Monthly Archives: January 2010

Blind Photography

I want to interrupt these stories about Israel to show you guys this awesome slideshow I saw this morning on the BBC:

Please view this link and watch the whole slideshow. It will blow your mind, even if you only have an inkling of interest in photography.  The photos in that slideshow were all taken by visually impaired photographers who were given the assignment of capturing their sensory experience on film.  Thus, the resulting photographs become visual representations of what the blind experience.  While initially the idea of blind photography may raise an eyebrow or two, the photographs in this slideshow produce stunning compositions delighting the eyes as well as the other senses the images evoke.  Personally, the slideshow opened my eyes, so to speak, to the idea that photography can evoke far more than simply a visual response.  Just as good writing could make the reader identify with sounds, smells and feelings, good photography likewise can draw a viewer into a holistic sensory experience.  Who would have thought that capturing an image might require shutting one’s eyes?


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Bethlehem Fail

Safe to say, it was the strangest Christmas of our lives.  I’m still in disbelief that Christmas happened at all, actually.  The irony, of course, was that we were in the very spot of Jesus’ birth, so you’d think that the authenticity would add to the celebratory atmosphere.  Think again.

I don’t mean to complain.  It’s just that we worked so hard to get there.  I thought Bethlehem would be the highlight of the trip.  Granted, it still might have been, if only we had received trustworthy help earlier on.  The way to do Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, as we lamentably found out after the fact, is to sign up with a group a head of time—a group with its own bus, with its own service, its own system.  Doing it solo, as we did, failed miserably.

Some background:  The West Bank is broken up into different territories governed and protected by either the Israelis or the Palestinians. Bethlehem currently belongs to the Palestinians, meaning the land sits behind an enormous barbed wired wall and is guarded by countless numbers of armed soldiers.  Given this political situation, going to Bethlehem as a tourist seems more than slightly daunting.  The Frommers Guide didn’t even include any West Bank Cities in the book.  In reality, there likely would be little danger to tourists, and all it means is taking out your passport another time and pretending like the guns don’t bother you.  But on Christmas Eve there were even more guns than usual.  And the picture I had in my head of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, well, had no guns, to say the least.

Our troubles began when the American Express Concierge Service told us about Protestant services in the Shepherd’s Fields on Christmas Eve outside Bethlehem.  That sounded too cool to pass up.  What authenticity to experience!  I now wish we had given up when American Express sent us info on churches in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  But, alas, we looked past this and pushed forward.  We called tourism offices.  We called churches.  We called the YMCA.  No one seemed to know what we were talking about (even though all of these places did, in fact, lead their own groups).  Few people even seemed to take an interest in our question.  It was not until Christmas Eve when we finally reached the Christian Tourist Office in Jerusalem that we found out these services did in fact exist but we were too late to sign up for them.  Here was another place we should have given up, and didn’t.  We asked the lady there if there were protestant services in English in Bethlehem for which we could just show up and get a seat.  She said there was: St. George’s Church, right next to the Church of the Nativity, had a service at 11:00pm.  Awesome, I thought.  Finally, a breakthrough: we would be able to go to Bethlehem after all.  More than this, the Ministry of Tourism had free buses that shuttled people across the border.

Oh Fate, how fickle you are.

We waited 45 minutes for this free bus.  Fortunately there were other people waiting in that dark parking lot so we knew we weren’t in the wrong place.  I wish we had been.   Finally it came, we boarded, and five minutes later we were at the Bethlehem wall—huge, concrete, and imposing.  Surly men with grimaces and guns were there to greet us.  The bus let us off on the side of a busy roundabout and it was at this point I was happy I had bought a map earlier that day.  The Church of the Nativity turned out to be a 20 minute walk away up a series of hills and past hundreds of loitering young men who stared at us as we past by.  Some of them yelled out, “Maydee Chreestmas!” which seemed festive on the one hand, though I couldn’t help but feel that they probably had no idea what that meant.  As we walked, I remembered that scene from It’s a Wonderful Life when George is running through Bedford Falls when it had transformed into a Godless place with flashing neon lights above the gambling houses and Girls Girls Girls Dance halls and drinking in the streets.  I felt Bethlehem had taken a similar turn as Bedford Falls.  All was dark except for the giant plastic Santa Claus statues lighted up outside the tourist shops where older Palestinian men stood waiting for sucker customers.  The buildings were worn and shoddy. There was barbed wire everywhere.  There were so few women.  Up and up we went to get to the Church of the Nativity in the center of town where we had heard there would be a projection of the service shown on screens outside the building for the people who couldn’t fit inside.  When we finally made it past the throngs of people and armed police, we discovered not a peaceful church service but a raucous rock concert with a loud band singing in Arabic.  The place was packed and surrounded by machine guns.  We circled the square looking for St. George’s church.  We vaguely saw a sign for St George through the hoards of people and we headed toward it. After great difficulty, we made it to that corner, where we made the unfortunate discovery that St. Georges was a restaurant, not a church.  A protestant service in English…a hope that faded very quickly.

We continued circling around the crowd, dodging between smoky exhales and trying hard to stay together.  We moved over towards the church of the Nativity to see if there was any hope of getting in, if not to stay for the service, then just to look at the place.  But by the time we got over there, we found ourselves face to face with machine guns as policemen pushed the crowd back into itself trying to make room for cars that needed to pass through.  I stood there with no where to go, and my younger siblings there beside me, all three of us unable to tear our eyes away from the weapons.  Merry Christmas indeed.

It was time to give up.  Actually, that time came long before, but this was the moment we chose to finally turn around.  We went back to where the bus had dropped us off.  Along the walk I tried to make light of the situation, and reworded the tune to Oh Little Town of Bethlehem to make it go something like this:

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, beneath your bright neon lights,

In darkened streets, cops pack big heat,

And tourists run in fright.

Folks were only slightly amused.  I prayed, wondering if we had missed God’s signs not to come.  I knew immediately upon having this thought that it is futile to think of those what ifs.  I felt God telling me, no need to dwell upon what could have been if only.

We made it back to the drop off point by the busy traffic circle.  There we waited watching the stampede of cars and buses honk their way through the mass.  We all wondered whether the bus would return at all.

As we sat there, a thought occurred to me, a thought that changed everything.  I wondered at that moment if any one in history had ever seen Bethlehem lie still.  Was it really a deep and dreamless sleep with silent stars going by, the night that Christ was born?  I doubt it.  There was no room at the inn.  That means the place was crowded with all the folks returning home for the Roman census, just as Joseph was doing with his bride.  Joseph and Mary faced rejection and great discomfort in Bethlehem, though indubitably much worse than the upset we experienced.  They had no where to go, no friendly face to care for them.  Talk about a moment for going into labor.  Though I have no personal experience with this as of yet, in my understanding, nothing about childbirth is terribly peaceful.  The true Christmas was probably truly chaotic.  Perhaps we have developed so great of a misrepresentation of that glorious night that we completely forget the desolate and humble circumstances by which Christ made his introduction to the world.  For goodness sake, Mary had no choice but to lay her newborn in a feeding trough for lack of a better, and cleaner, place to put him.  I feel this realness, the grittiness, of the first Christmas is crucial to remember, for it is precisely his humble origins that magnify the miracle of Christ’s immaculate human existence.  For after all, which is the more glorious: a king constantly dwelling in comfort, or a king emerging from poverty? Strangely enough our wretched trip to Bethlehem helped me see this.  We came to share in some of Christ’s experiences, and that may be precisely what we got through Bethlehem’s mayhem.  It is possible that, in a small way, our excursion on Christmas Eve might be a more authentic Christmas experience than we might have realized.  God’s funny like that sometimes.

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The Fortress of Nimrod

When you were a kid, did you ever imagine yourself discovering an ancient castle?  Did you make believe you reached the peak of a mountain to find yourself amidst the overgrown remains of an ancient fortress?  And in this dream, did you come across darkened stairways, secret chambers, and any number of lookout points?  Did you look out and see miles and miles of beautiful land stretching out in all directions?

Well, bust out that inner child, because these things really exist.

Nimrod Fortress

The day we went north to see Caesarea Philippi, we thought it might be cool to follow the Frommer’s Guide advice and make another stop at the Nimrod Fortress.  In ancient times, the road to Damascus went right below it, making it a very strategic place to have a fortress, or at least, both the crusaders and Muslim caliphs thought so.  As we drove up the hill toward the magnificent stone remains of the fortress, I imagined trying to storm the castle, running up that huge hill under fire of flaming arrows raining down on top of me from beyond the walls of the fortress. Intimidating much?  Up and up we climbed, switching back and forth on hairpin turns until finally we reached the entrance to the national park.   “The view is worth it,” the book said. This turned out to be a great understatement. Nimrod Fortress stood at the top of an enormous hill with a 360 degree view of the Promised Land.  The air was cool and dry and the whole place smelled sweet. Across the valley you could hear bells ringing from around the necks of distant sheep—you could barely make out their little white figures as they traversed the rugged terrain.  The whirring of a gentle breeze flowed past our ears.  We could barely stop staring at the vastness of the view.

A Fortress with a View

On a side note, we worried in planning this trip that there might be bad weather if we went to Israel in the winter.  It only rained twice on our whole trip, and one of those was at night so that doesn’t really count.  Temperatures never got too cold or too hot—I’ve rarely had such pleasant tourism as far as the weather was concerned.  We soon realized December is a fantastic time to visit this country because so few other people do!  We rarely if ever waited in lines to see the sights; I could barely believe our good fortune.  I knew that coming at any other time of year we likely would have been constantly fighting crowds, not to mention blistering heat.  We experienced neither problem on our trip. In the entirety of Nimrod Fortress we probably saw a total of four other people, so for most of it, we really felt as though we could have very well been discovering it for the first time.  We felt like Indiana Jones.  I’m going to need a hat and a whip if I ever get to do something like that again.

Do you remember that scene in Prince Caspian when the Pevensie Children discover the ruins of Cair Paravel?  In case you don’t, time in Narnia is faster than time on Earth, which means that when you leave Narnia, Narnian years speed by without you noticing.  So when the children returned to their home castle they found it had been 1300 Narnian years since they had left, though for them it had only been a year.  The whole castle was overgrown with moss and shrubs and some gnarly trees sprouting out from the piles of white stones.  Nimrod’s Fortress looked so similar to that scene my Narnia fanaticism flared up so I was like a Trekkie meeting Patrick Stewart.

Unlike so many of the other archeological finds in Israel, Nimrod Fortress stands out because so much of it is still in tact.  There were whole rooms that were still going strong with impressive engineering of enormously weighty stones.  More than this, we found darkened staircases and tunnels, which, of course, we never hesitated to explore.  And not just staircases, but twirly staircases…can you believe it?  The rule was, if it’s a dark tunnel of stone, go down it.  I had to keep pressing on my camera flash to see where I was going.  The tunnels led out to many look-out rooms with slots in the stone where, I surmise, guards used to man watch posts.  We made sure to explore every possible opportunity for secret chambers.

The fortress stretches along an ascending ridgeline, so we gradually made our way up to the taller end, taking our time exploring the various rooms along the way.  In one of the chambers we saw a huge column in the center that curved outward at the top to form five points which turned downward to five pointed windows.  It completely boggled my mind thinking of what it must have been like to carve all that stone so perfectly as to create that effect, and to have it standing millennia later.

At one point in our visit I turned around and discovered my brother was no longer behind me.  I went back to see where he could have gone.  There was a secondary path leading down around the opposite side of the castle.  I figured he must have gone down there, but I couldn’t see him.  I called out his name.  I will never forget seeing my brother’s head emerge from a crevice in the side of that castle with a huge smile.

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Israel, a Natural Paradise, Part I

Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming

“Israel is a five-trip place,” says my learned father.  “You just can’t see everything in one trip.”  This sage advice proved true for us this Christmas.  Though we did manage to see a great deal of the country as it is only the approximate size of New Jersey, we didn’t come close to ever saying, ‘been there, done that.’  Thing is, we could have done the trip a number of ways.  I planned the itinerary to try to have a little bit of everything: some history, some nature sight seeing, though mostly a Christian pilgrimage to get a better sense of biblical places.  But it could have been quite different.  We could have done it solely from a Biblical perspective, trying to track down all of the places where one can see the remnants of biblical times.  We could have focused on a broader history, touring the many, many archeological sites that cover the whole country.  We could have taken a tour that guides you on foot along the path that Jesus took during his three years of ministry.  As you can see, there are many ways in which you can “do” Israel.  But one of the prettiest ways most assuredly would be to explore Israel’s many natural wonders.

Because there are so many historical, sociological, and religious reasons to visit Israel, it surprised me greatly that the landscapes alone would be worth the visit.  The stunning views began as soon as the plane flew over the bright blue Mediterranean coast.  Shades of blue turned into white foam crashing onto long sandy stretches.  Palm trees and fields surrounded Tel Aviv in a sea of green.  From the airport, we rented a car and travelled north up to the remains of Caesarea along the coast.  While the remains of Roman theaters, ports, and stadiums were fascinating, our attention kept drifting towards the mighty waters that crashed up against the ancient stone harbor with waves leaping thirty feet into the air.  This aquatic display continued all the way north to Akko, where we spent the night with the window open, listening to the water as it lulled us to sleep.


The next day we drove across the country to Tiberias across rolling hills of farmland.  Olive trees sprung up in patches of orchard across the hillsides.  The sun darted in an out of enormous cumulous clouds, casting gigantic shadows over the valleys, which in turn gave new tangibility to the 23rd Psalm (Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me.)  We got really excited, by the way, whenever we saw sheep.  On the other side of the range, we began a long decent down to the Sea of Galilee.  We turned off the road and drove up a long driveway to the top of the Mount of Beatitudes, the hill where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount.  Atop the hill nowadays is a Catholic church with the beatitudes written on its wall.  The church, however, was nothing compared to the view.  The hill is now a huge garden, with roses and juniper and palm trees framing the blue water of the Sea of Galilee below.  The sun shone low and golden that day.  The air smelled sweet and a light breeze caressed our skin.  We sat on a ledge looking at the view while our dad read us the Sermon on the Mount.

View from the Mount of Beatitudes

The next day we visited several more sights around the Sea of Galilee.  We saw ruins of churches and synagogues in Capernaum, and the monastery at Tabgha (where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand men), but it was not the structures that captured our interests.  Hills covered in green grass, colorful flowers, and rocks tumbled down to the water’s shores.   The water lay still as glass with haze floating above it, glowing in the direct sun.  The temperature must have been a perfect 72 F.  Never in my life could I ever remember visiting so peaceful a place.  I could have sat by that water all day.  This was also the place, for your information, where we took pictures of ourselves “walking” on the water.  Let’s say it was a When In Rome situation.

Dan walks on water

The following day we traveled north up toward Dan.  Here we toured the region known in the bible as Caesarea Philippi, though known otherwise as Panias in Greek or Banias in Arabic.  Once again, the archeological remains both fascinated and inspired, but, once again, the beauty of the area was equally if not more impressive.  The whole area, with its babbling brooks, waterfalls, and hills that grow into mountains—it all looked exactly like what I always pictured the Promised Land to be.  I don’t know where I had gotten this image into my head, but what I saw matched it perfectly.  The Banias Spring, one of the three main sources of the Jordan River, flowed out from underneath a monumental rock face.  Erosion had created for the spring a tall cavern, and inside reflected light from the water danced all over the mossy walls.  It was easy to tell why Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Muslims all worshipped here, for the natural beauty of the place and the phenomenon—water flowing from rock—certainly suggest divine cause.

Where's the Milk and Honey?

The Promised Land

I have much more to tell, but it is bed time, so I will break here.  Part II is on the way.

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Hey Look, More History!

Caesarea Philippi

At Caesarea Philippi, the following transpired…

Dad: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

Em: “Wait, which rock?”

Meg, pointing at the gravel: “Um, that one.”

There were a lot of moments like that on the trip.

How do we know?  How can we know which spot is the real spot where, as my sister put it, something “Jesusy” happened?  Around the Sea of Galilee, the problem was not too frustrating, because, well, it’s a pretty big lake, hard to mistake it for anything else.  But in many of the other sites, well, let’s just say it took a lot of imagination.  In fact, one of the audio guide narrators had us standing in front of the southwest corner of the Temple Mount when he said, “Now, in order to complete the next part of the tour, we will have to use man’s greatest tool, the imagination!”  It was so hard it was funny.  The Temple Mount, however, probably was one of the places where we struggled the least to employ our imagination.  In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher we had a much harder time.  Supposedly, this is the spot of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, but you’d never know it as the whole place is coated in mosaics, candles, and precious metals.  And how do we know that is the real place?  Well, it is likely it all happened around that area.  Within the church you can climb a set of stairs on top of a rock which is, according to tradition, is the rock of Golgotha, The Skull.  Granted, a skull shaped rock would be convincing evidence.  But still, how can we know? If I’m not mistaken, this site was decided upon as THE site by Constantine’s mom, Helen.  It has been the traditional spot ever since.  This is where my Protestant eyebrow raises a bit.

Golgotha, apparently

“Man,” sighed my sister, “They just plopped down a church anywhere a Jesusy thing happened.”  It’s kinda true. At Tabgha is a monastery marking the spot on which Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes.  As lovely and peaceful as the place is, how are we supposed to imagine 12000 people eating a huge picnic provided out of thin air?  I came to see what Jesus saw, not what a monk built hundreds of years afterward.

While sometimes a holy site had a building where there wasn’t one, other sites showed off desolation where there once was something.  Many of the sites we saw were to the untrained eye simply a pile of rocks.  But these rocks are markers, grave stones in a mountainous mausoleum, the tombs of multiple civilizations, one right after the other, all of them build successively on top of each other.  At Megiddo, the site where Armageddon will occur, there was a tel, or a mound where a city used to be.  This tel, however, was particularly interesting as mounds of earth go, since, according to UChicago archeologists, it houses the remains of more than 30 separate cities.  Egyptians, Israelites, Persians, Babylonians, Romans…the list is huge.  Now, imagine that. Go! I dare you to try.  Personally, I couldn’t even begin to wrap my brain around it.


There were a few places where you really could see what Jesus saw.  Kursi is an area on the eastern shore of Galilee where Jesus rescued the demoniac and sent the demons into the herd of doomed pigs.  Even today you can see the hills where the pigs might have been living, and the cliffs over which they might have met their demise.  In the hills were caves where the demonic was said to have lived.  In my opinion, this kind of site resonates much more strongly than a church marking a spot  (though, as you can see in the photo below, there are the remains of a Byzantine church at Kursi).  In this case, you really can walk in Jesus’s footsteps.

Megala at Kursi,

The Hill of Doomed Swine

Next time I go to Israel, I want to take with me a Messianic Jewish archeologist pastor.  One of them would really help.

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There and Back Again, A Pilgrim’s Tale

Jesus's Footsteps

Happy New Year!  Merry Christmas!  I write to you now from a jet lagged stupor, prepared to report my findings on our pilgrimage to Israel, presented in installments over the next few days.  Now that I am outside of Israel, where I can speak freely and not pay a fortune for internet, I am at liberty to write; sorry for the hiatus in my posts.

I made a series of several other observations over the course of the trip.  Here are a few:

1) Israel smells nice, to begin with.  Though occasionally city sewers set undesirables adrift the air, where the land smells nice, it is really nice.  Some form of sweetness I had never before beheld, noticeable even the moment we stepped off the plane.  We wondered why American airports can’t make themselves smell like anything except nauseating engine exhaust.

2) Apparently, I have never had hummus before.  Or at least real hummus.  Israeli hummus is some kind of wonderful in both texture and flavor.  I could really go for some right now.  I want to learn how to make it.

3) The rule for children in this country seems to be thus:  If your child screams, let him.  It’s not like he’s bothering anyone. Ahem.

4) Everything costs extra.  So few things came free over the course of our trip I found myself accidentally giving folks dirty looks if they asked for even two shekels. I felt bad about this afterward, to be sure. But that’s two shekels to go to the bathroom.  I’ve been in other countries where they charged for the toilets, and I didn’t like it then either.  Granted, I once paid to use a toilet in Sienna that didn’t even have a toilet seat, so that is definitely worse.  But in Israel, every attraction and museum had an admission fee that seemed more expensive than it ought to be.  Every hotel came with hidden fees, charging us ridiculous amounts for internet or to use the gym or the phone.  So if you charge me for the toilet on top of all this, sorry if I get a bit miffed.

5) I was floored by the beauty and natural diversity of the country. I plan on expounding on this subject in a later installment, but for now suffice it to say that despite the fact that Israel is pretty much the size of New Jersey, it encompasses the range of ecosystems and natural wonders of a much larger area, and smells better than New Jersey to boot!

6) So many places in Israel stand out to me as some of the most peaceful spots I’ve ever visited.  It struck me as tragic that so peaceful a place could be the site of so many wars.

7) Breakfast in Israel became a daily conundrum.  When breakfast came with our hotel, it would usually consist of a buffet of raw vegetables.  There were usually some other things like eggs, white bread, and cheese, but mostly it was vegetables.  No fruit, just salad.  Salad for breakfast.  I don’t mean to sound culturally insensitive, but raw peppers just don’t go down so well in the morning.

8) Floating in the Dead Sea feels like what I imagine a canoe feels as it skims the top of the water.  I was once a canoe, though briefly.

9) Eucalyptus trees of Israel smell drastically different than those of the American west coast.  I don’t know why I think this is remarkable.

10) They have camel crossing signs.  How awesome is that!?! And I did see camels.

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