Lessons from Israel
Copyright 2014 by Rebecca Roberts
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Thoreau wrote: "This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! There is no Sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work."

First I now "get" Israel.  I have a solid understanding of where gaza is also the westbank.  How small the country, how vulnerable people here feel and have felt their entire lives.  Israelis can seem abrupt when speaking. They don't mince words, since they live in the shadow of knowing they may not have all the time in the world to meander. And speaking of words. There are numerous spellings for many of them including streets and towns. It keeps you on your toes. Israel has the highest number of museums per capita in the world, it is known for its music, dance, theater and literature. It is a family-oriented society with a strong sense of community and the second most educated country in the world. This wouldn't be my first choice of a time to visit Israel, but I would not hesitate to go back today.  I would not stay next door to gaza, but I know plenty of places I would be comfortable being. I did not know any of this before my visit.

The food.  It may trump that in Turkey, there are many overlaps. Tomatoes taste like what you imagine a tomato could taste like, but never has.  Same for cucumbers, eggplants and oh the variety of olives.  Rich garlicky tahini sauce makes anything taste sublime.  It's basically mediterranean cuisine using  a wealth of fresh fruits and vegetables, chickpeas, dairy products and fish all augmented with embellishments from the many cultures in this country of immigrants.

The first two days of the trip I notice nothing out of the ordinary  On Saturday I come down to the usual breakfast buffet of pickled herring, beets, Israeli salads, filets of cold tuna and several other fish, hummus, several tahini sauces, fresh cheeses, and an array of fresh fruits and breads,  When I walk to the cappuccino machine I've come to love, it is covered with a linen cloth.  Sitting beside it is an urn of hot water and glass containers with a choice of turkish coffee grounds, nescafe or tasters choice.  My immediate reaction is dismay.  It takes a moment to realize - of course - the coffee machine is off limits today.  It's the sabbath.  Today most of us have plans to connect with artists we will be working with.  Visiting with the group I learn we have 4 observant jews in our otherwise secular mix.  They have plans of their own, walking not driving, to visit friends or to the sea a couple of blocks away.  My education continues.  

I spend the day in a remote ecological village.  Klil is completely off the grid.  Residents supply their own power mainly wind and solar.  I see my first generator powered pottery kiln and glass kiln.  The houses vary mostly handbuilt with some yurts. Klil has about 100 families including many artists all aligned in their life vision.  Back at the hotel the kitchen is closed so our dinner is brought in.  Before leaving for a concert two of us go for a walk. It's Friday night. There are no cars on the streets.

The kibbutzim we visit in the next days are beautiful.  Israelis truly have turned a desert into a garden.  Once barren and in some areas marshy, malaria infested lands are picture beautiful. Tightly planted, lush with vegetation. Groves of olive trees, orchards, rows of healthy vegetables all impeccably cared for.  Every inch of earth accounted for.  One kibbutz produces vegetarian schnitzel. It's the best corn cake I've ever tasted. One of the 5 or 6 we visit produces fruit wines, another is home to the museum of a famous Israeli painter.  Some are fish or poultry farms, but organic farming  is the mainstay.

My second Shabbat is in Jerusalem.  I arrive late Friday afternoon and sign up for shabbat dinner at the hostel, which is located beautifully within walking distance of the western wall and on a train line with a major bus line across the street.  From here I can get almost anywhere on foot or on public transport.  I check into my room, rush downstairs and out onto the street . The train clangs its warning, cars zoom about, buses in the mix.  People bustle hurriedly carrying bags from the nearby shuck full of food for the sabbath. Some shops are already closed, others are closing.  I'm in the city now a different energy surrounds me.  I walk down the hill toward the old city.  Suddenly I see the Jaffa Gate ahead.  Here there is much activity.  I pass through the maze of narrow brick alleys until finally I descend the stairs and ahead there it is.  The Western Wall with the Dome of the Rock looming golden just beyond.  

I stand in awe.  I am shaken with surprise by my reaction, humbled and filled with reverence. The spiritual energy is palpable. I walk toward the wall of limestone blocks through clusters of praying people.   I see hundreds of bits of paper holding prayers emerging from tiny cracks in the stone.  

At dinner, after 10 days of being immersed in a world of Jews, kibbutzim, Jewish art, kosher observances, I find myself sitting across from a couple from Knoxville here with  a bible study group.  What?  Oh yeah. Jesus was here.  I've been immersed in my own Jewish retreat and loving it.  I forgot completely about the Christian aspect. Dinner is prefaced with an explanation of shabbat dinner, the lighting of candles, little cups of wine, and the blessing of bread. The feast after is overwhelming.  Three long tables of luscious freshness. Eggplant, Israeli salad, chickpea, pomegranate seed, tahini heaven.  

In the morning I awaken to silence.  After last night's city clamour it's noticeable.  I rush to the window and look down to see barren streets.  Not a single vehicle.  Men in their long elegant coats and fur hats walk toward the wall.  Families, men in their dressy attire, women in long skirts and covered hair, happy children dancing alongside their parents.  I am in the middle of a city of almost a million and the hush is profound.  On this commercial street no shop is open.  I feel like I should tiptoe as I walk toward the wall. The area is crowded. It takes awhile to work my way up into a space directly in front of the heavy limestone blocks.  I look for the highest accessible crack I can reach and work carefully to wedge my prayer into the mix of scraps of paper. There are no empty cracks.  I find a place to wedge my paper next to others who have been here before me, careful not to cause another to fall from its place. I stand here awhile, place my hands and forehead on the wall, opening myself, absorbing the energy.

I miss this country, the people, the attention to ritual, and above all else the experience of a country just stopping.  As Thoreau wished it is indeed glorious to see mankind at leisure for once.

Rebecca Roberts (2014)
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