Winner Takes All History

Today, I went to Sebastia National Park for my continuing education credits to renew my Tour Guide License.  Unlike other national parks in Israel, Sebastia is only accessible to Israelis with coordination with the army.  We drove to Shavei Shomron (the end of the line) in our regular bus and switched to a bullet-proof bus with army escort for the 10 minute ride to Sebastia, through parts of Area B where the Palestinian Authority and Israel have joint control.

Sebastia started in the 9th century B.C.E. as Shomron, the capital city of the northern kingdom, Israel.  Shomron is mentioned many times in the bible and was built by Omri, founder of the first somewhat stable dynasty in Israel, and his son Ahab.shomron-omri-wall

The first point our guide (yes, even guides use guides) made had to do with the geography of the Northern Kingdom.  In short, the North had EVERYTHING – water, access to wide valleys for farming, people and access to major roads.  When Israel broke away from Judah, they even built alternative sites for worshiping God so people wouldn’t have to go to Jerusalem.

Why, then, does the Bible go out of its way to vilify the Northern Kingdom?  The people do not seem that different:  there are good kings and bad ones in both countries, there are prophets in both.  The people are not steadfast in their putting aside Idolatry in either Israel or Judah.  So, why does the Bible use every opportunity to put down Israel, and specifically Israel’s most successful kings, Omri and Ahab?  By the way, these two kings are mentioned extensively for their military prowess and their impressive buildings in extra-biblical sources.

History is written by the winners.   The author  of the history builds up the winners in comparison to the losers.  Reasons must be given for the survival of one over the other.  Israel and Judah were the first two monotheistic countries and that religious component is a large part of their national identities.  It stands to reason, then, that the biblical text would attribute Judah’s survival after Israel was decimated by Sargon II of Assyria, to a more strict adherence to religious practice or purer religious motivations.

On our trip today, we were able to see some structures remaining from 9th century B.C.E. Shomron.  Just goes to show, that history may be written by the winners, but archaeology is written by the builders.

Sites in the area:

  • Joshua’s altar on Mt. Eval
  • Samaritan town on Mt. Grizim
  • Overlook in Nofim
  • Har Bracha winery

Forests and Trees

Today I went with a friend to see the new exhibit on Jewish life in Babylon between the First and Second Temple periods which is at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.  We got there about 10 minutes before the free tour in English was about to begin, and as it was my first time going through the exhibit, I thought it would be useful to have a tour with the local expert.

The standing exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum is quite interesting.  The entire museum was founded in 1992 to house the personal collection of Professor Elie Borowski.  The exhibit has a definite flow through history and moves seamlessly from one culture to the next, all focusing on factors influencing the Sacred Bridge between Egypt and Mesopotamia which gave rise to monotheism.  The various sections are numbered with arrows showing the direction you are meant to take in order to maintain narrative continuity.  Really , the museum is quite nicely done, despite the obvious focus on the collector’s favorite types of items (seals).  I find the right mix of order and “wanderability” which is sorely lacking in many modern “museums” especially the dreaded “museum experiences” which take the visitor from one room to the next, all synchronized to move groups through at a set pace,  with no possibility for wandering around and spending more time on exhibits which interest you more.

There is a certain lack of academic stringency as most of the collection was “acquired” and not uncovered as part of a registered, licensed excavation, but I am willing to forgive that and accept that this is the way of the archaeological world, especially since the end result is that this collection is being shared with the public and not collecting dust in a basement somewhere.  The removal of context takes away from the finds themselves, but does not take away from the story.

We started the tour with the local guide who told us that we were going straight to the new exhibit on Jewish life in Babylon, and I was happy.  My friend hadn’t been to the Bible Lands Museum in 15 years and we would tour that afterwards on our own.  We made our way down to the basement and into the exhibit.  Our guide started with the history of the end of the First Temple Period – so many kings and so much politics!  She clearly knew her facts as she went through the history in impressive detail.  It was difficult for me to understand how the average museum-goer would have any understanding at all of what she was saying – so much history and so little time.  I was lucky, being a tour guide I have a basic knowledge of many things, but the poor Japanese tourist who was with us looked like a deer caught in the headlights.

We moved into the room which focused on Jewish life in Babylon and saw the clay tablets with cuniform writing which were the real focus of the exhibit.  Again, these tablets were “acquired”, but they told the story of the day-to-day life in the Jewish community.  The Jews living in Babylon kept their names and their community structures, and founded Jewish study halls.  They wept for the destroyed Temple and named their area after their previous home, Judah.

Then, just as suddenly as the Jewish community had been exiled from the Jewish homeland, Cyrus, the Persian king, allowed for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (as well as of all religious buildings which had been destroyed by the Babylonians).  The Jews were free to go home after living in Babylon for less than 100 years.  But they didn’t and they went on to have high scholarship and write the Babylonian Talmud.  The community emigrated as a whole to Israel in 1950.  The end.


After our tour ended, my friend needed some time to process.  “Wait, so after the Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, the Jews of Babylon didn’t all go back?”
“Nope.  Most stayed in Babylon.”
“But it wasn’t an impossible journey.  Just a few weeks. Why didn’t they go back?”
“Well, they were really comfortable in Babylon.  They had their businesses, their communities, their aging parents.  Life was good.”
“What about their Jewish life?  How could they justify staying in Babylon as Jews?”
“They had study halls – the best in the world.  And their scholarship was unprecedented – we follow the Babylonian Talmud more than the Jerusalem Talmud (written in Israel at the same time – the 3rd/4th century C.E.).”
“So it’s just like today, right?  People don’t want to come to Israel although they can.”
“Yep. Not much changes.”
“And when the Babylonian community came to Israel as a whole.  The entire Babylonian community in Babylon was gone just like that.  How did that happen?”
“Ah, that.  Well they were actually kicked out by the Muslim government when the state of Israel was declared.”
“So 2600 years of Jewish history in Babylon came to an absolute halt?”
“Do you think there are any guarantees?  Yes, there are no more Jews in those places – none, zero, efes.”
“Yes, it doesn’t seem that there are many guarantees for Jews in many places today either.”

Somewhere in my friend’s questions at the end, she had found the story inside the facts.  It just reiterated for me how important framing is when teaching/guiding.  Our local guide was obviously knowledgeable.  She forgot that in order to really teach us about this important period of history, she would need more than facts – she would need a story which would hook us and make us care about the questions and the events, and be able to relate it to our own experience.

There is a saying in tour guide circles that you should never ruin a good story with facts, generally taken to mean that it doesn’t matter if your facts are a bit iffy as long as the story is good. Today I saw another meaning to this saying: don’t focus so heavily on knowing all the facts or you may lose the story – kind of like seeing the trees without seeing the forest.

Fun Sites

I surf and contribute to a lot of facebook groups, mostly having to do with Israel and touring in Israel.  And I am tired of seeing posts of this form:  Looking for someplace “interesting” to take my kids, then there is the variety of ages, or maybe they are looking to take away the entire family and looking for something “special”, “kid friendly”, or “fun”.  I am tired of seeing these posts because they assume that these qualities are inherent in the places themselves.  And while I guess there are extreme examples of places which would not fit the bill in any of these categories, there is so much more to visiting and touring and experiencing a place than the actual physical reality.

To show what I mean, let’s take the example of a playground.  A playground at its most basic level is a conglomeration of steel, plastic, wood and perhaps rope.  These elements are not “interesting” nor are they particularly “special”.  They are, actually, quite boring and regular.

But, when a child goes to a playground, he does not see the boring, regular elements.  He sees something that exists in his mind.  He tests his body, pushing himself to move and experience his surroundings.  She imagines a world existing in the playground and playing out in a story which is just inside her head.  He is meeting others there and interacting socially with them.  When parents enter into the picture, the child feels love, caring.  The regular, normal interaction at a boring playground is transformed into something “interesting”, “special”, “kid-friendly” and “fun”.

And while a high-tech, state-of-the-art playground may help to spur those thoughts, it could just as well happen in a backyard with very rudimentary elements.  Because it isn’t the physical space at all, but the imaginative space and the interactive space which carries the weight.  It’s all about the story which is weaved there.

Why, then, when people go on vacation, or, more accurately when they start to see the world as adults, do they expect the physical to provide the stimulus?  When does it happen that we adults lose the story?

I hear all the time from clients that they are afraid of going to a particular site because it is “boring for kids”.  They ask, “How will you make it interesting for kids?”

When my kids were little (and even now), I shlepped them to all kinds of out of the wayphoto archaeological sites, national parks, hikes, and museums.  We laughed and learned our way through them and found a way to “play” with wherever we were.  Playing is the most natural way of learning.  It is turning something over in our imagination and not being afraid of where it would take us.  Because playing is casual, you remove fear.  Fear is the mind killer.  Remove fear and your brain is open to absorb.

We wove our stories with our surroundings and were able to remember things because they were tied to the story.  We talked about our experiences, giving us room to process.  We discussed the things we were seeing.

Do you remember the Druze at Nebi Shueb?
Which painting do you think best represents who you are?
Which path should we take to ascend the hill?
Could this house have belonged to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi?
Where does the water flowing into the aqueduct come from?
Why is Ben Gurion buried in the Negev?
Do you remember all the crabs we saw in Nachal Prat?
How long will it take for the Carmel forest to reginerate?
Which animals live in the burrows in Be’eri?

These places are all just regular, boring, physical places with regular, boring physical objects.  But it isn’t about the place or the objects within it.  It’s about the story and your interaction and what will come out of that connection.

We adults like facts – our world of imagination is scary for us.  I saw this in the writing project I managed for 6 years.  Adults have “day-mares”, our imagination is filled of what-if’s and worse case scenarios.  We have lived long enough to know that things could be really bad and we have responsibility to keep ourselves and our loved ones out of those situations.  When I guide adults, they like facts – When were these walls build?  What happened here? Who ruled and when?  What do the archeologists fight about?  Facts are interesting and you need facts.  But facts are only half the story. The other half of the story is:  Why should I care about these facts?  How do these facts impact me?  And then we enter the scary world of uncertainties as we enter the world of who we are and what we are doing here.  We enter the world of our own stories.  And while facing our own stories can be scary, if we combine them with the element of play, the element of otherness that you get when you are out of your everyday routine, we can process.  This is what touring with a qualified tour guide or, better yet, a tour educator, does for your experience.

Next time you are in Israel, contact me for a special experience which integrates information with experience.  Because every site is a “fun” site if you allow yourself to play and enter the world of the story.

Birthright to the Max

maxThere have been posts on facebook about an article written recently laying at least some of the “blame” for Max Steinberg’s death on the institution of Birthright. The headline’s subtext states, “A Birthright trip convinced an American with shaky Hebrew that he was ready to die for another country.”

Even before I read the article, I knew that it would upset me.

Condensing the decisions and actions of a person on one factor is infantile.  But beyond that, the one statement quoted above has so many problems that I barely know where to start.

1.  “A Birthright trip convinced an American”:  Birthright is not there to convince anyone of anything.  It is meant to expose people to viewpoints and experiences to which they would not otherwise have been exposed.  I have had some trips where the participants say that the main Jewish value in their lives is Bagels and Lox!  I am not so happy about that, but it is allowed to happen, and sometimes it does.

2.  “with shaky Hebrew”:  The fact that Max had shaky Hebrew says nothing about the depth of his commitment to this country.  Israel was built by people who had shaky Hebrew.  Hebrew only returned to usage on a daily basis a little over 100 years ago.  Herzl didn’t speak Hebrew.  Golda Meir spoke Hebrew with a Midwestern accent.  The state of Israel is built on immigrants who have shaky Hebrew.  Intel’s chips and cherry tomatoes, as well as much of the cell phone technology, were developed by people who did not speak perfect Hebrew and yet had to get along here and communicate.  Think about how many US citizens are being shut out of contributing creatively because of their shaky English.

3.  “that he was ready to die”:  Maybe Max was ready to die.  This is actually part of the statement that I agree with.  But before you go getting all crazed with thinking that I am a war-monger, suicide-mission aficionado, let’s look at the flip side.

People who are ready to die, are engaged and willfully living.  They are two sides of the same coin.  Simple self-preservation with nothing behind it is selfish.  It says, “I am the most important idea in the world.  I deserve to be alive because I am me.”

Is that why we are alive?

In Judaism, there is the idea of tikkun olam – fixing the world.  “For six days you should do all your work.”  What work?  Tikkun olam.  Each of us will see this differently.  Whether your life’s work is in charity, or making a better world for our children, or advancing business in order to improve the world, or whatever.  Once you know what you are living for, you know in what situations you are willing to die.

So, Max was ready to die, according to this article.  If so, he reached a level that many of us don’t reach until we are much older or at all.  Self-awareness of what we are doing on this planet and why we are alive is an aspiration.

4.  “for another country”:  Israel is not just another country.  Max got the message that Israel is home.  That is a Birthright message.  And home isn’t always warm, fuzzy, chocolate cookies all the time.  Sometimes home is the “my boyfriend dumped me and I need someplace to be” refuge.  Home is when mom hugs you and then yells at you for not washing your dishes.  Home is where you need to take out the trash and work at making it liveable.  And yet, home is just simply home – that place where you can just be.  That is what Israel is for world Jewry.

And when Jews are being killed in Europe, Chana Senesh is coming to parachute in to help you.  She won’t give up secrets.  She left Israel-home to help her fellow Jews in Europe.  And when Jews are hijacked and sitting in an airport in Uganda, the Israeli army is coming to get them out.  Yes, your mom would do that for you.

So what did Birthright do for Max Steinberg?  What did Max get from his 10-day all-expense paid trip to Israel?  Maybe some ideas, maybe a free ticket, maybe a feeling, maybe some friends or mentors.  Max Steinberg became Max Steinberg.  And I think that instead of searching for somewhere to place the blame for his death, we should celebrate everything that made up his life.

May his memory be a blessing.

I am a Tour Educator who has been guiding Birthright groups for the last 3 years.  Max could have been on my trip (but he wasn’t).  To date, of the 450 participants on my trips, only 1 has stayed to join the army, but 450 have returned to their lives with a taste of what Israel and being Jewish means to them.


modiin dayWe are coming up to the holiday of Passover.  And it occurs to me that my life over the last few years has a lot of parallels to that first Passover.

The children of Israel were in Egypt in a situation which was getting increasingly worse, not only for them, but at the end also for those around them.

And then it happened.  In haste, they left Egypt.  They didn’t have time for the correct preparations.  They didn’t have time for a normal meal.  They sat with their children and their neighbors and waited for the moment when they would leave Egypt.  They didn’t have time to dream.

And then, when the time came, they couldn’t even leave under their own power.  With an outstretched hand, God took them out of Egypt. God pushed them from one reality to another.  They missed the watermelon and the eggplant.  They doubted leaving the known of Egypt for an unknown future.  What would they eat?  What would they drink?  Where was the illustrious “Land of Milk and Honey”? Questions they had.  Answers fewer.  After the events of the first few months, the drowning of the Egyptians and the receiving of the Torah, the sin of the Golden Calf,  after the fanfare and the fireworks, it started.

What it?  The silence – the 38 years of wandering and wondering. And what remains for us is this, silence.  No stories, no laws, nothing.  Day after day of existence – simple existence.

And then, as suddenly as it started, they were on the opposite bank of the Jordan, across the area of Qesr al-Yehud of today.  Their new reality was in front of them; a new mission, a new land, new dreams.  They had new inspiration and new connections.  They knew who was in their tribe and where they were meant to be.  Moshe, in a series of short snippets, gave them the entire book of Deuteronomy in a single month to prepare them for the next phase.

And then, they worked to fulfill those dreams.  Building one day onto the next and working toward something – not simply existing but moving forward.  They were not always successful – they lost at Ai, suffered with civil war,  ignored prophets and followed evil kings – but they worked toward a goal.  We read about all those events in the books of the prophets.  Scroll after scroll of stories written about a people who found a goal after a silence.

Silence is where I am these days.  I justify it away.  I tell myself it takes time.  And it is true that I feel that my everyday life is existence, just existence.  I look for inspiration on Facebook.  I don’t write enough.  I don’t have a plan.  And perhaps more troubling for me, I don’t have dreams. This lack of dreams is intertwined with a lack of stories.  Nothing new.  Nothing worth weaving a story around.  Silent and storyless.

And then, I realize that I need to get my life back on track.  I am o.k.  My kids are fabulous.  My friends are my family.  I have some work I love.  Thank God.  Thank God.  And now I need to find the inspiration, to dream.

It’s a rough spot.  Usually, I am providing inspiration for others – putting pieces together to make a coherent whole which will touch you spiritually, cognitively,  or otherwise.  That is the way I guide.

Part of the puzzle came together through a comment by a stranger. Someone who commented about the quality of my posts. And I realize that I have neglected my writing.  Writing is part of me and something I love.  That part of the dream has been silent – but it doesn’t need to be.  Going back to writing is awakening part of myself.  I need to find the other parts, do those things which make me supremely happy.  They are part of the dream as well.

With Passover just ahead, I need to refocus on being a  guide for myself.  I need to find the pieces which make me who I am and put them together into a coherent whole – to find a dream.

It’s there, I know it is.  Just beyond Qesr al-Yehud….

Yesterday’s Words

I had an interesting experience today.  On the urging of a fellow tour guide, Asaf and I went to a used book sale.  One of the used book dealers in Jerusalem is closing their warehouse and, as they say, EVERYTHING MUST GO.

The retail store is one of these hole in the wall establishments in the center of town.  No frills, no fancy advertising or store front.  When you walk into the room, you are greeted with stacks and stacks of used books.  There are a few books outside in boxes and crates, but the stacks are inside.  And not only are their stacks on the shelves, but
along every wall.  Not the kind of place you want to hang around in if you have claustrophobia.  So I don’t know what I was expecting from the warehouse.

Asaf and I arrived at the outlet which is located in a small kibbutz about 30 minutes outside of Jerusalem.  We were instructed to turn at the very first left inside of the kibbutz.  I wasn’t expecting a potholed, narrow, somewhat paved road, but the car behind me urged me to turn.  After parking and hoping that any other cars would be able to get around me, we walked into the store.

Except it wasn’t really a store.

The building which housed the warehouse for the bookstore looked like a renovated chicken coop.  Corrugated metal walls shielded broken down metal shelving and sagging wooden bookcases from the elements.  On the bare concrete floor, rotting cardboard boxes held more treasure troves of yesterday’s written word.  And thoseSolomon_Schechter tomes which were not lucky enough to merit a shelf or a box (for it seemed there was no other ordering system than sheer luck) were simply scattered on the floor.

I was reminded of the pictures from the 1890’s of Solomon Schecter at the Cairo geniza surrounded by texts and manuscripts and words.  Except this was worse.

If you ventured to the far reaches of the shack, you saw in the distance piles upon piles of cardboard boxes, with no way to discover the treasures within those towering stacks.
There were a few broken down couches, seemingly used at one time by those who tried to order this chaos; but today, they too were covered in books.

The people who came to dig for the treasure of books from bygone days were few.  There was a young bookseller who accepted payment and tried to help the few customers who actually knew for what they were looking.  He waved vaguely.  “I think the book you are looking for should be somewhere over there in that section.”

Most of the customers, though, didn’t know what book would catch their fancy.  They meandered around the store, some trying desperately not to step on the books, out of some well-instilled respect for books, others nonchalantly stepping on whatever they came across in order to get to supposed treasures surely just in the next aisle.

I actually knew a few people there today – seems I cannot go anywhere in Israel without running into someone I know.  “Did you see Yigal Yadin’s Masada? There are still 2 more copies!”

“Nope, only one more!” from another shopper.

And from the shopkeeper, “Not Yigal, Yigael!”  trying to retain some sort of respect for the author of a book which found itself in this sorry place.

That last copy made its way into my home.  A replacement (this time in Hebrew) for a book which I once owned, but discarded in some bygone cleaning.  Asaf also brought a few books home.  One, like my copy of Masada, a replacement for a book we used to own, but is now no longer in our home.

One shopper commented to me, as he and his daughter browsed through the books, “Isn’t it amazing how many words are written, and how much effort is put into publishing books which no one will read and no one cares about?”

In my opinion, however, writing is as much process as product.  It is our human desire to create, to produce, and to share, which drives us to write.  And as some meager compensation for our efforts and a validation that they want to be part of that sharing, some people are willing to buy those words.

Even if only for $3.

Two All-Beef Patties, Special Sauce

Last week I led a tour of the Beit Shemesh area. We visited the tomb of Dan (son of Jacob), Mony Winery, Tel Beit Shemesh and Tel Azeka. The particular issue that was the center of the tour was the relationship and interaction between the Children of Israel and the “other” in the past and in the present.

It seems to be human nature to distance ourselves from the other. In the early days of humanity, this was a survival instinct. Loyalty within clans was necessary for interdependence within the clan. Other clans were a rival for collecting fields, hunting grounds, and water sources. Thus, those who were wary of the “other” did better and survived longer than those who did not protect their resources.

In today’s world, xenophobia is seen as a negative. We are raised to be open to others, to try to see their viewpoint and to “not judge another until you have walked a mile in their shoes”. Especially in the light of the modern world and world-wide markets, xenophobia is seen as a throwback to those who are less sophisticated. Success today seems to depend on our abilities to interact with the other.

And yet, our ability to differentiate ourselves, whether that means protecting something as concrete as our own wealth or as abstract as our own culture, is still a very deep-seated need. Thus, the tension. How much do we open up and how much do we hold close?

These themes are echoed in the biblical text. The tribe of Dan, son of Jacob, is not successful in conquering his assigned territory. They cannot overcome the powerful Philistines who live on the coast. Some of the members of the tribe of Dan stay where they are, in the area of Beit Shemesh, and some move North, to the far northern border of today’s State of Israel. Interestingly enough, half of the tribe lives next to the Philistines; half live far, far away – showing two very different approaches to living with the “other”.philistine-me

Dan’s descendent, Shimshon (Sampson) lived in the area of Beit Shemesh at the time of the Judges, a time when every man did what was right in his own eyes. He took a wife from the Philistines and spent his life in a battle of wits and strength against them. He fought the battle against them from the inside, with some successes but mostly tragic failures. He does succeed in destroying some cities and temples, but is ultimately stripped of his strength and is tortured by the Philistine people. (Check out the picture of me dressed up as a Philistine!)

The next biblical character who battles the Philistines is David. David comes to visit his brothers who are in King Saul’s army. King Saul, a king like all the other nations’ kings, is in a standoff with the Philistines. The taunter, Goliath, calls for a singular battle with someone from King’s Saul’s army. King Saul, following well-defined rules of warfare, looks to send someone to battle with Goliath in hand-to-hand combat.

David’s reaction to the Philistine Goliath is to refuse to play his game. He refuses King Saul’s armor and by doing so has refused to play by the rules – the Philistine rules. David has his own game, that of a slinger; and it is as a slinger that he has the upper hand on Goliath. It is an interesting example of David retaining his uniqueness and his shepherding outlook even in the battleground. He does not fit into the shoes of the “other” neither by King Saul’s cajoling nor by Goliath’s taunting. This is something that David continues into his kingship. King David is beloved and respected because he is not “kingly”. He realizes that he can do wrong and apologizes for his misdeeds. This is a revolution in the ancient world where the king was considered at the very least above the law, if not an actual godly being who could do no wrong.

Now we get to modern Israeli society. How would a researcher today decode the complex relationship between Israeli culture and the dominant power, the United States? I decided to gauge influence based on the index of how many McDonald’s there are per population and on obesity statistics.

In the United States, there are 22,000 people for every McDonald’s branch. Discounting countries with less than 200,000 population, Israel comes in tied with Austria for 6th place, with 45,000 residents per McDonald’s. (Canada-24K, Australia-25K, New Zealand-27K, Puerto Rico-34K) Although I realize that there are many other factors which go into how many McDonald’s there are in any given country, it gives a sense of the interaction that Israel feels with the wider world.

Yet, despite Israel’s relatively high density of McDonald’s, according to the World Health Organization, Israel is 30th when those same countries (over 200,000 population) are ranked by the percentage of overweight or obeseness within her populace while the United States is 1st on this list. Israel has managed to maintain some sort of unique lifestyle which counters our McDonald’s ranking. We are at one and the same time trying to maintain our unique character while fitting into the wider world.

These somewhat silly statistics show the complex relationship between Israel and the outside world which continues until today – an extension of the tension played out on this same soil in the times of the Bible. Is Israel today more of a Sampson or more of a David? All-Beef Patties or Special Sauce?  Maybe both.

Olim L’Har Hertzl

As we go through the season of the counting of the Omer, there are  several Holidays/Remembrance days that are celebrated.  We feel the depths of Yom HaShoah; we feel the heights of Yom HaAtzmaut.  However, as Olim (new immigrants), it seems to me that we have the hardest time  relating to Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Remembrance Day dedicated to Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror.  Most of us did not serve in the army, nor did our fellow Olim.  We only meet the face of the army when our children are drafted.    We are, thankfully, missing the personal connection that unfortunately many native-born Israelis have with the day.

And with the place.  Our children may visit Har Hertzl, site of the National Military Cemetery, with their high school in preparation for their Poland trip, as part of their youth group, with their army unit, but we do not share those experiences.  Perhaps, when someone comes to visit, we may take them on their second or third visit to the Hertzl Museum, but we do not spend time wandering around the cemetery itself.

Here’s your chance.  Why should you dedicate a morning to a cemetery?  Because cemeteries tell stories of people’s lives and a National Cemetery tells the story of a Nation’s developing life. This month I would like to share with you some of the life stories of people who are buried in Har Hertzl military cemetery, with a special eye towards our experiences and realities as Olim.har hertzl - yom hazikaron

Tour date:  Sunday, April 21, Iyar 11
Tour start: 9:30 a.m. at entrance to Har Hertzl
Tour end:  approx. 12:30 p.m.
Approximate travel time: 40 minutes, participants are responsible  for their own transportation (I can help organize carpools).

No entrance fees.  Guiding fee is 50 NIS per person.

You need to wear good walking shoes, a hat and bring water.   This is a walking tour – we will be walking all morning.

If you are interested, please  e-mail me to let me know.  This tour will only run with a minimum of 8 people so tell your friends to contact me!

Bringing Sites to People

One thing that you learn in the Tour Guide course is where things are. We all dutifully write down exact directions on how to get to those familiar and not-so-familiar sites, where to park the bus, where to find the bathrooms. By studying all these notes, one becomes very good at bringing the people to sites which they may find interesting. We also learn which sites will speak to different groups in order to build itineraries with sites that are appropriate.

We learn how to bring people to sites

But not how to bring sites to people.

When you are interested in bringing sites to people, first you need to know who the participants are from where they are coming – not just in a geographical sense, but also in a more sociological, demographic sense.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of guiding an extended family group, here in Israel celebrating the grandfather’s birthday. There were quite a number of little kids, some teens, some adults. I suggested to them a day which centered around events in I Samuel 4 – the story of Even HaEzer. The first site was Izbet Sartah, an out-of-the-way site that I was pretty sure would be a new destination for both the Israelis and the visitors in the group.

I have guided Izbet Sartah before, but only for groups of adults. Generally, I talk about three themes there – development of domestic architecture and its impact on society, early Hebrew alphabet and the presence of scribal tradition in an early agricultural community, and the story of Even HaEzer. My challenge yesterday was how to convey those same three themes to the under 8 crowd.

First I tackled the issue of the alphabet. I took a ceramic planter from my yard that was already broken and smashed it creating pottery shards. I gave each person a marker, a shard and a copy of the early Hebrew letters which were found in Izbet Sartah in the abecedary from the 13th century B.C.E. and had them write their name in this ancient script. While they were writing, I was able to walk around to the adults and give them a bit more content.

Secondly, the family members put on a play about the story of Izbet Sartah. I brought a script, costumes, props and divided out the parts. They took a few minutes to organize themselves and then put on the play for the few spectators. They even had a camera man!

Lastly, each family tried to find one room of the four-roomed house which was excavated in Izbet Sartah. After each family “staked out” their room, we talked about the function of each room and what it would have looked like 3000 years ago.

Each group I guide has its own unique character. The goal is to try to bring sites, history and context alive so it is accessible to the group you are currently guiding.

Knowing facts and mountains of information is cool; but seeing someone connect with what you are telling them, beats everything.


I am back from my Winter Birthright trip with OU-92, my first winter trip.  The closing ceremony was rushed and I didn’t really have a chance to share with the group some of the thoughts I had about our experience together.  I want first and foremost to thank my wonderful staff.  Rachamim, Vera, DJ, Tehilla, Rabbi Zalman, and Rabbi K cared, listened, and contributed.  A staff that works together can make a good trip into a GREAT trip and you all truly did.
OU-92 Erev Shabbat Roof
Looking back on my Birthright experience this winter with OU-92, the word that kept coming into mind was


The first factor which led to the complexity of the trip was the weather.  And, although, we got quite lucky with the weather, it did eventually catch up with us.  In Birthright, I expect changes in the timing due to unforeseen events; with this trip, however, the changes were due to inclement weather.  How could you cancel Mt. Hertzl?  How do you make a coherent day in Tel Aviv when you can’t do almost anything outside? Sandstorm on Masada, surging waves at the Tel Aviv Port, heavy rains at the Bedouin tent….


That complexity came out in the stories the participants gave about their lives.  Stories about decisions they made that were not easy, about family situations that are far from comfortable, about loss.  Life is not so simple.


And then there is the natural complexity of the People of Israel in the Land of Israel trying to grapple with the Religion of Israel. These three factors trying to fit together to form a coherent whole.  Many times vying with each other, many times coming to loggerheads, many times in beautiful harmony.  The people on the street who said the entire project is too hard for them; the soldiers who said that they are willing to fight for trying to build the puzzle that is Israel; the little gains that you can see if you look hard enough.  Transforming the desert into wonderful peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes.  Providing work for handicapped adults.  Energizing a whole theater with Jewish pride.  Connecting us to our past through stones and stories.  Showing us beauty through waterfalls and endless vistas.


At the end, however, the largest complexity dwells in the individual.  How each and every one of us weaves the story of our ancestors into our present day existence and decides how it will influence our future is the most complex task of all.

I look forward to hearing about how you, the participants of OU-92, take on this complex project and carry the experiences we shared here in Israel into your futures.

‘Cause we are

We are shining stars

We are invincible

We are who we are

On our darkest day

When we’re miles away

So we’ll come

We will find our way home


If you’re lost and alone

Or you’re sinking like a stone

Carry on

May your past be the sound

Of your feet upon the ground

Carry on.