Santa In The City – A Winter’s Tale

One of the novelties of coming to live in Israel is the way that the holidays are celebrated. Not just in terms of religious observance, but small, public acknowledgements of the Jewish calendar. Festival greetings are displayed on the buses and appropriately themed fairy lights illuminate the night sky. Local traditions such as eating doughnuts on Chanukah or seeing the wide range of colourfully decorated booths on Sukkot, enhance the overall experience.

Jerusalem is an important location for adherents of Christianity and Islam too. The medley of church bells and calls to prayer of the muezzin are a daily reminder of the interconnectedness of life here. The culturally aware understand the plethora of flashing lights and appearance of bottles of date juice and iftar delicacies in the Old City markets signify the month of Ramadan, and decorated eggs hint that Easter is approaching. But with few exceptions (the interdenominational YMCA which serves Jewish, Muslim and Christian residents of the city being the salient one), it is easy to miss the festivals and nuances in the religious calendar of those communities of which you are not a member.

The wintry scenes frequently depicted on Christmas cards, seem a far cry from the traditional locations where Christianity began. In fact, the evolution of the modern Santa Claus is a convoluted development spanning hundreds of years. The imaginary, well-loved character is loosely based on the Greek Saint Nicholas, a bishop in Turkey in the third century, who was adopted as a patron of several groups, including children, and also known as a magical bringer of gifts. In Holland, December 6th, the date of his death, is still celebrated and the name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch Sinterklass, based on Saint Nicholas.

After the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s, saints were frowned upon in Europe and celebrations moved to December 25th where gifts were now brought by the baby Jesus. But that wasn’t a very practical solution as his carrying capacities were limited, and so he needed a helper. This legendary assistant went through several incarnations until America in the 1800’s provided the world with the popular, jovial figure associated with Christmas today.

Each country has its own additions to the folk-lore surrounding Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Even the Coca Cola company jumped on the bandwagon in the 1930s and used him to promote their sales, his red and white costume jiving perfectly with their colour scheme! Somehow the idea that he lived in snowy climes was inserted into his biography and today you can visit his grotto in Lapland, Finland, Sweden and Norway…

Here in Jerusalem, we have our very own official Santa who lives in the Old City.  He resides in a 14th century building which has been the family home for several generations. Traditional cement “carpet tiles” on the floor are the work of Santa’s grandfather, a Christian Arab, who ran the family’s handmade tile business. The family takes great pride in the fact that more of his handiwork can be seen in the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Jerusalem’s Santa, with accreditation from official Santa schools in the United States, is otherwise known as Issa Kassissieh. Issa is the Arabic for “Jesus”, so it seems a fitting role for him to play. At six foot one, he cuts an imposing figure. Issa, who is Greek Orthodox, grew up in the Old City, where Santa Claus is not part of the Middle Eastern Christmas narrative. However, he was aware of the traditions of Santa prevalent in western culture through television and film, as well from his own travels. One day whilst rummaging through his attic, he found his father’s old Santa Claus costume and, after he tried it on, he decided to take an experimental stroll to the nearby Jaffa Gate. The positive reactions he elicited from passersby encouraged him to go back the next day too. Whilst local religious rituals associated with Christmas abound, the fantasy and happy, joyous enchantment was missing. He felt he could fill that gap.

Acknowledging the realities of life in the Middle East, Issa decided reindeer were impractical, but a camel was the ideal mode of transportation. Throughout December he can be seen in various locations around the city astride his four-legged friend. He has also been spotted in different parts of the country, from the Golan in the north to the Dead Sea in the south, promoting Christmas in the Holy Land. A few years ago, he decided to open his own grotto to spread the Christmas magic and good cheer and dedicated a room in his home to the cause. He lovingly and enthusiastically updates it every year. This year’s poignant addition is a couple of masked Santas. Issa himself wears a heavy-duty transparent mask that is camouflaged by his luxurious white beard.

All of his Santa activities are voluntary and his visitors are Jewish, Christian and Moslem. Recent guests range from the current Miss Universe, to the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who awarded him a special certificate in appreciation of his “joyful service for the children of Jerusalem”. On hearing my English accent, Issa enthusiastically asserts he has taken both Prince Charles and Prince William on tours of the Old City.  He also visits schools and kindergartens, hospitals and special needs children in his role as Santa. He officiates at various seasonal ceremonies, including handing out free Christmas trees, on behalf of the municipality, at the Jaffa Gate.

Issa first achieved hero status amongst his local community as a professional basketball player. He briefly played for HaPoel Jerusalem and the Greek team Olympiakos, but he didn’t like the travelling that took him away from home. So, he returned to his local team, De La Salle, and today works as a basketball coach. However, it seems he has always had something of the showman in him, as in his youth he was known to walk around the alleyways of the Old City fielding several basketballs, spinning five of them simultaneously, wowing the crowds.

A marble engraved tile at the entrance to his house was lovingly carved by his father; the slogan on it reads “Issa is the name, basketball is the game”. Issa says he would like to add “Jerusalem is the Fame, Peace is the Aim”.

It was a freezing cold night, and pouring with rain, as I made my way home from Santa’s house. The feeling of goodwill and bonhomie seemed to pervade the air of the Old City and the possibility of what could be suddenly seemed more hopeful than merely a winter fairy tale.

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A Little Further Afield

During this period where foreign travel opportunities are limited, it seems a good idea to introduce a couple of locations that even those locals who think they have been everywhere, may find interesting. Both of them are in the Golan, where there is a huge array of different activities to choose from: hiking trails, off-road jeeping, ancient synagogues, agricultural experiences, historical sites and museums and some excellent wineries, to name but a few. Traveling around the Golan, one cannot help noticing the natural black basalt stone scattered throughout the area, which is created from the cooled lava from ancient volcanic eruptions. It is in striking contrast to the bright white limestone of Jerusalem and creamy chalk and pale dolomite, or sandstone rocks found in most of the rest of the country.

Whilst Israel is well-known for its biblical archaeology, it may surprise you that we have our very own version of the fictional Craigh Na Dun (for “Outlander” fans) or the very real Stonehenge. Whilst both those structures are composed of standing stones in circular formations, our Rujum el Hiri or Gilgal Refaim also consists of concentric circles of stones that date back thousands of years, but in a slightly different format. Located, in a hard to access spot on the Golan Heights, a few kilometres from Moshav Yonatan, it is somewhat off-the-beaten track for your average tourist, although the 120 km Golan hiking trail passes right by it.

The more than 42,000 large stones used to construct the site are field stones. That is, uncut by any metal object. Because of the many thousands of hours archaeologists estimate it took to build and the engineering skills it required; they suggest that the structure was created by people at a time when society already lived in communities. There have been various theories as to when this happened. The most recent research dates it to the Chalcolithic period or Early Bronze Age, around 5000 years ago, the same time as the Egyptians were building the pyramids.

Abraham Graicer

Rujum el Hiri is the Arabic name of the place. “Rujum”, refers to a pile of stones, often created as a burial mound. We see ample evidence of ancient tumuli or burial tombs dotted throughout the Golan landscape. “Hiri”, is a wild cat, which requires a greater leap of imagination. The Hebrew, Gilgal Refaim, which means “Wheel of the Spirits (or Ghosts)”, is no less evocative. Another possible meaning for “Refaim” is mentioned in the bible.  In the book of Deuteronomy (3:11) Moses recalls the refaim giants who lived in the Golan. He mentions the massive dimensions of Og of Bashan, who was their king, whose bed was nine cubits long by four cubits wide. As the height of your average man in those days was between three to four cubits, Og must have been a terrifying sight. We may never know if this place was indeed constructed by giants, but we do know that the total weight of the rocks used is over 40,000 tons.

For the greatest effect, the site is best viewed from above. It was discovered by chance in 1967, by an Israeli Air Force pilot after the Six Day War.  He saw this unusual structure in the form of huge circles and archeological experts were promptly dispatched to discover what it was. They used Syrian maps to get there and on arrival, they found a triangulation station (used for surveying purposes), on the highest point.

The centre of the structure is a 20-metre-wide mound, inside which there is a chamber. This inner room is built with circular stones, which led researchers to believe it was constructed about a thousand years later than the outer walls and possibly used as a burial tomb.  No human remains have been found.

Several lower concentric circles of stone surround this central stack. In certain places, lines of stones connect one circle to another. Whilst we can never be certain, this seems to have been an early form of calendar by which the yearly equinoxes and solstices could be determined. On those days, the rays of the sun form a line that runs between the stones on opposite sides of the circles. Possibly, this information was used for agricultural purposes, to find the optimum period to sow or harvest the crops, or perhaps for the community to pray to their deities that their efforts would succeed. The location continues to attract modern mystics and back-to-nature spiritualists, who gather there and visit on the summer solstice to watch the rising sun cast its rays over these ancient stones.

Dotted along the roads in the Golan there are also remnants of more modern times, such as former Syrian villages or army barracks. The “Emir’s Palace”, is in an easily accessible location, by the side of the road near the Wasset junction. The Bedouin, Arab-el Fadl tribe were important and influential landowners whose centre was here, even though they also owned lands in the Western Golan and the Hula valley. It was built by the prince of this aristocratic clan as his summer home and must once have been a magnificent palace.

Constructed in the early 1900s, the palace had three courtyards, an outer one for entertaining the local tenant farmers, a central one for important guests and, in the west wing, an inner, secluded courtyard with a fountain, for the ladies of his harem. No expense was spared in decorating and the floors were ornamented with mosaics and pebbles from the Snir and Jordan rivers. From the upper rooms you could see Mount Hermon and the surrounding area.

The Emir himself lived in Damascus and was part of the city’s social elite. In 1948, this palace together with the rest of his lands in the Golan Heights was taken by the Syrians, who viewed him as a security threat and confined him to the Syrian capital. Later agrarian reforms led not only to the confiscation of his land, but a substantial loss of income. His winter palace was in the Hula Valley, and in 1940, when his son ran into financial difficulties, he sold it to the Jewish National Fund. Today, part of it is incorporated into the dining room in Kibbutz HaGoshrim.

In the park next to the palace is a spring, unique in Israel to the Golan Heights. It is known as a lava-flow spring, which is a geological occurrence that only exists in volcanic areas. The water flows under the lava and comes out of the ground at the exact point that the lava stopped flowing. A small sculpture park and little wooden bridges complete the picturesque site.

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In this age of Corona, some businesses are finding it hard to keep afloat, whilst others are using the time to tweak their products to stay relevant. There are a very few who are making inroads into a competitive market place. One of these is “Thinkers” distillery, founded in 2018, but only really beginning to take off now. Using science and cutting-edge technology, combined with premium raw materials, they claim to create the ultimate gin and vodka experience, with bourbon following only a short way behind. Located steps away from the iconic Mahane Yehuda market, in stylish premises, their target audience is drinkers and connoisseurs of all ages.

The face behind the company is entrepreneur Bennett Kaplan, who explains that the liquor revolution only happened in the latter part of the twentieth century, when world class universities Oxford and Yale started taking an interest. That is when distilleries began sharing their techniques which had previously been heavily guarded secrets. Suddenly the information was freely available and, as a result, true progress started to occur. In fact, the original name for the Israeli company was “Further”, because, the way Bennett tells it, they looked at what the other distilleries were doing and expanded their ideas even further.

Thinkers import the raw ingredients from which their spirits are made and their still, a gleaming structure of stainless steel and copper, has been customised to their personal specifications. For example, the addition of computerised sensors inside the distiller, which allow complete control over the level of each type of alcohol, in order to ensure the purest liquor. The water they add to their beverages is 100% blue and white, made out of Jerusalem air, using Israeli company Watergen’s patented technology. A generator suctions, filters, cleanses and processes the air, producing a carefully crafted end result. With a potential capacity to produce 1000 bottles an hour, Thinkers definitely mean business. Their distillation room is a bit like seeing an alcoholic equivalent of Willy Wonka’s factory! 

So far they produce two gins and a vodka, with a 55% cask strength bourbon expected to be released in the coming months. “Israeli Sunset” is a new world gin, meaning it doesn’t abide by any of the classic gin-making rules. Finzi, a young Israeli of Italian heritage, who guided us through the tasting, reminisced that as a small boy growing up in Jerusalem, he associated the fragrance of strawberries and rose petals (coming from the hot sakhlav) with winter visits to the shuk. They were the smells that permeated the air and those are the flavours, together with citrus notes and a smidgen of liquorice, that you find in the gin. In a classy bottle made of dusky pink glass, to evoke the colour of the setting sun, it looks good enough to drink! It tastes pretty good too.

The “Jerusalem Dry” gin is more of a classic, with just a hint of coriander seed and anise to round out the flavour. Served with tonic and lemon and a surprising celery leaf, it was a very enjoyable cocktail. Thinkers vodka also doesn’t disappoint and glides down easily, with a very smooth finish. At the moment, Thinkers liquors are only served in 30 select bars, restaurants and hotels throughout the country. In 2021, that is going to change and they will become more readily available. In the meantime, if you would like to check out this new kid on the block for yourself, tastings and events (in accordance with Corona guidelines) can be organised. So, if you are looking for an original laid-back activity in Jerusalem to beat the Corona blues, this could be the one for you!


Helen Cohn is a licensed tour guide with a specialty in wine tourism. She can be reached via her website

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Amazing Grapes

Sometimes the nicest things come in the smallest packages. The same holds true for wineries. It is no secret that Israeli wines have finally lost their reputation for being sickly sweet, heavy wines used for religious rituals and have been re-branded into delicious and innovative prize-winning beverages. The variety of soils, altitudes and climates in this small country gives aspiring wine makers a fabulous palette as a backdrop for their endeavours. It should come as no surprise that Israel boasts around 300 different wineries. What is something of a shock though, is that the average Israeli only drinks somewhere between 4-8 litres of wine a year and those mainly on the Jewish holidays. Compared to Europeans who drink 40 litres and more annually, we look like tea -totallers!

The many references to wine in the bible testify to the ancient history of wine-growing that exists in this region. Sadly, the fanaticism of the Mamlukes in the Middle Ages wiped out all vestiges of the indigenous strains of grapes, because they uprooted and burnt the vineyards. Recent scientific advances have allowed us to rediscover and reintroduce some of these varieties. It is hoped that attempts to grow these grapes in their original locales will allow us to recreate the wine of yore that our kings and prophets enjoyed.

Most of the wine currently produced in Israel is made by five large companies, each of whom produce over two million bottles a year, which accounts for about 80% of sales. At the other end of the scale are the “garagistes”, very small wineries which in many cases literally operate out of someone’s garage and produce a few thousand bottles of wine annually. Often the wine they sell is only available on site, or in a few select locations. Unlike in Europe, where the grapes for wine and the industry as a whole is heavily subsidized, Israeli wine makers do not have financial support from the state and that is one reason why our wine cannot compete in the price stakes. It is also the reason that if someone decides to go into wine production here, they really have a love for what they are doing.

Malkiel and Dina both completed prestigious careers, he in hi-tech and she as an engineer at Israel Aircraft Industries. When they retired, they decided to learn how to make wine together. After completing their training and studies, they opened Gito Winery. A small room combines their office and the testing lab, their garage is the fermentation room and a third room is their cellar where they keep the barrels and bottles. The shade provided by a magnificent ficus tree in their Hod HaSharon garden is their “visitors centre”. That’s it.

Nevo was afflicted with the wine bug at a younger age. A former truck driver, who lives on a moshav in the Jerusalem Corridor, he initially learned how to make wine from his aunt. She had come to stay with Nevo when she was diagnosed with cancer and needed frequent access to Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem. As she lived in the north of the country, she moved in with Nevo and his family during her treatment and, for relaxation, made homemade wine. He was smitten and when his aunt recovered and moved back home, he took his interest to a whole new level and studied how to become a professional wine maker. His winery is in what was once the moshav kindergarten and his cellar is the original bomb shelter! As for his tasting room, he built it entirely himself.

Nevo grows his own grapes on the moshav and knows each vine intimately. He spends a lot of time in the vineyards maximizing the potential of each grape. He adheres to Old World traditions where techniques in the vineyard before the grapes are harvested largely determine the quality of the wine.  Malkiel, on the other hand, doesn’t own his vineyards. He buys grapes from other growers throughout the country and has far less influence over what happens in the fields. However, he is meticulous about which grapes he buys and specifies precisely which rows and the exact position in the vineyard he wants his grapes to come from. He also enjoys experimenting with different combinations of grape varieties and fermentation techniques to shape the taste of his wine. Dina has the final word when it comes to flavor and final composition of blends.

Wine making requires a huge investment of both time and resources. In most cases it takes at least ten years (and often longer) before there can be any hope of profit. In this business, dedication and determination are just as important attributes as ability. Both Gito and Nevo wineries are owned and operated by religious Jews, so their wine is kosher and they also abide by all the various agricultural religious stringencies. Perhaps the most impactful of these is Shmitta, the Sabbatical year, which occurs every seven years. According to Torah law, the land must lie fallow for the year and not be worked and the owner may not sell its produce, nor benefit from it beyond what is needed for personal use. Loopholes are sometimes employed to skirt around this stricture, but both Nevo and Malkiel do not make any wine at all from grapes grown during the sabbatical year. This is no small commercial sacrifice and a testament to their commitment and religious beliefs.

Whether it is a red, a white, or a rosé, ultimately the success of a wine depends on the taste of the individual who is drinking it. Going to a “garagiste” winery where you get to meet the winemaker and taste his creation is a very personal experience. Not only are you welcomed into their home environment, but as the business of wine tasting gets underway you begin to connect on a more philosophical and spiritual level. With the proliferation of dedicated “garagiste” wine entrepreneurs from north to south you are guaranteed to meet some inspirational and fascinating people wherever you choose to visit, who, in most cases, also happen to make wonderful wine!

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What Did The British Do For Us?

The news of the past few months has been full of stories relating to the British mandate in Palestine. At the end of October, we commemorated the centenary of the Battle of Beersheva, where the bravery and resourcefulness of Anzac forces helped the British win a decisive battle, leading them to conquer Gaza and defeat the Ottoman Turks. In November, we celebrated two anniversaries: the Balfour Declaration, which was a direct result of the British victory in Beersheva, and the fateful British decision to end the mandate, as a result of the UN decision to partition Palestine, which occurred thirty years later. On December 11th, there will be a reenactment of the victorious arrival in Jerusalem of the commander of the British forces. General Edmund Allenby had a tremendous respect for the city. He dismounted from his mighty steed and entered through the Jaffa Gate on foot, declaring “If the Messiah is only going to arrive in Jerusalem on a donkey, then who am I to ride a horse?”

What was it about this little country that caused the British to want to conquer it in the first place?The answer is India. India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire and it would go to great lengths to safeguard it. The importance of keeping trade routes to India open was paramount. When the Turks entered the First World War, the British were worried this may lead to the blocking of the Suez Canal. In response, they developed a plan to create a land bridge between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. It would provide an alternative to the Suez Canal and allow speedy deployment of troops to the Gulf, which was the forward line of defence for the British in India and the focus of its main oil interests.

Palestine was the key. Successful defence of the Sinai Peninsula from combined Ottoman and German attacks reinforced that view and the British-Anzac Egyptian Expeditionary Force was formed under British command. In addition, once Palestine was under their control, the British forces would then be able to join up with their troops in Syria. The thirty years that Palestine was ruled by the British were significant in terms of its development. Whilst British government policy often discriminated against the Jewish population of the country, local administration and bylaws helped propel it from being a backwater of the Ottoman Empire into the twentieth century.

Jerusalem is known for the striking white stone buildings which make up the city. It was actually a British ordinance of 1918, that all new buildings were to be built or faced with the local “Jerusalem Stone” that is responsible for this clean, uniform look. A few months into the mandate, the British drew up a master plan for Jerusalem, which included bringing piped water to the city for the first time and building a permanent market in Mahane Yehuda, complete with the very first public toilets!

They also introduced the very English idea of “garden suburbs”, whereby a family home would be built surrounded by a garden and greenery. The adjacent streets were to be lined with trees and have a central grassy bank or island; public parks were also an important element of this design. Some of these Jerusalem neighbourhoods still exist and preserve features of the original plan, such as Bet HaKerem and  Rehavia. Others, like Bayit Vegan, Talpiot and Meah Shearim have been built up in such a way that erases all vestiges of the original layout.

By 1945 there were 100,000 British troops in the country. The six beautifully tended British Commonwealth graveyards in Israel (and two more in Gaza) bear witness to those who were killed here and in other regions of the Middle East. Private Harry Potter lost his life in Hebron in 1939, during the three year Arab Revolt against British rule that started as a protest against Jewish immigration. He is buried in Ramla cemetery and busloads of tourists go to pay their respects to him daily. A less well known grave is that of William Shakespeare, a 41 year old driver from Nottingham who was killed in May 1948 and is buried in Jerusalem.

A recent archaeological excavation near Ramla unearthed a  hundred year old rubbish tip. Located just outside a former British army base, the archaeologists were amazed to discover that 70% of the garbage consisted of empty bottles of alcohol. It seems that gin, whisky, wine and beer were imported from Europe to supply soldiers in the camp. This is the first time such a find has been uncovered and gives us a clear indication of how the soldiers relaxed when off duty.

Another very recent piece of news is US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Ironically, it was only under the British that Jerusalem was once more restored as the country’s capital after 700 years of Arab rule. It remains to be seen if today’s British prime minister will endorse it with the same enthusiasm. In his victory speech in December 1917, General Allenby declared “every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected.” It is often said that history repeats itself and one hundred years later, almost to the day, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized the same point: “I also want to make clear: there will be no change whatsoever to the status quo at the holy sites…Israel will always ensure freedom of worship for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.” Let us hope that once the knee jerk reactions are over, a new era will begin where we can indeed focus on what it is that unites us with our neighbours and finally put an end to the centuries of strife and senseless warfare.

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If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem (Psalms 137)

A majority of tourists and locals have a good idea what they want to see when they go to Jerusalem’s Old City. Most of them don’t think twice about the fact that it is divided into sections or “quarters”. Today’s quarters only began to be called by their present names in the early nineteenth century. Residents of the city preferred to live amongst their own kind, but their populations were far from homogeneous, with Moslems living in the Jewish Quarter and vice versa. We are so used to visiting the “ancient Jewish quarter” or “ghetto” in cities all over the globe: Rome, Lisbon, Prague, Girona, Krakow, Marrakech, to name just a few, that it doesn’t seem strange that Jerusalem has one too. It should! 

When King David conquered the ancient city of Jebus from the Canaanite tribe that lived here in approximately 1000 BCE and made it into the Jewish capital city, the people originally settled outside the current Old City walls. Whilst we have no exact figures regarding the population at this time, most archeologists and historians would guess around 1,000 individuals.  Known today as “The City of David”, this early Jerusalem is bordered by the Kidron Valley to the east and the Hinnom Valley to the west. This is where the Jerusalem we read about in the Bible was situated and where prophets, kings and regular people walked freely. It was David’s son, Solomon, who built the Temple on Mount Moriah, to the north of the city, on land purchased by his father for fifty silver shekels from Araunah the Jebusite (see 2 Samuel 24:24). As the numbers of inhabitants in the city grew, particularly after refugees flooded Jerusalem as a result of the decimation of the north of the country by Assyrian forces in the 720’s BCE, they gravitated up the hill into the area of today’s Jewish Quarter. Over the ensuing years and centuries their homes and businesses expanded further to the north and west of David’s original capital and the Temple Mount. In 586 BCE Jerusalem was conquered and partially destroyed by the Babylonians. They enslaved the Jewish population and transported them to Babylon.

With a change of regime and permission given to the Jews to return to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon, they started over again some 70 years later. They were guided by Nechemiah, who writes of his painstaking efforts to rebuild the city walls in a little-read account close to the end of the Bible, just before the book of Chronicles. Much later, during the Hasmonean dynasty (160’s BCE), the city once again increased in size. Under the rule of mega-builder King Herod, which started in 37 BCE, the Jewish capital was at its largest, only returning to similar dimensions in the 19th century! He undertook major building projects in the city and rebuilt the temple and greatly expanded the area surrounding it. During Herod’s reign hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in Jerusalem, with their numbers swelling to even greater proportions during the pilgrim festivals. Archeological remains dating from this time period in the vicinity of the Damascus Gate and the area of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located in today’s Moslem and Christian Quarters respectively, give us some idea of Jerusalem’s dimensions. By the year 70 CE, just before its destruction by the Romans, Jerusalem’s northern wall (probably built by Herod’s successor, Agrippa) extended well into today’s modern city, a little south of the neighbourhood of Meah Shearim.

It was the Roman commander, Titus, who destroyed Jerusalem and Herod’s temple and expelled most of the Jewish population from the city. The final expulsion of Jerusalem’s Jewish inhabitants by the Romans took place under the emperor Hadrian, who erected Aelia Capitolina, a pagan Roman city dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva on Jerusalem’s ruins. After the Bar Kochba Revolt which ended in 135 CE, Jews were completely banned from entering Jerusalem and this edict was strictly enforced for several centuries (barring a one year blip between 362-3 CE under the brief reign of the emperor Julian).

Only during the month of Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of both of their temples, were they permitted to visit the Foundation Stone on the Temple Mount. According to Jewish tradition, this is the place where Abraham bound Isaac and from which G-d took the earth that formed Adam and Eve. It was over this rock that the Holy of Holies was positioned, the innermost and most sacred part of the temple, where only the high priest was allowed to enter once a year on Yom Kippur. From the Roman period onwards, foreign rulers would dictate where Jews in Jerusalem were allowed to go. It set a precedent that was to have ramifications until the present day. This was the turning point. Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem no longer had the luxury to decide where they wanted to live and would forever have their movements circumscribed by invading forces and external powers. Once the Romans adopted Christianity they were not any more charitable. There was no permanent Jewish presence in the capital at all under Christian rule and it was only with the Moslem conquest of Jerusalem in 638 that a limited number of 70 families were once more permitted to reside in the city. They were restricted to the area south of the Temple Mount, probably in the space known to us today as the Ophel.

The Dome of the Rock was built in 691 by the Ummayad ruler Caliph Abd-el Malik. It was not a mosque and the precise reason for its construction is still unclear and the subject of much speculation. One theory is that it was a victory monument for the Moslems who had inherited a beautiful city renowned for its stunning churches. As far as the Jews were concerned, it was a reincarnation of Solomon’s Temple and although the Temple Mount was to become a sacred place for Moslem prayer, they were allowed to assume janitorial roles sweeping it and cleaning and filling the glass lamps with oil. In–fighting between the various Moslem dynasties led to the downfall of the Ummayads and the ascendance of the Abassids who were not nearly so tolerant of their Jewish subjects. Jews were now banned from entering the Temple Mount and had to console themselves by praying at its gates. By the 11th century and the rise of the Fatimid dynasty, conditions worsened and when the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in July 1099, its Jews were massacred and those that managed to flee were banished from the city once more.

It was to be another eighty-eight years before they would be given permission to return. Jerusalem was conquered yet again and this time was at the mercy of the Moslem warrior Salah-al-din (aka Saladin). Jews were once again allowed to live in the city and many of those who took advantage of this leniency came from towns on the coast that had been destroyed by his Ayubbid army. They were later joined by North African Jews from Morocco and Yemen and European Jews from England and France. Their respite was short-lived, as the city briefly came under Crusader control again between 1229-1244, when the Jews were once more expelled. They were only allowed to return after 1260, when the Mamlukes, the next wave of Moslem rulers, assumed power.

Mamluke rule which continued for almost three hundred years saw the Jewish community built up from scratch, according to Rabbi Moses Ben Nachmanides, the Jewish doctor from Spain who arrived in Jerusalem in 1267 (known by his acronym as the Ramban). He wrote a letter home to his son, in which he lamented there were only two Jews in the whole city and he made it his mission to renew the Jewish presence in Jerusalem. He also established the tradition of Jews praying at the Western Wall. Until this time, Jews had prayed in different parts of the city dependent on where they were allowed access by the ruling power. During this era they could (with special permission) pray at the Western Wall, chosen by the Ramban as a site of prayer because it was now the closest place the Jewish population could get to the original Holy of Holies. According to an account written by Jacob of Verona, who visited the city in 1335, the community lived mainly in the area of Mount Zion. Other reports mention Jews living in caves in the Kidron Valley and eventually in homes in the present day Jewish Quarter. However, they were not allowed to enter the Temple Mount area.

The arrival of the Turks in 1517 initially heralded an upturn in Jewish fortunes, but after the death of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566, onerous taxation caused them to leave the city in droves. The Jerusalem populace was devastatingly poor and unable to exist without support from Jewish communities overseas. When the Egyptians conquered Palestine in 1831 they introduced many reforms and for the first time since the Roman period, Jews were allowed to pray at the Western Wall without needing to apply for special permission. They were originally concentrated in the area of the Jewish Quarter, but quickly expanded north into the Moslem Quarter near the Temple Mount. The Jewish population grew from about 2,000 at the beginning of the 19th century to 45,000 at the end of the Ottoman period. In comparison, by 1917, on the eve of the British conquest, there were about 13,000 Christians and 12,000 Moslems. At this time Jewish families lived in the Bab Huta area (near the Flower Gate), in Hebron Street (opposite the area of the Cotton Market) and in the Street of the Steps, all in the Moslem Quarter. They built synagogues, yeshivas and other institutions such as a printing press and the offices of the Hebrew newspaper “Havatzelet” in the area. Jews also began to live in communities outside the Old City walls, starting with Mishkenot Sha’ananim in 1860. Some of the Yemenite community was housed in Kfar Shiloach in the ancient necropolis opposite the City of David, the biblical Jerusalem.

Under the British Mandate, Jews continued to live in the Old City in the Moslem and Jewish Quarters. However, Arab riots which started in 1920 on the eve of the San Remo Conference and continued throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, eventually led to the Jews abandoning their homes as the assaults and killings escalated. Areas where Jews lived in the New City that bordered with Arab neighbourhoods were also abandoned, such as Meah Shearim and the Georgian quarter near Damascus Gate, as well as neighbourhoods in more outlying areas.

Once the British formally withdrew and the War of Independence began in May 1948, the Old City was besieged by the most professional of the seven Arab armies that attacked the fledgling state, the Jordanians. They had been trained and equipped by the British, many of whom stayed on to help them attack. After a harrowing two weeks of house-to-house fighting, the Jews in the Old City surrendered on May 28th 1948 and its 1,300 remaining Jewish residents were once more expelled from their homes. 290 of them were taken prisoner by the Jordanians and the rest were moved to the New City. It would take another nineteen years until they could return as a result of the Israeli victory of the Six day War in 1967. Once again, they had to start building from scratch as the Jordanians had blown up most of the buildings in the Jewish Quarter.

The magnificent city of Jerusalem of old with its wondrous architecture and temple is mentioned in the fifth chapter of the Talmudic tractate of Sukka where it says: “He who has not seen Jerusalem in its beauty, has not seen a beautiful great city in his whole life; and who has not seen the building of the Second Temple, has not seen a handsome building in his life.”  The post-1967 version tries to capture the essence of what once stood, but the ravages of time have played their role and the city which has been repeatedly and brutally dismantled by civilisations that have long ceased to exist, has itself almost disappeared. The Jewish Quarter of today is the smallest of the “quarters”, delineated in the present Old City walls, a sad footnote to its majestic and tumultuous past. The fact that Jews and non-Jews alike automatically assume they will visit the Western Wall during their stay in Jerusalem and the crowds that once more throng the streets during the festivals, are perhaps the greatest testament we have that Jewish Jerusalem has not been forgotten.

Posted in ancient israelites, archeology, Architecture, Av, Bar Kochba Revolt, bible, British, caves, Christianity, crusaders, Egypt, Herod, Jerusalem, Jewish, Jewish Quarter, Mamelukes, Mishkenot Sha'ananim, Moslem, Roman, Soldiers, Solomon, Suleiman, temple, Turkey, Uncategorized, Western Wall | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem (Psalms 137)

Music Makes The World Go Round

What do you get if you mix a Breslav Hassid with a Frenchman? Well, in this particular case the answer is music. Both gentlemen in question share the surname “Levy” and are descended from the musicians who played in the temple, so maybe it is something in their genes. Laurent Levy is a property developer who saw the potential of a very rundown and neglected area smack in the city centre of Jerusalem. Eldad Levy is a musician with a vision who believes the combination of cadence and harmony can harness the good in people. As a result of their collaboration, Jerusalemites are lucky enough to have a wonderful project and new museum in the completely renovated area that stretches from Yoel Salomon Street to the Italian synagogue.IMG_5603

The museum is part of the complex that makes up Music Square, a space that takes the world of music as its theme and has a number of good restaurants, a music club and a lovely outdoor space (covered and heated in winter) where musicians serenade diners as they eat. Future plans include a 400 seat auditorium and a fifty room boutique hotel, where each room will be dedicated to a different Jewish musician.

The Hebrew Music Museum aims to explore how the origins of Jewish music developed. The curators believe it grew out of the local music where Jewish communities lived. For example, if you ask people today what is “Jewish music”? Invariably the answer will include a reference to klezmer. In Europe, this genre evolved from Gypsy music as itinerant gypsies were the troubadours and musicians. When klezmer music made its debut in this country, it first came to Safed where it came under the influence of the local Druze culture and was exposed to the Darbuka (hand drum). Israeli klezmer musicians incorporated it into their melodies, making their version very different from the klezmer music of Europe.

IMG_5605Each of the seven rooms that comprise the museum has a separate theme. Aesthetics are a hugely important part of the experience and every room has its own distinctive style which reflects the background of the instruments displayed there. On a recent visit, we began in Central Asia and looked at instruments that were in use during the time of the 2nd temple. It should be stressed that most of the instruments themselves are not old, but are copies of those that existed during that time period.

The next room we entered has an ornately carved wood ceiling that our guide Yaniv (another Levy, although all of them are unrelated) tells us was carved by the carpenters of the king of Morocco. In the Balkan room the ceiling panels were painted by the interior designer of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem. No expense has been spared in this beautifully designed space. There are 260 different instruments on display and whilst you are not allowed to touch them unless you are accompanied by one of the museum in-house guides, you can “play” each and every item via a tablet that you are given to accompany you on your tour. There are also a number of games with the instruments which should successfully entertain the younger crowd.IMG_5607

It is fascinating to learn about the background of so many hugely different pieces. For example, the prototype of the bagpipe, that quintessentially Scottish instrument (or so I believed), actually comes from Tunisia, where it was played by the local tea seller to announce his arrival. There are also some very long Indian horns that are reminiscent of the trumpets mentioned in the Torah and various other instruments we hear about in the book of Daniel. I was personally enthralled by the dulcimer, an instrument I associate with the plays of William Shakespeare. Another instrument that caught my eye seemed just like a cricket bat with strings attached! The museum loves to give themed tours and recently offered one based on the instruments mentioned in the Book of Psalms.

We looked at some metal castanets, an instrument which I thought originated in Spain. Wrong again! We were surprised to learn that in fact they come from the region of the Sahara Desert and they developed out of the metal manacles that were put on prisoners…my imagination went into overdrive as I envisaged a motley crew of prisoners clanking their chains and banging their handcuffs to a catchy beat.

IMG_5618There is one ethnic group that only very recently added instruments to their musical repertoire and those are the Yemenites. According to ancient Yemenite custom, it was forbidden to play any musical instruments after the destruction of the temple because the community was in mourning for its loss. There are still some people that don’t play any music (except for drums) at a wedding if it is held in Jerusalem, for a similar reason. When the Yemenites arrived here on Operation Magic Carpet shortly after the creation of the state, they only then started to incorporate instruments into their music. They already had a very strong musical tradition, but until that point it was all vocal and not instrumental.

For me, the undisputed highlight of the visit was a virtual temple tour where you are taken inside the Second Temple into the various different courtyards and rooms and see and hear the sounds and rituals to which only the privileged few had access. With special goggles and headphones you are transported into a totally different reality and even ride in an elevator to the very top of the structure where you get to see the ancient views over Jerusalem.

So, if you are looking for something a little different to entertain you on your next visit to Jerusalem I would suggest a stop in this fascinating new attraction.

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Those Canaan Days

I have always found the narrative at the beginning of the book of Exodus to be somewhat abrupt when describing the change of regime that occurred in Egypt. The opening paragraph relates how the Jews prosper and increase in number and then all of a sudden there is a very unsatisfying “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). It seems to jar with the previous paragraph, which suggests the Jews flourished precisely because of Joseph’s legacy, so even if this new Pharaoh was not acquainted personally with Joseph, it appears strange to think he had never even heard of him.

Just in time for the Passover season, a new exhibition at the Israel Museum called “Pharaoh in Canaan, the Untold Story” helped me to understand this anomaly. According to museum guide Roni Peled, the one paragraph at the beginning of the book of Exodus actually corresponds to a time period of 350 years, which would help to explain this new Pharaoh’s ignorance. The whole subject of the Exodus is one of those contentious topics where historians, archaeologists and adherents of the Bible clash. Whilst no archaeological evidence has yet corroborated the Exodus story, Peled says we must emphasise the word “yet”. He posits the Egyptians have no incentive to dig any deeper and unearth evidence that would support the biblical account. That is very different from saying we have conclusive proof it didn’t happen.

According to most historians, the Hyksos are the group most commonly identified with the Jews who went down to Egypt from Canaan, as related in the book of Genesis. Known as a population who spoke a western Semitic language, they left Canaan gradually around 1750 BCE and went on to succeed beyond their wildest dreams in their new homeland. As their power increased, they ended up controlling Northern Egypt for the next 200 years or so. This included the area east of Goshen, which is where we are told in the Joseph story that the Jews settled. The book of Genesis stops its narrative at the time of Joseph’s death, and except for the brief description mentioned above we know nothing more about the Jews in Egypt until they are enslaved.IMG_3578 (2)

Egyptian sources relate that after about two centuries the Hyksos were unceremoniously kicked out of Egypt by the rulers of Southern Egypt with whom they had continuously fought. Approximately 3,500 years ago the newly united Egypt then conquered the Land of Israel, or Canaan as it was called back then. The first military conquest was under the aegis of the Pharaoh Thutmoses III. Thanks to the military journal he kept, we know the exact route of his army which had its first decisive victory at Megiddo. Bet Shean, Jaffa and Gaza were also important military strongholds. This was the start of 300 years of Egyptian rule here, a period that has been largely ignored until today. Many of the archaeological remains from that era are now being displayed. Some have been loaned from museums in other parts of the world and are being shown together with local finds for the first time. They help us build a picture of how Jewish and Egyptian cultures existed side by side.

IMG_3579Egyptian art depicts the Canaanites as bearded, in stark contrast to the clean-shaven Egyptians whose gods were the only ones to sometimes sprout facial hair. For obvious reasons, the Canaanites are always shown on the losing side in battle scenes. In reality, they changed the nature of weaponry by introducing bows and arrows made of ivory, bone and wood which added extra shooting power. They also brought carriages onto the battlefield for the first time.

The grandeur of Egypt is represented by an abundance of sphinxes (part of an exceptionally fine specimen was recently found in Hazor), scarabs and statues of Pharaohs, as well as an impressive reconstruction of the gates to Bet Shean. When the Egyptians ruled over Canaan, naturally they brought with them their own traditions and customs, but they were not averse to modifying them in accordance with regional styles. For example, in the Governor’s residence in Bet Shean, workmen built with Egyptian mud bricks, like those we read about in the biblical narrative, but here they combined them with Canaanite stonework. In another instance, what were initially thought to be imported Egyptian pottery vessels were actually found to be produced in a workshop in the area around Afula. However, the addition of handles to their amphorae is a custom they took from the locals. In a pottery jar which originally contained beer, which was an Egyptian invention, excavators were lucky enough to discover a fine collection of jewellery that had been wrapped in cotton and buried in mud. A separate discovery was a gold ring belonging to the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, the only reference to him ever found here.IMG_3586

IMG_3588Another fascinating artifact is a woman’s silver mirror that was found in the grave of three women who all had Semitic names. This brings to mind the explanation by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, the French medieval biblical commentator), how after Pharaoh began to oppress the Jews in Egypt the men lost hope in the future and no longer wanted to procreate. Using their mirrors, the women tempted them to have intercourse and thus ensure the future of the Jewish people. Later on, in the desert, the women donated their mirrors in order to construct the basin in the Tabernacle.

A further object which had great significance was the rod or staff and we see several depictions of leaders holding one. Perhaps that is why both Moses and Aaron each had a staff that with G-d’s help was used as a very special status symbol to great dramatic effect. Amongst the other miracles they performed, Aaron’s rod turned into a snake that ate up the snakes of all of Pharaoh’s magicians and later turned the waters of the Nile to blood. Moses’ staff was used in the desert in direct contrast to these earlier miracles; Moses caused water to flow from the rock and created an antidote to snake bites with his staff. Once the children of Israel began to accept Moses and Aaron as their leaders and began to understand the divine force behind them that enabled them to perform the various miracles, the rod assumed a diminished role. The people had moved on to a new phase in their spiritual journey and their leaders no longer needed the trappings associated with power in Egypt to command their respect.

Jewish commentators suggest the children of Israel merited redemption from slavery because they resisted the lure of assimilation. A number of reasons were given: they kept their Jewish names, language and dress code. They also didn’t gossip and weren’t promiscuous. Interestingly enough, there seems to have been considerable Canaanite influence on the Egyptian belief system. The Egyptians had no qualms about integrating foreign gods with their own. As well as the sun gods and the well-known figure of the goddess Hathor, they were quite happy to pay homage to Canaanite imports such as Astarte, the goddess of fertility and other deities. We see several pictorial examples and engravings which show how the Canaanite gods were incorporated into the Egyptian pantheon.IMG_3593 (2)

There are many remarkable artifacts on display, but for me, the last object of the exhibition is the most poignant. It is a sickle sword or scimitar, which has been intentionally bent in order to signify the death of the soldier in whose tomb it was discovered. It was a lethal fighting tool as it combined the advantages of the battle axe as a weapon that could deliver a crushing blow, together with the power of the sword. Another very similar scimitar that was also bent in this fashion was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. This has led archaeologists to speculate that maybe that weapon was manufactured here in Canaan. An alternate theory is the weapon we possess, may have been a present from the Egyptian Pharaoh to one of his vassals . In 1979, a copy of it was presented by Menachem Begin to Anwar Sadat on his visit to Egypt a week after the peace treaty between the two countries had been signed. It symbolized the hope that in the words of Isaiah (2:4) “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares…Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war”.


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And Now For Something Completely Different

If you were to ask people around the world what Hebrew vocabulary they know, most of them would recognize the word “Mossad”. Israel’s intelligence organization has a global reputation and is generally mentioned with respect and awe. It is not often that an institution like the Mossad opens its doors to the public and shares some of its history, but that is exactly what you can expect from a visit to the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Centre. This non-profit organization, dedicated to honouring the intelligence community and commemorating their fallen through education and research, offers the public a unique opportunity to deepen their knowledge regarding Israel’s security concerns and management of terrorism. In addition, you can learn about their contribution to the country’s history and hear some of their inspirational stories. The impetus for opening the centre was to bring in children from peripheral areas, with low socio-economic backgrounds to motivate them with a sense of what they have to contribute to the country. To that end, all entrance fees are used to continue this educational outreach. Today both tourists and locals are welcome to visit.IMG_3453

On a recent tour our guide was N, one of 60 volunteers who run the centre. She was born in Syria and immigrated to Israel via Lebanon, after the creation of the state. A natural raconteur, she kept our group enthralled for over five hours with her explanations and anecdotes.

N. explained how the Israel Defence Force, the Internal Security Force and the Mossad all have clearly delineated roles and how they co-operate in emergencies. She also showed us the names of the fallen from all of Israel’s intelligence organizations which are inscribed on the wall of a commemorative labyrinth, built to look like the human brain. N. shared with us how each individual on that wall made their own vital contribution to the country’s security. Over 700 names appear and their actions are documented in albums, films and files created in co-operation with their families and available for viewing in the centre’s library. However, there are still some names that are classified even after death and do not appear. Memorial services are held throughout the year and the centre has a small synagogue which has in it a one hundred and fifty year old Syrian Torah scroll, one of many rescued from that country.IMG_3449

N. talked about the Mossad’s part in helping Jews to come to Israel from countries with which we have no diplomatic relations. She related how sometimes the prospective immigrants would be taken out to sea where they would meet up with Israeli boats. On one such occasion the Israelis waited for two hours at the agreed rendezvous, but no-one showed up. Eventually they left and went back to base. A few hours later they received a message that the people had now arrived but there was no-one there to greet them. Zvi Zamir, the head of the Mossad (1968-74) at the time, said he would go to fetch them. As chief of the organization he was given an impressive Dabur (‘hornet’) patrol boat to sail in rather than the usual Zodiac (souped-up dinghy) and arrived to see a small fishing boat with a rather shell-shocked family aboard. He greeted them in Arabic, but they did not respond, then he switched to French and after that Hebrew, but was rewarded with the same blank faces. In the end, the secular Zamir threw his hands in the air and declaimed loudly “Shema Yisrael Adonai Elokainu Adonai Ehad” (Hear O Israel the Lord our G-d the Lord is One). The people burst into huge smiles and a visibly moved Zvi Zamir welcomed them into his boat and brought them on the final stage of their clandestine journey. Throughout its history the Mossad has been involved in bringing Jews to Israel and according to N. has tripled the population of the country by making it possible for different groups of Jewish refugees to immigrate.

M. is another volunteer at the centre and he took part in Operation Solomon, the dramatic airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1991. Paid for by US Jewry, the 36 hour secret operation brought 15,000 Jews to Israel before Ethiopia fell to rebel forces. At the height of the action 27 aeroplanes were in the air simultaneously and seven babies were born en route in the overcrowded planes, whose seats had all been removed in order to create more space. However, this was just one attempt to rescue these people in an ongoing saga that  began in the late 1970’s and plays like a James Bond script. Over 4,000 Ethiopian Jews died trying to find a way to come to Israel, with virtually every family losing a relative in the attempt.

A. explained his expertise, which is the tracking and collation of anti-Semitic incitement and incendiary material, deriving from terrorist organisations, BDS and all other sources. The centre publishes the material making it easily accessible as a resource to all. A. showed us Palestinian Authority produced broadcasts for children’s television where very young children were encouraged to become martyrs, praised for creating war-mongering poems and pictures and goaded to envision a Middle East without Israel. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this presentation was the sweet looking young women or children promoting this hatred.IMG_3470

Two small museums on the premises offer a fascinating glimpse into the Mossad’s world. The terrorism exhibit displays captured weapons from terrorist caches ranging from rockets to suicide belts and items which were confiscated from visitors to prisoners in jail. This includes the shoe with a cell phone embedded in its heel, or children’s toys or books used to hide other forbidden items. The other exhibit shows artifacts from previous intelligence missions, such as the first ever Israeli drone, created out of a remote controlled toy plane, or a tennis racquet handle converted into spyware.IMG_3461

Whilst the subjects that are discussed are weighty ones, the commentary, lectures and films are often spiced with humour and can be adapted to visitors of all ages. A tour runs from one hour to a whole day and frequently visitors who think they will only stay for a short time end up changing their plans as there is so much to hear and see.

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The Circle of Life

One of the many things I love about Israel is the interplay between ancient and modern; the ability to connect between the very new and the very old, often in the most surprising ways. Theodor Herzl was perhaps the first to understand this juxtaposition in his prescient book which described his vision of the Jewish state. He titled his oeuvre “Altneuland”, or “Old/New Land”. The founders of Tel Aviv used this as their inspiration for the city’s name. They took the word “tel”, which suggests layers of ancient civilization and combined it with “aviv”, which means “spring”, with all its connotations of renewal and rebirth.

The diverse ways in which Israeli technology or thought is harnessed to ancient history or ideas, never ceases to inspire me. Let’s take, for example, the very modern concept of nanotechnology; a process in which scientists can manipulate and control individual atoms and molecules. Their precision is so great that they have developed a measurement called the nanometer which is one billionth of a metre, or about as long as your fingernail grows in one second!  In an attempt to make this remarkable breakthrough more accessible to the public, what vehicle did professors at the University of Haifa use as their medium? None other than the Hebrew Bible, making the shrewd connection that civilization and technology are closely linked. By taking one of man’s oldest and most widely read manuscripts and engraving all of its one million, two hundred thousand letters onto something the size of a sugar crystal, they utilized ancient methods in the most ultra-modern manner. It took them an hour and a half to produce! They chose the Bible, because to them it signified the transmission of human civilization from one generation to the next and through it, they wanted to alert people to the scientific revolution that is taking place in our times. If you would like see this marvel for yourself,  it is displayed in the Israel Museum next to the hall where the Dead Sea Scrolls are exhibited. Bearing in mind that the written word as a medium for conveying ideas has outlasted all kinds of technologies, the significance of this venue should not be overlooked.The Nano Bible is as small as a sugar grain (Photo: Israel Museum)

Farming has played a vital part in Israel’s existence. The Bible is replete with descriptions of the produce of the land and remains of ancient agricultural terraces can still be seen in many parts of the country. According to Jewish thought, the land, the people and our religion are inextricably intertwined. Our first Prime Minister, David ben Gurion, had a vision of greening the desert in order to absorb the immigrants that would come to live here. He set a personal example by relocating to the Negev kibbutz of Sde Boker, echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah “The arid desert shall be glad, the wilderness shall rejoice and shall blossom like a rose” (Isaiah 35:1-2). Since then we have not been short of modern green prophets who are doing their utmost to bring this vision to fruition. One of the most recent visionaries is Russian immigrant, Bentsion Kabakov, who has literally turned the idea on its head. He has created a 4,500 square metre rooftop greenhouse on the edge of the desert, growing hydroponic (soilless) vegetables and herbs. Using the latest technology, including mineral enriched woolen bedding instead of earth, a conveyor belt system and recycled water with a specific cocktail of nutrients for each variety, he can grow close to three times as much produce per square metre than traditional methods allow. The beauty of his project is that it is so easy to duplicate. Whilst the idea may have originated in the desert it is equally applicable to urban environments and any roof has the potential to grow the same abundant crops. It seems that the sky really is the limit!IMG_3217

In an ironic twist, this new breed of hydroponic products is causing some rabbis to rethink the rules regarding the blessings religious Jews say before eating fruit and vegetables, which have been in place for hundreds of years. Up until now, it was obvious that when eating a lettuce, for example, the “Hadama” blessing was said, which talks about thanking G-d for creating “the fruit of the ground”. However, now these vegetables are not necessarily grown on the ground or even in soil, there are some who suggest that a more appropriate blessing is the ‘Shehakol” which praises G-d “through whose word everything came to be”.

One of the many biblical descriptions of the Land of Israel refers to it as “the land of milk and honey”. The honey was not that produced by bees, but came from dates which were abundant in ancient Israel. Jericho and the surrounding Dead Sea area were famous for their dates in biblical times, but actually date palms grew as far north as the Galilee. They were featured on coins of old and can also be seen on today’s modern ten shekel coin. Dates need to be cared for in order to prosper and the numerous invasions by foreign armies and the destruction they caused eventually led to the demise of the industry. In 1948, after the creation of the state of Israel, a tremendous effort was made to kick start date cultivation and that is another story of its own.

In the mid 1960’s during excavations at Masada, archeologists unearthed a small clay jar with a pile of date seeds inside which were deemed to be from the time of King Herod. Carbon testing bore out that theory. Their discovery was then forgotten for the next forty years! In 2005, as part of her research on germination of ancient seeds, Sarah Sallon, the director of Hadassah’s Medical research centre, was curious to find out if a two thousand year old seed could in fact grow. She wanted to see what the original Judean date was like and if it contained any of the healing properties that were attributed to it, which ranged from fertility and aphrodisiac uses to protection against infections and tumours.

At this point, Sallon contacted the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and asked for their help and expertise. Agriculture expert Elaine Solowey was then tasked with the project of planting the seed. She nicknamed her new charge Methuselah, after the oldest person mentioned in the Bible. Amazingly enough, under her tender care Methuselah germinated and proved to be a pollen producing male. Today he is over three metres tall and his pollen has been used to pollinate a female date plant.

But Methuselah was only the beginning, as Solowey has successfully managed to grow other saplings from ancient seeds discovered in archeological sites in the Dead Sea area, including two female strains. Ideally, she would like to be able to plant an ancient date grove to better understand the local diet in biblical times. In order to duplicate the original Judean date these female saplings grown from ancient seeds would need to be pollinated with the pollen from Methuselah. It all seems a little fantastical, but with determination and not a little patience and skill, it seems ghosts of the past really can be brought back to life.

Posted in ancient israelites, archeology, bible, dates, desert, food, Fruit and Vegetables, health, Herod, Jewish, Judean Desert, land of israel, Negev, seven species, Tel Aviv, Theodor Herzl, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Circle of Life