December 19, 2006
Shalom from Israel!

It was a long flight to Ben Gurion International from Oregon. From Portland we connected to Frankfurt and then across the Mediterranean to Tel Aviv. “And why did you come to Israel?” asked the uniformed woman at Passport Control. “To celebrate Susie’s birthday!” I replied. She smiled and motioned us through.

We’d expected tight security. After all, in America each visitor gets fingerprinted. But everything went smoothly and in minutes we had cleared Customs. A crowd was waiting outside the gate and from the back, a long arm reached up to wave.

The kite world is a remarkable extended family. We’d met Eli and Shula Shavit many times on our travels. And when they learned we were finally coming to Israel, they insisted on picking us up at the airport. We drove quickly across Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Welcome to Jerusalem
Welcome to Jerusalem

Within an hour, we were basking in the warmth of a welcome celebration and dinner with the Shavits, their fine sons, beautiful wives, and delightful grandchildren. BTW – for a gallery of the Shavit’s kites, check the Fall 2006 issue of AKA’s Kiting.

From the top of Mt. Scopus, you see that Jerusalem is compact, crowded, and surrounded by hills. The old city wall was last re-built by the Ottomans. All of the buildings are fashioned from white Jerusalem stone, some of which has faded to beige in the dust and sun. The vista is dominated by the golden dome on Temple Mount.

Susie had selected as our base, the venerable King David Hotel. First built in 1931 on a rocky mound overlooking the Old City, King David continues as the most prestigious and historic hotel in the city, regularly hosting presidents and premiers. They made the Gombergs feel like royalty too, with attention to detail and the kind of personal attention you just don’t find in most inns. Each morning the waiters greeted us by name, and in the evening, the night manager sent a note and bottle of wine to our room.

One night I passed by the door of a banquet room and was distracted for a moment to see a computer monitor near the dining table. Then I realized it was attached to a large wheelchair and remembered the note in the lobby reading “Welcome Professor Hawking.”

King David Hotel King David Hotel King David Hotel

A five minute walk from the Hotel were the walls of Jerusalem. Built by the ancient Hebrews, conquered by the Romans, held by the Byzantines and then assailed by the Crusaders, these walls had been breached by Saladin, absorbed by the Ottomans, colonized by the English, and finally, liberated by the Israelis in 1967.

At the main Jaffe Gate, stood the Citadel of David. It actually had nothing to do with David and was constructed as a fortress and palace by Herod the Great. Now it houses a wonderful historic and interactive museum.

David Citadel David Citadel David Citadel

We chose the first day to take a guided tour of the city. It wasn’t expensive and the guide was knowledgeable, knew her way through the maze of alleys, and was also good at keeping the throngs of hawkers at arms length. (“Where you from? Come to my brother’s shop! Best prices!! Buy postcards and maps!!”)

My only complaint is that the guides were on a schedule, and had long ago lost the sense of awe you feel when stepping into history. I wanted to stop and breath in the experience and joy at entering the Old City. They wanted to get us back to the bus before lunch.

In the Jewish Quarter, we viewed the Tomb of David and the traditional site of the Last Supper. We wound through the excavated layers of the old Roman and Byzantine markets. Then we climbed up for a view of the Western or Wailing Wall which is the only surviving portion of the great Temple of Solomon (recreated in the central image below). Where the Temple once stood, the Muslim Dome of the Rock was later constructed. We took a few private moments at the wall to contemplate heritage, the religious complexity of this remarkable city, and the wonder of being here.

Temple Mount Temple Overview Western Wall

In the Christian Quarter, we walked the Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross. The streets were narrow and crowded with shops. I wondered if it was the same when Christ’s passion was played out here, or how pilgrims might fare carrying their own crosses through the maze as they do each Friday.

At the end of the trek is the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, site of the crucifixion of Jesus, the tomb and of the resurrection. The Crusaders had identified this location which struck me as tenuous. After all, they had arrived 1000 years later and killed everyone in the city who might have known anything. Numerous Christian churches attend to this special place. To maintain neutrality among them, the keys are kept by Muslims. Like I said before, it is complex…

Christian Jerusalem Christian Jerusalem Christian Jerusalem Christian Jerusalem

Climbing the steps to Masada the following morning, I felt the same shudder of excitement I experienced when I first saw Stonehenge, visited the Statue of Liberty, or touched the Great Wall of China.

How do I explain Masada?

In the year 70 AD, the Jews revolted. Rome responded by destroying the Temple, salting the grain fields, and exiling the population. A few remaining fighters, called Zealots, retreated to the Dead Sea and the plateau fortress of Masada, built as a last retreat for Herod the Great.

For two years, Roman Legions assailed the fortress. Finally, they constructed a ramp of earth up the cliff, and prepared to overtake the defenders. Rather than be conquered and enslaved by Rome, the entire garrison of 1000 men, women and children committed suicide.

Masada Masada Masada Masada

From the top of Masada, you look down 1500 feet to the base of the valley. You can see the remains of Roman camps and barricades. And the amazing part is that up there on top, you are at sea level. Signs confirm that you are looking at the lowest point on earth.

Dead Sea Dead Sea Dead Sea

We stop at the En Gedi Spa and change clothes for a quick ‘float’ in the Dead Sea. The sensation is incredible. The water is so heavy with minerals that human bodies bob like corks. This must be what it is like to swim on the moon…

En Gedi is known for access to the Dead Sea and also for their mineral and mud treatments. Our guide promises that a single mud coating will take years off your appearance. Susie isn’t convinced. She just thinks it will make her look … muddy.

I decide to give it a try. The sticky thick goo smoothes on easily. Anyone wanna wrestle??

Outdoor sulfur showers provide a thick stream of cleansing water that smells worse than the mud. But you have to get clean before they let you back on the bus.

Mud Treatement

A final afternoon in Jerusalem is spent at the solemn Yad Vashem museum and memorial to the 10 million Jews, gypsies, political prisoners, homosexuals, and disabled persons murdered during the Holocaust. The same day in nearby Iran, a symposium began claiming none of this had ever happened. It did.

Welcome to Tel Aviv

After four wonderful days in Jerusalem, we headed for Tel Aviv. Our hotel was on the beach and a scenic promenade stretched toward the neighboring town of Jaffe. We decided to take a leisurely walk – three miles out and three back. It was a wonderful sunset!

Along the way, we crossed the Wishing Bridge and Susie shared an optimistic thought.

Ralph Resnik is a fighter kite aficionado and artist living just north of Tel Aviv. When he found out we were coming, he insisted on taking us sight-seeing for a day in the hills and wine country. Ralph also promised a visit to the best falafel stand in Israel.

Cesaria Cesaria Cesaria

In Ceseararia, we spent hours exploring the old ruins which included a Crusader castle, Hebrew palace, and Roman amphitheater and hippodrome. We marveled at mosaics thousands of years old. And scattered all around the site were pieces of what we were told was broken Roman pottery. For all I know they were really shards of 20 year-old drainage pipe, but it didn't matter. We gathered a few strewn around as gravel in the parking lot and brought them home as treasures.

That night we retired to the hotel lounge for a relaxing drink. Just after we arrived, an older gentleman came in looking frazzled. He explained that his daughter, the youngest of four, was getting married that night and the women in his room were making him crazy. We laughed and told him the father of four daughters deserved a drink!

A few minutes later, his mobile phone rang. He excused himself, obviously being called back to the room. But first he smiled and said "I’ll expect you downstairs in the ballroom for the wedding at eight!”.

We were flabbergasted. Was he joking? Would it be impolite to attend, or impolite to not?? We asked the lounge host. “Of course!” she said. “You should go!!”

Downstairs at eight, we found 700 people already in the ballroom. Food and drinks were everywhere. As we walked in the door, our host appeared out of the crowd to usher us in and introduce us to his family. His wife’s reaction was predictable if somewhat incredulous. I’m sure what she said in Hebrew was something like “You met them in the bar an hour ago and invited them to the wedding?? We’ll talk about this later!”

Mazoltov!! Mazoltov!! Mazoltov!!

The ceremony was exquisite. Then the walls parted to open a huge hall filled with dining tables. We had planned to politely skip the meal, but the father-of-the-bride would have no part of that and found us a good table.

“Are you friends of the bride?”, asked our dinner partners? “No.” “The groom then??” “No, we don’t know him either…” We told our story and everyone laughed. “You know”, our new friends explained, “he is the fourth richest man in Israel…”.

We danced until two and made new friends. Then we quietly slipped away – not wanting to be the last ones at the party.

Flying!

Good-Bye Israel!

Our final day was spent with the Shavits again, touring the markets and enjoying great food on the waterfront. We then forced ourselves to bed early. Our flight home was at 5:30 in the morning and we had to leave for the airport at two.

Israeli security is considered the most effective and rigorous in the world. But instead of the usual searches and indignities, we were simply interviewed at the gate and then waived toward the metal detectors. The conversation was thorough but brief and polite. At security, we kept our shoes and jackets on, and weren't asked to display any liquids or creams. It was a far cry from Frankfurt where they frisked me everywhere.

People ask us about safety. And yes we saw soldiers and security and policeman. We saw about as many as we encountered in New York last summer and London last spring. We were honored to spend personal time with wonderful friends. Their lives seemed relatively normal. But they all knew people who had been hurt or killed.

So do we here in America -- from friends in New York to the young soldier that came home to our small Oregon town today.

Susan and I are not naïve or reckless about where we travel. And yes, there are issues in Israel and the occupied territories. But for this one week in December, we did not feel unsafe.

Our time in Israel was wonderful. It was exciting, emotional, and illuminating. We didn’t agree with all we saw, but we learned more than we expected to. I even got to fly a kite!

Speaking of safety, we left the country for a week and the “Storm of the Century” landed here. Winds on our wooded hillside were clocked at 98 mph (That’s 150 kph for you metric folks!)

Temperatures dropped, trees fell, and the power went off for several days. Susie’s mom who was graciously watching the house and pets was not happy.

I should also mention that a power surge purged all the messages in our phone system. I'm the one not happy about that! Sorry!! We're not ignoring you if you called.

We’ve been busy shipping holiday deliveries and in between, I’ve been cleaning the yard with a chain saw. Life will return to normal fairly soon.

Happy holidays and a warm, safe, wonderful New Year to all you Update Readers.

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