Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Shalom from Israel

Dinner last night was exquisite. We arrived early to find our names on place cards at an intimate table for five. Our gracious host, Franck, the General Manager, was dashing in his formal wear. I forgot to ask him what all his stripes meant, but hopefully we'll have another opportunity to talk.

During the evening we discovered he was good friends with our friends...they were wonderful “next door neighbors” on our first world cruise. This lovely couple “tied the knot” on a repeat Alaskan cruise on the Mariner, where they first met, years earlier. What a fabulous love story! Franck managed every detail of their onboard wedding, including painstakingly painting the petals of every purple orchid white so that the bride could have the all-white flowers she dreamed of on her special day. They stop at nothing to make every guest happy and Franck embodies that philosophy.

Shalom from Israel.

After a quick meet with immigration this morning, we nestled into our comfy van. Today's excursion was like a private tour with only seven other guests joining us for a day into the desert. No trip out of the city of Haifa is complete without driving past Ikea as we wound our way up into the mountains for our first stop in the city of Safed, an artist colony tucked away in an old city with an even older synagogue founded by the famed Rabbi Caro, who would have been old, had he not passed away at the tender age of 35. Had he lived, our guide assured us, the Rabbi would have changed Judaism forever because he was so mystical and influential. We walked through the tiny building while rapt young men listened to a talk by their teacher. It was a bustling place protected by a languid young gent with a mighty powerful rifle laying casually across his lap. He smoked and checked his phone while people like us invaded the sacred space....the nozzle of his weapon was pointed directly at me! I was nonplussed.

Then it was time to walk uphill again...just because. Uphill we went in the rain over slippery cobblestone streets. Once uphill, we went trudged up some more. Finally, we walked downhill past very interesting looking galleries, but when we were finally given some free time, we had already passed the best looking stores. I am sure this money saving measure was preplanned by the gentleman on our tour.

Back into our van for the most interesting and fun part of the day. Through upper and lower Galilee, through a desert with rocky terrain, past centuries old olive trees with thick branches and gnarled trunks, inches from the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan in a sand storm so thick it was nearly impossible to see a few feet in front of you. The wind was fierce and it rocked the van back and forth as we drove over mountain roads, threatening to push us off the hairpin turns. This drive was more harrowing than the thought of any wayward rocket finding our vehicle, but incredibly fun.

We parked at our next stop, the kibbutz. Our host, Joel, was one of its founders 40 years ago. This seemingly socialist community in the desert was established on a former Syrian command post. Joel immigrated from New York City and except for his heavily callused feet, he looked like he just ran out for an espresso in the Bronx.

Lunch was delicious and their hospitality was generous. Chicken, turkey, meatballs, knishes, vegetables, soups and salads rounded out the robust meal. We bussed our own trays and took a brief tour past the family compounds, the dairy farm with a huge herd of cows and along paths with crushed olives that had been stomped on rather than carefully gathered. A building stood alone...stark with one door, a vault handle, room for a single large key and a tumbler that could spin out the correct numbers in the right hands. This was the weapons storage room and across the sidewalk was the bunker which had originally belonged to the Syrians, but would be a safe haven for the Israelis is necessary. All of this land overlooked the Sea of Galilee. It would have been magnificent view on a clear day.

We drove the circumference of the Sea of Galilee today, catching sight of the tall grasses that Jesus must have walked through. This was the place of his ministry where miracles were performed and people gathered to listen to his words. Our historic drive took us to the site of his baptism at a grotto in the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a lake, but for 2,000 years, it's been called a sea. Don't ask --- as I shrug my shoulders).

The site of Jesus' baptism is a mecca for people from all over the world. They put on white shrouds in the dressing rooms; gather side-by-side to pray; they play guitars and sing in groups. These are pilgrimages with tears, rejoicing and many very wet people who don't mind the chill in the air and their soaking wet bodies. Hundreds are baptized there every day, centuries later following in the footsteps of Jesus. It was very moving.

Tomorrow we'll be up and out by 7:00 am to begin day two in Jerusalem. Peace everyone, from this holy land.
IKEA- Haifa,Israel

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