May 31, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Friday, May 31, 2002

Dear family and friends,

Two weeks ago, we enjoyed a beautiful Shavuot weekend with Jason's aunt in Jerusalem. This year we decided to study Divrei Hayamim (the biblical Book of Chronicles) and Mishnah Hulin (part of the fundamental code of Jewish law).

The unseasonably cool weather was perfect for walks in the nearby Jerusalem Forest. On Shabbat afternoon we went on a four hour hike down into the valley and came across a reservoir hidden between a picturesque village and green wooded slopes. We knew from maps that it existed but on previous walks we'd never been able to find it.

Walking along a rutted dirt path we suddenly caught sight of a large, impressive dam, the like of which I have never seen in Israel. Behind it, the long, tongue-shaped body of water surrounded by pine trees was oddly reminiscent of a Scottish loch.

In an overgrown meadow by the shore, a Balkan-looking shepherd clad in a white shirt, black pants and a small fur cap watched a small flock of sheep and goats gorging on the wild grains and thistles.

All this on the outskirts of the sprawling city of Jerusalem. Israel is full of such surprises.

Throughout our walk we saw all seven of the special species mentioned in the Bible, some cultivated, many growing wild. Pomegranate trees covered in bright red blossoms were prominent in many gardens and by the roadside. Cultivated and wild grapevines draped along walls, or crept along the grass verges, several growing parasitically over olive trees. The olive trees themselves, like the fig trees, were everywhere, in cultivated groves, garden centrepieces or just wild. A few date palms grew in village gardens, a touch of the Middle East in an otherwise European looking landscape. In the lush, green valley the browning wild wheat, barley and oats looked out of place.

Above the reservoir, the little village with its twisty streets and red-roofed houses reminded me of Provence, with gardens and window boxes overflowing with bright geraniums.

Dozens of loquat trees, heavy with their fragrant orange fruit, added a touch of the exotic to many gardens. Atop one of them a green parakeet was feasting on ripe loquats. Both the loquat and the parakeet were originally introduced from lands east of Israel, but both have acclimatised well.

I foolishly undertook this walk in ordinary sandals, and on our way back through the village my feet were burning from the constant rubbing of the straps and all the bits of gravel and sand from the dirt paths. I could feel the birth pangs of several blisters.

In the middle of the village we came across a small, secluded, almost hidden park, up a few steps, above the road. We decided to sit there and rest a few minutes in the shade. A sign informed us that this was "Park Ma'ayan". Ma'ayan is Hebrew for spring, and appropriately enough there was a little stone drinking fountain with deliciously cool water. We drank and I poured some water onto my feet too, easing the soreness. Jason produced a mini-mishnah from his pocket and we learnt a few mishnayot.

The pleasant, but chilling Jerusalem evening breeze ruffled my light Indian cotton skirt, the red and green fabric matching the geraniums and flowering pomegranate trees. I pulled the matching shawl tight around my shoulders against the light wind. The mirrored embroidery caught little flashes of the golden sunshine.

As we sat there, enjoying the vines and flowers, the beautiful views and the songbirds, I noticed a plaque in one corner of the park. I read it and felt the tears welling up. This was no ordinary park, but a memorial, a memorial to a young woman named Ma'ayan Levi, murdered in a shooting in central Jerusalem's Yoel Salomon pedestrian mall on October 9, 1994.

Ma'ayan was born and grew up in this pastoral landscape. Her life was cut short by a Palestinian terrorist almost exactly one year after the Oslo peace accords. Her murderer was a member of the then brand-new Palestinian police force. She was only 19. Her death was a harbinger of the horrors this so-called peace process was to bring.

I remember the attack well, the shock, the surprise that the perpetrator was at once a member of Hamas and a Palestinian police officer. At the time there were those in government who dismissed the tragedy as an aberration, a teething problem of the Oslo peace process. Few imagined that six years later the process would climax, not with the hoped-for end of conflict, but with a war in which such Palestinian attacks would be routine, in which no one would be shocked any more by Palestinian policemen turning their weapons on Israelis.

I was also 19 in the fall of 1994. I was just starting college and planning my wedding.

Here I was 8 years later, in my late 20s, sitting with my husband, enjoying a pleasant Shabbat afternoon. And here was Ma'ayan, forever 19, buried in the cemetery of her home village, her last memorial a pretty little park and water fountain.


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.