A First Time Visitors Impressions Of Israel The Dead Sea Region and Zion Squareby Wayne Simpson
It has been a very exhausting day. We left at 8:30 am for a Bus Tour of Masada and the Ein Gedi Spa. I would have preferred to stop at Qumran or Jericho, which we passed but did not visit. To visit the Ein Gedi Nature preserve just 3 miles to the north would have been preferable to dipping in the Dead Sea and making all your skin abrasions burn or smearing your body with mud, no matter how healthy is supposed to be. But the tour was a canned package. That is the problem with the tours. You can't control the agenda and the mood is just "let's have fun" instead of "let's learn something". The nature preserve is clearly an oasis in the desert characterized by the sudden appearance of date palms and other greenery in an otherwise bleak desert landscape.
Ein Gedi, by the way, is the place where David hid when he was hiding out from King Saul, who had tried to kill him. Saul went into one of the caves here to relieve himself, not knowing that David was hid inside. David could easily have killed him, but instead he did what the American Plains Indians call "counting coup". He stopped just short of the point of slaying Saul, but then secretly cut the hem from his garment, an act that later caused him much mental torment. He felt he did not properly respect the office of the one whom God had anointed to be king. I have heard that the very cave is possibly known. It may be one that is situated behind a waterfall in the Ein Gedi Spring. This explains how David could conceal the noise of his presence and of cutting Saul's garment without Sauls knowledge. I would love to have seen this place, but it will not be on this trip.
Seeing the Dead Sea for the first time is as exciting as it is interesting, but excitement fades quickly in the dense haze and the oppressive heat of the Great Rift Valley, the lowest spot on Earth. It has a surreal quality about it because of the dense haze. Artists must love being here because of the awesome displays due to the shifting atmospheric conditions. The sheer magnitude of the water and the sky is breathtaking, though the word beauty doesn't exactly fit. It is more like a kind of oppressive splendor. The impressive Mountains of Moab rise toward the sky on the Jordan side of the lake. They range from washed out to invisible as you drive along the west shore. The water seems to lack detail. The name "dead" is very fitting, not because there is no life supported in it, but because it seems to stir no vivid impression in ones mind.
However, one particularly vivid image lingers in my mind from the return trip. As I looked idly out the window a long narrow peninsula seemed to defy the laws of nature. It appeared to project out into the very sky like a bridge to some magical dimension. The haze so masked the point where the horizon marked the boundary between sky and water that it skewed the senses. Perhaps God enjoys captivating us with an occasional bit of magic. Today He is in good form. It was an illusion that any magician would have envied.
The trip TO Masada is not nearly as long as the trip BACK, after being exposed to the relentless oppressive heat of the desert. I'm told, however, that the harmful ultra violet rays are greatly diminished by the atmosphere here so that you don't burn as bad. I can attest to that as I did not get the burn I deserve for being out in that intense sun. My visit to Masada is an experience that I will write about by itself rather than elaborate on it here.
By the time I got to Ein Gedi Spa I was sick from the heat. I had opted to eat a leisurely lunch in the air conditioned concession building, eating as slowly while the rest of the passengers go down to the shore to cover themselves and black mud and take photos of themselves in this ridiculous state. None of that for me today, thank you. I just want to find a cool place to rest rather than go to the spa. We have three hours to kill here. On top of my general malaise I got a nosebleed, which is most unusual for me. It was almost uncontrollable. I was concerned that my blood pressure could be up because of the heat stress. I have since been told that nosebleeds are not uncommon in that region. It may simply have been due to the dry conditions day after day. It dries out your nasal tissues and makes them bleed. To be sick from the heat ruins every thing for me. All I could think of was getting back to the hotel. The dry heat here in the eastern part of the Israel is deceptive. When they express the temperature in 34 degrees you know it is Celsius, but you fail to realize that it in the neighborhood of 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Its not an easy conversion to to in your head and on the fly.
When I got back to my hotel I was so discouraged by my lack of stamina, I was thinking of canceling the rest of my planned visits. I just didn't know how much more of this I could take. But after I got some supper and cooled off (only moderately since my hotel does not have air conditioning) things began to seem a little brighter. I'll tell you why in just a moment. My hotel room here in Jerusalem is not much. In fact it's a dump. But the location is great for my circumstances, since I can walk to many interesting places and since there are a lot of familiar restraunts there like Macdonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut and KFC. So I decided not to look for better quarters.
One other thing (good or bad, depending on your point of view.) is that I have a balcony room that overlooks Zion Square. There is always something interesting going on outside my window. There are always from a couple of dozen to a couple of hundred people on the square at any moment. Israelis seem not to sleep. At least these Israelis don't. There is excitement going on down there at all hours. Last night I was awakened at 2 AM by continual commotion outside that included horns, sirens, laughing, drums, and singing. I looked out the window to see two adult male Israelis turning cartwheels in the square. One seemed to be trying to teach the other. He was having trouble getting in to it, partly because his kippah kept falling off his head. They seemed very happy. I suspect they had been drinking. Several people were variously milling around or sitting around chatting and laughing. Soon a street cleaning crew came by with a high pressure washing system. He said "Holoo" loudly and 5 seconds later started hosing down everything in sight in the square. If the people around didn't clear out they got sprayed without mercy. Israelis aren't particularly good about following rules. And I thought Americans were rebels. I was amused by this but I would rather have been sleeping.
After coming in at dusk, tired and sick from the heat, I tried to relax and drifted off to sleep. Soon, I began to hear spirited singing coming from outside. I had heard it at other times but it always seemed to come from several blocks away until tonight. I looked out the window to see a group of young Jewish men singing folk songs and dancing. I got conflicting information as to what sect of Judaism these men represented. The were characterized by their black kippahs and their teffilin (the fringes on their garments). Otherwise their dress was very western. But their main characteristic was their enthusiastic expression of joy. They consider it a command from God to be joyful. So they engage in hours long sessions singing Jewish folk songs. I have since seen them at other times staging an impromptu parade down Ben Yehuda street laughing and singing as they go. Usually they sing up tempo songs accompanied by drums with a kind of African beat, a guitar or two and sometimes some wind instruments. As is the Israeli way their music is almost always in a minor key. They sing at the top of their lungs and a smile on their face. Their songs seem to be very repetitive and can last for 20 minutes or more. They join hands in a circle. Their dance step is very simple - just forward left - right, backward left - right. They dance with such abandon that it is a wonder that they don't crash headlong into one another. At times they will change the step to one of simply jumping up and down to the music. At other times, if there are enough dancers in the ring, 2 or 4 of them will step into the ring and do their own ad lib steps to the music. Occasionally they will bump the tempo up a little. And at the end they will often sing the last verse or phrase very slowly, in a type of cadenza. Between songs someone will sometimes launch into a brief speech that appears to be a kind of sermonette. My command of Hebrew is not good enough to catch what is being said, but it is clear that he is talking about the blessings of God. I hear frequent mention of Hashem ( a devout Jew will not pronounce the name of God out of reverence, so he uses this Hebrew expression that mean "The Name"). He will occasionally turn his palms upward and look up as he talks. Then they start another round of singing.
When they begin these impromptu song festivals, they start out with a group of 3 or 4 men. The women do not participate, but they can be seen in the crowd clapping to the music. The men begin singing as they dance in a circle. A crowd gathers and some bystanders clap. Soon another man happens by and the circle opens briefly to take in the newcomer. Again and again the circle swells as newcomers arrive. It seems all very spontaneous and natural. Eventually 15-20 people may be in the group. Finally, they will all sit and sing in a more subdued way. They sing in a very prayerful way this time. Some will even sway forward and backward to the music in that unique nodding posture that many Jews use when they pray. (One story I have heard is that this custom started centuries ago when there were not enough prayerbooks to go around. So the participants would nod in and out in turn to read the words, so the custom stuck).
The infectious good humor of these folks is very appealing. You can't help but feel happy in their presence. If I were wanting to convert to Judaism (which I am not, by the way), and I were surveying the field of Jewish sects, I would certainly be attracted to these habitually happy people.
In fact, I would characterize the Israeli people as a whole as happy and perhaps a little more innocent and affectionate than westerners. It was not uncommon to see teen age boys holding hands with their brothers or cousins. After all they at last are in control of their own land. Their level of liberty is as great if not greater than our own. And especially noticeable is the lack of violent crime. Even a woman can walk anywhere at night without fear of harm. Though petty theft is common, violent crime is almost unknown. The exception is occasional terrorism. This is the part that we always see in the media. After all, peace, happiness and human kindness are not news. This gives an unbalanced picture. There are certain politically sensitive areas where fear of terrorism is greater. It caused such shock waves throughout the country when Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by a religious Jew. Such an act by a Jew against his own is unthinkable here.
Looking out my window here at the hotel, I see all kinds of people. I see wide differences in manner of dress and custom, reflecting the tremendous variety of religious and political points of view. There are people here from many different cultures, Jews from Russia, India, England, and Falashas from Ethiopia.
The Falashas claim to be descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. They have practiced a brand of Judaism throughout the centuries that differs slightly from more conventional forms. They are the darkest of all the Jews in Israel, resembling the people from India, though they are usually taller and thinner. They always have such a neat and clean appearance and a radiant countenance. Unfortunately, there are those in Israel who feel these fine people are not legitimate Jews and they give them a hard time.
Well, I am in a much better mood now. I've eaten and rested and been around a bunch of happy people. I'll get a good nights sleep now and see what tomorrow brings.
(C) copyright 1998 by Wayne Simpson Distributed by: Biblical Research Foundation 629 Lexington Road Sapulpa, OK 74066
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