A disney cruise type of day

hence the title above…….

Scott Sitner-Haifa and North Israel, December 2018

I don’t mean that headline to be offensive to Disney, just that today was a travel day, about two hours north to where we have ended up near the Syrian and Lebanese border(more on that later), but they had to break up the trip so we didn’t just drive two hours and end up somewhere with nothing to do, god forbid.  So we saw stuff today that reminded me of being on a cruise on a stop, or even better a series of 7th grade field trips.  Sort of interesting, sort of boring and sort of forgetful save for one or two things.  Our first stop was this odd portion of a Kibbutz, where they made us dress up like ancient bedouins and watch them make breads milk goats and shear sheep and then make our own bread.  Yeah, field trip.[  It wasn’t awful, just sort of silly I guess.  Our next stop was the first real bummer.  A one man show about the interaction between arabs and israelis in communities.  I know, it sounds enthralling;  it wasn’t.  You know you are in trouble when the  person doing the performance 20 minutes in says “and now let our story begin,” after having started by telling us this was an unfinished work and he still had some changes to make.  I lasted ten minutes and took a walk on a perfect winter day seeing what you can see now.     

Our next stop was an ancient roman dig site, going back 1900 years, a jewish roman settlement with was fascinating  See the pictures, but it was amazing to see a wealthy and prominent jewish home from almost 2000 years ago, clearly a home for someone who was very prominent in the community probably a religious leader.

a bathroom, from really long time ago, 100 AD
an ancient “carpet “at a dig site, probably the home of a very wealthy family

 Note the “carpet” Last was a stop at a kibbutz for a brief descriptive talk and a talk by four kids,18-20, who had chosen to live there.  Interesting event but nothing we could not have survived without.

family we had dinner with

The last part before the late drive to the hotel was a “family hospitality dinner”, my self and my two kids went to the home of a local mom and her mom and her 13 year old son for dinner.  While we only had 90 minutes, it was really an interesting cultural exploration.  he food was just normal, hummus, imagine that and just beef plus she made us a cake. But we did our best to talk about kids, politics(big trump supporter because of Israel, no real idea how nutty things are at home.  We found that we really shared the same issues, worried about our kids, hers had been in the army and her you get would go, safety in her community, having enough money to make ends meet and have a good life.   We think we are all that different but at the end of the day we really aren’t.  This was the first part of the trip and I think done with purpose, to get us thinking about our jewish identity and how it fits into this and other societies.  We really brief but eye opening meeting. And my daughter Mari got an new instagram follower. Now onto golan heights and then jerusalem.

Eve of Destruction and Art

golan heights

Scott Sitner-Qiryat Shemona-North Israel-December 2018

old bunkers used during the war of 67

Today was the first day I felt, sort of following the dinner last night with the Israeli family, that I felt like I was in Israel as part of a Jewish trip as opposed to just doing some sightseeing and seeing some interesting places.  I am not sure if this was done intentionally. with a family visit and then more immersion in our and Israel’s history but if it was it worked.  After a decidedly mediocre breakfast compared to the Hilton in Tel Aviv(these things mater I’m sorry, I miss fruit), we signed up to go on a jeep ride through the Golan Heights, which is of course the site of many of the  border wars, including 1967 and  Yom Kippur war of1973.  

my father at the Golan Heights

Where we were driving was originally Lebanon and the driver pointed out exactly where the battles took place, pointing out where the soldiers sat in bunkers before the battles shooting Israeli citizens just a mile away at random and just because they were Jews.  The hills were filled with leftover land mines, bunkers] and evidence of the wars that took place.  This was fascinating to see where the real formation of this area took place, where the fight for the borders happened and to think what would have happened if Israel had not been successful.  Today these areas are filed with commerce, tourism, kibbutzim and the like, but we were told how strange it was that the citizens live in constant apprehension of more fights in the future, knowing that your enemy is just a few miles away and would like nothing more than for you to not be there.  

cows in the golan heights the land is now farming
walking through the northern countryside

The land itself is now fertile and green, pastures and such. One of the rainy areas so very pretty and hilly, which made it good for war.One of the other interesting political aspects is that Israel has very strict gun control laws, that to own even a handgun requires an application and a strict review of the applicant.  Even soldiers have to return their weapons when they are concluded with their service. Israelis just don’t generally even think about owing guns, such a contrast with other countries and interesting especially in border communities with a constant threat of warWe next took a walk through a forest and river area, reminded me of areas in Northern Michigan. Pretty hike, but I think because we were there  because it was something to do.  We then stopped at a kibbutz for lunch and shoe shopping.  Really, I can’t even say much more.   They were not even cheaply priced shoes, can’t really explain, it felt a little like a cruise ship port where the cruise staff gets a little kick back from the shopkeepers. I don’t think that happened but it was a little odd.  In defense, the shoes were made in Israel.Our last part of the day was in a little artist community called Tsaft.  We had a brief lecture from an artist and then had a few long hours to walk the market area.    Some of the art was both stunning and stunningly expensive, thousands and thousands for certain pieces, thankfully shipping included….   

streets of Tsfat, wrist community dating back 7 centuries

Much of it was local art, which was nice to see but it sort of again felt like a stop on a cruise ship.  What was cool was the history of the city, it was originally conceived by the romans thousands of years ago but became truly populated around 500 years ago  The streets and buildings were laid bricks from centuries before and the streets had character that you cannot see much of today.    That made the stop worthwhile, and a whiskey tasting with my oldest child while my father watched.  Worth the price of admission alone.We also spent some time in a centuries old synagogue. It is fascinating to think that people worshipped there 400 or more years ago and that parts of it still were being used.  Again this was one of the things that ties the trip to jewish history and culture and heightens the reasons for being here.  The city has housed jews for thousands of years and remains a central part of our history.


Dinner at the hotel was lame.  

Lives in the balance


scott sitner-jerusalem 2018

gate to arab side of Jerusulem

It may seem like I skipped a day, let’s just say the travel day to here was uneventful.  Yes “making”chocolate at 9 am was a joy, the kids liked it, and visiting a kibbutz was actually interesting, it was an old style one where it was a a true co op, everyone works for the community, really was fascinating and apparently a dying breed.  We also stopped at a strip mall for lunch, ate at a pretty decent sushi place, and then drive the last few hours to jerusalem.  Really the definition of a travel day.  Captivating I am sure.We are in Jerusalem  for five days, so we get to settle in.  driving in you see the gates hat separate the jewish areas where we will spend most of our time, and the arab and christian areas, separated by 500 plus year old stone gates.  These are open and there is access with no issue but it reminds you of where you are and the balancing act between the communities.   The day today was supposed to me miserable and turned out to be nice.  It really was the sort of your you take. One elderly man on the trip, late seventies, talked about how if he had a bucket list as a Jew how could this not be on it?  And he was and is right.  This is the center of the jewish religion history and culture. The city has existed in one form or another for thousands of years, going back to peaceful co existence in roman times to the turbulent years recently.  

part of jerusulem

my father resting

What I did not expect was how pretty the scenery was  the hills, and valleys are spectacular..  I think people have a pre conception that is belied by the realities of this very hilly city. We did a walking tour of the areas around the western wall, seeing excavation sites, water systems 1800 years old and of course then the western wall.  What this reminded of and made us think about was our history and culture. So may people just think that as jews we don’t eat pork or shrimp(love em both), strictly observe shabbat and have to follow strict rules to be a Jew  We don’t and it becomes offensive sometimes.  

found under a parking lot was a few thousand years of history

outside western wall

a rainy day at the wall, imposing

Being jewish is as much about religion as it is about history and culture.  Our people have fought and survived for centuries and while the religion is important of course, it is the culture and who we are as a community that is more important.  The wall exists for prayer, and people pray there.  They also reflect and think, you can do both.  In fact the truly orthodox don’t even consider many others jewish  We will survive.The wall itself is just that, a very very old wall.   A barrier separates women from men which is still off putting but reminds you the orthodox history.  

Thirty minutes was plenty to feel the importance of the wall in our history and to understand why it s important.  Even for reform jews, we still feel a spiritual connection to our history and our past.  People place notes in the wall with prayers for whatever or whoever they feel they need to pray for.  There is a feeling of connection whether you believe as the orthodox or not.We also saw dig sites uncovering homes from 2 thousand years ago.This was a parking lot and when they went to do some construction and found that there were multiple levels of ruins, going back past the ottomans to the ancient romans.   They simply keep finding more and more ruins, this is going on ten years of digging.  

women’s side of the wall, the tunnel above goes to temple mount

Most of it simply is housing, but there is also evidence of the lost City of King David, which would be major finds.   It is again the history of the City that fascinates, knowing that thousands of years have passed and countless generations of people have made this home.

just amusing

This is a funny picture of a cat and a rooster, it has no significance of any kind.Lastly for the afternoon, we went to a huge market and given that this was just a few hours from Shabbat, when the city essentially shuts down, it was a mob scene, thousands of people buying what they needed and thousands of tourists doing the same.  It was crazy, claustrophobic and fun.  I lasted twenty minutes.We also had a shabbat service tonight at hebrew university.  It was a service that was short and more pointed then most because of where we were. It was just our temple group, casual and quick but it was interesting to see how people were more moved than at home simply because of where we were.  It was nice.

busy market on Shabbat afternoon)pre shabbat-crazy)

The Indifference of heaven

Jerusalem on a shabbat morning
Shabbat Morning in Jerusalem

Scott Sitner-Jerusalem-December 2018

It’s shabbat here, and has been since last night at sundown for people who didn’t know that, if anyone.  For Jerusalem that means the City essentially shuts down, restaurants close, shops are closed, it is fascinating to see how things just die off.  And to see how many observant people there still are. The city is apparently one half orthodox as far as the jewish community, and one half of course secular.  But given that so many things close, orthodox wins out.  There are still people out but it drops by 90 plus percent.  Hotels have special shabbat elevators that stop at every floor so no one presses a button and the hotel has a second set of toilet paper so observers don’t have to tear, which is prohibited.  Crazy. On Saturday morning, most of group met for a shabbat service at a local temple at the University.  The room was amazing, looking out over the western wall, the wall of Jericho and the City[]. It was even more special as 25 kids read from the torah,  some soon to be bar mitzvah kids and some from the past.    You could tell from the parents and most of the kids that reading from the Torah here, overlooking the City was the highlight of the trip, nothing could really top that.Regretfully cloudy so I can’t show a better picture but you get the idea, it was stunning.So what does one do on Shabbat?  We go to the other side, Christians of course.  A short walk takes us right into the Christian corridor and market where of course they are happy to take our Schekels and show us around.  We had lunch at an Armenian restaurant which was well, chicken and beef and vegetables and pita, starting to see a bit of a trend?  

tower of david

We then set off to explore the area which includes the “Tower of David”, which dates back 800 plus years but ha evidence of ruins for over 2000 years ago.  It sits on a site that overlooks the city, used for military strategy because of the height.  It has been built and rebuilt going back those 2000 years.  It now is a museum and gives an amazing view of the City.The Church of the Holy Sepulchreis of course where it is believed to be the site of the crucifixion and his ultimate burial and the last supper close by.   

me for better or worse

children on shabbat(mine)
church of holy sepulcher-where jesus died among other things

The church has changed hands so to speak for generations and is now controlled largely by the greek orthodox church.  Once inside you can  see and feel the solemness of where you are even as a Jewish person.   This is clearly the holy grail for christians, to pray at the site of where Christ was buried and of course crucified.  The line was very long, so we explored otherwise. The artwork and artifacts inside are amazing, the Church having been rebuilt about 1100 years ago, so it feels old but you can see where it has been fixed up.  Artwork depicting events of this times are throughout but when you see the area where his tomb is you can feel its importance  As a non christian I don’t feel comfortable commenting more than this, but I assume it is like when we are at the wall or similar place.We then took to exploring a bit, accidentally spending 25 dollars on a latte and tea and just walking the area.  Last thing at night, we saw Santaheading a concert on the Ben Yehuda Street, singing all the classics, was I think the perfect way to top off the night. That and a really mediocre bagel, I guess you expect more from being here.  Disappointing.

nightlife in jerusalem

As for the title, it’s an old Warren Zevon song, the lyrics don’t mean a lot but after going to temple services and then seeing the Christian side, and I am not religious, but you wonder if at the end of the day there is a heaven and it what all religions say it is, shouldn’t everyone fit in and be welcome?  Shouldn’t whoever guards the gate simple be indifferent to the differences between everyone?  Or not I guess

inside the church

his final resting place


View from Ya’d va shem

Scott Sitner-Jerusalem-December 2018

For some reason this Tom Petty song kept running through my mind as I was touring the Holocaust museum:(Ya’d Vashem)

You belong among the wildflowers

You belong in a boat out at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free

The lyrics kept running through my head thinking of the people trapped where they were.  First in their what they thought were secure homes, with jobs, families and kids.  Then as those things were slowly stripped away, I envisioned them all thinking that all they wanted was to be free, yet most never would be until they were murdered.  It’s a funny thing going to a museum designed to recall and memorialize a true horror of world history.  The museum, interestingly enough, is not for people like us, even though of course it is a huge part of our cultural and religious history.  More importantly it is for non jews, as we of course will never forget, but it is the rest of the world that has to remember, those groups who do not get immersed in it like Jews, but for whom it is a chapter in a history book and a few lectures.  No different than other genocides, the world has to remember, not the people who were targeted and were its victims. Our our guide, who is also our guide for the trip walked us through the museum and gave us perspective.  

approaching children’s memorial at Ya’d Va shem
no words

What struck us was that he framed everything by saying “they didn’t know what was going to happen.”  So with each new act of repression and suppression over a decade or more, people did not know they were soon to be executed, more they hoped that it would get better. It gave a new perspective to me walking around thinking of the people who could never have envisioned they were soon to be murdered, not knowing that people could do that to other people  and just hoping it would improve and they could resume their normal lives. doThe worst part was the children’s memorial, dedicated to the 1.5 million kids who were murdered.  There is nothing else I can say.A few things if you go.  It’s mobbed, like wow.  If you have already been to DC, or other holocaust museums, many of the exhibits are the same or similar, which is good because it is near impossible to see a lot due to the crowds.  Thew views outside are amazing, designed to show Israel as this is our homelands and where people strive to come..  It’s shorter than DC, two hours and done.  Well worth it as how can one be here and not go?So what does one do after that?  Shop and eat of course.  A good glatt kosher meal, some shopping for trinkets and a nice day of rest.  We blew off the dig, just too tired and wanted to explore the city.  A nice dinner in town, fish.  and done for the night.   Traveling this much is hard, everyone is being a trooper but I can see it wearing on people, tomorrow is Masada and the dead sea so 12 hours of a bus and such, but a nice way to finish.  Good night

just pretty countryside

the land down under-dead sea and below


Scott Sitner-Dead Sea-December 2018

OK, so no we did not migrate to Australia, but we did in fact take a two hour bus ride to the lowest point on earth, 1400 feet below sea level:  the dead sea. The sea, composed of a ridiculous amount of salt, is slowly evaporating, look at the pictures where water used to be years ago which is now just dry lake bed.   It is a fascinating thing to be driving from the city here in two hours, and even more fascinating that there are resorts here, like six of them, all on the beach.  It is very pretty but we are all having a hard time figuring out why they are so popular.  You cannot really swim in the sea for more than a few minutes as novelty, and there is not a golf course to be found for probably 150 miles.  Nonetheless it is a cool site to see knowing you are in fact at the lowest point on earth.  Russians flock here I guess.What we saw next was far more interesting and something that anyone who loves history, jewish or not, should see.  We went to Masada.. Most people know the story, 2000 years who Herod built this fortress on top of Masada 2000 plus years ago.  There homes, temples, baths, community centers and the like, all built on top of this mountain in the desert south Israel, with NOTHING anywhere near by.  It sort of begs the question of what was being secured?  But the story goes that the romans attacked Masada, and the 960 jewish people on the mountain. The story goes that rather than being taken into slavery the people decided to not commit suicide as this violates jewish law, but choose ten soldiers to kill the citizens, then those ten left would kill each other, leaving only one to violate jewish law by killing himself.]It is a testament to not wanting to live as slaves and that death is preferred and to find a way not to violate jewish law.  What we see now is a National Park, and people hike up the mountain( I did not, really cool cable car my kids did)commemorating this event.  Digs have uncovered the very complex way of life, and how they managed to create a whole community on the top of this very large mountain 2000 years ago.  The views are amazing as you can see miles in the distance, although as pretty as it is, it is just sand and rock and sea..  Today, as second to last was one of those days of things “you have to do”  no trip would be complete without seeing masada and floating briefly in the dead sea.  And no day like this would be complete without dinner at yet another pretend Bedouin site run but a man pretending to be an old Bedouin farmer who had the strangest british accent.  I guess on a tour you suspend belief……One more day then a long ride home.

lowest point on earth….

Top of Masada
Fort on top of Massada

As you finish the walk to the top

more cats, just more cats…..at a roadside stop in the desert

long walk home

Temple Mount-one of the holiest sites for muslims

Scott Sitner-Tel Aviv and home-January 2019

view of western wall walking into temple mount

It’s a prescient thought on the last day of a long trip far away, and on the last day, with an 11:35 pm flight it does feel like a very long walk home.  But we have to fill what amounts to 15 hours before getting to the airport, so more to see.   First is Temple Mount which is one of the most contested religious sites in the world.]  The first temple was built,(or close by) in 565 BCE by King Solomon, one of the original jewish temples.  This site is the holiest site in judaism, the temple there is the second, and rumor has it the third will be built  someday.    For muslims, this is the third most holy site according to the most believed texts.  The dome in the picture was built around 692 AD, and has been renovated and such(the gold was from Saddam in the early 1990s).  The site sits in the middle of the Old City, which accounts for the very very heavy military presence.

view into Jerusalem from around Temple Mount

Next was off to Israel’s version of Arlington cemetery.  It was very striking how similar it was.  Areas for the leaders, areas for general soldiers, and then certain areas for soldiers who died in specific battles.  It was very pretty, and to be at the grave of Theordor Hertzel, who in the late 1800s, and early 1900s, come up with the idea of a Jewish state, and set out to make jews aware of how and why it is necessary to have one to be respected on the world stage was inspiring.The rest of the day was frankly a blur, and I cannot imagine anyone really cares.  A super fancy food court where I had lamb bacon(pretty tasty).

plaza at the temple mount

Grave of Hertz, basically founder of Israel early 20th Century

best food court ever in Tel Aviv

kids and grandmother -the last meal -wasn’t good

 A final dinner together where we had, yes, kabobs and rice and hummus, which most people, picked at with a strange look of disgust.  And a nutty 2.5 hour journey through security at Ben Gurion airport and home after 14 hours of flying and 6 hours of layovers.  See no one cares.Thanks to the few dozen people I know are reading this and apparently others scattered around the internet.  This is an exercise of ego, so thank for indulging.