Apr. 2nd, 2010

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Several people have asked me what the "best" part of the trip was. I had so carefully planned this vacation that there were few disappointments. But there were some special highlights.

The hike in Gamla.

Gamla is an isolated spot in the Golan Heights. The Golan is a disputed territory, but not like the Gaza Strip or the West Bank. It is a beautiful, remote, mountainous region in the northeast of Israel, bordering the Galilee.

Gamla means "camel," and the name comes from the hump-shaped mountain that Gamla is on. An ancient Jewish settlement was once perched on this promontory, with steep cliffs on three sides and spectacular views of the Sea of Galilee and a large waterfall. One commentator described it as looking as though it "hung in mid-air."

But in 68 AD, the same Romans who obliterated Masada and the Second Temple in Jerusalam and dispersed all Jews from Israel also destroyed Gamla. There was a siege, a breach in the wall, an attack, and thousands of people died.

To reach the remains, you walk down a very steep and rocky hill, studded with wildflowers, then along a flat path that leads to a more gentle incline. The first thing you see is the breach in the ancient protective wall. The path curves up, then you walk up a few steps, and come to the remains of an ancient synagogue. Next to the synagogue is a mikvah, the ritual, cleansing bath. These remains date back to the early first century, and are believed to be of one of the oldest known synagogues.

When we were there, there were a few other hikers, but we were alone when looking at the synagogue. It was late afternoon, hot and hazy, and there was a quiet hush at the site. I don't go to services very often, and I've never used a mikvah, but it was so powerful to think that more than 2000 years ago, there were Jews at this remote location singing the same songs and saying the same prayers as I do now. I have a blood and spiritual connection to those long-gone people who worshiped there, who sat in this synagogue looking at the wild mountain crevices in the distance. Their souls surrounded me. It is a miracle that they eeked out an existence in this isolated location, and a miracle that our traditions survived their death and the next 2000 years.

This picture shows Gamla, the steep mountain in the center.

The roof in the Old City.

Our first day in Jerusalem, we took a tour of the Old City that ended around 5 pm. We wandered around a little, not sure what to do. Dusk approached. Finally we decided to check out a tip from Caroline, to visit the Austrian Hospice, climb to its roof and then have some apple strudel at its cafeteria.

It was minutes before 6 pm when we climbed to the roof. The sun was setting, but there was some residual light. The roofs of the old city unfolded before us. I told Rich to get a video of it. As he started filming, all the mosques in the city turned on their loudspeakers and began broadcasting the call to prayer.

The wind was howling, the lights were sparkling and these unworldly sounds filled the sky, surrounding us. It was a very eerie, foreign moment. It was a singular moment, because it was unique -- to be in this city, at the intersection of three religions, and understand how religion has created and destroyed and defined the place.

The Taggart fort

I must have been 12 or 14 when I read Exodus, Leon Uris' book about the founding of Israel. I learned a lot about the Holocaust, the Warsaw ghetto, Zionism, the kibbutz movement, the 1948 war and Israel's statehood from that book -- which I read numerous times. Much of the book takes place in the Galilee region of Israel, especially the Upper Galilee, where he describes views from mountaintops, turning swampland into fertile fields, the destitution of Arab villages. Many of his locations were fictional, but a few were real. We went to Mount Tabor, which two of the major characters had climbed -- and that was crowded with Christian pilgrims. We drove around the Sea of Galilee, visited the Ein Gev kibbutz. One of the main fictional locations was called "Dafna," and there happens to be a Dafna in Israel -- we went there, but it was nothing like the fictional namesake.

Another location mentioned in the book is a British fortress overlooking the Hula Valley, named after Abu Yesha, a nearby Arab village. And one of the main characters talks about the view of the Hula Valley from the mountains on the Israel-Lebanese border, near this fortress. This fort is a real place, and we found it. It's called the Yesha fortress. Behind it was a scenic overlook, and from there I saw that view of the Hula Valley, and could place myself in a location that was important in the novel. And that was cool. I've been imagining this location for almost 40 years. Now I've been there, seen it.

There were other amazing experiences -- touching the Western Wall, walking around the Temple Mount, touring Yad Vashem, climbing Masada, floating in the Dead Sea and snorkeling in the Red Sea, seeing countless remains of synagogues and homes and mikvahs and ancient streets and arches -- but those three were the most special.

Behind the cut is the fort, and the view.

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March 2012

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