Friday, April 10, 2015

Apr 5 – An Ecumenical Adventure

When we visited Israel in 2011, we stumbled upon Avitours and booked two marvelous days led by Anat, an eighth generation Israeli.  A retired teacher, she answered all of our questions and told us more things than we could remember.  To this day, though, we talk about our stop at the Elvis Café [All Elvis, all the time].  Immediately after canceling the tours in Egypt 2 weeks ago, D wrote to Avinoam, the owner, to try to book two days of tours.  Not only were we able to reserve tours, but we were able to secure Anat’s services again.  Despite some back and forth with Avinoam, we sealed the deal and were excited to get started today.

Anat was waiting for us when we emerged from the cruise terminal in Ashdod, the first of two ports in Israel.  Although there were just seven of us in the group, we pretended there were eight and that one could not come.  Even though everyone had to pay a bit more for the tours, we were given a Mercedes van which could have held as many as ten passengers.  We all thought the extra space was worth the additional expense. 

Anat kept up a running monologue for the hour’s drive to Jerusalem.  Because of Israel’s topography, one does not “go to Jerusalem,” one “climbs to Jerusalem.”  The drive was uphill all the way, a contrast to 2011 when we went down to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the planet, to see Masada.  That day, we climbed even more to get to Jerusalem.

We were especially keen to visit Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial.  In 2011, Anat had miscalculated the hours Yad Vashem was open and we had barely 20 minutes there; we were so late that day that she had to bully her way in the exit as guards were clearing the exhibition areas.  When we mentioned this to her today, she remembered it clearly but did not realize that we were the tourists involved; she was still a little embarrassed about it.  There was no question, then, that Yad Vashem would be our first stop.

Of the seven in the group today, only we and Lecturer Kate had been here before.  Kate studied at the old Yad Vashem facility 30 years ago and was anxious to return and just walk the grounds reminiscing.  Steve & Maryann and Toya & Bob had never visited Israel and were “game” for anything.

The Yad Vashem complex has several components – the Holocaust History Museum, by far the largest area; the Children’s Museum; and the Garden of the Righteous.  There are education facilities as well.  We began with an overview by Anat and a look at a scale model of Yad Vashem, then walked toward the Children’s Museum.  The walk took on additional significance when Kate found the tree dedicated to Father Bruno, one of the Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews, especially children, during the Nazi occupation of Europe.  Kate had studied here with a woman who had been saved by Fr. Bruno.  They had searched for and found his tree 30 years ago, but Kate was astounded – and teary-eyed – when she saw it again.  There is also a tree and plaque for Oskar and Emilie Schindler who were made famous in Schindler’s List.

After Kate recovered, we went to the Children’s Museum.  It is dedicated to the million-and-a-half children who died during the Holocaust.  Walking through it was like walking through a house of mirrors because it is dimly lit and the pathway is not straight.  As we made our way into the Museum, we were surrounded by candlelight.  There were thousands of points of light in the darkened space.  In fact, there may have been one for each of those children; at least, that was the impression the designer wanted to create.  In fact, Anat said, there are only five candles in the entire display, but heir effect is multiplied by the clever placement of mirrors.  Obviously, no photos are allowed inside for they would break the mood which was quite somber. 

Although we had much to see in Old Jerusalem, we spent about two-and-a-half hours at Yad Vashem, most of it in the Holocaust History Museum.  In cross-section, the building is triangular, but in three dimensons it resembles a Toblerone candy bar without the ridges.  At the apex of the triangle, the roof has a narrow skylight.  The illumination in the exhibit halls is subdued, so the skylights offer some light and symbolize hope to all who enter.  Exhibits zig-zag back and forth, from side to side.  At the points where visitors have to cross the center of the museum, under the skylight, there were additional displays such as a pile of books or the undercarriage of a burned out railroad car.

The exhibits trace the rise of National Socialism and Adolph Hitler from the beginning and show how the campaign against the Jews built gradually over the years.  Book-burning and Kristalnacht were only manifestations of an effort to deprive Jews of every, and any, opportunity to be part of German society.  From exhortations to boycott Jewish merchants to vandalizing synagogues to humiliating Jews whenever possible, the government supported the German people’s actions.  The holocaust, “The Final Solution,” was simply the logical outcome of everything which had come before.  At each step, the average German either ignored what was happening or endorsed it, too.

At the time that National Socialism was on the rise, Germany was still suffering from its defeat in World War I.  Over and above the humiliation of the loss was the devastation the loss brought to the German economy.  War reparations were enormous just as the world was heading for the Great Depression.  Hitler capitalized on citizens’ frustrations by giving them someone to blame for their troubles – the Jews.  Everything was blamed on the Jews and the anti-Semitism built gradually and then snowballed.  Once the process was started, it was impossible to stop.  Otherwise kind people became monsters, killing men, women and children for no other reason than that they were Jews.  For their part, most of the Jews had assimilated into the culture and thought of themselves as Germans first, Jews second.  They could not understand what was happening and reassured themselves that everything would be fine; as a result, they did not fight back and went meekly to the trains and death. 

The Historical Museum’s exhibits include posters, newsreels and newspaper articles showing what the Nazis were doing, but there were also “oral histories” of filmed interviews with survivors of this dark period in history.  There is one room which holds records of every known survivor and a computer available for people to search for relatives.  As the years pass, there are fewer and fewer survivors still alive; like all of the veterans of World War II, their numbers dwindle every day.

Because we had to do the Passport Dance for the Israeli officials, we were a bit late leaving this morning but stayed at Yad Vashem until after noon anyway.  The “newbies” in the group were astonished and amazed at what they saw having no real background in the Holocaust.  It was time well-spent for all of us.

When we finally left Yad Vashem, we drove through increasingly heavy traffic to the Old City.  Today was Easter Sunday and we expected this area to be jam-packed with both Jews and Christians celebrating Passover and Easter.  It was certainly crowded but was not as bad as we had feared.  It was no worse than when we were here in 2011 on Good Friday.  We do have an impeccable sense of timing.

The Old City is surrounded by walls which date to the time of Suleiman the Magnificent and the Ottoman Empire.  There are seven gates to the city, each named for the city and road which lead to it; for example, there are the Damascus and the Zion Gates to name just two.  Because of its history, the Old City is divided into Jewish, Christian and Arab sections which are especially noticeable in the warren of streets which form the marketplace or souk. 

Our goal today was to get to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus was laid out and anointed prior to burial in the church.  We were unable to get near this church in 2011 because we could not cross the Via Dolorosa which was blocked off by the military.  While we tried then, we saw part of the re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross as the Jesus re-enactor carried the cross up the Via Dolorosa.  We were luckier today.

Anat told us we would have no chance of getting in before 2:00 p.m. because of Easter services, so we wound our way through the Old City, around several blockades, up and down steep stairs and into the Christian section for lunch.  Because this was Passover week, restaurants and cafes in the Jewish Quarter were closed, so we found a café and made ourselves comfortable.  Lunch was casual as we sat outside and watched the parade of people passing through the adjacent square.  We both had falafel sandwiches, as did most of the others, but some got shawarmas instead.  After lunch, we walked up the street to a tchotchke shop to browse and support the local economy.  We did both and came away with a small hamsa for The Table.

We learned from Anat that Holy Sepulcher is actually six churches housed in one building.  Among others are an Ethiopian church which we peeked into at the end of the visit and a Coptic church, the Coptics being Egyptian Christians.  While we were there, the Coptics came in and conducted their Easter service.

Once one enters the main door of Holy Sepulcher, one sees the slab on which Jesus was placed after his death while his body was prepared for burial.  We didn’t see this because the crowd was so thick.  We had arrived just as the general population was allowed to enter and they swarmed the slab.  Many were laying hands on it or praying, hoping for some kind of divine intercession.  We swam through the crowd to the main altar but, again, could see very little because of the crowd and the pall of incense smoke.  We moved to the rear of the altar and saw more people crowding into a small area which Anat said was supposed to be the crypt where Jesus was buried.  Again, there were too many people and too many candles to get a picture.  From here, we completed the circle of the Church.  The entry was at 12 on the clock and the crypt at 6 and we were walking clockwise heading back to 12.  Once we exited the front door, we had a chance to look into the Ethiopian church, but there was not very much to see.

Anat led us away by way of the Cardo, a Roman era shopping area.  Much of it has been excavated and there is a long row of Roman columns still in place.  At one end of the reconstruction is a mural showing what the Cardo would have looked like two thousand years ago.  Several members of the group posed for pictures in front of the mural just as we had in 2011.

Neither we nor Kate wanted to see the Upper Room or David’s Tomb again.  The Upper Room is allegedly the place where the Last Supper took place.  Considering the time of year, and today’s calendar, the Last Supper was a seder celebrating the Exodus.  David’s Tomb purports to be the coffin of King David and is in a small room where rabbis pray over it all day.

We waited for the others in a square where we had sodas while we waited.  While the drinks were refreshing, the best part of the rest stop was the people-watching.  Families were out in force and we watched literally dozens of youngsters pass us eating ice cream.  Strollers crowded the little plaza and everyone seemed to be having fun.

Of course, the high point of a visit to Jerusalem is a trip to the Western or Wailing Wall.  We fought through the people and strollers to get to the entry checkpoint where we were separated by gender.  Once through, however, we regrouped to make plans.  We picked a meeting point and time [20 minutes later at the trash barrel] and headed to our gender-specific areas of the Wall; like so much in Judaism, men and women are separated for prayers.  Anat, MA and the other women headed to “their” section of the Wall and D lead the men.

The other men were rendered speechless by the number and variety of worshippers on the men’s side.  Ages ranged from pre-teen to octogenarian and the clothing ran the gamut from shirtsleeves to formal with many of the men in long black coats and enormous black, fur-trimmed hats.  Men were praying out loud at the same time that others were praying at the Wall itself.  We had no trouble finding spaces between the others and each had his moment of introspection at the Wall.  We met at a pre-arranged spot after about 10 minutes.

It was time to explore.  Anat had pointed out a hidden synagogue under the wall at the far left of the Wall itself.  Low-ceilinged and crowded, it was a narrow space tucked between two Ottoman-era walls and dimly lit.  There were side corridors branching out from it and everyplace we look we saw Orthodox men muttering prayers and responses to an unseen rabbi.  It looked like a scene from the Inferno; all we needed were flying devils to set the mood.  When we realized that there was nowhere to go and nothing more to see, we tried to get out but were blocked by men pushing what seemed to be another ark with torah scrolls into the area we were trying to leave.  It was a tight fit, but D and Bob made it past while Steve found his way out through one of the side passages we had seen.  Soon, we were reunited with the ladies and continued our adventure.

It was getting late. But we still had things to see and do.  We left the Old City by what Anat called the Dump Gate because it was the one used for garbage removal.  From that side of the Old City, we were able to see where two more entries had been sealed by earlier generations, perhaps for security reasons.  We were also able to see the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque clearly even though we could not actually get to them.  Ironically, HAL sent crew members on a tour today [underwritten in part by a passenger] and they got into the Mosque because they were all Muslim.  This is a sharp contrast to our 2011 waiter’s being denied permission to leave the ship and visit the Wall.

Our last stop was definitely non-cumenical.  On the way back to the Amsterdam, we stopped at the Elvis Café where it is all Elvis all the time.  We had been here in 2011 and that visit is still what we talk about, not the Wailing Wall or the Stations of the Cross.  Our group relaxed with a variety of goodies from fries to ice cream to beer all the while enjoying the Elvis posters on the walls, the Elvis songs playing non-stop and the Elvis statues inside and out.  We got pistachio gelato and sat with a bronze Elvis wearing a chai, the Hebrew word for life.  Finally, we left the building even if Elvis didn’t.

Because it was a port day, the original Easter formal night was moved to later in the week.  The menu included lamb chops but no ham, a major disappointment. 

TOMORROW – The New Testament Tour

Apr 6 – North to Nazareth

The ship moved about twenty feet last night and carried us from Ashdod to Haifa, south to north.  Like Ashdod, Haifa is a city with little of historical significance but serves, for us, as a gateway to important sites from the New Testament. 

We were reminded constantly today that Israel is the crossroads of the Middle East. Although it is geographically to the west of almost all of the Arab countries, many them [too many, perhaps] are on its borders.  On our cruise from Aqaba to Haifa we have been able to see a least a bit of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordon and were within spitting distance, as they say, of Gaza and the Golan Heights.  Suddenly, world events have a different feel. Despite their propinquity to countries which would like to destroy them, Israelis continue to lead normal lives; we saw this in the square yesterday as the children played and ate ice cream.  Fortunately, Israel has peace accords with Egypt and Jordan, but Syria and Lebanon are another matter.

In Nazareth, we saw the Basilica of the Assumption, built on the alleged site where God’s messenger told Mary that she was pregnant.  Mary is revered in Christianity and this Basilica was covered inside and in the courtyard with large homages to Mary sent from countries around the world.  They ranged in style from the stark image sent by the US to traditional poses sent by the Czechs and many others.

Beneath the floor of the church, but open to view, are the remains of the house where Jesus was raised.  Stairs are still intact and appear to lead to a second floor or perhaps to the roof.  The floor of the Basilica is open in this area and visitors can look at the interior of the house from above or descend a flight of steps for a closer look.  An altar has been placed in the open room of the house, obviously a later addition.

Another part of the complex is the Church of St. Joseph.  Built in 1914 on the site of a Twelfth Century church, it lies on the spot identified through the years as the site of Joseph’s carpentry shop.  The shop’s remains are also open to viewing and include cellars, granaries, cisterns and a mikvah.

Although born in Bethlehem, Jesus made his home in Nazareth, hence the nickname Nazarene.  There is little left of the city from that time, but some efforts have been made to preserve what purports to be his childhood home.  On the way to the Basilica of the Assumption, we passed Mary’s Well and Cana.  Mary’s Well has dried up but stands now on a corner surrounded by non-stop vehicular traffic; in her days, the well she used would have been one of the most important places in town where people gathered to exchange news while they hauled their water out of the ground.  Cana is best known as the site of Jesus’ first miracle when he turned water into wine at a wedding feast.  According to the NT, he did not want to do this but Mary asserted maternal authority and he acquiesced.  We stopped at neither place because of traffic concerns.

Tracing Jesus’ path from Nazareth brought us to the Sea of Galilee where he spent most of his time and did most of his preaching.  The Sea of Galilee is really a fresh-water lake which supplies water for the Jordan River [and, ultimately, the Dead Sea].  It is well-below sea level and we stopped at the sign marking sea level to take photos of the Sea and the valley below us.  The whole Israeli side of the lake was green with agricultural activity, but the opposite shore in Jordan was brown.  The valley is filled with kibbutz, socialist communities in which every resident is an equal partner and no one owns anything for himself.  There are community kitchens, community meals, community televisions, etc.  Each kibbutz has its own specialty and one of them operates a store where the goods from the others – dates, clothing, jewelry, honey – are sold.

Conveniently, this kibbutz non-profit store is located on the shore of the Jordan River at Yardenit, the semi-official baptismal site on the River.  There is a certain irony in its placement, but the kibbutz residents probably sing What a Friend We Have in Jesus regularly.  Since most of our group were Christian, they were thrilled to be here even though there is no information to suggest this spot over any other on the river.  On the other hand, none paid the fee to be immersed in the waters of the Jordan.  While we were wandering around, Anat bought potato chips and fed the catfish, carp and ducks which swarmed around her.  After an obligatory, and expensive, stop in the kibbutz shop, we headed to lunch.

Ari’s is a water-view restaurant on the Sea of Galilee.  We could see vacationers swimming and boating in the bright blue waters while we stuffed ourselves on lunch.  Once we were settled at the table, we were bombarded with appetizers such as hummus, tabouleh, olives, peppers, several slaws, carrots and cauliflower.  If a plate was empty, more was brought.  Once we were full, lunch arrived.  We each had a whole grilled St. Peter’s fish.  This fish, we were told, is related to the tilapia but is not as thick so steaks cannot be cut from it.  We peeled back skin and ate it and the fish being careful not to get any bones.  We had coffee with cardamom and ouzo, for those who wanted it, courtesy of Anat.  The food was so good that one of the others took home the leftover tabouleh. 

We drove past Tiberias and on the the Mount of the Beatitudes.  There is an ancient synagogue on the spot where Jesus is supposed to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount, but it was closed.  We were able to visit the Church of the Beatitudes built on a hillside above the synagogue.  Offering a breath-taking view of the Sea of Galilee, it is dedicated to the Beatitudes.  MA’s favorite is “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”  There are plaques with the Beatitudes on the pathway leading to the church and stained-glass versions in the church itself.  Before we entered, Anat asked one of the group [who did not need glasses!] to read that section of the NT.

And, finally, Caparnaum [or Capharnaum].  The excavations at Caparnaum have revealed most of an entire town.  Houses grouped around central courtyards are clearly visible.  While not complete anymore, the synagogue is easily recognizable [and very similar to the one we saw at Masada in 2011].  The highlight for the many was the remains of Peter’s house.  Although added to by later residents/generations, the original house was very small, just one room.  Again, structures like storerooms and the cistern were visible.  The stonework here was magnificent with elaborate carvings on most of the remaining facades.

The trip home involved heavy traffic but no worries since we were not leaving Haifa until 11:00 p.m.

TOMORROW – A Necessary Sea Day

Apr 7 – Rest and Reception

We needed to rest and recuperate after two long but fulfilling days in Israel, so we did.  We attended a cocktail reception before dinner because the drinks were free.  There were speeches by the outgoing and incoming chief executives of HAL and recognition of personnel who had worked for HAL for 30 years.  Mostly, it was a chance for bigwigs to strut.  They will do more of that tomorrow night.  We sat with Steve and Mary Ann who had gone to Israel with us, so it wasn’t a total waste.

Tonight was the rescheduled formal night we didn’t have on Easter Sunday.  We ate at another table because we couldn’t think of an excuse fast enough.  The meal was good but the evening was excruciating.

TOMORROW – Talking Turkey

Apr 8 – Eating Our Way Through Ephesus

Kusadasi is the port nearest Ephesus, an ancient city whose ruins have been [and are continuing to be] excavated and restored.  It is best known for the façade of the library, an image which adorns countless travel posters.  Visitors also marvel at its amphitheater, houses and public toilets.   Through clever engineering, residents of ancient Ephesus were able to have hot and cold running water.

Ephesus was a seaport whose sea dried up.  More exactly, access by sea slowly disappeared as the harbor filled with silt from the Meander River.  Where once there was a harbor there is now a five-mile swath of green and urban development.  The same thing happened to other port cities in the area as we saw at Prienne in 2011.

Having seen Ephesus once, and trying to avoid its sloping walkways, we opted to eat our way through the area today.  We used the same tour operator we used in both previous stops here and were not disappointed.  There was little to the tour per se, but we had a good time and were fat and happy at day’s end.

We were to visit two villages but were told there was no village at the first village; it was just a crossroad.  Undeterred, we went to the Ephesus Lodge in the village of Kirazli.  The village got its name because of the cherries which grow there.  By a mere coincidence, the Ephesus Lodge is owned by one of the partners in the tour office.

Before breakfast was served, we enjoyed orange juice; olives [a breakfast tradition here]; at least four kinds of cheese; tomatoes; cucumbers; quince and blackberry jams; honey and more.  After that, we had eggs and the local bacon prepared together in one pan.  Whatever the smoked meat was, it was yummy as was the whole breakfast.  Not one of the eight of us could even think about food by the time we were finished.

In order to kill time before our next meal, we made a tourist stop in the village of Sirince, “the pretty one.”  Its former name meant “the ugly one,” but the area was cleaned up and is now quite charming.  We stopped at a local restaurant which offered a good vantage point to see the entire village and outlying valley before walking from there through the shopping area.  The guide warned us that what we would see was aimed at the numerous tourists who come every year and he was right.  There were no stores offering anything the locals would want or need, but we had our choice of souvenirs.  We saw spices, honey and lace, all locally produced.  Once again, we made a small contribution to the local economy so the trip was not in vain.  We allowed 90 minutes to wander around, way more than we needed.  We assembled gradually in the courtyard of the restaurant where started and chatted until our driver and guide reappeared.

We had not walked off much of breakfast yet, but it was time for lunch.  We drove a short distance to Bizim Ev Hanuueli Restaurant .  This one was not owned by the tour company but the food was just as good.  We were amazed at the display of food on the buffet table.  There were thirty different dishes from meat casseroles to fried cauliflower, pasta and chicken, stuffed peppers and grape leaves.  And so much more.  We were also amazed that we could even think of eating again, yet we managed without any hesitation.  There was bread, too, and we could buy drinks which were not included in the tour price.  We had sodas, but others had tea, beer or wine.  When we were full beyond imagination, desert was served, a semolina cake which reminded us of a cross between rice pudding and bread pudding in texture and taste.  We all waddled when we left.

On the way back to the ship, we stopped at an overlook to view the town of Kusadasi.  It was this spot that the Turkish leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, proclaimed that Kusadasi was a beautiful town.  Since Ataturk was the man who unified Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, his word was revered and there is now a statue of him on the lookout.

We could have actually eaten more of Ephesus is we had wanted to.  With corporate bigwigs on board, an event which occurs during each Grand World Voyage, HAL had arranged to have an extravaganza at Ephesus tonight.  They must have made arrangements and greased palms a year ago.   Everyone on board was invited and passengers were ferried to the ancient city which is only 20 minutes from Kusadasi.  Guests enjoyed open bar, heavy hors d’oeuvres and desserts before a performance by a chamber orchestra and dancers. 

We chose not to attend because of the poor walking conditions in Ephesus and because the temperature was around 50 this evening.  People who went raved about it, but we had no second thoughts.  Instead, we had an enjoyable dinner in the Lido with Bob & Kathy and Roger & Barbara.  We had so much fun, in fact, that the staff finally asked us to leave so they could clean and set up for the nightly 10:30 buffet.

We also decided today to forego the walking tour of Grenada and the Alhambra scheduled for later this month.  Again, we were concerned about the walking and possibly the weather.  We have been asking around about replacements, but, if none are found, we are reconciled to losing the money we have already paid.

TOMORROW – More R & R as we sail toward Athens



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