Saturday, August 28, 2010

25 Days in August - Diary of a family's journey in the Holyland

(Participants: Husband, wife and four daughters ages 16, 14, 11 and 5)


DAY 1-2, Wednesday & Thursday
It's been an exciting and exhausting 48 hours. Our day in Amsterdam was full, arriving at 7 am, taking the train into town, at the Anne Frank House by 9 am (where there was already a line-up at the entrance?), lunch at a cafe, a canal cruise followed by a walk through the red light district. The centre of the city was mobbed with tourists. We were happy to leave. We arrived in Jerusalem this morning at 3:30 am. The sleep-deprived five year old screamed at the top of her lungs refusing to enter. As with all Jerusalem apartments the name of the inhabiting family is identified on the front door. In the case of our apartment the artful ceramic nameplate says The Haber Family (the people we are renting from.) Next door is The Meir Family who also have a sticker on their door proclaiming the imminent coming of the messiah. If tonight's 3 in the morning hysterical entrance is any indication, the Meirs will soon despise the Habers. The apartment is a nice surprise with plenty of room, renovated kitchen and two bathrooms. The mattresses look tolerable. And there is air-conditioning. We had to sleep off half the day to recover from jet lag. This evening we're going to explore the neighbourhood.

DAY 3 - Friday
Today, our first full day in Jerusalem, the wife and I took the kids on an excursion to the ultra-orthodox hasidic enclave Mea Shearim. I don't know what we were thinking. Big signs on the neighbourhood's border warn gawkers that Mea Shearim is not a tourist attraction and that their presence is not be appreciated. I guess we simply couldn't imagine that a woman accompanied by her five year old daughter would be harrassed. We were wrong. The girls were dressed appropriately, or so we thought; shoulders covered and skirts below the knee, in spite of the upper-thirties temperature. Not fifteen minutes after entering the main street of the delapidated, crowded 17th century shtetl-like neighbourhood a flying object crossed my field of vision and struck our eleven year old daughter in the shoulder. I looked up thinking that perhaps something had fallen from a balcony overhanging the street. Then an assailant, a black-coated, fur-hatted hasid leapt forward from the shadows and spat at my wife and the two younger kids. He turned to the fourteen year old and me trailing behind and tried more spitting, but couldn't muster adequate saliva, shouting Tetzei mikan! (Leave here!). The eleven year old screamed, more out of shock than physical injury, and the five year old started bawling. No one else in the crowded street reacted or seemed to hear the wailing of our children. It was as if we were invisible. We looked for an escape route in vain. All the connecting streets went further in to the quarter and the only way out was to backtrack. We sought momentary refuge in a corner. Then suddenly a crash! A water bomb had been hurled at us and exploded against the wall. I caught sight of the same hasid ducking into a side alleyway with a water bucket in hand. A passing cab (as if on cue - I'm quite sure he makes it his regular route) showed up to whisk us away to Machane Yehuda (Jerusalem's main food market) where we joined the throngs doing their Sabbath shopping. In the cab, our fourteen year old remarked that she never imagined when she came to Israel that she would be attacked by Jews.

DAY 4 - Shabbat
We trekked twenty minutes from the apartment across the Valley of the Cross up to the newly renovated Israel Museum. By the time we arrived at the museum the faces of the fourteen and eleven year old were purple from overheating (the five year old rode in a stroller). Jerusalem reached 41 by noontime. Even if the museum wasn't absolutely magnificent, which it is, the price of admission would have been worth the full blast air-conditioning. The museum is an endless array of rooms filled with art and archaeological treasures. The best news of all - hasids stay away from museums on Shabbat.

DAY 5 - Sunday
Yesterday was officially the hottest day of the year in Israel according to the news. In some parts like Eilat and Tiberius the thermometer reached a mindboggling 55. It is now apparent that we arrived in Israel at the beginning of a heat wave. We decided to spend the day at the beach in Tel-Aviv 50 kms away. Israel's metropolis is a bustling city and Jerusalem's secular opposite. The trip was a bit of a shlep (bus-bus-bus each way, six in total) and we got a late start, but we were on the beach by about noon. The public beach is wide and uncrowded and the sand fine. What shocked us was how disgustingly dirty the water was, with little bits of paper and clear plastic rolling in the surf like jellyfish. Leaving the water you felt a coat of slime covering your body. Later, it was reported that a ship offshore had dumped a load of trash polluting the Tel-Aviv shoreline. In the evening we walked up and down Dizingoff and had dinner at a place on the beach famous for their crushed ice fruit smoothies. Tel-Aviv has the character of a lively, rambunctious, progressive city that does not take itself too seriously. A refreshing change from Jerusalem. One has the sense that the two city's are like siblings of the same parents who resent each other and don't talk. Jerusalem the elder and more needy sibling getting the lion's share of parental attention while Tel-Aviv the younger child works and grows and makes it on its own. Oddly, it felt safer to be in Tel-Aviv.

DAY 6 - Monday
Today the wife and I decided to take it easy on the kids after yesterdays long day of shlepping them to Tel-Aviv and back on public transportation. A late start and leisurely walk to the Old City Arab market for souvenir purchases. I had some personal business to take care of at the Wailing Wall - notes for good health and blessings given to me by friends and work colleagues to slip in the cracks. Temps were in the upper 30s. In the Old City I was approached for donations not less than a dozen times; I have started counting. We exited through Zion Gate and climbed the road, arriving at a lookout where you can view the anti-terrorism partition that separates the Arab towns of the west bank from Israel proper. I said to myself, that wall is the one I should be praying at and kissing.

DAY 7 - Tuesday
Another absurdly hot day. Neither the five year old nor the eleven year old left the air-conditioned apartment all day. The five year old discovered that her favourite tv show characters from back home in Canada, Bunnytown and Handy Manny, also speak Hebrew. When I asked her how she understood the shows, she answered "I understand the pictures." The wife and fourteen year old went for a walk in the neighbourhood. At some point, the wife stopped a man for directions. He invited her into his car to get a lift, and then, in the company of our fourteen year old, shamelessly propositioned my wife (I'm almost surprised he didn't proposition the fourteen year old too.) That's twice so far the wife has been propositioned in six days - more score-keeping (one score card for the wife getting propositioned, one score card for the number of times I get approached for a donation.) I'd had enough of shlepping around on public transportation in the heat and decided that afternoon to book a rental car. I went to pick the car up in the evening; a brand new Mazda 3 with a total of 4 kms showing on the odometer. I barely averted my first accident on the way back to the apartment when I misread the lane assignments and traffic signals turning left. I was corrected by a chorus of honks, and one taxi driver who was kind enough to verbally let me know through his open window where I rank on the intelligence scale of our God-chosen tribe.

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