Thursday, August 6, 2009

Up North

Spent the morning yesterday wandering the Old City. Again. I wanted to visit the 4 Sephardi Synagogues that I'd passed a number of times, as well as revisit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a few others sites in the Christian quarter, and then attempt to go up to the Dome of the Rock. The latter did not happen since I received conflicting sets of directions for how to get there. Meh. I'd never been in a Sephardi synagogue before, did not know what to expect, but I had a sense that seeing the four in the Old City would be a more powerful experience than it was. They are 4 synagogues built between the 16th-18th centuries, all of which were connected at some point along the way. There are powerful traditions associated with them: Qahal Qadosh Gadol (the Great Congregation) kept a shofar and oil jug, which the prophet Elijah would use to announce and then anoint the Messiah; the Eliahu Hanavi congregation, first of the temples to be built, had a time when they had one too few men for a minyan, a particular problem for Yom Kippur. As the story goes, an old man, unknown to the congregants, showed up one year and completed the minyan, vanished after prayers and was never seen again... Elijah?; another synagogue, the Istanbuli, kept a geniza, a place where ruined holy books were stored, and periodically brought in public procession to be buried (they are not supposed to be thrown away) in the Sephardic cemetery at the foot of Mt. Zion.

Ok, history lesson complete. These temples were plundered following the War of Independence/Catastrophe in 1948; one Torah survived, saved by Christians, as did the external walls. So, what exists now is basically a whitewashed... exhibit. It truly felt like an exhibit, and that took away from the experience. Powerful in its own way, but a bit shocking in its sterility. (And yes, of course I recognize that the reasons for said sterility are part of a powerful, multi-faceted set of events; nothing is cut and dry.) It was interesting to notice, though, since I have written about the power of the Old City, the overwhelming sense of history, and so forth. I forgot until looking back at my journal, though, that my first impression of the Old City was that it felt like a Disneyland of sorts. Honestly? There seem to be so many universes there existing on top of each other, next to each other, sometimes overlapping, sometimes completely disparate entities. It's a show. It's history. It's religiosity. It's tourism. It's tradition. It's...

But I digress. After some other explorations, including a walk down to the Garden and Basilica of Gesthemene (famous for being the place where Jesus's disciples prayed before his crucifixion, home to some of the oldest olive trees I have ever seen, their years physically manifested in their knotted trunks) and back up to the Old City for a bus to the central bus station. Time to head north...

I got a bit sick of so many people here telling me not to hitchhike (it's a pretty common mode of travel here). You know, the whole live for myself and not for others thing? So, having been contacted by a seemingly great person from Couchsurfing (and he definitely was, as was his girlfriend) who said I could crash at his place in Haifa, I decided to grow a pair and I hitchhiked here from Jerusalem. It took awhile to find a ride, but a lady stopped and she just happened to live a few km from the city; I got a ride all the way here.

It was serendipitous, really. I had given myself just five more minutes before I was going to head to the bus station and get a ticket. What a gift... she's a professional tour guide (specializes in Christian sites and actually trains other tour guides on that history; she spent about 15 years as a born again Christian --- long story --- and has a connection to those places that is unlike most people here), and has been since the army, and lives on a kibbutz just outside Haifa. She had a ton of interesting stories, recommendations for some beautiful hikes, and a warm, warm heart. Definitely one of those Israeli characters everyone seems to pick up along the way in their travels here.

So... I am in Haifa. There is something really nice about this place in that many religions coexist here --- peacefully, for the most part. The surroundings, though, are a bit depressing, run-down, at least where I am now. I'll be staying in a more gentrified neighborhood tonight, for what it's worth, but that's also kind of depressing. There are a few sites to see here, but I have been told that Haifa is more about the people. Ok, and some amazing food, too! And we all know me and food... But, we'll see. I'm not feeling too tied to this place. I'll probably spend another day or so, maybe go to Nazareth, then head to Tsfat for a klezmer music festival (!) and some time with chevre. Well, those are tentative plans, anyway; nothing is set in stone.

For now, off to see what Haifa has to offer to this traveler. We shall see, we shall see.

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