October 14, 2001 Update

Letters from Israel

Sunday, October 14, 2001

Dear family and friends,

I haven't written this past month mostly for positive reasons, the Hebrew month of Tishrei is Israel's main festive season, and between holiday preparations and a vacation up north I have spent very little time with my computer of late.

I'm torn between a desire to write about all the fun and interesting things that I've done this past month and the obligation to tell you about all the terrible things that have happened too. As with the summer months, this autumn has been bittersweet, a roller coaster of enjoyable trips and special events, mixed the continuous Palestinian onslaught which never abates, providing a constant backdrop of anxiety and pain to the most joyous occasions. I don't know what is reported abroad, suffice to say that here the terror continues and the festive season was marred by several attacks, including the infiltration of an Israeli village on the edge of Gaza by terrorists, a shooting spree by a Palestinian terrorists disguised as an Israeli soldier in the northern town of Afula and a car bomb at the northern kibbutz (communal village) of Shluhot.

I could spend this whole letter telling you about each tragedy, every Israeli killed and wounded, every miraculous near miss, but I won't, because despite it all, this was our festive season, and I want to write about the joy of yom tov, the celebrations that we and millions of other Israelis managed to enjoy, despite the pain the terrorists tried to imbue.

We spent Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, at a small religious agricultural village on the Golan Heights, just as we did last year. It has become something of a tradition for us, escaping to Israel's rural north-east wilderness for Rosh Hashana.

There is something about the rural tranquility, the simplicity of the place which seems appropriate to the New Year, also referred to as the Day of Judgement, when we stand before God in solemn repentance. I find the rugged, volcanic landscape of the Golan inspiring, the barren wilderness of autumn reminding me of the wonders of creation, the land a pristine canvas waiting for the coming rains to bring new life to it. The village synagogue was comfortable and friendly, and the prayer service simple but beautiful. Not that I needed much help concentrating on my prayers after such a difficult year, but the sincere atmosphere of the place was certainly conducive.

On both afternoons a local guide took us for walks around the area, visiting nearby water reservoirs, surveying the landscape from volcanic outcrops and visiting the cows, of which there are a great many, along with what must be the largest population of Jewish cowboys in the world. Aside from learning a lot about cattle raising, we also had some glimpses of usually elusive local mammals: rock hyraxes (imagine if you can a cross between a groundhog, a rabbit and a chipmunk), gazelle, boar, jackals and a very cute long-eared hedgehog. Israel's sparsely populated northeast is always a good place to see birds of prey, but the autumn migrations are an extra good time and we saw several species.

No matter how many times I see them, I will never cease to be impressed by the sheer size, majesty and beauty of the Griffon vultures (the biblical nesher) which are common in that region. They are incredible birds, and the casualness with which one sees them in the northeast is amazing - 17 soaring overhead one morning as I walked to synagogue.

Later that month, during the Sukkot festival, we visited the region again, visiting not only the Golan but also the fertile valley below it, the flat Hula Basin, a warm humid swampland area, now mostly drained and turned over to farmland. A small pocket of the old Hula wetlands remains as a nature reserve, a haven for all manner of unusual plant and animal life, representing Israel's diverse mix of African, Asian and European species which converge here, the land the ancients thought of as the navel of the world.

Autumn is a wonderful time for the Hula just as huge flocks of migrating birds are passing through, some remaining in the area during the winter, others just stopping by on their way to Africa. Few things compare to seeing these giant flocks, sometimes consisting of thousands of birds, pelicans, storks, cranes and ibis to name but a few, blackening the sky like a swarm of giant bees or stirring up the usually calm Hula waters as while taking off en masse.

In general I think that the last year has brought home to me how important nature is for me as a refuge from the craziness that surrounds us. Not that nature can't provide terrors of its own, but still, studying the flowers, watching the birds and photographing the landscape gives me a chance to forget the news for a while. The Palestinian terrorists may be making our lives hell and the Americans and Europeans may want to sacrifice us for their war against Bin Laden but it is comforting to remember that the birds still migrate in the autumn, the seasonal flowers still bloom and the clouds still gather as the festive season draws to a close.

For much of Sukkot we were in the holy mystical town of Tzfat, one of my most favourite places in Israel. This historic town is perched atop a mountain, its steep tortuous streets winding down the slopes. The heart of Tzfat is the old quarter, a maze of narrow cobbled alleys and staircases jam packed with an impressive selection of beautiful synagogues, religious academies and art galleries. Drab modern neighbourhoods have sprung up along with comfortable lush suburbs all around the old town, dwarfing it and blocking the view in places, and when you're in the old town you are in another world. Modern Tzfat is a typical provincial Israeli town, but with an ancient core unlike that of any other.

For me the highlight of any visit to Tzfat is spending Shabbat there and going to pray at the Beirav synagogue, Tzfat's Carlebach synagogue. This building is not one of Tzfat's most outstanding, in fact the little stone synagogue is rather cramped and in need of repairs, but the mixture of exuberance, warmth and sincerity of its congregants, the the beauty of the services there, is simply outstanding. The synagogue is so popular that on a typical Friday night or Shabbat morning people are packed into the narrow street outside - the small shul hopelessly inadequate. The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach would gain a lot of pleasure from seeing the way his teachings and music are put into practice at Beirav. I grew up in a similar synagogue and for me praying at Tzfat's Carlebach shul is in many ways a nostalgia trip, the singing, the mix of people, the crowding brings back a flood of childhood memories. When I come to Beirav I feel as though I have come home.

Though we try to visit Tzfat at least once a year, we have never been there for any of the festivals before. I love wondering around Tzfat's old town on Friday night. The streets are quiet, save for people in their Sabbath best out for an evening stroll and the sound of Shabbat hymns wafting down from open windows. Sukkot is even more beautiful, with families sitting outside in their Sukkot, temporary shelters built specially for the festival. Through the thin walls of the Sukkot you can hear even more music: complex trills and lilting oriental melodies, contemplative or catchy Hassidic tunes or the simple traditional festival songs belted out by an over enthusiastic younger generation who have yet to realise that louder does not necessarily mean better... Even walking past secular homes near the centre of town everyone we passed seemed to be singing, a pair of middle aged men cheerfully humming an old ballad as they walked home from a festive meal or a young woman whistling along to a hit Israeli pop song on the radio accompanied by the sound of running water and clattering plates while she washed up from supper.

Even better was Simhat Torah, the festival which comes at the end of Sukkot. The sound of lively singing came from every synagogue, but, and perhaps I'm biased, the liveliest of all came from the Beirav synagogue. If an ordinary Shabbat is wonderful there, then Simhat Torah is heavenly. I don't think I've had a Simhat Torah like that since I moved away from my childhood synagogue. The dancing in both the men's and women's sections whirled on for hours - anyone who wanted a quick service and dinner had come to the wrong place.

I can't comment on the men's section, but in the women's section the atmosphere moved beyond the simple joy of celebrating the completion of the annual reading of the Torah, and onto something far deeper, a prayer in dance and song instead of words. Between the fast whirling circles and the complicated steps of popular wedding dances there were slow, almost meditative dances and songs, time to remember that more than ever our celebration this year was mixed with deep sorrow.

That evening, after the festival had technically ended, the municipality held a Simhat Torah celebration in the town square, a practice common throughout Israel. To the accompaniment of a live wedding band locals and visitors of all backgrounds prolonged the festive spirit for a few hours longer, dancing with the Torah scrolls to the jubilant strains of religious dance music.

Despite the festive atmosphere, despite the crowded synagogues, one could not escape from the emptiness of many of the hotels and tourist shops. While there were still many Israeli visitors over the festival, foreign tourists were hard to come by. The provincial towns of northern Israel in general are amongst those hardest hit by the economic recession, the security situation and the consequent plunge in tourism has hurt this scenic area even more with many hotels closing and others which just about made it through the peak festive season, but now face closure with no foreign business to see them through until the next Israeli vacation time. I have never seen Tzfat so devoid of tourists. They don't know what they were missing.


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Copyright 2001 by Leiah Elbaum.