A sentimental journey

The socio-economic distance between old Nazareth and old Safed appears much closer than in years past

sentimental metro 88 298 (photo credit: )
sentimental metro 88 298
(photo credit: )
My son, daughter and I recently did a three-day trip to the north of Israel, revisiting similar tiyulim of 45 years ago. In August, 1962, we American students in the Hebrew University's one-year program were taken in two swerving, hot and sticky buses up the coastal road to the Galilee. We sang the whole way - old and new Israeli tunes, American spirituals and songs of the late US-born Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (who had just cut his first album). At the end of that year, just before we left the country, a friend and I with a younger Israeli cousin went hitchhiking up the same coastal road, catching rides in the back of pick-ups or large kibbutz trucks. Now my children and I drove up the Jordan Valley in a rental car, with the air-conditioning on, listening to CDs labeled "For Yom Atzmaut," "Simon & Garfunkel," "klezmer" - and "Carlebach." In the 20 years of living here, in and near Jerusalem, I've not permitted myself more than one-day outings or a Shabbat away. Therefore, on this trip the changes and likenesses since the early sixties stand out. We turn off for Beit Alpha to see the mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue, which was revealed after my girlhood years. Inside the covered installation an explanatory film presents Zippori as another example of the fusion of the pagan zodiac design of this floor with the Jewish symbols bordering it. When I was young, excavations and their visitors were unprotected from the sun, and for explanations we relied on our unflappable guide, who wove quotations from the Bible into his talk. On the last morning of this tour my son and I walk about the archaeological finds at Zippori - which had also not yet been discovered in my time. Tagging behind a group of American students touring there too, we listen to their Israeli guide's explanations and quotations from ancient texts. And we see the resemblances to Beit Alpha's contrasting symbols. On the plaza before the named tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba'al HaNes, jarring music blares from booths featuring tchachkes. My tiyul-experienced children say it wasn't this way a few years ago. Inside, my daughter and I can still find a quiet corner near other women absorbed in Psalms and private meditations. In the hallway a thoughtful donor provides plates of cookies and pitchers of cool drink for weary travelers. Hospitality was rife in the old Galilee too. At Kibbutz Lavi we were offered a vacant veteran's dwelling - very small, but preferable to the tzrifim (wooden shanties) with outside common showers that kibbutzim once had for newcomers and visitors. (Guesthouses opened later and tzimmerim [bungalows] have proliferated since.) The next morning we hitched a ride with the kibbutz children to the Kinneret. Coming down from the tomb to the edge of the Kinneret, we too want a quick dip. Yet slipping and sliding on the rocks at the shoreline I wonder if my memory cells are also slipping, since I don't recall that getting into the lake was so difficult. Surely my legs aren't less agile! Maybe my balance is a bit more precarious, because I'm "twice the woman I used to be?" Neither my tottering limbs nor memories are helped by the ringing cellphone, which I must dig out of my bag, although I'm about to smash into the rock-strewn water. I tell my boss that I really can't speak right now, close the phone and annoyingly ask my daughter, (who has lithely gotten into the lake for a swim way ahead of me), "Were these stones always here?" She laughs. Safed had always been a study in contrasts, where the spiritual quality of hassidut and its mystical kabbalistic ancestors infused the artistry of moderns. The shul of the Ari is as it was. But the artists? Surely there are creative, talented individualists somewhere in Safed - in cool and airy galleries with tastefully arranged works. Now, in what they still call the "artists' colony," visitors jostle each other by identical stalls that display a profusion of gaudy wares. I recall the shuk of old Nazareth. Some of our student group, fresh from the civil rights movement in the US, insisted that we tour Arab towns and villages. The principals and mayors who greeted us had platters of fresh fruit and hot and cold beverages ready. They spoke not just politely, but effusively of the beneficence of the Israeli authorities, though taken aback by provocative questions from our students who asked about curfews and travel limitations imposed on them by army restrictions. We could not replay this scene today, for so many reasons. Now we drive through old Nazareth, but cannot find the shuk. Our car is slowed by the gridlock of vehicles trying to pass through narrow store-lined streets thick with pedestrians. There's nary a donkey cart in sight, nor anybody anywhere in the Galilee, purchasing live chickens for their dinner. But McDonalds? My son points out the sign in Arabic. This is admittedly a superficial tour. Materialism, though, distinctly protrudes through the surface, for good and ill, and the socio-economic distance between old Nazareth and old Safed appears much closer than in years past. Away from it all at the Tel Dan nature reserve, we walk along shady, well-designated trails which include a considerate handicapped-accessible route. We pass a number of visitors and school tours. Many years ago we girls were pleased with ourselves for having hitched rides this far, to the then-northernmost point of Israel. We were the only visitors among the tall trees on the day we arrived. Further north, in the Golan, one can be enthralled by the vast pristine bucolic beauty and rusticity, unmediated by the commercial. That is, unless one sees a commercial element to "kayaking" down the Jordan. We arrive at the entrance of a rugged trail, but the young woman at the gate won't admit us. "In this heat? With Ima, 'hamevugeret! (old),'" she scolds my son, as if to say, "Perish the thought of a serious hike with your Old Mama!" She directs us instead to the spring waters that splash down to the Mei Eden bottling plant. Sitting by the edge of a pool, my feet dangling in its coolness, I secretly bless her. As our car climbs up the Hermon, I comment on the rough, craggy aspect of the mountainside. "Where is little Switzerland?" We find it among the wild flowers and vegetation at the top, and again on the way down, by the herd of cattle crossing the road in front of our car. A couple of them pause to stare tranquilly straight at the camera. In the old days the Golan showed another face. When our buses stopped at Kibbutz Degania in August 1963, we heard the thunder of mortar shells from the Syrian heights above. We watched plumes of smoke where they struck the fields, and the pathetic Israeli responses which couldn't be lobbed more than half-way up. "Why bother?" we asked our guide. "The Syrians are saying 'We're here,'" he answered coolly, "and we're saying 'We're here!'" When the fighting seemed to ebb, we left our front-row view of this skirmish, skipped the scheduled tour of this pioneer settlement, and tried to make the next leg of the trip - supper at Ein Gev. Shelling resumed along the road, so at Ein Gev we skipped that tour and supper too, and went directly from buses to small boats to take us across to Tiberias. Out in mid-lake, away from harm, against the night sky we watched the "bombs bursting in air." Now this same road is laced with tree-lined picturesque B & B's - a thoroughly pacific scene. In Kiryat Shmonah, later the next day, as in other northern communities, we don't see ready evidence of last summer's war, and we don't look for it either. We do stop at memorials for battles that hadn't yet been fought when I was last here, with the names of young men who hadn't yet been born. On the Lebanese border, in Metulla, it's a quiet summer's late afternoon of our third day. The several levels of security fencing and cement blockades are relatively new demarcations for what was once a nearly-open friendly landscape that glided into Lebanon. Borders have shifted. Those that implied danger swapped places with those that whispered of safety, or so it seems. As a nation we have grown and developed new technologies for tomorrow's challenges. Simultaneously we have uncovered more of our history through archaeological digs and dusting off old documents. It's similar for individuals. Within this heavier, work-dogged woman there still breathes a thin, young, curious, visionary girl.