Archive for May, 2013

The good life, in Jerusalem and Bayonne

May 26, 2013



Visitors inspect the crafts for sale at the old-new train station in Jerusalem.


A boy reads about the history of the Jaffa-Jerusalem rail line at the old Jerusalem station.


Jerusalem has finally found a use for its old train station, in the heart of the city. The gabled stone building with arched doorways and the surrounding compound are the capital’s newest entertainment spot, offering cafes, restaurants, shops, crafts and food fairs, a small history museum, and free entertainment for children. A variety of tours, including a self-guided hybrid-bicycle tour, set out from the souvenir shop.

Blessedly, everything there is open on Saturday

Although I was afraid that the city would not have the good sense to preserve the memory of its first train (completed in 1892), I was pleasantly surprised. True, the old train station lay abandoned and neglected for many years, but even before the new entertainment area opened this month a very pleasant park was built alongside the old tracks, running west from the train station for several kilometers. It has become very popular with bike riders and walkers.



I thought there had to be a reason for my chocolate addiction, and now I’ve discovered it. According to a recent Times of Israel article, Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and fleeing the Inquisition in Portugal starting in 1536 brought the knowledge of chocolate processing to France, settling on the outskirts of Bayonne, in southwestern France.

After they taught the secrets of the trade to local workers, the chocolatiers guild barred Jews from producing the sweet stuff.

This month, 500 years later, Bayonne has paid homage at its Chocolate Days festival to the Sephardic Jewish chocolate pioneers.

Michèle Kahn, the author of the novel Cacao, told the Times that little is known about how Jews got into the chocolate trade in the New World, but surmises that some must have sailed across the Atlantic with Cortes. I would look at the Jewish involvement in the sugar trade as a possible connection.

So what are my chocolate genes? There’s a family legend (on my mother’s side) that places an ancestor in Amsterdam, where many of the Jews were Sephardic. It’s as good an explanation as any.



For centuries, European aristocrats sent tributes to Catholic churches in Jerusalem but these precious gifts were hidden away for safekeeping by the Franciscan Order in the city. Now, according to the daily Ha’aretz, these treasures—ritual objects and works of art—are to be displayed in three museums in the Old City starting in 2015. Among the items are a 13th century Mongolian bell, an inscribed golden goblet from the Spanish king Philip III, and a ceremonial silver scepter from the Italian king Victor Emmanuel II.


Text and photos copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.      





Stones and water in the Holy Land

May 13, 2013


A dove pecks at grapes in a mosaic recently discovered in southern Israel. (Yael Yolovitch)


When Jacques Neguer, the Israel Antiquities Authority’s head of art conservation, told me that the Holy Land has 7,000 sites that contain mosaics, the number seemed hard to believe. He went on to say that the total area of these mosaics is more than 50,000 square meters (more than 12 acres). Beit She’an alone has 10,000 sq. m and Caesarea has 4,000 sq. m. Some of these mosaics are very basic, but some rival in quality the finest such works found in Italy, Greece and other countries.

And more mosaics, some of them spectacular, keep being uncovered here. The most recent is in Kibbutz Beit Kama, about 90 minutes’ drive southwest of Jerusalem. A Byzantine settlement (from the fourth to the sixth centuries CE) covering about 1.5 acres was found there in the course of construction of an interchange.

The mosaic was the floor of the 1,100 sq. ft. main building. It has rich geometric patterns and its corners have amphorae (jars for transporting wine), a pair of peacocks, and a pair of doves pecking at grapes on a tendril. The designs are not unusual, but the combination of a large number of them in a single mosaic is very rare.

Archaeologists are still puzzled by the presence of pools and a system of channels and pipes connecting them in front of the building, in what they believe was a Christian settlement. The excavation was directed by the IAA’s Dr. Rina Avner.



Yarden didn’t just flow into the world, she gushed in. First she knocked politely on the sluice gates, and then she just surged in. Her mother, Liat, didn’t even make it to the front door of her house to leave for the hospital.

If an online etymology is to be believed, Yarden (the Hebrew name for the Jordan River) is derived from the Hebrew root yarad, which means “descend,” or in the case of the river, “flow down.”

So, welcome, Yarden. We hope the world welcomes you with the same eagerness with which you flowed into it on the morning of May 11. We certainly do.


Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. Photograph copyright 2013 by Yael Yolovitch. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.


May 10, 2013


One day, a family in the United States received a friendly but unsigned letter. For twenty years after that, a letter arrived every day.

Then, one day, the letters stopped, as mysteriously as they had started. The family never found out who the secret writer was or what the motivation was.

I recall this story from Ripley’s Believe It or Not, one of my favorite books when I was a child. I liked this story almost as much as the one about the Chinese, marching four abreast, who would never cease passing a given point (of course, long before the one-child-per-family policy). And then there was the man who could swallow his nose, the girl who gave birth at the age of eight, and the poor man who prepared his own epitaph: “I have nothing, I owe much, the rest I leave to the poor.”


Today’s headline “Street signs in the city are being changed” hardly moved me. But the subhead made me laugh so hard I nearly fell off my chair: “A special municipal committee found that many signs in English contain errors.”

They needed a committee for that? And not just any committee, but a special one? Any English-speaker in town could have told you that. One doesn’t have to look far in a city in which the sign that points to the Jerusalem Magistrates Court says, in English, “Court of Peace.”

I’m not a betting woman, but I’m willing to wager that even after the “special” committee concludes its deliberations and new signs go up, any English-speaker in town will still find plenty of errors.



Israel’s attorney-general, Yehuda Weinstein, has ordered all relevant government ministries to take action to end the exclusion of women from the public sphere, the Ha’aretz daily reported this week. Weinstein’s order includes an end to sex discrimination on public buses, in cemeteries, and elsewhere. No longer will it be legal to post signs saying that women must dress modestly or that they can’t walk down a particular street (and yes, this isn’t Tehran). Weinstein also called for legislation that would make the exclusion of women a criminal violation.



After a recent precedent-setting ruling by the Jerusalem District Court that allowed women to pray at the Western Wall while wearing prayer shawls, the Women of the Wall conducted their monthly worship service ushering in the new month this morning without being harassed by the police or arrested. Instead, the police, who were out in force, formed a human chain to protect the women from a mob of ultra-Orthodox protesters, who reportedly threw water, water bottles, and other objects at the women.

The stones of the Western Wall, having seen their share of baseless hatred and human folly, merely smirked. God, as usual, was silent.


Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.