Friday, December 25, 2009

The Night I Had Waited For

On our third night we stayed at Maagan Guest House. This was the first time our luggage was unloaded for the night that we would actually dare to unpack a little. Tonight and tomorrow night, this was "home."

And what a home it was. The landscape is so lush and green you'd think you were teeing off rather than sleeping in (not that we slept in!). Palm fronds rustled in the evening breeze as we checked in and then were escorted to our suites. Yes, I said suites. Guest suites made up of living rooms with little dinette areas, a small kitchen, a nice double bedroom and a bath. At the entry way to each suite was a picnic/patio area. One could conceivably kick back and with friends and listen to the ripples and waves of The Sea of Galilee not more than a few yards away.

That evening we were dining at Decks. YES!!! DECKS!!!

So, why the excitement, you wonder. Well, I'll tell you. Everyone who travels to Israel has a favorite.

Favorite site.

Favorite guide.

Favorite moment.

Favorite hotel ... kibbutz ... hostel. Favorite food.

Favorite restaurant.

My favorite site -- well, I'm torn between Tel Hazor and Ein Gedi. Favorite guide. That's easy. Miriam. Favorite moment -- which time? First time was when I fell in Tel Hazor. Second time was watching a Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall. Third time was a fleeting moment when I realized two of my dearest friends had experienced a healing from their emotional wounds.

Favorite hotel ... has to be Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Favorite kibbutz -- well, I'm torn there too. I love Ein Gedi. Nof Ginnosar, and Maagan. Each are unique in their own way. My favorite food in Israel is the pita bread with hummus. Hands down. You can't get it like that anywhere else. Not to mention the fruit. Fresh squeezed juices.

Favorite restaurant?? Decks, in Tiberias.

My first trip to Decks was in 2002 during my first visit to Israel. During my second trip, I insisted that we return. Miriam called ahead and told the owner, Vered, that I wanted to come back ... how much I'd enjoyed dining there. I expected that Miriam and I would dine quietly on the beyond delicious food. But instead, we were wined and dined and personally entertained by Vered and her wait staff. At one point, four of the servers came in and danced to We Are Standing On Holy Ground. (Okay, so this is my other big moment during my second visit.)

So, I couldn't wait to go back! I told everyone with me (and Joe concurred) that they would never have food like this ever again in their lives. (I bet they'd tell you I was right, too!)

And so we went. There was a possibility that Benjamin Netanyahu would be there, so security was tight. Pretty interesting having to answer intense questions just to go eat! (Turns out he was at the restaurant next door eating Chinese food!)

We were served by -- I am not kidding you -- the prettiest thing I've ever laid my eyes on. I'm talking one BEAUTIFUL Middle Eastern gal. There really are no words to describe her. The food was -- as always -- out of this world. I kept telling our group to pace themselves. "More is coming," I said.

And then more did.

The joy of my night came when the lights were dimmed. I stood. I knew (or at least I thought I knew) what was about to happen. Larry was standing now, too ... on the other side of the table. I motioned for him to come to where I was. I pointed out. Out over the sea to where fireworks were going off. Then, up to the outer porch came a boat, lined in tiny white lights. Men stood on the outside and -- in the utter darkness -- set off sparklers as, inside, a woman announced a welcome to Israel and to Decks.

Then she mentioned several folks who were special guests. This person. That group. Applause went up all around us. And then I heard my name. My name in Israel. As fireworks exploded and people applauded ... Israel was speaking my name. They were calling me "a friend."

I burst into tears. Larry wrapped his arm around my shoulder, then Joe came up and I sobbed, "I love this country so much!"

Someone took our picture ... then one of Joe, Miriam, and me.

It was a night I would never forget. Will never forget. I will never forget Israel. Her name is forever in my heart and on my tongue.

And now, they also know my name.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

To the Sea

(Day 2 continues)

After our trip to Masada, but before we dipped our feet into the Jordan in the wilderness, we stopped at what is known as Cave #4 in Qumran. The most significant find of all the Dead Sea Scrolls was done here. And, if you are watching videos or looking at photographs about the Dead Sea Scrolls, this cave is the one most photographed.

After Qumran and our Jordan River experience, we headed up to the Galilee region. We rambled along for some time ... a few of us chattered ... a few of us slept. Cheri was sleeping so hard, she actually missed the excitement of coming out of the West Bank via checkpoint.

One of the places Miriam has always wanted to take a group of writers was to the grave of Israel's beloved "Rachel the poetess." So loved are her works, her headstone has a special place to sit, retrieve some of her works, and read them by her final resting place -- which is next to the Sea of Galilee.

Miriam was getting her wish. We were heading toward the Sea and the grave.

As soon as I saw the blue water sparkling in the late afternoon sun, I reached over the back of the front seat, placed my hand on Larry's shoulder and said, "Hey, Larry! You're at the Sea of Galilee." (This would end up being something I did a lot to Larry ... "Hey, Larry ... you're at the Dead Sea ... Hey Larry, you're in Jerusalem ... Hey, Larry ... you're in Israel."

Before walking into the cemetery in Kinneret, we jaunted across the street to watch Christian pilgrims decked out in flowing white robes as they were baptized in at Yardenit (the part of the Jordan at the mouth of the Sea of Galilee).

I'm not sure what everyone else was thinking, but I couldn't help but compare our very private moments at the water in southern Israel to what seemed almost commercialized. Then again, not everyone -- I thought -- gets a private IDF escort through mine fields to the water's edge and not everyone can understand the spiritual implications of what I just wrote.

We left our places at the bridge overlooking the baptisms and into the cemetery. It had been raining before we'd arrived. The ground was spongy. The air cool. The sky darkening. The Sea of Galilee lapped at the shoreline nearby as we, canopied under thick trees, made our way to the grave, walking behind Miriam -- our mother (Ema) duck. A breeze rustled the palm fronds as Miriam sat by the grave honored with small stones. We, her students (ducklings), sat across from the grave and watched as she opened the small compartment holding texts, then listened intently as she read to us.

I watched Miriam's face intently. This was a moment for her. Miriam, as gifted a writer as anyone I know, reading words that stirred not only her heart, but the heart of a nation ... not only a nation's heart, but our hearts as well.

Earlier in the day -- having left Ein Gedi -- we each penned our own thoughts, moved as David must have been moved to write some of his great psalms of praise to God. When Miriam had finished reading, I said, "Now it is time to take out what you wrote today and read."

Each of us read ... words so beautiful! Mine went thusly:

I look back at where I've been.
The heights. The valleys.
And I think that you knew all along.
You see where I am. And you see where I am going;
it is no mystery to you.
So why then do I fear?
Do the conies shudder?
Do the ibex stand on unsteady feet?
Do they run along well-worn paths with care?
They seek the safety of the rock with confidence and there they find God.

When everyone had read (Ellie had written a special song to Robi, which nearly ripped my heart out), and had cried enough to fill the sea beside us to overflowing, we stood. We took a few photographs as best we could in the near-darkness. Then we returned to the van where Tzvika awaited to take us to our next destination.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Day 2 Continues ... Land Mines and Healing Waters

We left Masada after two or so hours of exploration and learning. It was now time to do something I'd been excitedly waiting on for months. We were going to the Jordan River.

But not just any location along the 156 mile ribbon of water known as one of the most sacred bodies of water in the world. No. We were heading toward the historical site where Joshua and the early Hebrews crossed the muddy and rising waters to the Promised Land ... the place where Elijah and Elisha crossed over ... but only Elisha returned ... the place where John the Baptist cried out, "Repent!" and the place where Jesus came to be baptized.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan is in Jordan. And, it is the location of a lot of historical evidence, having been written about as far back as the 5th century. Churches have been erected here, crosses discovered, and -- in fact -- a church marking the spot where (it has been said) Jesus laid his clothes before being baptized.

Most modern-day pilgrims to Israel, when desiring to be baptized in the Jordan, do so at the mouth of the river where it spills out from the Sea of Galilee in the north. While it is no where near the Bethany beyond the Jordan mentioned in the Gospels as being where Jesus was baptized, it has been -- at least -- a place without conflict.

Until recently. Thanks to renewed relationships with Jordan, conflicts have lessened. Still, with the exception of special dates and occasions, one must obtain special permission to visit Kasr el Yehud (Possibly: The Castle of the Jews), which is on the Israeli side of the site.

We had special permission!

Our driver pulled the van just inside a narrow strip of road, which was blockaded. A call was made. We sat, waiting somewhat patiently for our military escort to arrive. Around us was nothing but land and sand, boundaried off by barbed wire and large yellow-gold signs reading "Danger! Mines!" in not one but three languages. Minutes passed. I don't think anyone said a word. Except maybe for Robi. By now Robi was talking 100 miles an hour. (Praise God!) The rest of us just watched and waited. Then, a humvee approached. Stopped. An Israeli soldier got out, came to the driver's side of the van, spoke Hebrew to Tzvika, and the returned to the military vehicle. Soon enough we were jostling along the road behind it, each of us wrapped in our own thoughts.

We were in an extremely militarized zone. We were in the West Bank. We were heading toward the Jordan escorted by a specially ordered team of soldiers with AK47s.


We came to a stop and climbed out of the white van. We said "Shalom" to our new friends (the guards) and then slowly made our way toward the newly constructed building and a platform with steps leading down into the water.

Across the way, Jordanian soldiers stood guard. We were so close, we could have whispered and they would have heard us. Instead, we waved. They waved back. I think I may have giggled, even.

A look at the river told us a few things. 1) it's just not that wide. If you tried to skip a pebble, it may only hit the water twice. 2) it's muddy as all get out. 3) no one was up for going any deeper than our ankles.

But the platform was covered in about two to four inches of creamy mud. Someone mentioned it might be too slippery to reach the water. But nothing was stopping me. I slipped out of my shoes, rolled up the legs of my jeans, and forward I went.

"Be careful ..." I heard.

I was. Trust me, I was.

And then my feet slipped into the cool water of the Jordan River. For a moment, my breath caught. How beautiful the feet of those who bring the good news, the Bible says in Isaiah 52:7.

I turned now to see each of my fellow journalists taking one easy step at a time. When Cheri reached the water, she choked and then cried openly. Larry was so moved, he could hardly say a word. Robi gathered water in a jar for the purpose of baptizing her new grandchild (who was born a month later...). Sharon and Ellie held back for a while, then Robi and I helped Sharon to the steps amid a lot of laughter. The next thing I knew, Ellie had joined us and Cheri was "sprinkling" everyone as a form of baptism ... including our IMOT rep.

I don't think a single one of us was ready to leave when it was time. But the soldiers grew weary and -- appreciative -- we knew our time had come to say goodbye. (It was about this time someone walked up who Sharon actually knew from the States! Only in Israel!)

We had washed our hearts by dipping our feet into the water ... now it was time to wash our feet of the mud.

On the way back to the gate, we were all talking, laughing, chirping away like caged birds set free. And in a funny and beautiful way ... I believe we now were.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Healing at Masada

Day 2 continues. After our climb at Ein Gedi, we ventured back to the van, then drove the few miles from there to Masada.

Masada is the 1800 feet by 900 feet plateau where, in 66 AD a group of Jewish radicals (called Sicarii) overcame the Romans. In 71 AD, after the destruction of the temple, the rebels and their families left Jerusalem and settled in what was once the "get-away" palace of King Herod the Great. The following year, the Romans marched against Masada. They failed to overcome the zealots and then built a rampart, using 1000s of tons of stone and sand. This rampart was finished in 73. The Romans could now take control of these Jewish men, women, and children. But when they finally made it to the top of Masada, they found that a mass suicide had occurred. Flavius Josephus records that 960 in all were dead, but that two women and five children hid inside a cistern and were therefore spared.

Today, Masada is a national park. One does not need a good pair of hiking boots to reach the top (although a snake path makes getting there possible for those willing to spend the time and energy). The most common method of reaching the summit is by cable car.

Just before we reached Masada, Larry asked me, "How long does it take inside the cable car?"

"A few seconds," I replied. I thought nothing of the question or my answer.

Then, once we'd reached Masada, had watched a video, and then exited the theater to the cable cars, we all boarded.

Well, all except Larry and Robi.

Larry, I was told by Cheri, was afraid not only of heights, but of closed spaces. "Don't worry," Cheri said. "Robi is talking to him." (Robi is a Masters student of psychology. And, she'd just finished a course on anxiety!) Though I was concerned about Larry, I trusted Robi. And God.

Then I heard someone say, "Larry made it in."

I breathed a sigh of relief. (I fear Larry wasn't breathing at all!)

When we reached the end of our ride and the doors opened, Larry was the first off. When I walked up to him, he was looking straight ahead, not to the left or right and certainly not down! We continued on the path to the extreme top of Masada where we saw a group of people who'd just celebrated a Bar Mitzvah coming toward us. It was a delightful processional, which we were all swept up into.

When they'd gone past us, I looked at Larry.

It was as if he were seeing the beauty of the whole world for the first time. Looking to the east, a picture of the Dead Sea and the hills of Jordan. To the west, the Negev ... naked and rugged. All around, history. Millennium of history.

By the end of our time on Masada, he was practically leaning over the edge of the ancient stone walls, just to take photos!

"My wife won't believe this," he said. "So many things we have not been able to do because of this issue I have ... and now ... I honestly believe I've been healed."

And so do we.

Larry and I spoke of it later ... how fear must have wrapped itself around those who eventually took the lives of their wives and children ... then killing each other until there was only one left. He alone fell on his sword.

Fear can do horrible things to you. It not only cripples, it takes away the joys God has in store for you. Larry grasped all of that and so much more on Masada ...

But there was more healing to come. So much more. And not just for Larry. We just didn't know it yet.