those who believed the Bible recounted historical truth, needed no proof that Lachish had actually existed. Non-believers in the Bible’s historical truth took the stories with a grain of salt.

Looking for the Assyrian Palace

About 2600 years after the city’s disappearance, European archaeologists in Iraq began excavating an area they thought was ancient Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. Sir Henry Layard wanted to uncover the palace of the Assyrian King Sennacherib. During Sennacherib’s reign, the empire grew southward, almost to Egypt. The Bible describes how his army captured the Kingdom of Israel and exiled its population. This expulsion ultimately led to the disappearance of the ten northern tribes.

Sennacherib went on to conquer, by his count, 46 cities in Judea. Lachish was the last.

The Assyrians laid siege to Jerusalem, the capital. It must have been a frightening sight, to stand on the newly built city wall and look out at the enemy. Thousands of soldiers covered the hills as far as the frightened Judeans could see.

And then, in one night, the Assyrians vanished (Kings II, 7:6-8).

Lachish Frieze in Iraq

No evidence had ever been found to corroborate the Biblical story. Then in 1845 Layard uncovered Sennacherib’s palace. Much of the remains were in good condition. One reception room had a large frieze carved on its long wall. The carving depicted the conquest of Lachish. It shows Assyrian preparations, the battle itself, and the captured Judeans going into exile. The detail of the stone carvings is fascinating. The double wall of Lachish is clear as are the gates. Five battering rams stand on the Assyrian siege ramp and two more stand near the city gate. The weapons, including well as the bows and arrows, spears, and others are clear.

Portion of the Lachish frieze from King Sennacherib's Palace in Iraq, showing Judeans being taken into captivity by the Assyrians.
Portion of the Lachish frieze from King Sennacherib’s Palace in Iraq, showing Judeans being taken into captivity by the Assyrians.

Like all proper nineteen century archeologists, Layard carefully removed the frieze from the palace wall and took it home. The original is now in the British Museum in London. A replica hangs in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

When I visited Lachish more than fifteen years ago, I didn’t understand its significance. Having studied Kings II in high school, I knew a little about its history. But it was one of the first tels I had seen, and I had little to compare it to.

Tel Lachish Today

Today, looking at the large hill in the middle of the level farmland, I understand just how large Lachish was. I now appreciate its strategic importance. It had been part of the line of fortresses between the Israelites and the Philistines. It helped protect the Israelites, the people of the mountains, from the sea people who invaded from the west.

The Assyrians built this siege ramp to enable them to breach the walls of Lachish in the 8th century BCE
The Assyrians built this siege ramp to enable them to breach the walls of Lachish in the 8th century BCE

From the parking lot the height of the tel is impressive. There must have been layers upon layers of cities built and rebuilt in this spot to make it so tall. The sides of the tel are almost vertical, except on the southwestern side. Here is the ramp, built by the Assyrians to them to break through the walls into the city. Archeologists estimate it contains 13,000 to 19,000 tons of stones. When they excavated the ramp, they found spears and iron arrow heads dating from the 8th century BCE. These ancient weapons supported both the Bible story and the illustrations in the Lachish frieze.

The Judeans rebuilt Lachish, adding another layer to the tel. The new city lasted less than 150 years. The Assyrian empire itself had even fewer years left. It was conquered by Babylonia, the new power in the Middle East.

We did not follow in the Assyrian footsteps up the siege ramp. Instead we walked up the nearby modern path to the outer city gate.

In 1935, James Starkey, the first archeologist to excavate here, found many letters in one chamber of the gate. The letters offer eyewitness testimony of the battle against the Babylonians. After conquering Nineveh, the Babylonians gobbled up the rest of the Assyrian empire. The most famous of the Lachish lettersis from Hoshiyahu, probably a military commander stationed in the area. He wrote to Ya’ush, probably the commander of Lachish. The letter reports on the Babylonian progress. It says that Hoshiyahu’s people are “watching over the beacon of Lachish, according to the signals which my lord gave, for Azekah is not seen.” One by one, the fortresses were falling, and only Lachish remained standing..

But not for long. Lachish was destroyed again, and this time Jerusalem did not escape. The Babylonians conquered the capital city and destroyed it in 586 BCE.

City Gate

Lachish was a large city. After entering the outer gate, we walked about a hundred meters, still outside the main city wall, to the inner gate. Shulie Mishkin, our guide, pulled aside a wire fence to let us walk into a restricted area. I’m used to going into restricted areas with the archeologists from Ir David, so I didn’t find this unusual. We were not supposed to be there. I thought that if the archeologists didn’t want tourists wandering around, they would have secured the gate with a padlock. At least they would have hung a “Danger! Excavations!” sign on the fence. But perhaps they don’t feel it is necessary because Lachish is in such an out-of-the-way place.

The inner gate consists of six chambers, three on each side. It’s the only six-chambered gate found in Judea (so far). David Ussisskin excavated the three chambers on the northern side of the gate. The other side was excavated more recently. The remains of these chambers revealed evidence of daily activities at the gates of the city.

The innermost of the three chambers must have been a reception chamber for merchants. Benches line the room, where the new arrivals could sit while the tax collectors inspected and evaluated their merchandise. The archeologists found measuring scoops of varying sizes and clay jug handles with the word lmelekh (for the King). Some jug handles were stamped with the name Nahum Avi, who may have been the tax collector. Jug handles bearing his stamp have also been found at other First Temple period administrative centers.

The Altar in the City Gate

Not much of interest was found in the middle chamber. The outermost chamber, however, may be the most interesting for Bible scholars. The gate was built during the time that sacrificial worship was restricted to the Temple in Jerusalem. They were clearly Jewish altars. A traveler arriving safely after a dangerous journey, as all journeys were at that time, would naturally want to offer a sacrifice. However, sacrifices outside of the Temple were forbidden. Nonetheless, the practice prevailed throughout the land. Most of these sites were in cities on the frontier, the edge of civilization. It didn’t matter where they were; such worship was prohibited. That’s why the Bible prophets traveled the land denouncing the shrines and berating the people who frequented them.

In Kings II, King Josiah of Judea who ruled between the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, instituted religious reformation. He ordered all the priests of Baal be killed and the altars and idols in Jerusalem destroyed. Inspectors went through the land, searching for, and destroying, all unauthorized altars. The altar in Beer Sheva was dismantled and hidden in a basement; the one in Arad was buried. In Lachish, however, the people desecrated the altar. They cut off the horns at its corners.

Eighth century BCE toilet found in one of the gate chambers at Lachish.
Eighth century BCE toilet found in one of the gate chambers at Lachish.

But, removing the horns of the altars was not enough. A toilet was placed in the room with the desecrated altars, which shows no evidence of ever having been used. Simply putting a toilet in the room was sufficiently sacrilegious to invalidate any prayer that might be offered.

Throughout history some things just do not change. Although today’s bathroom fixtures may be connected to running water, they still look almost the same as the ancient Judean one. And we still do not pray in the same room as a toilet.

Hevron: Where Our Forefather Avraham Stood

Old Hevron. Ma'arat HaMachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) is the large rectangular
Old Hevron. Ma’arat HaMachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) is the large rectangular structure in the middle.

Every time I start to think I’m getting to know Israel something triggers the realization that I’m still a newcomer. Walking in a place I’m familiar with, I see or hear an aspect I had never been aware of. While traveling with my sister Susan recently, my awareness of my own lack of knowledge of the country has been triggered multiple times.

For example, on our tour of Ir David, the most ancient part of Jerusalem, the guide mentioned something was from the Persian Period. I knew that. I’ve been to that part of Ir David numerous times, but this guide was the first one to mention a dog cemetery. For some reason, more than two thousand years ago, Persians buried dogs in a certain position. Cemeteries in several areas have been discovered, containing the earthly remains of thousands of dogs. This peculiarity helps archeologists date other things found at the same level of excavation.

Susan and I also went to Hevron, on a tour of the city sponsored by the Hevron Fund, guided by Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum. Hevron had been on our itinerary when Susan and I started planning for her visit several months ago. However, between making reservations and the day of the tour, current events overtook us. UNESCO decided that Ma’arat HaMachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hevron is a Palestinian Heritage Site. Their vote effectively rejects the city’s history prior to the Mamluk conquest in 1287. Nothing that happened earlier—thousands of years of Jewish and Christian history at the site—is significant.

The holiness of Ma’arat HaMachpela to Jews is based on the belief that it is the burial place of our forefather Avraham and his wife Sarah. Additionally, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah are buried there. Avraham bought the cave and the land around it from Ephron the Hittite for four hundred silver shekels. (Genesis 23:7-20). In those days, that was a small fortune. Muslim tradition holds that it is not Sarah, but Hagar, who is buried there. This is an important point to them because Hagar is mother of Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs. However, Sarah’s name is the one engraved on the plaque identifying the other monument in the Avraham hall. The largest room is named for Avraham’s son Isaac, the second Jewish forefather. A third room is named for Jacob, who does not figure in Muslim history at all.

The building over Ma’arat HaMachpela clearly dates from the time of King Herod, the great builder. According to the Muslims, it’s a mosque. It has always been a mosque. UNESCO did not explain how the Romans came to construct a building to be used for a religion that would not exist for another 600 years. 

The UNESCO vote also denies Christian history at the site. During the short reign of the Crusaders, from 1099 to 1187, they added a church to the Herodian building. The Mamluks destroyed the church after vanquishing the Crusaders. The Christian history at the site doesn’t seem matter to the members of UNESCO.

In response to the UNESCO vote, someone sponsored a demonstration of the Jewish connection to Hevron. By advertising on Facebook and by word of mouth, they recruited five bus loads of people to go pray at Ma’arat HaMachpela. They did not go to Hevron to see any of the city—most of their time was spent at the ancient building itself.

Five hundred year old Torah scroll in Avraham Avinu synagogue in Hevron, Israel. Photo courtesy of Susan Schreibstein
Five hundred year old Torah scroll in Avraham Avinu synagogue.
Photo courtesy of Susan Schreibstein

Our group’s visit to Hevron included much of the Jewish area of the city. We went to the graves of Jesse and Ruth, the father and great grandmother of King David. We walked through the Avraham Avinu (Our Father Abraham) neighborhood. In the almost 600 year-old Avraham Avinu synagogue, Rabbi Hochbaum showed us a 500 year old Torah scroll. The congregation reads the weekly portion from it every Shabbat. Its parchment, made from deer skin, is light brown.

And of course, we went into Ma’arat HaMachpela to see the catafalques of Avraham, Sarah, Jacob, and Leah. The catafalques of Isaac and Rebecca are in a part of the building that is closed to Jews for all but ten days of the year. In the plastic-roofed courtyard between the Avraham Hall and the Jacob Hall, we joined with another group to say the afternoon prayers.

But for me, the most interesting part of the day was the our first stop in the morning. Rabbi Hochbaum led us across the street and up a steep

Tour group gathers around Abraham's well in Hevron, Israel.
Tour group gathers around Avraham’s well in Hevron, Israel.

dusty hill. Everyone in the group, except the small children being carried by their parents, quickly became short of breath. When we stopped, the rabbi reminded us to drink. Not that we needed the reminder—we were hot and sweaty, and the day had barely started.

He led us into an area cleared of bushes, with olive trees and a rectangular hole. On three sides of the hole, three foot high cement walls protect it. On the fourth side the tall black iron gate can be closed to keep animals out. From the gate, stone stairs descended to water. This, Rabbi Hochbaum informed us, is Avraham’s Well.

The well still has water in it. We could see it. Rabbi Hochbaum told us that today it is used as a mikveh (ritual bath) by Jewish residents and visitors to Hevron. Every Friday and on the eve of holidays, a long line of

Steps leading into Abraham's well, in Hevron. At the bottom, we could see the water. Photo courtesy of Susan Schreibstein
Steps leading into Avraham’s well, in Hevron. At the bottom, we could see the water. Photo courtesy of Susan Schreibstein

men come up the hill to purify themselves in the mikveh. As refreshing as it would have been, however, none of us would be dipping in Avraham’s Well that day. We were a mixed crowd, men and women, and had much more to see in Hevron.

This is where our forefather Avraham pitched his tent, outside the wall of ancient Hevron. Avraham was sitting under these very olive trees, recovering from his brit mila (circumcision), when he looked up and saw three strangers coming to visit.

Olive trees are remarkably long-lived, but 4000 years old? The one I was sitting against was green and flourishing, like the others in the surrounding grove. Olive trees have been growing around this well for millennia. Olive pits unearthed in the area dropped from trees about 4000 years ago, as shown by carbon dating. I suspect that the trees whose shade we enjoyed are the descendants of those Avraham and Sarah sat under. It doesn’t matter. Whether or not they are the same trees, I got a thrill knowing that I was sitting in the same place my Biblical forbears had lived.

That’s one of the reasons I enjoy travelling the land so much. Looking over the land my our ancestors saw and walking where they walked, makes history come alive. It seems like I’ll never run out of history to appreciate this way.

A Special Blessing: Elon Moreh and Ivei Hanahal

The Tirzah Valley, which extends from Nablus to the Jordan River, as viewed from Elon Moreh. The dark green on the valley floor are Arab farms
The Tirzah Valley, which extends from Nablus to the Jordan River, as viewed from Elon Moreh. The dark green on the valley floor are Arab farms

When Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, the head of the Hesder Yeshiva in Elon Moreh, welcomed us, he asked how many of us had previously visited the town. A few hands went up. The rabbi smiled and told us there is a special blessing the rest of us should say. The blessing is recited when visiting a place in the land of Israel that had been settled by Jews, destroyed during the time of the Temple, and then rebuilt. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, zt”l, the Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate, said the blessing whenever he visited a new town. Rabbi Levanon recommended that before we leave, we go to a synagogue and say the blessing.

The Beit Midrash in Elon Moreh, where we said the special blessing for rebuilt places
The Beit Midrash in Elon Moreh, where we said the special blessing for rebuilt places

At the end of our drive through Elon Moreh, we stopped at the Beit Midrash, the yeshiva’s synagogue, to say the blessing. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, who has removed the limits of the widow.” Widow is the word used in Eicha (Lamentations) to describe the destroyed city of Jerusalem. By extension, it refers to all the towns and cities that have been destroyed, whether by Babylonians, as in Eicha, or by others. In removing the limitations on these places, God has allowed Jews to return and rebuild.

Elon Moreh is built on Mt Kabir, one of the mountains in the Shomron that surround Nablus. This is the town that in the days of our forefathers was called Shechem.

The book of Genesis tell us that Elon Moreh is the first place Abraham Avinu stopped when he came to the land from Haran. According to some traditions, this is where he stood when God told him to look out over the land. Everything he could see, God would give to Avraham’s descendants. Yakov, following in his grandfather’s footsteps may also have stopped in Elon Moreh as he passed by Shechem.

Modern Elon Moreh was founded in 1980. The Hesder Yeshiva was one of the first buildings. As at all hesder yeshivot, its students spend two of their five years there serving in the military. Rabbi Levanon explained to us that his yeshiva places special emphasis on the study of practical halacha—how religious principles are carried out in day-to-day life.

But none of that history mattered when we walked to the observation point because when we stood there, the view captured us. It’s mid May, the fields of the Arab farmers in the wide Tirzah Valley are still glowing bright green. Unirrigated areas are already turning yellow or tan. On the other side of the valley, the mountains of the Shomron are tan and brown, disappearing into the distance. Our guide said that on a clear day, you can see Mt. Hermon. This day the Hermon’s snow covered cap hid itself in the haze. The valley stretches around Mount Kabir where we stood to beyond where we can see—all the way to the Jordan River in the east.

Tirzah Valley was the highway the Tribes of Israel used when they walked from the Jordan River to Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eval when on first entering the Land under the leadership of Joshua. I tried to imagine what that must have looked like—the people must have filled the valley. It would have been more than 600,000 men, plus their wives and children who were not counted in the census. And they would have brought uncounted numbers of sheep, cattle, goats, and donkeys. The stragglers would probably just be getting their feet wet in the river’s mud when Joshua reached Shechem. The leaders would have been directing six tribes up onto the slopes of Mount Gerizim and six of them up Mount Eval, while the Cohanim were setting the Holy Ark down near Shechem. The noise of their passing would have been heard for miles.

I thought, I could sit here on the bench in the shade all day. If I lived in Elon Moreh, I wondered how much work I would get done. With that view outside my window, I’d probably stand there transfixed every morning until my alarm rang, reminding me it was time to leave the house.

I had the same feeling this week, standing on the porch of the small house Rabbi Ari Abramowitz built for himself in the Judean Desert. The house stands up the hill from Ivei Hanahal, at the end of a packed dirt road. From one side of the porch you look back at the yishuv of Ivei Hanahal, a town inhabited by forty-two families. Looking east from the porch, you see the desert mountains marching off towards the Dead Sea. The sea is a vague shape of darker blue against the backdrop of the hazy blue Mountains of Moab in Jordan. The house is built almost on the edge of the steep drop into Wadi Arugot, the largest river valley in the Mountains of Judea. The wadi, which at this time of year is dry except for a narrow steam in its bed, winds around the house, giving a spectacular view of the desert. Ari can’t see this view from his bedroom. He has to get out of bed in the morning and go into his living room to look at it. I am sure that was a deliberate decision when building the house.

Wadi Arugot in the Judean Desert
Wadi Arugot in the Judean Desert

Don’t look for the site on a map. Ivei Hanahal is too small for Google maps to find. Forty-two caravans, a stuccoed shelter for the soldier on guard duty, and a beautiful playground for the children doesn’t rate one of Google’s little red teardrops. They place the symbol for Wadi Arugot in the middle of an empty space, about halfway between Hevron and Mitzpe Shalem. You can almost find it more easily in the Bible.

Ezekiel (47: 6-10) prophesied that the water from the Third Temple will flow through the desert in large quantities. According to the prophet, the Dead Sea will become a fresh water lake, with fish swimming in it. The local interpretation is that Ezekiel was talking about Wadi Arugot.

Ari was one of the co-founders of the Land of Israel radio network, along with Jeremy Gimpel. The English language network describes itself as devoted to “broadcasting the truth and beauty of the land of Israel and the Jewish people.” The radio station’s headquarters are nearby. They are building a retreat center there, with eighteen small suites and

When completed, this retreat center at Ivei Hanahal will have 18 guest suites, conference rooms, and an outdoor pool
When completed, this retreat center at Ivei Hanahal will have 18 guest suites and an outdoor pool

conference rooms. They plan a swimming pool, to be surrounded by bushes, trees, and flowers. Here, in the middle of the desert, with the help of volunteers from Germany, they have just finished planting 500 olive trees. They envision planting a pomegranate orchard and a vineyard as well.

While we sat in Ari’s living room, he talked about building the house. He recently had heard about the blessing one says when visiting a once destroyed place that has been resettled by Jews. When he moved in to his house, he said the blessing, “…who removes the limits of the widow.”

I mentioned to Ari we had recently recited the blessing in Elon Moreh. Then I told him what Rav Levanon had said about Rabbi Kook’s custom of saying it when he visited somewhere new in Israel.

“Rav Kook did that?” Ari asked.

I nodded.

He smiled. “I’m going to do that now too.

Understanding Water and Water Bills

One of the secondary water clarifiers at the Shafdan water reclamation plant near Ashkelon, Israel.
One of the secondary water clarifiers at the Shafdan water reclamation plant near Ashkelon.

Our first water bill was a complete mystery. With the help of a dictionary, I managed to translate it, but knowing what the words meant didn’t help. On one page the amount we used was classified according to “Apartment” (16) and “Main” (305). Below that, it listed the sum of all the water we used in the two month billing period: 17.167. It was broken down as Private: 16 m3), Joint: 1.167 m3. I understood that “Apartment” equaled “Private,” but “Main” (305) certainly did not equal “Joint.” But at least now I knew what measurement I was dealing with–mare cubic meters.

After a few questions, I learned that “Joint” was our share of water used for the grass & trees in the courtyard and washing the stairs and hallways.

But on the next page of the bill, I found a different story. Although the total amount we used was the same, it was divided differently. Price 1: 13.81, Price 2: 3.36. The only things I understood about the bill were that the tax was 17% and that I had to pay 147.15 NIS within three weeks.

I’m not the only new oleh (immigrant) to find my bill confusing. When my ulpan teacher asked the class if we would like her to explain our utility bills, everyone in the class said, “Yes!”

That’s when I found out that pricing is one part of the country’s program to manage the water supply.

We are a desert country. The lack of rain in the land of Israel is an ancient problem. The Bible describes it dozens of times. The book of Genesis describes how Abraham lived here only a short time before a drought caused him to move temporarily to Egypt. In Deuteronomy, God threatens to withhold rain as a punishment if the Israelites did not obey his laws. Elijah the prophet declared a drought in Kings I that lasted three years.

The passage of millennia did not solve problem. Lack of drinking water caused the Crusaders to lose the Holy Land to the armies of Saladin at the Horns of Hattin in 1187. The Christians took what should have been a good defensive position at the top of a hill. They neglected to check one thing in advance. They had no water source. It was summer. Although Muslim history declares the battle of the Horns of Hattin a great victory, they did not have to fight very hard. The Crusaders were defeated by the heat, sun, and dehydration.

During the mandate period, the British were so worried about water, they commissioned a special study of the situation. The report concluded that the land would never be able to support more than 1,000,000 people. The aquifers were too small and the rainfall was too unreliable.

Today, rain is still unreliable. The level in the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), the main source of fresh water for over 50 years, is frequently so low, an emergency is declared. So much water has been pumped from the coastal aquifer, sea water has infiltrated. What remains is undrinkable. Yet Israel now has enough water to support a population of 8,000,000. If you include Gaza, as the British did, more than ten million people, live in a land that the British said could not support a tenth of that number. Additionally, Israel has a thriving agricultural economy and exports water to Jordan.

How is all this possible?

The first measure was a national emphasis of saving water. Every child in Gan learns the slogan “Kol tipa khashuv” (Every drop is important). A friend told me that on a family visit to Niagara Falls, the adults stood amazed at the power of all the water. Their five year old stared at the falls only a moment before declaring ”Azeh bizbuz mayim!” (What a waste of water).

After our aliyah, we soon learned how to wash our hands and take showers: Turn on water, get wet, turn off water, apply soap, turn on water, rinse, turn off water, dry. I even learned to wash dishes in a water-saving manner, with the help of Maya’s blog post, “How to wash dishes like an Israeli.” 

The pricing of water plays a large part in water-saving. You can use as much as you want, as long as you are willing to pay for it. The key is the graduated cost. As my ulpan teacher explained, each person is assumed to need a certain amount of water per month, for which you pay “Price 1.” Given the evidence of my bill, I assume my personal allotment is about 6.9 m3/month (a little more than 1800 gallons). To make sure that each dwelling unit is charged appropriately, the water company requires a copy of the official ID of every resident. One of the first things new parents do is send notice of the birth of a baby to the water company.

If you exceed the basic allotted amount, as almost everyone does, larger amounts of usage are charged a higher price. At this time, Price 1 is 6.546 NIS/m3 and Price 2 is 10.536 NIS/m3. If you use more than you are allotted at this second level, there is a third level of pricing. In her explanation of the water bill, my teacher only said Price 3 was extremely high. Although we still don’t know how much “extremely high” is, we hope we never are so profligate with water that we find out.

Another way Israel lessens its dependence on rain is by recycling. As I learned when I toured the Shafdan water reclamation plant, Israel reclaims 85% of its wastewater. Spain, the country with the second highest reclamation record, recycles about 19%. At Shafdan, the tour guide said their output meets drinking water standards. However, the water from Shafdan remains separate from the drinking water stream. Drinking water flows throughout the country in white pipes; reclaimed water flows in pink or purple pipes.

Pink color of drip irrigation hose signifies it carries reclaimed (recycled) water to garden.
Pink color of drip irrigation hose signifies it carries reclaimed (recycled) water to garden.

Reclaimed water is used only for agriculture and gardens. To eliminate any danger from effluent contamination, it is not used for crops that water touches directly, such as strawberries and cucumbers. Rather, the pink and purple drip irrigation pipes carry water to fruit trees and other crops that do not touch the ground.

The third factor that has increased the country’s supply is desalination. We have five desalination plants which together supply 55% of our drinking water. Israel is the world leader in desalination technology. IDE, our largest builder of desalination plants, has installed plants in forty countries, including several in China. The Israeli-designed Carlsbad Desalination Plant near San Diego produces 190,000 m3 of water daily, supplying 10% of that city’s needs. And here in Israel, five desalination plants discharge about 600 million m3 per year.    

This sign was the only thing inside the desalination plant that we were allowed to photograph.
This sign was the only thing inside the desalination plant that we were allowed to photograph.

Fresh water production is so important, each plant observes strict security procedures. On a recent tour of the Sorek desalination plant in Ashkelon, we were instructed not to take any photographs. And in case we forgot that instruction, signs in several languages remind visitors that no photography is allowed.

Thus, our reliance on the limited rainfall is nil. Because of these factors, we have enough water to meet the needs of the whole country. Additionally, Israel supplies Jordan with one hundred million cubic meters of water yearly.

But despite our abundant supply, newspapers still regularly report the Kinneret level. Every two months our bill reminds us that we live in a desert country, where water is so precious we must pay for every drop. And, God forbid, if we use more than is deemed appropriate, we’ll pay “Price 3” for those excess drops.

Yakov’s First Tefillin

Daniel & Yakov saying the orning prayers the first day Yakov put on tefillin
Daniel & Yakov saying the morning prayers the first day Yakov put on tefillin

When Yakov, our older grandson, turns thirteen later this week, he will be considered an adult in for purposes of religious observance. Among other mitzvot, he will then be obligated to put on tefillin every day. Tefillin, the small black boxes tied to the head and arm by long black straps, are worn by religious men when saying the morning prayers. Because laying tefillin is a positive commandment performed at a specific time, women are exempt from it; their family duties take precedence.

Each of the tefillin contains the four passages from the Torah. These specific passages command Jews to bind God’s words to their arm and put them as a sign between their eyes. Each passage must be written by hand on parchment. The words must be written in order. If the sofer, the scribe, later notices he has made a mistake, he cannot go back and fix it—he must write the whole small scroll over from the beginning.

Rabbi Rav Menachem Goldberg, the sofer who made Yakov’s tefillin, explained all this to us when he came to Daniel and Aliza’s house one evening in May. Rav Menachem had already written the parchments and made the boxes to contain them. Now he was teaching us all about the tefillin as he assembled them. Daniel and Allen would do some of the work.  Because only those obligated to perform the mitzvah can participate in fabricating tefillin,  the rest of us could not help. Yakov and Moshe were too young; Aliza and I are women. Sara was disqualified on both counts.

We each received a small piece of parchment to feel and examine. One side was smooth and the other side was slightly fuzzy, like closely shaved velvet. Only the smooth side is written on.

“Tear it,” instructed Rav Menachem. Only Yakov and Moshe were successful.

The rabbi then unrolled the small piece of parchment designated for the arm tefillin. Because the four passages were written as four distinct paragraphs next to each other, this small scroll was about one inch in height and about fifteen inches long.  He then pulled out of his plastic box four smaller scrolls, folded to about one inch square. Each of these scrolls contained one of the four passages. They would go into separate compartments in the head tefillin.

Every part of the tefillin comes from an animal source. What does the sofer write with? Sara eagerly volunteered the answer. “A feather!”

Rav Menachem pulled a long feather from his tool box. Its tip had been sharpened to a point. He also pulled out a slender piece of wood, whose stained black point had been similarly sharpened. “Moses,” he explained, “used a stick of wood to write the first tefillin. Today we also have ceramic pens to write with. The important thing is the tip—it can’t come to a point like a pen. It has to be wide. The width of the line changes, depending on its direction.”

He demonstrated by writing a few letters with the quill. Without changing his grip or twisting his arm, the wide point enabled him to write letters whose vertical lines were thinner than their horizontal lines. He handed the quill to Yakov to write with. As Yakov slowly wrote, we saw that writing with a quill pen is a skill that needs to be practiced to be done well.

Tefillin shel rosh (for the head) showing the slots for the four parchments.
Tefillin shel rosh (for the head) showing the slots for the four parchments.

Rav Menachem then placed the two black tefillin boxes on the table, open so we could see the single chamber in the arm tefillin and the small four slots in the head tefillin which would hold the parchments.

Next he pulled out two large misshapen off white pieces of what looked like plastic. “This  is what the boxes are made from. Anybody know what it is?” he asked, rapping one of them on the table. It made a sound like something hitting wood.

“Wood?” I volunteered.

He shook his head. “No, every part of the tefillin comes from an animal source.”

“So there’s no such thing as vegetarian tefillin?” Aliza asked.

“No,” said Rav Menachem. He looked around the table. We all were stumped. “It’s skin, just like the parchment. But it comes from a different place on the animal. Parchment is made from thin skin. This is from the back of the neck or the cheek.” He rubbed the back of his neck up onto his skull as he spoke. “Each box is made from one piece of the leather, carefully folded.”

Now it was time to assemble the tefillin. The rabbi held the head box open so Daniel could insert the small folded parchments in their designated slots. They were a tight fit and didn’t slide in easily, but Daniel managed the job. Despite going in a bigger hole, the parchment for the arm also required a firm touch to insert.

Now it was time to sew the boxes closed. Rav Menachem held up a card around which was wrapped thin beige cord. “And this is…?” he asked.

Allen said “Gid” in Hebrew at the same time as I said “Tendon.” We were both right.

Rav Menachem picked up the head box and held the bottom and top together with a vise. He threaded a needle with the tendon and handed it to Daniel to sew. The holes in the edges of the box were predrilled, but nonetheless it was difficult to pull the needle through. Daniel had to use a small needle-nosed pliers to do the job.

“Perhaps Saba would like to help sew the tefillin?” Rav Menachem asked. 

Sewing the tefillin box
Allen sewing the tefillin box

Allen nodded, took off his glasses to see the small holes better, and finished sewing the last side of the box.

But the job wasn’t done yet. To be kosher, the box must be closed completely, which meant sewing the edges again. This time the needle went through each hole in the opposite direction so that there was an unbroken line of stitches around the entire perimeter. The second time around was more difficult because the holes already had some tendon in them. Daniel and Allen needed to use the pliers to grip the needle on almost every stitch.

The process was repeated with the box for the arm.

The last step in making tefillin is attaching the straps that bind them to the arm and the head. The arm straps are easy. The wearer simply wraps them as tightly as he needs every day.

The strap for the head has to be measured to fit the wearer’s head. After threading the strap through the slot in the head tefillin, Rav Menachem placed it in the correct spot on Yakov’s head. He then carefully measured the strap and marked it. Placing it on the table, he explained the knot as he tied it. The knot has mystical significance, because, looked at in the right way, it shows the letters of the word “Shad-dai,” one of the names of God. When Moses begged to see God’s face on Mount Sinai, God replied that no one could see His face and live. But He granted Moses the sight of His back. This knot was what Moses saw when God passed by him.

What could be done at the house was completed. Rav Menachem carefully put Yakov’s tefillin in a plastic box, which he packed in his tool box along with all his supplies. He would take it all back to his workshop in northern Shomron to do the finishing work: sealing the edges, polishing the straps, checking that everything is perfect.    

Two weeks ago Yakov wore his tefillin for the first time. By the time he is required to put them on daily, he will be able to put them on quickly and, more important, correctly.

The first time Yakov put on tefillin, his teacher checks to make sure he has done so correctly
The first time Yakov put on tefillin, his teacher checked to make sure he did so correctly. Like many religious men, Yakov will not wear a large tallit (prayer shawl) until after he marries.

These tefillin were constructed as described in the Gemara. Of course, the Gemara’s description, having been edited in 600 CE, may not have been exactly correct in all its details. When two thousand year-oldtefillin were found at Qumran, the Essene settlement near the Dead Sea, they attracted much interest and excitement. If the find was authenticated, they  were the oldest ever tefillin found. Finally, the scholars thought, we will learn how tefillin are really supposed to be made. Imagine their surprise when, after thorough examination, the tefillin were found to be almost exactly the same way as tefillin have been constructed for centuries.

Just like the ones Yakov has recently started to put on to say the morning prayers.

Following Pilgrims’ Route to the Temple Mount

Nahshon Szanton points out route of Roman road from Pool of Shiloach to Temple Mount in Jerusalem
Nahshon Szanton points out route of Roman road from Pool of Shiloach (Siloam) to Temple Mount.

The “Tours with the Investigator” follow a set pattern. The archaeologist introduces himself and gives a brief introduction. Then he takes off at a rapid pace, because if we are to hear everything he wants to tell us, he must be quick. Our destination? A white sheet metal wall with a sign that says, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: “Archeological Excavation. Danger. Do Not Enter.” He pulls a large ring of keys from his pocket, unlocks the padlock on the barrier, and motions for us to enter. The he locks it behind us.

Nahshon Szanton unlocked one of the barriers on Maalot Ir David, and told us to go down the stairs. We walked down and down, to three or four stories below street level, through a hole in the rock, and into a large tunnel. Lit by a string of light bulbs hanging from a wire, the tunnel stretched several hundred meters in each direction. Its lower sides were crudely plastered, the upper walls and roof held in place by a double metal arch. A chain conveyor belt hung from one row of arches—it looked like it traversed the length of the tunnel. Nahshon asked than no one take photographs since the work has not yet been completed. He does not want to see the first publication of his discoveries on Facebook.

All of us on these tours are archaeology groupies. We have all been to dozens, if not hundreds, of archaeology sites in Israel. We could tell from the large size of the neatly cut rectangular stones that we were standing on Roman pavement. The original Roman pavement. It still seems incredible to me that I can walk on streets that have been here for two thousand years. Nahshon is sure he is excavating the Pilgrim’s Route, the road pilgrims followed from the Pool of Shiloah (Siloam) to the Temple during Roman times. But when he started digging where we entered, he didn’t know where the road would lead. He needed more evidence than a few Roman style paving stones in a spot that seemed right.

There is an axiom in archeology: Not finding something is not evidence that it is not there. Negative evidence is meaningless in the context of the past. If you didn’t find anything, it may only mean you did not look in the right place.

Sometimes the “right place” is a matter of a few centimeters.

From 1894 to 1897, the British-based Palestine Exploration Fund sponsored Frederick Jones Bliss and Archibald Campbell Dickie. Their goal was to uncover some of the history of Jerusalem. In just a few years, Bliss and Dickie managed to discover parts of Roman Jerusalem’s southern wall, the drainage channel in the Tyropoeon (or Central) Valley, and parts of the road from the Pool of Shiloah to the Temple Mount. These are all significant finds. About two thirds of the way up the hill from the pool, they dug out the corner of a few steps. They concluded that these steps were the entrance to a building that fronted the road. But by excavating exactly in that spot, they did not uncover the whole structure of the steps. Another meter further, they would have found something even more interesting.

But before we walked down the road to see Bliss and Dickie’s work, Nahshon needed to explain some things he had found. From the Pool of Shiloah, two roads appear to ascend toward the Temple Mount. So far, the archaeologists are unsure if they are two separate roads, or the two sides of one very wide road. Additionally, the excavated part of the road goes only part of the way up the hill. People who want to follow the Pilgrims’ Route to the Kotel Plaza have to walk in the old Roman sewer the rest of the way. (You can see the road and sewer under it in this video featuring Nahshon. It was published on YouTube a few months after he led our tour of the site).

Walking through the ancient Roman drainage channel under the road from the Pool of Shiloach (Siloam) to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem
Walking through the ancient Roman drainage channel under the Pilgrims’ Route from the Pool of Shiloach to the Temple Mount.

Since the Romans always constructed sewers under streets, it is reasonable to assume that the old road overlies the old sewer. Nahshon moved a large stone and lifted a thick piece of wood, uncovering a hole. We peered down and saw a paved tunnel beneath us—the Roman sewer. Later, as Nahshon was talking, we would hear voices floating up through  some of the holes in the pavement. He interrupted himself to comment on them, “Tourists.” 

The question of major importance that Nahshon wants to answer is who built the road, and when did he build it? Among the most important clues in dating findings are layers of destruction. In Jerusalem, when the Romans destroyed the Temple, a thick layer of black ash remained. Anything below this destruction layer must have been in place before the 9th of Av 70 CE. Archaeologists get very excited about finding a destruction layer, especially when, as in the case of this road, the ash lies right on top of what they want to date.

They also look for other things to help them date construction—pottery, coins, glass, stone vessels, bones, organic matter. The latest thing you find under something gives a clue to when it was built. The coins Nahshon and his team found dated from the fourth decade CE, somewhere around the year 30, at the time of Pilatous.

Investigators often use the rulers’ and writers’ Latin names, which are unfamiliar to those of us who do not read Latin. Apparently, we were supposed to recognize Pilatous, because he stopped and asked, “You know who is this Pilatous?”

A man standing behind me replied, “He killed their god.”

From the murmur around me, I realized that most of us were putting it together at the same time—that Pilatous, Pontius Pilate.

Satisfied with our reaction, Nahshon continued the history lesson. Although he said he is not a historian—“I work with details”—he showed his firm grasp of the history of Roman Judea.

Every Roman leader had to build. They built to honor the new Caesar, they built to further the glory of Rome. Pontius Pilate ruled the province of Syria for only ten years, but in that time he was responsible for several significant construction projects. Because water is always in short supply on the edge of the desert, Pilate decided to bring water to Jerusalem from south of the city, and built the upper aqueduct. Additionally, he built the street on which we were standing.  Most likely he built the Pilgrims’ Route to curry favor with the Jews.

We walked a short way down the street, to a set of steps standing in the middle of the tunnel. These are the three steps Bliss and Dickie had found. At their base, they look like the bottom of a monumental stairway, the kind that leads up to a Temple or important building. Bliss and Dickie had thought they led to a shop or a home. But Bliss and Dickie had uncovered  only the corner of the steps. Nahshon’s team has excavated the steps in their entirety. They do not lead to a doorway; the top is flat.

So why were they built? Steps this large and well built must have served an important purpose. The Romans sometimes constructed such platforms to support a pillar topped with a statue. But there is no inscription on the steps, nor are there any remnants of a pillar.

The archaeologists looked for a parallel structure somewhere, but didn’t find anything. Then a member of the team remembered his Gemara studies. A Braita, a statement by an early Rabbi, described an Even Toane, a stone of testimony. This was a specific covered place in Jerusalem where people could seek lost items and announce items they had found.

Could this be an Even Toane ? Nahshon smiled. He pointed out that in Jerusalem there have always been things that are found only here and nowhere else. It could be the Even Toane, or it could be something we don’t know anything about.

He admitted he wanted to say yes. “If I were a youth group leader,” he said, “I would point to those steps and say ‘Here you see the Even Toane.’ But I’m not, I’m an archaeologist.”

Touring Sha’are Hesed with the First Grade

Etrog School first grade girls in front of Agam sculpture in Sha'are Hesed, Jerusalem.
Etrog School first grade girls in front of Agam sculpture in Sha’are Hesed, Jerusalem. Marah Chanah is the one who isn’t eating a red popsicle.

This year is the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Reunification of Jerusalem. Every organization and institution in the country seems to be recognizing the event. Special tours, concerts, lectures, and conferences are being held. Those who don’t support the reunification have planned protests and threaten violence.

Last week the Etrog Public Religious Elementary School in Givat Ze’ev, attended by three of my granddaughters, held “Jerusalem Day.” The whole school came to Jerusalem. Since each child needed to have an accompanying adult, I was enlisted to be the adult for one granddaughter. The teacher gave me permission to join them at the Kotel, so I didn’t have to take a 6:30 AM bus from Jerusalem to Givat Ze’ev in order to join them for the bus trip to Jerusalem.

Taking a whole school for an outing requires excellent planning, superior organizational skills, and a large measure of good luck. Etrog was a little deficient in all three. The schedule was too tight. They were supposed  to leave the school at 7:30 “exactly.” Prayers at the Kotel would be at 8:00 “exactly.” This timing was unrealistic. Just unloading 17 buses at the Dung Gate and getting everyone through security would take half an hour. When I arrived at the Kotel Plaza, a little after 8, they had not yet arrived. I sat down and read some Psalms as I waited.

Over the next half hour clusters of children wearing bright blue Etrog School t-shirts with accompanying adults filtered through security into the plaza. Adina had claimed me as escort, so I just hugged her sisters and then followed Morah (Teacher) Chana and the rest of the first grade.

Our first stop, of course, was the bathroom. Like other public restrooms in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, it was spotlessly clean. I don’t know how the city does it, but no matter what time of day, the bathrooms are always clean and usually well stocked.

And then we went to the women’s section of the plaza.

The girls classes did not have an organized prayer service. Small clusters of girls sat together on the ground or pulled white plastic chairs into a circle to say the morning prayers. Other girls asked for paper on which to write a private message to God. They then inserted their plea into already-stuffed cracks between stones of the wall.

I intended to complete my prayers at the Kotel, but I was too distracted to give them the attention they require. I was busy keeping one eye on Adina, who is good at disappearing in a crowd, and one eye on her teacher. Morah Chana is short and thin, but I quickly learned to recognize her black vest and the comb holding her long brown hair.

After about a half hour at the Kotel, the teachers started gathering their classes to leave. Outside the Dung Gate, a long line of buses waited for us. Each class had its own bus to its assigned neighborhood, which the children had already learned about. The children would describe events that had occurred there. Yocheved and Sara went to Har Homa, the farthest southern part of the city. Yael and Danny went to Bayit veGan, just a little west of where we live. Adina and I headed for Sha’are Hesed, located between center city and the Mahane Yehuda shuk. During the bus ride, Adina took out her speech and read it twice. That was in addition to the three times she had read it before leaving home in the morning and the three times she had read it at the Kotel. Her part was three sentences long. She probably had it memorized by the time it was her turn to speak.

Our first stop, however, was the plaza in front of a theater/school complex. There  the girls ate their snacks and ran around. There were plenty of low walls and stairs—a perfect place for six-year-olds to expend some of their excessive energy.

 

The original 1909 gate to Sha'are Hesed.
The original 1909 gate to Sha’are Hesed.

Sha’are Hesed (Gates of Loving Kindness) was one of the early neighborhoods built outside the walls of the Jerusalem, which was still dangerous and unsettled. At the time, new neighborhoods were built so the walls of the  houses formed a wall around them. A gate was closed and locked at night for security, to protect residents from bandits as well as from wild animals. The original 1909 gate to Sha’are Hesed still stands, even though it is no longer closed at night.

After Morah Chanah said a few words, the first girl read her piece. I was only a few feet away but barely heard her. That didn’t matter. I wasn’t on this tour to learn about Jerusalem; I was there to spend time with my granddaughter.

Sha’are Hesed was built as a neighborhood for religious Jews, and remains so today. We passed many small synagogues and yeshivot as we walked, winding our way past as many significant sights as possible. The teacher pointed out the former home of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, one of the great Rabbis of the last generation.

One of the girls read a famous story about Rabbi Auerbach. A student asked for permission to take a few days off to go to the Galil to pray at the graves of Tzaddikim, holy ones. Rabbi Auerbach replied that whenever he wanted to pray at the grave of a Tzaddik, he took the bus to the military cemetery at Har Herzl, about twenty minutes away. All the people buried there died fighting for our holy land—they are all Tzaddikim.

On the wall of one synagogue is a sundial, placed there so the men would know the correct time for prayers. It was made by Moshe Shapira, who also built other sundials in Jerusalem. This sundial, however, is only correct until around noon because of the angle of the wall.

Now it was Adina’s turn to speak. She must be shy in class, because her teacher asked if she really wanted to read. Adina hadn’t practiced her part all morning to be skipped over.

Adina reads about Moshe Shapira under a sundial he constructed.
Adina reads about Moshe Shapira under a sundial he constructed.

She nodded yes, and then, standing next to Morah Chana, and without looking up at the rest of us, she read about Moshe Shapira the clock maker, in a loud clear voice.

“Kol hakavod!” said the father standing next to me.

“You read that so beautifully!” I said to her. She smiled at us.

Two blocks later we stopped at a makollet and all the girls got popsicles. We then walked to the nearby Wolfson Towers, five buildings, 14 to 17 stories high. The buildings unfortunately block the view of the Knesset and the Valley of the Cross that residents of Sha’are Hesed had enjoyed before the towers were built.

Because of the steepness of the hill, the entrance to building at the end of KKL street is on its seventh story. The roof of the sixth floor meets the street in a large plaza which features a pool and Beating Heart, a sculpture by Yaacov Agam. The girls sat by the pool to finish their popsicles.

By now it was noon, the scheduled end of the trip to Jerusalem. At this point, Danny was still wandering around Bayit veGan with the third grade, and Sara was stuck in Har Homa with the fifth grade. Since a six year old could not be left at the school by herself, I told the teacher I would accompany her. Several parents objected. I had apparently already done more than a Savta’s duty by touring Jerusalem with them. One of the fathers insisted he could take Adina to his house to play with his daughter until Sara or Danny returned.

So I walked back up the hill to one of my regular bus stops. Later in the day Sara reported that Adina, normally a perpetual motion machine, was passed out on the couch.

While I learned about Sha’are Hesed with the first grade, I also know that I did not see or learn enough about the neighborhood. I plan to go back to see it all again.