Yad vaShem and the Western Wall Tunnels New Year’s Eve

Back to Jerusalem. Today we scheduled our trip to Yad vaShem, the main monument to the story of the Holocaust in the world. There are many wonderful museums which have paid tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, but there is only one Yad vaShem. We timed our arrival so that we could take the one tour available with a live tour guide as opposed to using the audio player type tour and we were not disappointed. Our guide was terrific. I wish I could report his name, but he was of Polish origin and it was an unfamiliar name to me. He wore an identity card around his neck, but the card was always turned backwards so I couldn’t read it. So he will have to remain anonymous. He began his disquisition with an explanation of the universality of the message of Yad vaShem and the difficulty of painting things in black and white. The world exists in shadows and grays, and we cannot assume that people on one side were all evil and on the other good. That message plays out in many ways through the museum.

One of the mysteries of Yad vaShem is the name itself–which is not really explained until almost the end of the journey. But it is perhaps more important to me as teacher of the Bible and Biblical Hebrew. The words literally mean “hand and name”. But what does that mean? It is taken from Isaiah 55:6 which reads “I will give them within the walls of my house a memorial (yad) and a place (vaShem) better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that will never be erased.”

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So Yad vaShem is the place where the victims of the Holocaust will be remembered forever.

The museum’s main exhibit follows a time line from the beginning of the German conquest of Europe through the creation of the State of Israel. In addition to the main exhibit hall, there is a beautiful garden in which trees have been planted to memorialize the people who sacrificed their own safety and even that of their families to save Jews. There is a sanctuary used to provide a place for the world’s dignitaries to visit and participate. And there is a memorial to the one and a half million children who perished.

I do not believe it is possible for anyone to visit this place and not be moved. I’m going to limit my discussion to this at least for now. Of course there is so much more that could be said, but materials about Yad vaShem are readily available on the Net if you are curious.

We left the museum in somewhat of a state of shock which I guess is pretty normal for the place. A brief shuttle ride brought us to the top of a hill from which we could take a bus to the city center. Our next scheduled appointment was at the Western Wall tunnels, but we had five hours. We could have worked another museum or archaeological site into the day, but I thought that Yad vaShem and the Western Wall site would be enough of that type of thing for one day, so we had to find a way to kill those hours.

The bus took care of the first hour. There were traffic jams everywhere and it took that long to make the usual 20 minute ride into the city center. We walked around looking for a place to eat and as Terri was getting ready to kill me (I was saved only because she was too tired to do so), we stumbled into Cafe Rimon where the hostess stumped Terri by asking the famous question “Halav oBasar?” I saved Terri from further embarrassment (and also made sure we ate what I felt like eating) by replying “Basar” for her. That meant that we would be seated on the side of the restaurant that served meat dishes rather than the dairy side of the restaurant.

Terri had fetuchini with chicken and grilled vegetables. I had a small bowl of gulash followed by something called a “Philadelphia sandwich”. The meal started with a wonderful freshly baked bread of vegetables with a number of tasty spreads including egg/tofu, tahini, and roasted vegetables. Terri pronounced her pasta dish wonderful. Gulash, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is basically vegetable beef soup. But the vegetables are large pieces that are not overcooked and the meat comes in very large cubes. A slightly larger serving could be a full meal. This gulash used whole chili peppers which I love so I would have to give it an A+. The “Philadelphia Sandwich” is nothing that anyone from that city would recognize. First of all, Philadelphia is famous for cheesesteaks which is antithetical to Jewish cooking. The Cafe Rimon version features a fresh, homemade full grain roll piled high with thick cuts of tender beef in a very tasty barbeque sauce. Added to this were a number of Israel’s famous tomatoes and leaves of Romaine. The “chips” were perfectly cooked although I suspect they may have come from a bag of frozen potatoes. But they hit the spot!

Cafe Rimon is a somewhat expensive place to eat dinner, but they allow their lunch menu to continue through 5pm and the lunch prices are very reasonable. So we ate well and for a very reasonable price. Add to that line of characters parading in and out of the place and in front of the restaurant (which is a pedestrian mall) and you have a wonderfully satisfying and entertaining experience.

The weather in Jerusalem had turned chilly and windy and we were ill prepared. Clothing in Israel is mostly imported and pretty expensive (and quality is a problem), so I was not optimistic we would be able to find an easy solution to our problem, but I am happy to report that I was wrong. Just a few steps from Cafe Rimon we found a clothing shop where they had major markdowns on jackets and Terri and I walked out of there with perfect solutions to the weather problem cheap. Newly fortified against the cold, we set off for the Old City.

It was a path I had made many times 30 years ago, but Terri too is now getting to be an old hand. Down David Street to the Street of the Chain. Quick jog over to the right, through the security gate, and onto the Western Wall plaza for a trip through the Western Wall tunnels.

Our tickets were for 7:10pm, but we got there at 6pm. The cashier kindly offered to get us into an earlier tour and so it was that we found ourselves in the very capable hands of Rabbi David ben Meir, originally of Chicago but now a resident of Jerusalem. He let us know that he was a father of nine and considered himself only an amateur historian/archaeologist although he has been leading tours for many years now. David had a very pleasant manner–not in the least bit overbearing as (unfortunately) many Israeli guides can be. Since I do have an academic qualification in the materials he was presenting I might have been hypercritical, but I am pleased to say that I found nothing about which to be critical–his presentation was factual and accurate to the best of my understanding.

The tour is well worth the wait. If you are going to Israel for a short time, you should consider making the reservation ahead of time or there is a good chance you won’t get in. The tour is very popular and each guide can only accommodate about 15 people for a tour that takes an hour and half. As with Yad vaShem, there is a vast amount of material available on the Web, so I won’t waste space describing the tour. But for me, the best part was seeing the Wall’s northwestern extent which I had not been able to get to 30 years ago. New for me then was the “foundation stone” — the phenomenally long stone that weighs about 600 tons. I was also interested to see a section of the underlying rock of the mountain which had been carved to look as if it were made of blocks. The water capture system (first built in Hasmonean times) had been sealed by Herod’s engineers and the water that could no longer move inside the Temple was instead collected in pools. Not only were those pools available to see, but they were filled with water (nicely lighted in the exhibit) just as they had been in the time of the Temple.

One of the signs of the control of the religious authorities was the fact that I was not allowed to view the wall section that contained Wilson’s arch. That’s because the tour only passes by a place where it can be viewed from the “Women’s Gallery”. David informed me that if I wanted, I could view it from the men’s area after the tour. Terri saved me the trouble by offering to photograph it for me–that photo will be one of the ones I post later.

We had some good conversation with our guide and one of the couples we met on the tour and then it was time to return to Tel Aviv.

We found Tel Aviv in full holiday mode for what Israelis call “Sylvester’s Holiday” (New Years Eve). The girls were out in their risque clothes dazzling the young men. Terri and I headed for our favorite cafe, the Hurkanus, but the music was too loud for us old fogies and the cigarette smoke a bit dense. So after saying hi to the wait staff we knew, we beat a hasty retreat to our apartment.

Happy New Year everyone!

Jerusalem Musings Solstice 2009

Terri and I had no trouble arriving in Jerusalem in time for the plans of the day. We took a Sheirut (shared taxi) to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, and then another Sheirut to Jerusalem. We wanted to take the Jerusalem circle tour (a bus ride around the city with narration), but I managed to miss the Jerusalem Central Bus Station stop thinking that it would be the last stop (it wasn’t) on the Sheirut route. So at 10:30 we found ourselves on Latin Partriarchate Rd in the Old City. We wound our way to the Jaffa Gate and discovered that we could hop on the Circle Tour bus there, so we did. The bus itself is a bit of a disappointment. Slightly shabby with truly minimalist and stupid narration (surprising number of errors in the historical reporting), but you are traveling through Jerusalem, so it was worth the small price.

We arrived at the Central Bus Station where we were told that there would be a break until 1:30pm, so Terri and I wound up with our second day in a row of eating lunch in a Central Bus Station. This time I had the local equivalent of a potato knish. Very filling and tasty. After lunch, we returned to the bus where we found the bus driver trying a variety of methods to resurrect the computer that controlled the dumb narration. After 15 minutes of this he told us that we’d have to wait for a new bus and finally at 2:15pm we were back on the road with a bus that had a canvas top–actually much more comfortable than our first bus. Terri and I got seats on the top level right at the front, so we had a magnificent 180 degree view of Jerusalem as we ascended to Mount Scopus and down past the Mount of Olives to the Old City. At 3:30pm we were back at the Jaffa Gate. This time we took the traditional walk down David Street to the Street of the Chain, and a quick jog over to the Western Wall Plaza.

Here I was astonished at the changes since my last visit. Before the renovation of the Jewish Quarter, it seemed more open with vast views of the Wall and the top of the Temple Mount. I wanted to show Terri the western wall tunnels, but it turned out you now need to make reservations to see this, so that will need to wait for another day.

From the Wall we wandered over to the entrance to the archaeological park. For the second day in a row we had to decide against entering a museum because we had arrived too late in the day. We will definitely be going back at a more reasonable hour. From there we headed through the Dung Gate and had a view of the City of David dig. We re-entered the old city and made our way through the new Jewish Quarter. A yeshiva student tied a red ribbon around my wrist. I let him do this thinking I might actually be able to engage him in some conversation. This turned out to be futile, so off came the ribbon. I also avoided the appeal for “charity” as well as a few dozen other beggars. Our travels back took us to the excavation of the Cardo (the east-west thoroughfare of Roman Jerusalem). And we were delighted to see near there an excavation that revealed some material dating as early as 7th century BCE.

As the sun set we departed the Old City and walked along Jaffa Road. The road is in quite a state as they seem to be installing a light-rail set of tracks down the middle of the street. Before long we arrived at Ben Yehuda Street and I was in for quite a shock. The last time I was in Jerusalem, this was a bustling street. It’s still busting, but now it’s a pedestrian mall! There were people everywhere, shops, expensive restaurants and much street life. Up the mall to King David Street and I saw that my once-beloved felafel stands were no more. But Terri and I dined in a lovely little Italian restaurant. She had pasta with Tuna, I also had the pasta, but with roasted vegetables and pine nuts in a light olive oil sauce.

Sated with food, we took a cab to the Sheirut stand, back to Tel Aviv (with a delay for a massive traffic jam) and then the sheirut back to our neighborhood.

More time for the museum would have made this is a great day, but as it is, we are learning to cope.