We stand in the plaza stepping back in time from the city dotted with cranes and gleaming high-rises. Tel Aviv. Gentle waves lap the beach below us, gathering debris out to the Mediterranean Sea.
A tel is an artificial hill.
Beneath Old Jaffa’s yellow limestone plaza is an ancient theater. If one were to dig deeper, an ancient town might sprawl on the third tier down where generations lived in their stories, in the structures of their time, their lives the foundation for all that would come after on this layered hill that we preserve and walk today.
A sleepless flight from Paris to Israel. My heart rate is slow with delayed beats and an irregular rhythm. I was a bit breathless in the hustle of the airport. In my half-sleep anxiety in the air, I decide that my photos of people practicing their religion will be in black and white to show the certainty of the pilgrims and devout. The surround and the countryside will show the colors of nature, cultures, cuisines, the lands. I wonder to myself how this trip will resonate with my husband, Michael, born Jewish, not practicing. We travel with his older sister and her husband, both of whom are more active in temple and religious observance.
Stepping from the plaza into shade, we enter the museum of Ilana Goor. It is both home and multi-storied display, each room different in character and content. The monks room features two long tables heaped with metal insects, skulls, and detritus of consumption. The main gallery is dominated by tangled pieces covering two full walls that combine the pastoral with farm implements and relics of the artist’s childhood in Poland. A third gallery combines whimsical chairs with other furniture, two large chandelier fixtures and a 4,000 lb. truck hitch mounted to a concrete reinforced wall audaciously hung over a glass desk.
A narrow staircase takes us to a library, a copper potted kitchen with amphorae ceiling, a large horse painted in joyful primary colors as the focal point of an outdoor patio. Climbing again, we reach the rooftop sculpture garden overlooking the sea.
It is here that we turn from assembled clay pots and the abundance of large and colorful statuary to a solitary female form in bronze at one wall. With the liquid symmetry of an hourglass, arms encircling the figure’s head balance ample hips and thighs, yet heaviness confronts the freshness of a simple stretch. This is a replica, we are told, of the original which stands in Nahariya, near the Lebanese border, and is dedicated to Smadar Haran who lost her husband and two daughters in a 1979 attack by the Palestinian Liberation Front. The statue is known as Mourning/Morning.
“This happened. It is not so common but this is Israel. You will travel near where this happened,” our museum guide breathes, her own emotion heavy beneath her words.
A tel is a hill built from layers of civilization, structures and lives before our time. I am reminded of the ghetto cemetery we visited in Prague where tombstones crowded and leaned together over two layers beneath the density of the surface.
Aviv means spring.
Our guide has introduced himself as Ofer. He is 33 years old, single, an archeology major, completing his master’s thesis. He is a good-looking man with Jesus hair and beard, a generous smile and an easy manner. He tells us Ofer means fawn.
He thanks us for coming to Israel, a country at the center of alarming news coverage resulting in endless concern about the safety of travelers. You travel to Paris knowing reliably what you will see. You travel to Israel knowing what you have heard and read about the perils of the region. I hope your hearts will be infected by Israel in the same way that one falls in love with Paris.
Within days, we are conversant with Shalom (Hello-Goodbye-Peace), Sababa meaning Great or Cool, and Ama Ma which Ofer uses like a big Gotcha, the word that changes the original meaning. I love my wife, Ama Ma you should see my secretary...
Ofer greets us daily with an affable Bocer Tov (Good Morning) to which we chorus Bocer Or (Good Morning).
Early on in our travels, Ofer introduces us to the prophet Elijah who he casts as a filthy guy, probably with dreadlocks, no social grace to redeem his abrasiveness and intolerance, yet with the courage to prophesy to King Ahab the drought that God will levy as punishment for idol worship. Elijah is persecuted by the evil queen Jezebel whose name correlates with the modern זבל, a word that sounds in Hebrew like zebl meaning garbage.
At the end of Elijah’s life...
.... He [God] said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire [a] still small voice.
So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
The original translations cited a “still small voice” but that is not exactly correct. Just as he would later gallop through centuries and empires, Ofer took care with the detail of this verse. The more correct translation would be “a whispering silence.”
Later I would find that Jewish scholars have devoted considerable study to biblical text referring to silence as a sound, and the etymological connection between ‘kol d’ma•ma da•ka,’ ‘a sound of thin silence.’ to the word for blood. 1
I interpret both as a life force.
Ofer has told the story of Elijah on our bus ride circumnavigating Haifa. We will drive by Mount Carmel where Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal. There are no artifacts for us to see or touch, but Ofer has named Eliyahu as the most important prophet, the one thought to precede the Messiah. Where the telling started mythically, Elijah now feels real. Michael whispers to me, “Wow, I just made the connection to what was said at the end of our prayers – Eliyahu hanavi. I didn’t realize that Eliyahu was Elijah.”
Michael and his sister confer about their family traditions and words they heard spoken in Hebrew, Eliyahu hanavi. Elijah is my prophet. It is still the tradition to set an extra place at the table. So that Elijah may feel welcome, they prop open the door.
We were swept into the kaleidoscope of histories and civilizations, places like Jaffa where the surface never tells the whole story. Jaffa’s natural harbor made it part of the ancient Via Maris trade route connecting Egypt in the south to Syria in the east, Africa to Asia and to Europe. Jaffa – a city sacked and rebuilt many times over as it fell to the succession of Greeks, Maccabees, Hasmonians, Romans and then into the hands of King Herod of Judea who used the port’s income to build Caesarea. Jaffa – a storied harbor dating back to the Bronze Age, conquered with Trojan-horse trickery by Pharoah Thutmose III, the port where Jonah fled from the Lord’s command to go to Ninevah 2, the port that received the Lebanon cedars used to build King Solomon’s Temple 3. Jaffa – the site where Peter miraculously raised a man from the dead and had the cathartic vision that inspired his travel to spread the word of the Lord even into the homes of Gentiles, the earliest acts of what became the Christian church.
“You have to be careful when you turn around in this country,” Ofer quipped. “Some miracle happened everywhere you look.”
We would travel to the ruins of Caesarea, built in honor of Caesar Augustus, by King Herod. A soft chorus of Asian pilgrims across from where we sat reached us in crystalline tones in Caesarea’s first century theater. A short distance from the theater, an empty expanse of sand, meridian ruins and rock stands for the audience; a hippodrome that once held 20,000 people for chariot races smolders in the heat of the day. Tented archaeological digs met the eye at every turn and it was easy to imagine the march of Muslim, Caliphate, Crusader, Mamluk, and Ottoman occupants that over centuries reshaped the capital of Judea, the Roman province. The Mediterranean Sea cooled us as we looked across what was once a deep sea harbor; broken mosaic floors of the Promontory Palace hold silent evidence of ancient humans in whose footsteps we followed; gated storerooms, though empty, promise that commerce once flourished; and a single monument marking the spot where the Pilate Stone was found evidenced the existence of the notorious Pontius Pilate, a Prefect of Judea. This was no longer mere travel through a distant land; we were seeing the faces of people whose names we knew in archaeology’s amorphous mirror, a lens that required in equal measure observation, imagination, and interpretation of what was before our eyes.
We were ready for the Church of the Annunciation, an imposing structure in Nazareth built over ruins believed to be the home of Mary, the place where the Angel Gabriel appeared to her. Our small group of Christians and Jews, practicing their religions and not, joined the line of visitors filing past the tiny grotto where a woman named Mary lived before the site was gifted, according to a floor mosaic, by the Deacon of Israel in 427 to be converted to a church. Despite the architectural glory of its cupola evoking a lily and the sunken seating directly beneath the cupola, the tiny cave allowed only three or four people at a time to peer within to a stone alter bearing the Latin inscription “Here the word was made flesh.” Outside, our Israeli guide narrated the Crusader and Franciscan churches built over the cave in the decades before the current structure, as well as the excavated remains of a Jewish house – two rooms and a courtyard with a cistern to collect rainwater – preserved adjacent to the site of the annunciation.
Age 5 heart murmur
Age 18 acute viral myocarditis
Age 34 sub-acute endocarditis
Age 55 mitral valve repair
Now this. Whatever it is.
My heart beats heavy in my chest. Sometimes hard, sometimes fast, often missing a beat.
My father who had coronary artery disease, used the word ‘insufficiency’. Not enough oxygen was available due to the blockage in his arteries. I work out, feel insufficiency and think it is the railing of electricity against a drug meant to slow down my athletic heart.
For the last ten years since surgery, insufficiency on stairs and hills has worsened. I gasp as weakness courses through my limbs. Ten years ago, I laid my head on my pillow hearing, for the last time, the sound of my genetically defective valve leaking blood back into the chamber where it had originated. The sound had become a friend, a proof that I was alive. After surgery, the absence of that sound felt like I had lost a marker of life.
This trip celebrates brother-sister October birthdays – and the anniversary of our marriage 4 years ago. Silently I also observe the 10-year anniversary of my heart surgery to correct that defective valve. It was successful, a plumbing fix. But heart is electricity too. My heart misfires more and more frequently. A visit to the cardiologist before we left assured that I would ‘probably be ok on the trip.’ “This isn’t an emergency.” My cardiologist of 40 years spoke with soft conviction.
The binding of Isaac 1800 BC
David the King 1000 BC
Salomon 982 BC
The Babylonian Conquest 586 BC
Alexander the Great 333 BC
The Hasmonean Dynasty 140 BC
The Roman Empire 63 BC
The Destruction of the Second Temple 70 AD
Byzantine Empire 324 AD
The Muslim Empire 638
The Crusaders 1099
The Mamluks 1261
The Ottoman Empire 1516
The British Empire 1917
The Independent War of Israel 1948
The Six Day War 1967
I remember wondering if our visit to the Holy Land would hold any epiphany for me. I felt open but not willing to work for it. Come to me oh Lord in what I imagined to be a rocky and barren place with conflict in the path I walk. The Lord is so far showing me a place where conflict simmers beneath the cool surface of sophisticated technology centers in Tel Aviv and Haifa, and stunning young adults who walk the streets in military uniform with an assortment of guns strapped to their lean frames.
We travel to the Ottoman walls of Acco, a capital and last stronghold of the Crusaders in the Holy Land, walking through the ancient subterranean city, the Knight’s Hall, the citadel and other monuments of the Middle Ages before boarding a bus that will take us past abundant tented banana plantations to rugged terrain at the northernmost tip of Israel.
The gleaming white cliffs of Rosh Hanikra rise before us, calling us beneath their surface to a glistening underwater grotto with sea caves. The Lebanon Border is just over this vista point. The closeness of danger lures us to the fence where communication devices litter a hilltop terrain and multiple fences secure block buildings. It is sunset.
A large rodent emerges in the no-man’s land where only the United Nations peacekeepers can go. He sniffs the ground and approaches the humans at the fence who collectively conclude this is a giant guinea pig, and it’s not certain how vigorously he will defend his territory. He roams and sniffs back and sideways, reddish fur highlighted in the fading glow.
Above us on a rooftop, a young man and woman emerge, sit and seem to enjoy the sunset over the Mediterranean.
Ofer collects our attention. “They are within easy range of any sniper in Lebanon on the other side of this border who wants to shoot. Yet they are there, together. This is what it is to live in Israel, to look at the sunset.”
Everything is real in a new way. I had imagined a kibbutz as a life of tents and huts, tatters and dust, farming and fighting, sweat in a hard-scrabble terrain.
Verdant agricultural acreage lines the road increasing in density as we approached the Sea of Galilee which looks more like a milky lake. We come to a stop at the Kibbutz Ginosar – Hebrew for ‘rich garden’. Every notion I had about a kibbutz falls away at the sight of grounds and buildings surrounding the visitor center and hotel that looks more like a manicured resort. We would walk through the community of low-profile single-family homes, pause at the community building and pre-school, gaze at the Sea of Galilee in the near distance, and linger in the shade as our 82-year old host, the man who today manages the kibbutz his father built, narrates daily life in a community that operates as a kind of modern day tribe, a collective dedicated to growing much of the food they eat – food that also feeds the surrounding region. A soft breeze and the midday sun penetrates us into a sense of tranquility.
The Yigal Alon Museum at the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee is the largest structure on the kibbutz, and home the 2,000 year old “Jesus Boat,” though no evidence connects this boat directly with Jesus. As the kind of boat used in the 1st century for fishing and ferrying across the lake, it has historical interest to Jews and Christians alike as an authentic relic of the type used by the forebears of each religion, including Jesus and his disciples. The story of its rescue from the depths of the water is miraculous in the context of the flimsy expanse of ancient timbers braced together by metal supports that appear to cradle the craggy cedar planks. It is a mere 27 feet in length.
This day will also take us on the Via Maris to the gate through which we enter the town where Jesus taught in the synagogue, Capernaum. Ofer leads us into a display of ruins from the time of Jesus pointing out the Star of David carved into one stone edifice, ornate pentagram and hexagrams in another, and the Ark of the Covenant bearing the Torah on a third. We step through tall columns of what was once a synagogue as Ofer unravels the context of the Roman structure, built well after Christ. At the corner of the main area, broken foundation reveals ancient rock, an earlier synagogue foundation beneath the limestone where we stand. A short walk across the courtyard will take us to the disciple Peter’s house where Jesus stayed. It is a tiny octagon surrounded by a series of ever larger octagonal rings – all still tiny. Ofer narrates the stories of temples, edifices, modest structures and stones as archaeological, and thus, historic fact. Real people rise up from the dusty rock; we are walking the same stones their humble feet walked long ago.
It is for each of us to fill in the meaning, the assignation of prophet, deity or ordinary man, guided by our own story, imagination, religion – the calling within our own heart.
This road leads to Area ‘A’
Under the Palestinian Authority
The Entrance for Israeli
Citizens is Forbidden,
Dangerous to Your Lives
And Is Against the Israeli Law.
In passing from Israel into Palestinian territory, we were crossing history from land designated by the British in a 1923 mandate, and reconfirmed by the United Nations in 1948. In Bethlehem, as in Jericho where we had stopped near the Mount of Temptation, littered streets teemed with vendors, curb and stoop-sitters, fully robed women rushing tiny children along, men bent into a fast walk to pressing appointments. The buildings themselves were older, dirtied by some environmental element that did not cross the border to Israeli buildings, or perhaps just lack of care. White water tanks multiplied across rooftops. On the hilltop, hotel signs called out Nativity, Shepard, Paradise and Manger Square Hotels as we rolled up to our parking lot.
Ofer had warned us to set our expectations low for Bethlehem, but he was not our guide. A Palestinian territory required a Palestinian guide and ours was interested only in leading us up the short hill to the site where Jesus is said to have been born. My ascent was labored. Gowned women flashed me the peace sign as I stopped to photograph them on a picturesque staircase.
We reached Nativity Park and walked to the tiny monument of caves adjacent to a small church. The mix of Christians and Jews, circled into that rocky nook, beheld the crèche posed on a small hollow. Oh Lord, are you going to speak in some quiet way to my heart in this closed cavern? The tiny cavern churned with races and religions passing between its walls.
So much for that epiphany.
An easy trek took us to the vista of the West Bank where new high rises gleamed white across a wide gulch. The barren terrain there filled my imagination with images of conflict between these borders, perhaps even in that gulch, hard fought between scraggly rises. The voices I imagined animated strife; two close hillsides, widely separated by the hopes, dreams and basic needs of the people on each side – the gulch itself a metaphor for all the roiled between these two nation-states. This was a chasm punctuated by the white water tanks in Bethlehem which are refreshed by Israel twice weekly. Versus the gleaming high rises on the West Bank with underground utilities throughout. Voices in grunts and cries of hand-to-hand conflict bubbled fitfully in my heart as I pondered the inequities of supply for a basic human life source, the control that the white apartment side has over the other side. In our decade, perhaps the brutality of the conflict in this particular spot has abated or slipped under the cover of message management.
We would continue on, remark at huge sink holes pocking the landscape to Masada, where we ascended to the last King Herod’s stronghold over a vast and desolate expanse. A gondola ride brought us to the mountaintop position he established as a remote getaway, a defense against attackers. There, his guards could scan desert rocks and roads far below searching out the dust cloud of an approach, while Herod and his guests soaked in the luxury of pools throughout the sun-bathed palace. It was here as newly appointed King of Judea, that Herod sequestered his family when Jerusalem was attacked by the Parthians. And it was here that Jewish zealots who had successfully fought off Roman invaders in the Great Revolt succumbed to 10,000 troops who scaled the walls. Elazar Ben-Yair, Zealot leader called his people together reminding them that they had long ago resolved to serve God only. They vowed to die as free men and women, rather than face capture and slavery by the pagan conquerors. Before dawn, they burned their belongings and weapons, but not their food. It was important to show the Romans that they had died of their free will rather than hunger. They would serve no master other than God.
Later that day, we would float in the viscous opacity of the Dead Sea, the punctuation for two days when nothing had happened on the surface of all that we had seen in Bethlehem and Masada. The sun shone bright, the temperature held a perfect warmth, people everywhere were pleasant, we felt safe, yet we floated in the grip of a brutal beauty – the knowledge of what had happened to people in the very places we stood. Yet we arose from the Dead Sea relaxed, our skin soft as if we were newly born.
Choruses of “Blessed be...” sounded from the chapels and abundant bouganvillas framed the overlook to the Sea of Galilee at the Mount of the Beatitudes. We pressed on to Jerusalem.
Ofer timed our arrival to the setting sun. At a hilltop on the campus of Hebrew University, we huddled together in the evening chill, feeling like we had accomplished something monumental overlooking the ancient city, its holiness shared equally by Christians, Jews and Muslims. Ofer opened a bottle of wine, poured and made a toast to this moment. We sipped and lingered beneath the pink and grey sky -in the distance the ancient walls and the golden Dome of the Rock.
I don’t need any puffed-up US president to tell me where is the capital of my country. Ofer directed his reverie in the direction of Old Jerusalem, aglow and vibrating in the twilight.
Our entry in morning sunlight through the Jaffa Gate took us over ancient cobblestones into the Jewish Quarter to the Cardo, the Latin name for north-south thoroughfares in ancient Roman cities. We were told that Cardo is derived from the Latin word Kardia and is precursor to Cardio, the prefix for all things heart. The Cardo more resembles a main artery with its colonnades, columns and many shops. We paused in the busy plaza. Hassidic Jews rushed to something unknown. Orthodox Jews passed us in deep conversation, their prayer shawl tassels bouncing at their sides and square leather Tefillin strapped above their foreheads. Curious children gazed at us sporting backpacks, ice cream cones, fragile curls announcing their families’ beliefs – the ones in mothers’ tow, shirttails hanging out of their pants, pink tennis shoes blinking, the stroller hangers-on-for-dear-life – all of them taking in our foreignness.
This was our day at the Western Wall which revealed itself as we climbed the stairs and hill to our first overlook. I scanned, surprised at the many mosques on the horizon before looking down at the famous wall where people milled and leaned into the rock surface. Our journey would be different. Ofer, the archaeologist would take us underground, walking a series of walled caverns to the Western Wall under the wall – an additional 485 meters that could not be accessed except for the vision of King Herod. We were directly beneath the Muslim Quarter, the largest section of Old Jerusalem where it was not deemed safe for us to visit. Ironic and obvious that Old Jerusalem, crucible though it is, has invisible walls of creed and custom within.
As a rebel photographer I thrill at taking forbidden pictures of guards at border crossings. This moment had that thrill, we would walk the entire distance of this holy wall, including the section beneath the Muslim section. We would place our personal prayers in any crevice that called to us along the full length. Perhaps we would choose to place more than one prayer, or the same one in numerous places as I did.
I can’t say that I threw myself against the rock imploring God for anything. Many people did. There were pleaders, scripture readers and leaners with arms up in a gesture of glory to accompany whatever was in their hearts, the hopes they buried in cracked mortar between stone.
By the time we climbed back up to the large area with the most famous Western Wall (Wailing Wall), we separated the men to the mens’ side and women to the womens’ side which was crowded. I had placed my prayers along the way underground, had nothing for any crevice outdoors, and soon slipped to the fence overlooking the men’s section. It was not crowded. A small boy leaned forward, head resting on forehead, balanced on one foot with the other foot cocked against his ankle. He wore the star of David on his mantle. He stayed and prayed. I left before he did.
Most indelible for me was Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust. My feet felt electrified as they stepped onto what is most certainly holy ground. Surrounded by a national cemetery, the museum evokes an inverted ark drawing its light from an opening that would be the bottom of the vessel. The Children’s Pavilion is entirely dark with only fleeting pinpoints of light and a continuum of names heard in the dark, names kept alive through blindness – even the of today.
We walked the Via Delarosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Too crowded, we went for coffee and returned. Too crowded still. Ofer vetoed the upper level, and led us to a central monument in the entrance where people prostrate themselves. Like everyone who travels here, we discovered the authenticity of the storied people and events that happened in these lands, subject to the translation of their time. The spectacle of the crowds somehow defied quiet spiritual contemplation. We passed through to sunlight cracking through at a corner from the doorway beyond.
At the end of our time in the city we were stopped as we approach a gateway. No walking outside to our transport. No vehicles may leave their current location. Pedestrian traffic was pushed back by solo security guards who are forceful at the entrance. Bread trucks seeking entry were waved away. No knowing how much to worry about this, or if concern should prevent me from photographing.
At the bottom of the steps where I stood, young children clustered behind a gate. A young women in army uniform wrung her hands and clutched her head. She was coming on duty and had forgotten her suitcase at the gate which raised the alarm. She walked the long hill of our inconvenience alternately smiling and looking down. Traffic resumed. I would not know when to feel danger.
The prayer I slipped into three crevices in the underground Western Wall was for a healthy heart in body and mind for me and my family.
I was breathless on the hills and long stairs of the cities and monuments. I come home to two weeks of round-the clock EKG monitoring and an isotope stress test of my arteries.
The stress test was not great. Possibility of a small heart attack. All of it suggested that we should look at the coronaries. My father is at least part of my family history.
Thanksgiving with my beautiful family included the toxic mix of altitude, anxiety and wildly random heartbeats.
Ten years ago, my coronaries were clear which recommended me for the vanity approach to repair a valve, entering under my right breast rather than the so-called zipper procedure cracking the sternum for a frontal surgery. Heart surgery was not easy, even at 55.
I streamlined through check-in but teared up when the hospital consent forms for this angiogram included permission for coronary bypass surgery. I am the mother of now-adult girls who lost their father as teenagers to pancreatic cancer.
“Take good care of me,” I said to the nurse who wheeled me into the CathLab.
I didn’t know what to believe about my own body.
Like the last time in my awake-drugged state, I thrilled at the image of my own arteries on today’s equipment, so different from 10 years ago. My cardiologist navigated through the artery in my groin, studied the blue grey images that we both saw. I felt pressure, a reference pain as if, after so many years, I might be ovulating. More pressure that caused me to flinch. And then his words.
“Your coronaries are completely clear. I wish I had these coronaries.”
I responded, “I’m beginning to think I got something good from my mother.”
Here I am. Clear coronaries and an electrical problem whacking out my heart rhythm. I take a hard look, believing in all that I have seen. My journey continues.
I Kings 19: 11-13
- (Jonah 1: 1-3)
- (2 Chronicles 2: 16, Ezra 3:7)
Mary Pacifico Curtis is the author of Between Rooms and The White Tree Quartet, both chapbooks published by WordTech’s Turning Point imprint, as well as poetry and prose that has appeared in The Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, The Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, LOST Magazine, The Naugatuck River Review, and Calyx. Her work is also included in numerous anthologies. She was a 2012 Joy Harjo Poetry Finalist (Cutthroat Journal), 2019 Poetry Finalist in The Tiferet Journal, and a non-fiction finalist in The 48th New Millenium Writings contest.