Israel Trip 2019 - Day 12 - The North
It is hard to believe that we are still in Israel; after a week of being in the desert and in Jerusalem, we rolled into our hotel late last night, and were overwhelmed by a cacophony of birds, frogs, feral cats, palm fronds whipping in the wind, and the lapping water of the Kinneret. Our hotel, better understood as a “cozy fixer upper” youth hostel, sits directly on the Kinneret. Despite our modest rooms, we were beyond blessed to wake up to an expansive courtyard filled with giant palm trees and fountains, and to walk five steps behind the hotel to rolling hills, sports courts, playscapes, and the beach. We are working on becoming friendly with some of the natives: spiders, ants, and the occasional fly. We don’t argue about roommates; we argue about sharing our spaces with the native insects.
Rested, rejuvenated by tefillah on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, we began out morning at the highest point in Tzfat. Here stood the citadel that the first crusaders built at the end of the 12th century. Omar, our guide, recounted the history of 400,000 Christians leaving their European homes in 1096, and walking for three years to Jerusalem. “What would that even look like?,” one child wondered. While we tried to wrap our minds around this seemingly impossible task, he continued, “after three years, 40,000 people arrived in Jerusalem. They thought that they could take the city, which was under Muslim occupation, without a fight.” The kids sat in semi-circle formation on the old stones of the citadel and intently listened to the story of 40,000 Christian men filled with what they thought was the will of God. They decided to follow the Bible for military inspiration, and were surprised that marching around the city walls and blowing shofars did not produce the desired outcome. Apparently, this strategy had worked better in Jericho.
After instituting Plan B, and laying siege to the city, 35,000 Muslims, and some Jews, were killed in what the Crusaders considered the “liberation of Jerusalem.” The kids pondered this complex concept that we keep encountering: there are multiple narratives to every story. “Do we consider this a liberation?” Omar asked the students. Still uncertain of where he was leading them, they hesitantly shook their heads. And yet, I commended them on opening up their minds to consider the question. This is one of the beautiful things about 8th graders - they are on the cusp of maturity, and at this point in their intellectual lives, they still allow for the possibility of shifting their thinking. They are not rigid yet.
Omar continued to explain how after the this, the the Crusaders came to Tzfat to construct a fortified citadel. It was the biggest and strongest one that existed at that time. “What was in that citadel?” The kids guessed: holy pieces (relics), scriptures, treasure? The answer: land deeds. The most sacred objects on Earth for the Christians at this time were the pieces of paper that transferred land ownership of the Holy Land to the Europeans. This spurred conversation about land, ownership, and value. “Why was this worth so much?” asked one child. Our guide offered no answers, but I am eager to circle back at the end of the trip and ask the kids if ownership of the Land of Israel is the most valuable asset of our people. I wonder how 2.5 weeks here will impact their answers.
From here we hiked along the overgrown path - it was, blessedly, a particularly rainy winter season - and through a tunnel to a cistern. This spot, which emanated earthy, damp aromas through the caves, was where the Crusaders stored water for the city. There, in a dark circular underground room, we sang “Ashrei” and a Psalm in harmony. The kids’ voices bounced off of the round walls and carried out the light filled hole in the top of the space, and down the hills of Tzfat. We considered the moment. 43 Jews were singing songs of prayer in a Crusaders’ ruin. We reclaimed the narrative -- it was ours.
From here we climbed down countless cobbled steps to the heart of the city, where we tucked into one of the many alcoves and learned about Kabbalah and its relationship to Tzfat. Sitting under tiny balconies strewn with colored sheets waving in the wind, our kids listened to the story of Creation. And this was a different narrative than they were used to. Instead of Adam and Eve in a lush garden, we heard a story devoid of temptation. “In order to allow humans to perfect the world, God had to reduce himself. Holiness in God is described as light, so God made a void of darkness and he had to fill it with life. He used a vessel - the skull of the first man - and he poured light into it. As God poured light into the darkness, the vessel could not handle the intensity of the light, and it shattered. This is the world that we live in today. We will be fulfilled when all of the pieces come together. In everything that looks dark, there is really hidden light and we must find it. By finding light, we help God finish the act of creation.”
The kids discussed this idea. One child boldly asked, “But what if there is no light?” Quickly, another chimed in, “There is always light. We just need to find it.” Considering that Kabbalah is meant to be studied by middle-aged men who have finished studying Talmud in its entirety, and who have fulfilled the obligation to have two children. And yet. We quickly shifted the conversation into our realm, our world.
“When we are in a situation that brings us down, we can find the positive,” one child shared. “When we see a spider on the floor of our hotel, we can remember that we are in Israel, and this is not such a big deal.” A middle-aged mama with two children, and some Talmud study, under her belt, also added, “When we are in Israel, we can think about this incredible gift, and see how lucky we are vs. complaining about the little things, such as being a little chilly, or having to use squeegies in the showers.”
Which brings me to what I love most about your kids: their frankness: “Morah, we know we are so lucky to be in Israel; we are having the times of our lives. But squeegies in showers are just weird. And it is a little cold, you have to admit.” I decline to comment, but I consider myself priveleged to have the opportunity to discuss this hefty issue with them.
And with that, the universe provided us with a little more light, as the sun poked through the cloud cover and beat down on us as we scoured the market street for silver necklaces, bangles, and, “oh my gosh, there is a Patriots jersey in Hebrew, come quick!” Since Tzfat is a holy city, one sweet boy decided it was where he wanted to buy his handsewn tallis and tefillin bag. ‘I just love the gold and silver threads; it is pretty special.”Another said, “I need to get earrings for my sister; this is where I will get them.”
Again we ran into people we know. “Leah! You are back again! Michigan comes every year,” shouted a guide from a University of Michigan tour. I’ve been twice with the kids, but it is still odd to run into him on a random street in the North. Another student caught sight of her neighbor, and another ran into his camp counselor. Satiated with rekindled friendships, and laden with bags of special purchases, we put our feet up, and sipped the “world’s best slushies.” This is a very special characteristic of Israel; it appears that they offer the “world’s best” of just about everything in this tiny country. Tummies full of lemonade mint iced drinks, we held our foreheads to ward off the impending brain freezes, and scooted off to a pizur lunch and a lazy afternoon at the Kinneret.
Once we staked our claim on the busy beach, we stuck our toes into the murky sea, and decided that this fulfilled the experience. It’s a little “sketchy,” as one child put it. There is a little bit of shoreline, and a lot of algae and debris. This did not, however, spoil our mood. We spent the next two hours playing cards, listening to music, scrolling through baby photos, and played ball on the beach. This is another narrative that again and again weaves its way into Hillel’s trip; the kids can entertain themselves at the drop of a hat, and there is always room to add another friend to the game or discussion.
As staff, the trip offers us a unique opportunity to join the kids at their level, and hear them open up about their lives, the best way to secure a braid without hairpins, and their entrepreunurial skills at selling sneakers when you can properly assess the pulse of the supply and demand. Clearly, my husband and I are in the wrong fields for paying college tuition. #Thefutureissneakers.
Sun kissed cheeks, grinning with contentment, our kiddos walked along the shoreline to our hotel and continued our day by celebrating one of our sweet fella’s birthdays in an impromptu celebration. Filled with excitement and love, they raised our birthday boy high above their heads in a plastic chair, and belted out “Yom Huledet Sameach” at the top of their lungs, while giggling and recounting tales of friendship with our celebrity of the day. After taking the 10,000th photo of our birthday boy and his ever expanding group of friends, we retired to our rooms to shift our thinking, shower off the sand/dirt/chocolate, and prepare for Shabbat.
While walking back to the beach with a student to pick up a pair of forgotten sneakers (we still need to master the skill of hanging on to all of our possessions at all times), the student shared his thoughts. “I loved jeeping; I loved the beach; I loved hiking, but most of all I just love being here.” It made me think that while intellectually I know that we have not yet fulfilled the responsibility of repairing the world, Hillel’s 8th graders have spent the last eleven days letting in the light. Because if this ruach, kindness, devotion, and love of one another, of our homeland, and of Judaism does not have the power to heal, then I am at a loss for what does.
And so I bid you Shabbat Shalom. I hope that our light has trickled in via our pictures, words, imessages, and positive energy. We are all light right now, eager to spread our heat and feeling of security with those we love. And should you look East and see our glow, shield your eyes, for we shine a mighty beacon across the evening sky.