Archive for February, 2016

Journey to the Old City and Back

February 13, 2016

No matter what the political situation, there’s only so long we can go without humous (hummus) from Lina’s and knafeh from al-Jafar. Lured by a benevolent sky, today my husband and I decided on an excursion to the Old City. It’s a drive of about ten minutes on a Saturday when most Israelis are out of town, trampling each other in their search for wildflowers. We even found a decent parking space.

As we drove up to the parking lot, we already saw signs of revival after this miserable winter. Bus after bus came our way, after dropping off pilgrims and tourists eager to see the holy sites. At Zion Gate we stopped to chat with some Assyrian Christian shopkeepers we know. They sounded a tad more hopeful than on our previous visit, about a month ago.

And indeed, the atmosphere everywhere seemed more relaxed, but perhaps what we noticed was simply resignation to the roller-coaster existence in the Middle East. We did see tourists, and at the eighth station of the cross we saw a woman carrying a heavy wooden cross that was taller than herself, with a group of Polish pilgrims.

At our favorite humous restaurant, Lina’s, where in normal times there is a line of Israelis out the door at lunchtime on Saturday, we were among just a few diners. A pity, because the food is excellent and inexpensive. The humous is smooth and creamy, and the falafel, thanks to the rich addition of chopped parsley, is flavorful and grease-free. Once when we were there for lunch I asked who Lina is. There is no Lina, I was told. Previously, the restaurant was call Linda and was owned by two partners. When the partners split up, one of them reopened the restaurant but had to change the name. He simply dropped the “d.” (And no, they didn’t tell me who the original Linda was.)

The last time we were in the Old City I was a little nervous about going near Damascus Gate, where some attacks had taken place, so we skipped dessert at al-Jafar (“the eagle”). This time, however, we couldn’t resist the call of the knafeh, a pastry with a cheese base and a shredded semolina topping, all of it steeped in syrup. We were already full, so we split a portion–a plateful so big you have to be hungry to eat a whole one.I overheard the Muslim woman sitting next to me say “Mish ader” (I just can’t) to her husband as she pushed the uneaten portion of her knafeh toward him.

On the way back through the covered bazaar we bought a jar of al-Jemal tehina (tahini), the best you can get here, and freshly ground coffee at Sandouka, where the proprietor recognized my husband and greeted him with a big smile.

At least for one sunny day in February, it felt good to be in Jerusalem.

Text copyright 2016 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.



Under our very feet: Digging up trouble

February 10, 2016

Besides all of Israel’s troubles stemming from its geopolitical situation, the country has a sackful of home-grown problems. Cynically, Israelis sometimes refer to the latter as the “J. vs. J. wars”—the wars of Jews against Jews. This internal strife, especially as it pertains to archaeology, was the inspiration for Ilana Berner’s debut novel Cover Up in the Holy Land.
These wars include the never-ending skirmishes over graves uncovered in excavations: Some members of the ultra-Orthodox community insist that the digs be halted and all the remains receive Jewish burial, even when it is obvious that the bones are of people who were not Jews. Other conflicts concern the monarchy of the biblical King David: when the historical monarchy existed and whether it was as large and powerful as the biblical account portrays it. And some disputes are simply the tension between developers and the Israel Antiquities Authority, because whenever antiquities are uncovered in a construction site (and in Jerusalem, especially, this happens very often), by law work must stop until the archaeologists have carried out what is called a “salvage excavation.”
But some of these battles are over finds that have ramifications that extend far beyond the internal concerns of the Jews—particularly discoveries touching on the family, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus. Jerusalem already has two tombs of Jesus: one in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is actually a complex of churches of many denominations inside the Old City, and the other known as the Garden Tomb, revered by Protestants, outside the Old City walls. New theories about the burial site arise periodically.
The novel opens with the inadvertent discovery of a burial cave during excavation work for the construction of a parking lot in East Jerusalem. Many burial caves have been found in the area; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher itself is built over caves that were part of a vast Jewish cemetery in antiquity.
Then we learn that Dana Lotan, a professor of archaeology in Beersheba, is passed over for a promotion because of her controversial theories about the size and dating of David’s kingdom and because of rumors that she is a lesbian, though she has been careful to conceal her sexual orientation at a time when Israel had little awareness of, and no tolerance for, same-sex love. To Lotan’s chagrin, her protégé, who is an even more closeted homosexual than she is, gets the appointment.
The plot is set in motion when Lotan is asked to perform a salvage excavation at the newly discovered burial cave. There she finds a burial box with a Hebrew inscription that she deciphers as “Joseph of Arimatea.” According to the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, this disciple of Jesus begged Pontius Pilate to let him have the body of the crucified Jesus and buried it in his own tomb. This cave, she realizes, could be the original burial place of Jesus. And that, she also realizes, means that the government will seal the cave in an attempt to avoid a run-in with the Church. Lotan, however, is determined to let the truth out.
The author is a licensed and experienced tour guide, who has studied history and archaeology, as all Israeli guides do, but who has also participated in excavations. This knowledge and experience enables her to bring alive the excitement of digs, which also involve much tedious, dusty, and boring work. Her training as a tour guide also comes through in set pieces, like her explanation of the Western Wall as a retaining wall built by King Herod to support the Temple Mount (and not, as some people mistakenly believe, a part of the Temple itself).
It is not by chance that same-sex love is an important theme in the novel. The author came out as a lesbian long before others did in Israel.
The novel is set in 1970, partly in the desert town of Beersheba, which was then a sleepy town with a university just beginning to take shape. I remember this period well because I taught at the university in a temporary bungalow from 1970 to 1973. Today, Beersheba—the capital of southern Israel—is a city of nearly 200,000 with a buzz of development (about which I wrote recently).
Cover Up in the Holy Land is available through Amazon. A sequel is under way.