(Elise Bernhardt – March 12, 2022)
Vibha arrived from India in the early hours on Friday, March 11. Everyone else was asleep; having had 2 intense days of touring from (already) multiple perspectives.
To start the adventure on Day 1: Dari Gil led an extraordinary tour, starting with an overlook of the Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Her crystal-clear explanations about historical movements and forces that shaped the city and the meanings of places like Gethsemane, the other side of the Western Wall and so much else, brought a richness to the discovery of the city that was new to me (and I’ve been on ALOT of tours.) On the way up to the ramp to the Dome of the Rock and El Aqsa, we encountered a bar mitzvah that traveled from the gate of the city towards the Wailing Wall. I could see the Fellows swept up in this 10 AM joyousness (a great clarinetist accompanied their little procession.) Dari was greeted right and left by guides, security officers, etc. She is apparently the youngest person to be certified as a guide and she is well known. (She is taking a group from the Kennedy School next week – we are in good company!
There aren’t words to describe what James Snyder calls “one of the world’s great plazas.” Herod really outdid himself and it feels a bit like being on the top of the world up on this plaza. There is abundant space around and between El Aqsa and Dome of the Rock. And the relationship between the buildings and the sky is indescribable. We were especially lucky to have a clear blue sky with puff ball clouds The contrast/connection between the tiles on the Dome of the Rock and the sky was stunning. Such blues…and of course the Gold dome, and the little structure that is said to be exactly covering the spot where Abraham brought Isaac to be sacrificed is right there. And its where Mohammed flew to. If architecture is destiny, this is also the spot where the high priest came once a year. The holy of holies! Plus, there is a door in the mosque that appears as if it is exactly where the entrance to that space would have been.
As we were topping the steps towards the Dome of the Rock, I wanted to truly capture the depth of the religious conflict that is literally over the meaning and importance of one stone (was Jesus here too? I have no idea…) I asked Dari, so is this where the rock was where Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac – and before she could answer, a guard said “NO.” Apparently, that would not have been disputed by him some 20 years ago. Today there is a denial of the importance of this place to the Jews.
We left the Temple Mount and headed into the Arab quarter of the old city, passed the first 3 stations of the cross, and moved around to the famous portion of the Western Wall. It was interesting for me to hear how Dari was able to explain so much of the complexity of the men’s side, the women’s side, the meaning to so many people the history of this wall and the remaining portion that has finally been opened up for mixed groups, the meaning behind the millions of notes tucked into the crevices, and why people walk backwards away from the wall.
The Fellows had so many astute and insightful questions throughout this talk. New to this country, and mostly new to all the Abrahamic religious practices, they are having to digest thousands of years of history and geography, the nuances of identity, the divisions and slices within each religious group, and so much more.
In the afternoon, starting with a delicious hummus lunch in the Old City, we met with Green Olive tour guide Mohammed Barakat, a longtime resident of East Jerusalem who has been taking groups on tours of “the seam”, the West Bank and beyond for many years. Mohammad spoke of his personal experiences, going back to the time of his grandfather. We made our way through New Gate around to the edges of East Jerusalem to the Museum of the Seam and the Qalandia check point. What an absolutely unnecessary, infuriating and humiliating experience that was. Mohammad explained the complexity of ID cards and passports and the rights (or lack thereof) for East Jerusalemites – particularly for Palestinians outside East Jerusalem. For me, it has always been hard to understand who identifies in what way and his very specific personal examples helped to clarify. He also talked about the crazy rules of keeping/losing one’s home. Proving personal residency throughout the period before 1948 is made exceedingly difficult and Israel is able to take over peoples’ properties even when they, or some member of their family, has lived there for decades.
As we keep saying, it is complicated.
Friday morning at Beit Hansen, at their fabulous farm to table restaurant, we met tour guide Tanya Geiger, who is an expert historian and a local, lifetime resident. We talked about identity over breakfast and she explained that it is a very normal question to ask. She identifies first as a woman, then as a Jew and then as an Israeli. She talked about struggling as a Modern Orthodox woman and a feminist. That conversation took place along a kind of secret route past the old Natural History Museum and into a lovely community garden that Maya Halevy brought us into. We sat sheltered from the considerable cold and wind in a walled/covered gazebo while Tanya explained the role of the Templars in the building of this beautiful neighborhood in West Jerusalem. More info that I never knew.
From there we went with Maya to the Bloomfield Science Museum over which she has presided for over 25 years. We started in the lab, an incredible warren of workshops where they make all their exhibitions, including ones for other museums. The engineers who work there are clearly as happy as anyone could be in their job. Everyone on the team Maya has created and oversees radiates a warm sense of loving their work. She is incredibly knowledgeable about the intricacies of the science behind the exhibits and there is a pervasive feeling of fun and discovery. There are so many children and parents and places to play and move and be curious and creative. Anna is already known to the staff and I know she is going to have an amazing time there.
By the end of this time, everyone went home to collapse, myself included. Later we went to Ruth Cummings’ home for a beautiful shabbat dinner which included Elad, his partner Miguel and Melhem. Ruth got everyone started with the prompt… Where were you born, where do you live and tell us one thing that is not on your resume. We learned so much. Elad is a “Tea-rista,” Claudia lived in four countries and played cello, Anna started a fashion show in High School which almost went to MTV, Sofia is the youngest of five and stayed in a castle somewhere in France and met the President. Melhem grew up in a Druze village in the very north of Israel and read his first Hebrew book, a famous work of philosophy, when he was 16 – and then Nietzche and decided to become a philosopher.
Coming up next – tomorrow we will visit and see more of how he has moved his incredible drive and intelligence to shape the Ibdaa School of the Arts; the school he founded and runs.