Saturday, December 28, 2013

Exploring the trenches of Castel

Today was a "plan C" weekend.  Plan A?  Go see "Frozen" with the kids.  One website said it was in English.  Another said it was dubbed in Hebrew.  The theater staff told us to call back today to find out.  Answer?  Hebrew. 

Plan B? Pack a picnic and head to the En Hemed National Park.  We got as far as the gate, which was closed... with a mysterious sign in Hebrew explaining why. 

So - to Plan C - the nearby Castel National Park, which was also officially closed.  When in Israel, though, do as the Israeli's do. After a picnic lunch at the playground below the park, we followed weekend hikers through a gap in the fence up the hill.  The view from the top was impressive.  Which would explain why this hill has been a strategic military outpost for centuries.  Guarding the road to Jerusalem, Romans, Crusader nights, Arabs and Israelis have all used this fortress to control travel into the Judean hills.

Today, there's nothing much left of the fortifications except for trenches and bunkers left behind by the Jewish Palmah commandos during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. 

A great spot to take in the view, and explore the trenches (best explored while wielding a wooden sword or bow & arrow, of course).

 A bronze relief map and plaque describing the fortifications
Three generations of Milligan women in the fortifications

In case you're counting, that's four parks explored, 62 left.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

O Little Town of Bethlehem

We sang Christmas carols in the minivan as we drove to Bethlehem the other night.  And it struck me how different the Bethlehem of today is from the one I’ve always envisioned during the Christmas season.  Maybe you dream of the same place every year?  You know, the little town lying still beneath the darkened sky.  The comfy stable back behind a busy inn, filled with sweet smelling hay.  A mysterious star guiding strangers from afar, and strange happenings among the shepherds in the fields just down the hill.  

Our minivan slips right through the 8-meter tall “security wall”, past armed soldiers and border checkpoints.  Without the benefit of diplomatic license plates on their donkey, though, Joseph and Mary would have found it quite a bit harder to enter Bethlehem today.  A complicated discussion about ID cards, “Area A” and citizenship would have certainly delayed their arrival at one of the few hotels in town.  

We pass under the observation towers and inch our way up what used to be the main road connecting Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  Reduced to about a lane-and-a-half by concrete detours of the wall and security checkpoints, it’s just about wide enough to let us squeak by a line of tour buses returning to Jerusalem.   When impatient taxis try to jump the queue by driving up our side of the road, we seek refuge on the sidewalk.     

Driving through the center of town, past “Nativity Square”, Bethlehem is decked with lights and decorations.   Santa and his reindeer compete with the baby Jesus and his family.  Vendors hawking “genuine Bethlehem handicrafts,” vie with restaurants and stores lining the narrow streets.  Christmas carols blare on tinny loudspeakers, and crowds of pilgrims and tourists jostle for entrance to the church where the original stable may well have stood.  

I suppose the chaotic, crowded Bethlehem of today is similar in many ways to the chaos that descended on Bethlehem 2000 years ago, when all in “the line of David” returned to their ancestral home to respond to Caesar's census decree.  Swap out Palestinian Authority policemen for Roman legionnaires, honking taxis for braying donkeys and crowds of tourists for throngs of census takers and you’ll probably get a good idea of what the “little town” of the carols really felt like that busy season

We ate dinner overlooking a field where shepherds once watched their flocks by night.  On the hilltop in the distance, the lights of Bethlehem twinkle, but here in the field, all is quiet. The stars shine bright in the dark sky above, and I can well imagine why the shepherds were terrified to see a “company of the heavenly host” appear out of the darkness.  As we walk the same dusty paths trod on by the wisemen, shepherds and Holy Family of the Nativity, amid the turmoil that is the Middle East, I can’t help but wonder that the “Prince of Peace” was actually born here. In Bethlehem.  

In a town caught in conflict between the two sons of Abraham.  A town divided not only by concrete barricades, but also by barriers of violence, mistrust, and hardened hearts.  A small town in a small region of the world that seems so far from being peaceful today.  As we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace 2000 years ago, may the peace He promises be our guiding light!

O little town of Bethlehem

How still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight

Merry Christmas from the Rubesh Family 
Celebrating the good tidings... in the land where it all began!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Herod was one bad dude

I've read and heard the stories hundreds of times: the journey to Bethlehem. Wise men visiting from the East.  A king named Herod with a little jealousy problem.  When you actually visit the places where these stories took place though, they take on a personality you never quite noticed before.  Kind of like actually tasting something you've only read about.

Just under seven miles away from our apartment, a volcanic cone looms over the dusty hills of Judea.  Only it's not really volcanic, and it's almost entirely man-made.  King Herod the Great commissioned Herodion as a family retreat of sorts - a vacation spot about 12 miles south of the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem.  The palace on top of the mountain and the grounds below included a royal theater, Roman baths, and luxurious accommodations for Herod and his family.  (If you have Netflix, check out this documentary for lots more details.)

There's not much left of the place now, but the excavated ruins give you a glimpse of what it must have been like.  You can imagine King Herod the Great, standing in one of his towers at the top of the mountain, surveying his domain.  

Just north across the rugged terrain of the Judean desert sits the town of Bethlehem, where 2000 years or so, something unusual was developing.

First, there was that odd star.  And then the visitors.  Learned men from the east, bearing strange gifts.  Perhaps those wise men even stopped here at Herodion to chat, (king-to-king, you know) as they chased the star across the sky.  

"Bethlehem?!" I can almost hear Herod exclaim as he glared across the valley.  "A new King, born in Bethlehem?  That little town over there in the shadow of my Herodion?"  

This is the same guy that had two of his sons and several of his wives killed to prevent threats to his rule.  When the visitors refused to play along, stop by for tea and spill the beans on the way out of town, Herod flipped.  There would be no new King from Bethlehem usurping his throne!  Matthew 2 picks up the narrative:

"16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi."

After giving the orders, he may well have retired to luxury royal box seats of his private palace to enjoy the latest in Roman theater.  Maybe he chilled out in the bathhouse, or enjoyed the fountains on the palace grounds.  No doubt about it, Herod was one pretty nasty dude.

The old bible story hasn't changed... but flavored with the smell of the dust wafting up off the hills, squinting in the midday sun under a bright blue sky, and surveying the same rugged mountains that Herod himself admired, the story resonates in a way it's never done before.  And that's what living in the Holy Land does to you.

Ancestors of Herod's Donkeys?

By the way, that's three parks down, 63 to go!

More photos here.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Dining at the shrine of The King

We visited the shrine of The King a couple weeks ago on the drive back from Tel Aviv.  No - not King Solomon, or King David or any of those biblical kings.  I'm talking about THE King... of Rock n' Roll, of course.  Elvis Presley.  Right here in Israel.  I'm all shook up! 

If you're not looking for a 16-foot tall golden status of Elvis, you might well just drive on by this gas station in Neve Ilan - about 10 miles West of Jerusalem on Highway 1.  We happened to be looking for the place after stumbling across the place on a random website... and still drove right by it.  But after getting directions from a couple of kids up the street, we pulled a u-turn, came on back and there it was, tucked in behind the gas station: the Elvis American Diner.

You gotta admit that the highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is probably one of the last places you'd expect to encounter a 50's diner playing Elvis on the jukebox, but there it was.  Graceland transported to the Middle East. 

The place was just about everything you'd expect an Elvis Shrine / Diner to be.  Wall-to-wall Elvis memorabilia, photos, statues; booths with big vinyl "comfy chairs" a soda bar with gleaming chrome bar stools; and, of course, hummus on alongside the cheeseburgers on the menu.

We opted for the cheeseburgers - which come in two sizes.  Large (for the kids) and larger (for the big kids), with a hearty helping of fries on the side.

In the mood for something different than your standard Middle Eastern fare?  Put on your blue suede shoes, head on down the highway and stop in at the Elvis Diner!  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Mountain Biking - Exploring the Aminadav Forest

My mountain bike hasn't seen much in the way of unpaved trails for a while, so I thought I'd do some exploring around the neighborhood this afternoon.  Within minutes of our lofty perch on Holyland hill, I was rocketing down a dusty dirt trail, dodging rocks, and grinding up long inclines surrounded by pine trees.

I was in "exploring mode," so didn't really know where I was until I returned home and consulted Google Earth.  The Aminadav Forest lines the highest hills in Jerusalem - peaking at over 2700 feet.   On a clear day, they say you can see the Mediterranean, glistening about 40 miles away to the West.

Little did I know that Jerusalem's Kennedy Memorial was just a mile or two away from my route.  I'll try to take that in next time.

After about 5 miles of dirt, I hit the blacktop of Highway 3877.  A couple miles of gentle climbing brought me to the top of the ridge near the road down to the Hadessah Medical Center, where I finished up the loop with a long descent on blacktop back home.

A few sights in the Old City of Jerusalem

One thing about living in Jerusalem is the diversity. You just never know what you'll see while out and about.

 I was heading out of the Old City when I came across 3 sights that stopped me in my tracks:

1st sight--- a limo parked inside the Old City! Since driving into the Old City is restricted, I just had to know how a limo got there and whose it belonged to. So, I asked the friendly pomegranite juice vendor (only $3 for a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranite juice--- oh so yummy and healthy!!!). It was the limo of the President of Israel, Shimon Perez. Wow...right there is the car of Shimon Perez-- cool!

2nd sight-- while exiting Jaffa Gate I heard some music and lo and behold...a lady wearing white was playing a harp while sitting in a nook of the gate. Stunning!! And the music wasn't bad either  (but I don't know much about harps).

3rd sight-- I will never tire of seeing an Arab man in his long flowing robes. So very distinguished looking and cultural!

I'm already wondering what I'll see next time I venture into the Old City!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Shloshing around in the Gan HaShlosa

National park visit number two this week was to the springs at the Gan HaShlosha National Park just west of Bet She'an.  To get there, we descended out of the Judean hills toward the Dead Sea, and then headed north on Highway 90, past Jericho (yes, that Jericho, where the "walls came tumbling down").  We pulled into the park after about an hour and forty minutes of easy driving on nearly deserted roads. 

The main feature of the "Park of Three" (Hebrew) or "The Hot" (Arabic) is the series of three natural pools that stay at a constant 80 degrees or so, year around.  On a warm September day like today, they just felt "refreshing." 

There's a kids' wading pool, and two larger pools, with waterfalls connecting them all, before the stream that feeds the pools runs past an ancient mill and carries on its merry way out of the park.  The waters are clear... which gives you a clear view of all the trash at the bottom of the pools.  We caught plenty of "plastic bottle fish", along the occasional "platefish" or "forkfish."

The pools' real-life fish are very inquisitive (though much too fast to catch with our assortment of kids' toys) and give you a gentle pedicure if you'll let them.

Green lawns and lifeguard stands surround the pools.  Barbeque grills dot the park, and there's a restaurant if you forget to bring your lunch along.

A great spot for a lazy day of lounging by the poolside!  Two parks down, 64 to go!

More photos here!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Excursions in Israel - Bet Guvrin Maresha National Park and the Bell Caves

We're officially "wheeled!"  Our van is finally here, licensed, registered, insured and road-ready.  We hit the trails this week with our first trip out of Jerusalem - to the Bet Guvrin Maresha National Park.  Just 45 minutes away from our perch in Holyland park, we headed down out of the hills of Jerusalem, descending through Ein Kareem and winding through the valleys to the flat plains of Maresha below.  The same plains where King Asa of Judah met and defeated an invading army from Ethiopia (2 Chronicles 14).  

No Ethiopians anywhere in sight today, but we did find plenty of interesting caves to explore.

This area has been known for centuries for its mines and quarries - the top meter or so of hard surface rock gives way to softer chalky rock beneath.  The bell-shaped caves resulted from the top-down mining techniques common to this area.  The miners "cracked" the top shell, and then dug down into the softer chalk, widening the caves as they went deeper, and pulling the quarried rock (and hopefully the miners too, at the end of the day) up through the hole at the top.  

The entrance to the Bell Caves complex today is via an arched doorway, leading to the cool shadows of the caverns beyond.

Ancient chisel marks were still very much in evidence as we explored the cave complex - a linked collection of several former bell-shaped caves, now accessible via well-maintained trails throughout the park.  

With the chimney-like entrance holes some 50-60 feet above our heads, the chiseled walls curved above our heads to form natural archways.  Pockets of harder rock left behind by the miners formed fascinating formations along the walls, and far above our heads, a colony of bats squeaked and rustled in dark corners.

After exploring the Bell Caves, we headed back up to the surface before driving a short way to the remains of the Biblical city of Maresha on a Tel (hill) to the north of the caves.  Several more caves to explore here: the burial caves prompted the kids to go searching for mummies, and strike their best "Zombie" poses.

Our last stop on this trip was a scrabble up the side of the Tel, and then deep underground into a deep cistern complex.

That's all for this update... lots more photos of this trip available here.  

With 65 more National Parks to visit, and a brand new National Parks pass in hand, there's plenty more yet to see!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Are You Religious?

"Are you religious?"  

That was the question posed to me by my son's friend who came over to play yesterday. I paused, longer than necessary, since I didn't know how to answer such a potentially loaded question. What did this 10 yr old mean by "religious"?  Do I not use electricity or push any buttons on my smartphone during Shabbat? Am I that kind of "religious"?  Do I make sure I face a certain direction before I pray? Am I that kind of "religious"? Do I not eat beef because I believe it is from a sacred cow? Am I that kind of "religious"? These type of questions raced through my head while this boy looked at me, waiting for my answer. Apparently I wasn't fast enough for him since he interrupted my brain dialogue with another question, "I mean, do you believe in God?" Ohhhhhhh.....that is a WAY EASIER question to answer!  (Whew---dodged a bullet!! )  I was able to reply in a timely manner, "Yes, we believe in God and in Jesus." The conversation then carried on like this:

10 yr old: Oh, so you go to church?
me: Yes we do. We attend on Saturday.
10 yr old: Why? Aren't you suppose to go to church on Sunday?
me: Well, in most countries yes, but not here. What about you? Do you believe in God? (Please note: I didn't ask him if he was religious!)
10 yr old: I'm not atheist. I believe in God, but I don't go to church.
me: Well then maybe you can come sometime with Jad and us to church.
10 yr old: Hmmmm.

Honestly, I do not like the word 'religious'. I prefer the word 'relationship'. I have a relationship with God. I talk to Him, I pray to Him, I meditate on Him, I thank Him, I praise Him, etc. It is not a one-sided relationship, and this is the hard part-- it takes time and effort to listen to God, to read His Scriptures, to obey His teachings.

If a 10 yr old boy had asked me this question in Prague or Costa Rica or Oregon, I'm sure I wouldn't have taken so long to answer. But living in Jerusalem, the focal city of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (alphabetical order...nothing political here), has made me re-evaluate my view of the word "religious". Maybe it isn't such a scary word after all.  It is a powerful word that has been used to throw stones, ignite misunderstanding, and build impenetrable walls. But I am discovering that it can also be a word that builds bridges, encourages mutual respect, and fosters peace.

"Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God." 

The Gospel according to Matthew chapter 5, verse 9

Oh dear God, please help me to be a peacemaker, no matter where I am.

Friday, August 30, 2013

How to Explore in an Arab neighborhood

Today I had no reason to stay home--- no shipment delivery, no electricians nor handyman to wait for to fix something, no landlord to talk to about issues with the apartment, nothing! So I decided before our shipment arrives and I'm tied to the house unpacking boxes, I would go exploring.  And why not explore in one of the Arab neighborhoods, such as Beit Safafa.

So, with my 6 necessary items (wallet, phone, keys, sunglasses, water bottle, and map) I head off in the direction of Beit Safafa. It takes about 45 min to walk there and along the way I discover several playgrounds, a bike path, and the tennis center.  I keep walking and finally I am in Beit Safafa! Yay! So where should I go? Where can I go and practice my Arabic?  Where to Arab women hang out?  Ahhhh....the hair salon/beauty parlor!!! Yes! That's the place I want to be.

So I keep walking and I find 2 older ladies waiting for the bus. I approach them and we start chatting in Arabic. Of course, they want to know where I'm from, why do I speak Arabic like this, etc, etc. (By the way, they are waiting for the bus to go to the Old City to pray at Al Aqsa Mosque.) After the adequate amount of pleasantries, I ask them where I can find a ladies hair salon. These 2 ladies decide I need to go to Aida's Hair Salon at the top of the hill in Beit Safafa. Could I walk to it? Yes, they say, but don't. Just about this time, Um Munir stops a car that is driving by us. She tells the lady driver that I need to go to Aida's so could she please drive me up the hill. And the next thing I know, I'm sitting in the backseat of a total stranger's car being driven up the hill to Aida's Hair Salon. The driver and I start chatting in Arabic---  how to do you know Um Munir, where are you from etc, etc. And then she switches to English and says, "Maybe you know my father. He has written a well-known Arabic-English dictionary. His name is Omar Othman."  Wow....just the week before while dining with some friends, we were discussing a particular word in Arabic and we grabbed Omar Othman's Arabic-English Dictionary to look it up. And now here I was riding in the car with his daughter!??!! What a crazy small world!   Oh and look--- we've arrived at Aida's. Ok, yalla bye, thank you for the ride!

And that is how you go exploring in an Arab neighborhood.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Living without watching the news

    For the most part, in the past 2 months I have not watched the news.  (Ok, there were the few days we stayed at a hotel in Washington DC and yes, I watched the news on TV.)  That doesn't mean I don't know what is going on in the world-- each day I look at the headlines on Google News. Let me just say there is a HUGE difference between watching the news and reading the news.

    Yesterday I perused Google News more than usual because it seemed things were heating up.  Then I received a facebook message from a dear friend saying that she was going to be saying extra prayers for me and my family to stay safe. This led me to look out my my floor-to-ceiling windows to see how the "news" was affecting life in West Jerusalem.   I saw a mother pushing a stroller alongside a little kid riding his plastic Hot Wheels trike. There was another lady in work-out clothes (a modest long sleeved, long pants track suit) walking for exercise in the park. Another person was walking his dog.  I saw a guy on his balcony relaxing. Buses were going up and down the street. People were walking on the sidewalk carrying a briefcase or bag.  In other words, it all looked totally normal and like any other day in West Jerusalem.

So as you watch the news and their reporters, remember that they are interested in ratings.  They are going to say things that make you think the worst.  Then counter that with the view out of my living room window.  Life is going on as normal.  Not to say that  bad things can't happen, but it appears to me that the people in this country are prepared. Queen Elizabeth's advice seems to be the norm here: Keep calm and carry on.