.גילגול מסביב לירשלים
First, an authorial note. Jessica and Daniel will be co-authoring this post for maximum recollection and enjoyment.
Although a number of things have happened to us in the past few days including a dinner with friends, a lovely walk to the shuk to see all of the lulav vendors, and classes (Daniel) and studying/working on grad school applications (Jessica), what we really wanted to write about was this amazing adventure we had thanks to our friendly and generous across the hall neighbors. You may recall that we invited Mr. and Mrs. Katz over for dinner several weeks ago, and we were delighted that they accepted our invitation. A couple weeks ago, they invited us on a tiyul (trip) and asked us where we wanted to go. We put the ball back in their court, telling them that we'd be excited to see anything they wanted us to see. So, this past Friday afternoon, Mr. Katz invited us over to discuss the plan he had created for us.
We traversed the long distance between our apartments and were warmly welcomed into their beautiful living room, decorated in deep reds, with dark wooden furniture and many paintings on the wall that we later learned were created by Mrs. Katz's late brother. To explain where we would be traveling, Mr. Katz picked up his Tanach (Bible) and asked us, "Do you know the Book of Samuel?" He then proceeded to recount some stories from Samuel's life, Tanach in hand, in order to set the stage for our upcoming trip. Daniel couldn't believe it: This entirely secular man was detailing "history" from the bible and preparing us to explore the sites he described! He told us about the Philistines' capture of the ark, the birth and passing of Samuel, and a few tales about Samson. He concluded by saying that we'd be exploring some of the locations mentioned in these stories along with, hopefully, some of their children and grandchildren. "We'll be ready by 10:00," we assured them and went back to our apartment, excited about the next day's adventures.
Although Jessica suspected that the actual time of departure was to be 9:30, Daniel assured her that she was absolutely mistaken, and at 9:30, when Mr. Katz rang the doorbell, Jessica ran to the door in her pajamas and embarassedly asked for ten minutes to get ready. Daniel and Jessica hurriedly threw on some clothes, grabbed a camera, and knocked on the Katzes' door. When Mr. Katz opened the door, he gave what can only be described as a grandfatherly chuckle before ushering us into the elevator to descend to our journey.
Apparently, Mr. Katz had already parked the car out front and loaded it with our lunch supplies (stay tuned...). The four of us started driving, and shortly we were outside of the city. We chatted, hesitantly at first, in Hebrew about a variety of topics, and this banter became freer as the trip progressed and became one of the highlights of the entire day. Before long, Mr. Katz pointed to an old spire on top of a high hill and identified it as Nebi Samuel. And less than ten minutes after that, we had arrived at that very spot which had seemed to distant only a few minutes earlier.
From the parking lot, Nebi Samuel didn't seem like such an exciting place. There were no touristy things like gift shops or signs in English, and the whole area seemed a little run down - a tiny Yeshiva building to one side, and no guests aside from ourselves. Daniel approached a sign that described the history of the building, and Mr. Katz read it to us, though frankly it was hard for me to understand all of the Hebrew.
Just after Mr. Katz finished reading the sign to us, we were joined by Noam, their youngest son, and Noam's daughter Talia, along with Noam's friend and former boss. The seven of us walked up to the building on the hill and that's when we realized why the Katzes had brought us here. From 900 meters above sea level, we could see everything in the Judean hills and beyond. From the West Bank to the Mediterranean Sea, Israel lay before us like a picture book waiting to be pored over. Borrowing Noam's professional binoculars, we were able to make out villages, towns, and cities miles away. We climbed to the top of the crusader-era building and found ourselves higher than anything else in the area. Noam's intimate knowledge of the countryside gave a deeper understanding to what we were seeing as he was able to point out Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Tel Aviv, Ramallah, and the locations of certain historical events (like a key battle in the Maccabean revolt). It was truly an incredible vantage point!
We walked around the building slowly, as Mr. Katz pointed out features of the building itself - below us a stone house with a roof that had fallen in, and above us a tower (which we would later climb). We made our way into the belly of the building, which is today a synagogue, and which contains what is believed to be the grave of Samuel. Jessica descended by herself into the women's section, which was about the size of a closet, while Daniel explored the much more interesting men's section. Jessica later joined him in the men's section, as there was no one present to tell her otherwise. In the men's section, we saw not only the alleged tomb of Samuel but also several books and tables that would normally be found in a synagogue and beit midrash. Perhaps a bit more startling was the sign that read (roughly), "Anyone who talks during the Shmoneh Esrei or the Kaddish will never get out of hell." This, in addition to the bumper sticker we had seen on the ground level warning against boys and girls touching each other, gave a distinct impression as to what group of people considered this their place.
From the top of the tower we gazed out at Israel, admiring its hills that jutted up like waves on a stormy sea. The Katzes' other son, Yair, and his son, whose name we can't recall, had joined us by this point, and we really felt like we were part of a family outing. It wasn't too long before we climbed down from the tower and returned to the car to continue to our next location.
Mr. Katz was following his children, and as we drove, he pointed out to us notable locations while describing the history of the roads, the trees, even the very countryside. For example, the Katzes explained to us that in first few months of their military service as young adults (they met in the army), their role was to plant trees - the very trees we drove past. It was fascinating to hear his long view of the history of the place - unfortunately, his story-telling distracted from his driving, and we got slightly off course. After calling one of his sons, Mr. Katz believed himself to be on track, but when we pulled in front of the fish store, it seemed at least plausible that we had gotten ourselves a little lost. Regardless, we walked around the fish store, which was itself an adventure - tropical fish of all sizes swam in a multitude of tanks, and we poked around, smiling broadly at the brightly striped and oddly marked varieties. Once Mr. Katz had reconnected via cell phone with his kids, we continued on our way.
Our next stop was a French monastery, which was surrounded by gorgeous trees and beautiful flowers. We learned that the sisters spend much of their time studying, baking, and making ceramic pottery and figures (though it wasn't clear what the brothers' schedules include). We looked through the wine and cheese shops (it was, after all, a French monastery!) and continued to the chapel. The walls were covered with beautiful scenes from Christian history, and the books included the New Testament in several languages as well as other volumes about Israel and Christianity. All the wile, we chatted with Yair, who is a computer programmer, and admired what Jessica's dad would call the foil-age.
We continued down the road a bit to a spot that Noam recommended for our picnic - the British Park. Mr. Katz drove his car practically into the picnic area itself, to the chagrin of his sons, and began unpacking shopping bag after shopping bag full of food. It was a laughable amount of food - he offered us whole peppers, carrots, and cucumbers, pitas, different vegetable-filled pastries, cookies, honey cake, hummus, tehina, crackers, dried fruit... Each time he opened something new his sons protested that they'd had enough and he responded "What do you care if I open it? You don't have to eat it." Whole cans and bags of food remained uneaten and our bellies were satisfyingly round as we sat around the table enjoying the beautiful day. Noam, who apparently goes for a walk and a picnic every Shabbat, was equipped with a portable gas stove, on which he prepared a sweet tea-like drink that he called "Louisa," which he apparently grows fresh in his garden. Later, he also prepared and served strong, sweet coffee. The kids used the fire from the stove to light a small campfire nearby and all of the adults watched as they kindled dry leaves and sticks.
We very much enjoyed conversing with the Katzes and their sons, and before we called it a day, Noam wanted to hike up the hill a bit with his daughter. We accompanied them and talked to Noam (in English!) about his life as the former ambassador to Nigeria. Turns out he's lived for many years in Nigera, Ghana, Rwanda, and a few other African countries - his three children, he says, are "more African than Israeli." He's moved back to Israel to give his youngest daughter an opportunity to get to know and appreciate Israel and Israeli culture, but he doesn't expect to remain here long. His wife wants to go to Europe, so he may serve there next, but soon he wants to head to central Asia (Uzbekistan) to start a new chapter of diplomacy. It was so interesting hearing this diplomat describe life in northern Africa and to hear ever so briefly his perspective on international relations there.
By the time we returned with Noam and Talia, Yair and his son had already left. We bid farewell to Noam and piled back into the Katzes' car, which Mr. Katz extracted from the park and drove away. On our way back, our conversations continued. We drove through Beit Shemesh, which had been built from nothing over the past fifty years. Mr. Katz pointed to a newer area that had once been home to new immigrants from Middle Eastern countries - Mr. Katz was involved in teaching them and helping them to adjust to life in Israel. We stopped at an overlook, where Mr. Katz showed us that we were at the site where the story of Samson had occurred. We took pictures of him and Daniel, Jessica and Mrs. Katz, and we continued on our way, down the beautiful narrow hilly roads. Every few minutes Mr. Katz would sigh "how beautiful!"
The drive back to Jerusalem was gorgeous and took us through parts of the city that we had never visited before. For the first time, we were able to see "regular" parts of Israel (even Jerusalem), where people go out on Shabbat and lead lives that aren't regulated by religion. We drove through the suburbs, where people have actual houses, and were able to imagine living in Jerusalem without the congestion of King George Street. Not only was the drive beautiful, but it was also educational and eye-opening.
Once we were heading back into town, it took us a surprisingly short amount of time to get back to our neck of the woods. The Katzes continued to point out items of interest even though we may have passed them a hunded times since moving in. We parked the car behind our apartment building, helped unload the several bags of leftover food, and walked back to the apartment with the Katzes.
When we were back on our comfortable fifth floor, we wished the Katzes good-bye from inside their apartment. They told us they had had a wonderful time and were glad that we had come with them - they even hinted at a next time! Mr. Katz had bought each of us a small jar of honey (for a sweet new year!) from the French monastery, and he also showed us the small ceramic sheep he had bought himself - apparently, he collects them. We finally bid our last good-bye and returned to our apartment.
Overall, the entire trip was absolutely lovely. It was wonderful to join this family, to spend Shabbat in a meaningful secular manner with kind and generous people who were interested in sharing their life stories with us. We ate delicious food, shared good jokes, and saw some breath-taking sights. We learned, taught, and explored together, making this definitely one of the richest, most unique Shabbats we've had since we've arrived. We both very much look forward to the "next time" that Mr. Katz alluded to, and we hope that we've made some good friends in these elderly neighbors whom we just thought it would be fun to invite to dinner. See what a good quiche can accomplish?
PS If you'd like to see pictures from this trip, as well as other experiences we've had here in Israel, check out our new online album here!