To our big surprise our first night at the kibutz was the first night of Hanukah. And Mirek got the honor of lighting the first candle at the home of our wonderful Servas hosts Ita and Avram. We came to Israel with a bucket list of places and experiences and visiting a kibutz was one of them. Some others high on the list were:
-Celebrating Mirek’s 70th birthday at King David Hotel in Jerusalem
-living like a local in Jerusalem’s Old City
– going to all three religions’ most holiest places in Jerusalem
-going to an orthodox synagogue for prayers
-walking the Tunels in Acre, the last crusader City to fall
-visiting the Baha’i garden and shrine
-seeing Mt. Harmon and venturing into Golan Heights
-crossing over to Bethlehem in Palestine and seeing The Wall with famous graffiti.
In short 8 days we managed to do all that and then some with the help of many new friends. We were warned that overall Israelis are not very warm and friendly, which was true to some extent, but we lucked out with one and all Servas contacts, that made our Israeli stay really special. Well, the truth is Servas people are special everywhere around the world.
While we had much help on our way, we did manage to get ourselves to Bethlehem on our own. We did try consulting with the Israelis in Jerusalem, but, you see, they are not allowed to travel the half hour distance into Bethlehem and they were quite envious that we, as foreign tourists, could. It reminded me of the time when I crossed Checkpoint Charlie from West into East Berlin and back, knowing that my East German friends could not. Not a very good feeling!
We had an offer from a Palestinian waiter at a restaurant where we had dinner one evening to organize a car trip for us but the price he quoted us of $200 was laughable. But he did suggest that as a bonus he would also take us into the West Bank to show us the world beyond the refuge camps, with glamorous Palestinian restaurants and night clubs.
After a lot of research and googling we found out that there were two bus lines, one Palestinian (also called Arab) and one Israeli. For the cost of less than $2 per person we took the Arab bus from Damascus Gate station and were spit out about 40 minutes later without crossing any checkpoints in Beit Yala. From there we walked for a short 20 minutes through prosperous looking Palestinian town to Bethlehem’s Church of Nativity, founded in the beginning of the 4th century by Constantin the Great and his mother Helena, who in her late 70is traveled all over the Holy Land to identify the places associated with the new Christian religion.
We entered through the small main entrance, the Door of Humility. Supposedly the doors were originally build so low so people could not ride their horses or drive their carts into the church. For those not familiar with the details of Christianity, this is a very holy place for Christians, who believe that Jesus Christ was born here. There is a silver star in the grotto marking the exact spot where his mother, Virgin Mary gave birth. The church was quite busy with tourists groups from all over the world, being herded by their tour leaders. It was a bit of a mob scene, not unlike the one in the Church of Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (the place where Jesus was buried after crucifixion) or the Basilica of Annunciation in Nazareth (where angel told Mary that she will give birth to Jesus, despite being a virgin). Here and there we pretended we were part of a group and followed them around, but were quickly put off by the attitude of the “pilgrims”. To us it seemed there was an awful lot of jostling, posturing, and selfie photos, and very little real religious fervor.
We were happy to leave and walk around the corner to the Chapel of the Milk Grotto. Here we were nearly alone, but for a nun praying at the new Peace Chapel. God knows, she could have used some help to ensure lasting peace. The pilgrims were nowhere to be found, they were buying souvenirs.On the way back we decided to go with the Israeli bus and pass through the notorious checkpoint 300. It took us a while to find The Wall with its famous graffiti. There were a few by Banksy who inspired others. We walked quite a distance alongside it to find the Hole in the Wall. If we remembered the scenes from the media of masses of Palestinians being frisked at the checkpoint we were surprised that there was no one anywhere to ask for directions. At the last moment we saw a man with a young son and we followed them through the turnstiles to find one open door to get through. On the other side was an X Ray conveyer belt and a bullet proof glass cubicle. Again, not a soul. Kinda like in a Sci Fi movie. We put our passports to the glass and were waved through. On the other side an Israeli bus was waiting and we sat behind the man with his son and drove back to Jerusalem for another $2 each. Imagine my surprise when I opened the newspaper upon return to Europe to find an article about the very same checkpoint with a photo of Palestinians crowding around the checkpoint, climbing over each other. Were we there on a non work Sunday or perhaps Friday Muslim holiday? No, I went back to my calendar to check and it was a Wednesday. Ah, the media. If it bleeds, it lead is their motto, so please take everything you see and read with a grain, no two grains of salt. The world is a much less dangerous place than you are led to believe. Because most people believe that it is better to:We were lucky to stay with an interesting Servas couple, Arie and Varda, at their vacation home in the North of Israel. There they arranged for us to attend an ultra orthodox evening service. We two women had to be in a separate area behind a screen, while our two men donned the yarmulkas and stood in the main part of the synagogue. This reminded me of our time in other ultra conservative religious establishments–Ethiopian Christian churches or Turkish and Egyptian mosques. The service was so different than what we have experienced in our American friends’ reformed synagogues, where everyone participates together and there is a lot of beautiful singing.
The next morning our new friends suggested to explore an area by the Sea of Galilee where migratory birds were resting on the way to Africa. We thought it was going to be a bird watching expedition with a few birds spotted through the binoculars, but to our amazement and delight we were greeted by a raucous noise of thousands of large cranes and egrets who were gorging on seeds distributed by local farmers. The idea came from desperation. Every year the birds would ravage all the fields, until someone smart figured that if they gave them enough seeds in one area they would leave the rest alone. It worked pretty well and it became a big tourist attraction with bicycle and golf cart rentals for people who wanted a nice day outing. Afterwards our friends asked us where we would like to go next and Mirek rather timidly suggested that we would like to drive somewhere where we could see Mt. Hermon, even if from a distance.
“Oh, no problem, we can go to the top of the mountain. There is a ski resort and the ski lift works even out of season! And afterward we can go to Golan Heights for some wine tasting!”
Huh? We imagined Golan Heights with frequent check points and heavy presence of Israeli army because of occupation and the civil war on the Syrian side.
Well, we did not drive the whole 1800 square kilometers but the places we went were eye opening, totally normal, and very welcoming.
After drinking some coffee at a ski center at very top of the ski lift, we went outside for spectacular views. We noticed a ramp and a small post with a big Israeli flag manned by a young soldier. He walked towards us with a big smile on his face. I bet he must be terribly bored. We started chatting and then Mirek boldly asked the soldier if he would mind taking the photo of the flag and the mountain “Oh, no problem,” he answered. Why don’t you come over and take it yourself.” So, in shock, we crossed to the other side and we took a number of photos together with the soldier and his buddy, which I don’t feel comfortable posting in case they both get courtmartialed. But I wish I could, as they were the poster child for the Israel army. Young, healthy, beautiful; one an Eastern European blond blue eyed Ashkenazi Jew from Russia and the other a dark haired, olive skinned Sephardic Jews from Spain. Well, at least they were not fraternizing with the enemy, seeing that America is Israel’s best friend.
Continuing on our way through Golan Heights we stopped at a friendly Druze restaurant where we had the best Lebanese meze and a peek at the local dress of Druze women, using white scarves to cover their mouth. Surprisingly we never encountered that in the villages on the other side of the border in Lebanon. It showed us Israel is a lot more diverse than we think.
As we drove to the winery for wine tasting on the road right along the Syrian border we were in awe of what the Israelis accomplished. You could clearly see the border fence. On our side there were orderly rows after rows of pear and apple orchards and swaths of vineyards. On the other side: nothing, only rocky ground. While every other country around the area has been complaining about the years of drought and the lack of water, Israel has a surplus of water because of their ground breaking desalination program.
It is the indomitable spirit and hard work of the people that makes it all happen. We learned first hand about it from Avram on the Kibutz Masaryk (population 821). It was his father that started it before the II World War with a small band of young people from Czechoslovakia and Lithuania.It was uncanny to see our enthusiastic guide in front of the picture of his father (both in hats) in the small museum next to the dining hall, where we ate most of our meals. The resemblance and the smile were a clear connection and it was also clear to us that there was the same knack for hard work, engagement in community and sense of leadership. We felt very lucky not only to be able to stay on a kibutz but to also get an inside view of the traditional life and the modernizing changes that have ensured that kibutzes still exist.
Growing up we were both fed a lot of communist propaganda that in theory sounds pretty good. The utopian Marxist principles of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” were very attractive, but we did not see them enacted in our lives.
If anyone ever came close to this utopian idea it was the people on kibutz. All the money that was made was communal property, people ate together in the dining hall, the laundry was done all together and there were communal bathrooms. Avram was born on the kibutz and he showed us where he lived as a child. The Children’s House of his childhood is now attended by his grandchildren, but they only stay there during the day. In his time the conditions on the kibutz were so harsh that the only decent place was a Children’s House where there was heating, electricity, water, so all babies and children lived there permanently. Soon after birth the babies were placed into the care of qualified child care workers while their mothers returned to work, mostly on the farms.
“I was very lucky that I had the same woman who took care of me for my first 13 years of life,” he said. I know he was right as I read about the difficulties children from kibutzes had forming attachment when they grew up, because they were separated from their primary families early on.
“It must have been really hard for your mom,” said Mirek.
“Oh yes”, replied Avram. “She told me how she could hear me cry and would come to the nursery to breastfeed me, but if it was not yet the regular scheduled feeding time they would tell her to go away and come back later.”
“I guess the best job for a mom on the kibutz would be doing the child care, so she could be with her children,” I had a brilliant motherly thought.
“No, not really, the woman who took care of us, had her own children in the other children’s house being cared for by someone else. So no child would be treated differently,” he negated my idea. Then he continued, “Those first settlers were tough, I tell you, and they suffered a lot. They came with nothing, but their own two hands. They lived in tents and worked the land that was either desert or swamp. My mom came from Poland as a young woman before the war and her family was very upset that she went to Israel, as she was the only one with a job that supported everyone. She carried a lot of guilt her whole life, because everyone she left behind were killed by the Nazis.”
“But she would have perished with them!” we protested.
“Nevertheless, that’s why it is called survivor’s guilt.”We felt strongly we had a duty to pay respects to the Holocaust victims at the Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I particularly wanted to visit the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations where some of the bravest of nearly 27,000 humanitarians from 51 nations are honored with trees and small plaques. I often think of the moral dilemma of helping others while putting yourself and your family at risk. I hope fervently that I would have had the moral fortitude like these incredible people from all walks of life that saved so many lives. The stories of their heroism are endlessly fascinating and touching. It is interesting to note that the founder of the very persecuted Baha’i religion found final refuge and resting place in Israel. the Bahá’í religion originated in Iran and its adherents were and still are persecuted for their beliefs, which advocate universal peace and unity among all races, nations, and religions. The the spiritual and administrative centre of all is now in Israel at the Bahá’í World Centre which consists of the Shrine of the Bab (the forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh) in Haifa and the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh himself (the religious leader and the founder) near Acre. Both have beautiful gardens,but the buildings are not as spectacular as some of their contemporary structures we have seen around the world, especially their Lotus temple in India.
There were other structures that called us to Acre or Akko as it is called now. Seeing many of the crusaders’ castles in Lebanon we wanted to see the one that held the longest. The fall of Acre in 1291 to the Mamluks signifies the end of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the crusades. The siege and the fall is spectacularly portrayed in Knightfall, a historical fiction series, we recommend highly. It was not filmed in Acre but in the Prague film studios and Dubrovnik, Croatia.It certainly could have been filmed in Acre as the excavations at the Citadel have brought to light magnificent Knights’ Halls and tunnels. Just before the sunset we spotted a small boat going out to sea for a little cruise and we jumped in to join a few happy locals. Never missing an opportunity to make a fool of myself…We were told that if you really want to have fun you have to go to Tel Aviv. We flew in and out of this modern city, but had too little time to do more than take a (glorious) glimpse.
The only dancing we did was a quickstep through the galleries of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. We could not discover all the treasures, but were excited when we came across a new painting of one of our favorite artists–Gustav Klimt. We were a little smarter by allocating more time to the fantastic city of Jerusalem.