Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Armchair tour: A travel writer embarks on a voyage of discovery in the world of comments

November 4, 2020

My trip to the afterlife of stories began with a simple question at the dinner table:

“What was the name of the city in Albania that Cicero visited?”

A typical question in our household. My husband is the history buff and great synthesizer of historic events; I’m the one who remembers names and dates—usually.

I knew which place he meant: the ancient Roman city, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, at the southern tip of Albania. But the name escaped me. I knew it wasn’t Gjirokaster, the birthplace of the Nobel Prize-winning Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, and that it wasn’t Kruje to the north, the home of the national hero, Skanderbeg.

The quickest way to find out was to check my story about Albania that had appeared in Hadassah magazine in 2012. In a trice I found the name: Butrint. And then I scrolled down and discovered that my travel story had taken on a life of its own, long after I had moved on to writing about other places. It had never occurred to me to look for comments years after a story had appeared. Thus began a journey of discovery, particularly interesting now that other kinds of travel are but a memory or a dream.

The comments section on Albania began with posts three years after the story appeared. In May 2015, Leonie Lachmish wrote to ask, “Do you know how one can see the ancient synagogue in Sarande?” Then, in connection with the Albanians’ protection of Jews during World War II, she raised an issue that has been discussed elsewhere online. “I wish there were trips for Jewish tourists who believe we have a pleasant duty to visit countries that acted righteously and saved Jews’ lives in the darkest of times. I would so love to meet descendents of families who saved Jews.”

Leonie’s wish was followed by proposals of ambitious projects. In December that year, Anton asked about Berat, another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Albania. On the outskirts of the town, according to one tradition, the 17th century mystic and false messiah Shabbetai Zevi lies buried in Varri i Çifutit (Tomb of the Jew).

“I am going to Berat… and I like to see the Tomb of the Jew! (Varri I cifutit),” Anton wrote. “It may be interesting to even find out the DNA inside it. Can be the tomb of Sabbatai Z. there maybe.”

In January 2017, Migena wrote, “I always thought that language bridge[s] nations closer. Albania-Israel relationship must not be stopped at…WWII: why not bringing Hebrew language in Albania?”

Migena added that she comes to Israel every year to attend an ulpan and hopes eventually to be able to translate Hebrew literature into Albanian.

Handrim had a similarly ambitious project. In November 2018 he wrote about rebuilding the ancient synagogue in Sarande: “There are so many levels why this would be great…It is not only a dream. It is a project. Maybe my life project. If anyone of you have an idea, please contact me!”

The comments were both moving and intriguing, stirring the fondest memories of a beautiful and hospitable country (albeit with impossible roads). Then I wondered whether others of my travel stories had a similar afterlife.

So I looked up my article on Macedonia, which appeared in October/November 2013 and in which I mentioned in passing that the country’s “name—identical to that of a neighboring region in northern Greece where Alexander the Great was born—and its claim to Alexander as its own national hero have generated a dispute between the two countries that is threatening Macedonia’s entry into the European Union.” Prior to the country’s recent name change to Republic of North Macedonia, it was known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

A year after the story appeared, Nick the Greek riffed on the dispute about the name and the history in a 532-word tirade, including the following:

“Macedon is Greek Kingdom same as Sparta is Greek Kingdom – Both are Dorian, and both Greek. If minor Slavic country today, stepped on to world stage and claimed the name of Spartan Kingdom for country-name…sovereign state-name, nationality, language and ethnicity – How should the West react to such anti-Hellenic action?”

But Nick couldn’t let it go at that, and in December and the following January he continued flogging the point at length. Radio silence ensued for six years, until JR, in June 2020, saw fit to set Nick the Greek straight about where his fulminations were appearing: “This is a post about the Jewish population that lived and still lives in the current Balkan region. This is not about Greece.”

Most comments, however, were benign. Some were attempts to play Jewish geography (sorry, I’m not related to your relatives in La Jolla or San Diego). Some even revealed a sense of humor, such as the welcome correction by Tammy Schneider to my article on New Hampshire (April/May 2016) in which I had mistakenly located Nashua southeast of Portsmouth:

“Nashua is southWEST of Portsmouth,” she wrote. “If you went southeast of Portsmouth, you’d be riding the whales in the Atlantic Ocean!

Others had fascinating information to add. Don Perlgut, a Dartmouth alumnus, expanded on that college’s history of restricted Jewish admissions. “The post-war period is the interesting one, [when] there were no official Jewish restrictions [but rather] an official – and publicly stated – “geographic diversity” policy that actively and openly discriminated in favour of young men…from places like Wyoming, Montana, Indiana, Texas, Alaska, Idaho, Kentucky, etc. [and] against people from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, etc: a de facto Jewish quota.”

Concerning neighboring Vermont, Martha Ginsburg Roditti had the following to add to my story that appeared in July 2017: “I was born in Granville, NY [on the border of New York and Vermont] and heard stories of the Poultney Cemetery. My father and Grandfather were very active in the small Granville congregation. My father had the honor of keeping the Torahs in our house for the High Holy Days (which were conducted in the Grange Hall).”

With regard to Milwaukee (November 2019), Rachel Krug recalled that her father immigrated to Milwaukee “and had often bragged how with his Heder training [he] was able to assist one Golda Meyerson [Golda Meir] with her Hebrew.”

But my favorite discovery on this electronic journey was a comment on my article that appeared in February/March 2014 on the 100th anniversary of a daring and seemingly impossible mission: the attempt by two brave Turkish pilots to fly more than 1,500 miles from Istanbul to Jerusalem and ultimately to Cairo and Alexandria. They never reached their destination: Their flimsy plane, made of wood and fabric, crashed near Tiberias. Yerach Paran, a member of Kibbutz Ha’on, has built a garden surrounding the memorial to the pilots at the site of the crash and tends it every weekend.

In June 2020, six years after my article appeared, the comments section, which up to that point had only occasional posts from former volunteers in Kibbutz Ha’on, showed a trackback—in Turkish. It turned out to be another story about the two pilots, highlighting the
Turkey–Israel connection, that appeared in Avlaremoz, an online publication covering Jewish and minority topics in Turkey. It included a link to the announcement of the 2001 Turkish documentary on the expedition, made with planes of that era. Seeing the story of the brave pilots again (which I read with the help of Google Translate)  of a time when travel involved perils very different from those of the novel coronavirus.

As so often, I have my husband to thank for sending me on this virtual journey and I have the readers to thank for the comments I discovered. May the conversation continue!

Copyright 2020 by Esther Hecht. No part of this post may be copied or used in any way without written permission of the author.

Ismail Kadare: In Search of Human Liberty

February 8, 2015

The 27th Jerusalem International Book Fair kicked off today with a press conference with writer Ismail Kadare. The Albanian novelist and poet is to receive a prize awarded annually to authors whose work emphasizes freedom of the individual in society. Previous recipients have included Arthur Miller and Ian McEwan. Kadare now lives in France.

I have wanted to read his novels ever since I learned about him while researching a travel article on Albania in 2011. My desire to read him was heightened after driving over an excruciatingly potholed road to visit Gjirokaster, the hometown of the author and also of Enver Hoxha, the longtime Communist dictator of Albania. Despite my best intentions, however, that hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t think it happened to most of my colleagues at the press conference. None of us came up with a question that didn’t seem to bore or annoy the acclaimed author.

Perhaps to show off that I knew what Gjirokaster looks like, I asked whether the author saw any resemblance between Jerusalem, in which all the buildings are faced with stone, and his hometown, which hangs on the face of a craggy mountain and which he compares in one of his novels to a prehistoric creature with a stone carapace “clawing its way up the mountainside.”

“There is a resemblance,” he responded in French, which was rendered in English by an interpreter, “but it is a misleading one. They’re both stone, but that’s all. My hometown has given nothing to humanity except for literature. Jerusalem has symbolic importance.”

In response to the inevitable question as to whether Jews and Albanians have anything in common, Kadare responded that they both live with the threat of extinction, although one cannot really compare the fate of the two.

“I don’t think there is any country that has banned the writing of a language,” Kadare said. For the four centuries that Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire, writing in that language was forbidden. The language “was at risk of extinction” and thus the people feared that they, too, might disappear, he said.

Israeli writer, translator, and activist Ilana Hammerman, who has been awarded the 2015 Yeshayahu Leibowitz Prize for activism against the occupation, asked Kadare whether he was aware of the 300,000 people “living here [in Jerusalem] who do not have human rights.”

Clearly irked, Kadare responded, “I didn’t come here for this. I came here to receive a literary prize, not to deal with local problems.”

And what about a definition of freedom, which is a theme in his novels (and a reason for his being awarded the prize)? “I don’t think this is the place to discuss a topic that is so sublime, so complicated,” he said. Then he added, “In art, literature, philosophy you can talk about liberty, but humanity hasn’t arrived there yet.”

This year’s book fair differs from its predecessors both in its new venue—the First Station, one of the city’s newest entertainment areas—and its expanded program. According to Yael Sheffer, the fair’s artistic director, the five-day event is geared to young adults and young families. There will be cooking classes in the mornings, activities for children in the afternoons, and a full program for adults, including erotica and poetry, in the evenings.

And as for Kadare, who appeared relieved to be liberated from the press conference, I thought of D.H. Lawrence’s caveat to trust the tale, not the teller. More than ever, I wanted to read Kadare’s novels and erase the disappointment with this unfortunate meeting.

Text copyright 2015 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Around and Around and Around We Go

December 4, 2014

Hora, Batsheva Dance Company, 2009. Choreography: Ohad Naharin, courtesy of the artist. Image by Gadi Dagon:

Hora, Batsheva Dance Company, 2009. Choreography: Ohad Naharin, courtesy of the artist. Image by Gadi Dagon.

Culture is a circle of art forms, each one part of the whole that defines us and makes us human. That is one reason the art of dance need be no stranger in a museum devoted to material culture.
And that is why Israel Museum director James Snyder introduced a new exhibition there, Out of the Circle: The Art of Dance in Israel, as “the intersection of dance and all the mediums that record dance: photography, documentary films, and graphic arts.”
Suddenly the circle, the most simple and perfect of forms, was bursting with meaning. Think of the hora, that basic folk dance, brought to Palestine from the Balkans. The Jewish pioneers—who had come to create a new Jew, physically strong and connected to the land—followed their days of hard labor with ecstatic circle dances. The circle was a great equalizer that drew the pioneers together and laid the foundations for the culture of the kibbutz, according to Talia Amar, the exhibition’s curator.
In the agricultural settlements, between the two world wars, dances were combined with rituals, shifting holiday observance from the synagogue to agricultural celebrations in the fields. This was actually the completion of a historical circle, for the Jewish holidays were originally agricultural festivals. Photographs of the kibbutz celebrations typically are shot from near the ground looking up, giving the dancers’ bodies mythic proportions.
Meanwhile, expressionist dance, which was popular in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, caught on in Palestine, where it flourished and continued to develop long after it had waned in Europe. And Central European photographers who had come to Palestine, like Alfons Himmelreich, made this dance form their subject.
Some of these dancers sought local roots, which they found in biblical themes. And some turned to their own roots, like Sara Levi-Tanai, who drew on her Yemenite background. Levi-Tanai was the founder, choreographer, and artistic director of the Inbal Dance Theater—which Amar described as not a “folklore group” but rather “an art dance group” whose every movement had symbolic meaning.
As staged dance developed in Israel, the Batsheva Dance Company was founded by Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild and Martha Graham (and celebrated its 50th anniversary this year). The Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater, in Tel Aviv, whose director, Yair Vardi, initiated the Israel Museum exhibition, just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
The circle as a social ideal did not last, and the show’s title reflects that change. Works over the past few decades have shown the shift from the ideal of the collective to individualism; again and again, individuals try to break out of the circle, at great cost. The exhibition opens with a video of Ohad Naharin’s Anaphasa, danced to the Passover song “Ehad Mi Yodea” (Who knows one?), in which the individual who steps out of line keeps falling down.
In Peh Gadol (big mouth), by and with Niv Sheinfeld, Oren Laor, and Keren Levi, a woman dressed in the colors of the Israeli flag keeps falling out of step with the other two dancers, in a work that explores the tension between trying to remain part of the collective and exploring one’s individual identity.
Amar explained that the show “is not a historical exhibition encompassing the entire history of dance in Israel” but that it includes several major figures in that history.
Earphones synchronized with the main videos enable visitors to hear the music without disturbing others. Many of the other exhibits, however, contribute to a relatively high noise level in the hall.
Starting on December 23 and for the next ten weeks, dance performances showcasing contemporary Israeli choreographers will take place in the exhibition space and throughout the museum.
The exhibition runs through February 28, 2015.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

What You See and What You Get: Clothing That Conceals and (Sometimes) Reveals

March 12, 2014

In Morocco, a traditional Jewish groom would wear a white shroud under his black groom’s coat. In Yemen, a Jewish woman would receive female guests on the first Sabbath after she had given birth, wearing a regal dress adorned with pearls—a dress she would then wear on Yom Kippur and eventually be buried in.
This keen awareness of the life cycle and of human mortality is one of the themes of Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe, an exhibition that opened March 11 at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. On display are some 100 items, covering about 250 years and originating in nearly 30 countries. The exhibits, all of them worn by Jews, are but a small part of the museum’s collection of 10,000 items of costume, according to Efrat Assaf-Shapira, who is making her curatorial debut with this exhibition.
Jewish women in traditional communities around the world generally wore clothing that men deemed modest. But definitions of modesty varied and were influenced by the surrounding culture. Thus, long before the Taliban came around, Jewish women in Afghanistan wore a black chader with a full-face white veil, and in Iraq both Jewish and Muslim women wore a body wrap called an Image and a full-face veil made of hair from a horse’s tail. The manufacturer of these horsehair veils was a Jew, as were many of the people who worked in the textile industry.

These garments—symbols of the vise-like grip of patriarchal societies—send chills up my spine. Yet there are women in Israel today, known as “Shawl Women,” who have adopted coverings that are as concealing as any in this exhibition. Oddly, there is a feminist aspect to their super-piety, because they are acting on their own accord, without the sanction of (male) rabbis.
Traditionally, women could at least please themselves in what they wore under their wraps. “Concealing and revealing” is another of the themes of the exhibition, Assaf-Shapira said, pointing to the brightly colored trousers worn by Bukharan women under their whole-body cover-ups. And in Baghdad, the curator added, women wore sequined and embroidered bustiers hardly different from what Jean Paul Gaultier designed for Madonna.

One of the oddest items on display is a pair of trousers, part of the bridal costume in Tunisia. The trousers appear to be size XXXL, and the explanation is that women were fattened up—even awakened at night to eat—before the wedding, because bodily fat was considered a sign of good health.


Another very interesting, and rare, item is from Iran. Dating to the early twentieth century, it is all in maroon, and consists of a jacket, a short tutu-like skirt, and tight pants. Assaf-Shapira said the fashion was influenced by the visit of the shah and his wife to Paris, where they saw a ballet and were captivated by the tutus and tights. But the fashion was short-lived, because Iran at the time was moving rapidly toward the West.
As is obvious from the exhibition, brides did not always wear white. In fact, most of the bridal costumes displayed are in other colors. It was Queen Victoria who made white de rigueur for bridal gowns. On display is a magnificent mid twentieth century ivory gown from New York; the “something borrowed” is the fine, nineteenth-century lace veil, and the “something blue,” Assaf-Shapira revealed, is a blue ribbon tucked inside the bodice.
In traditional Jewish communities, a treasured dress that did not become a shroud might be donated to the synagogue after the owner’s death for use as a parochet (a cover for the ark). The cover would then be embroidered with the woman’s name, thus serving as a memorial for her.
Also on display is a collection of children’s clothes—nearly all of them looking like miniatures of adults clothes, because in traditional societies children were considered to be adults in the making.
Through October 25, 2014.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author, or, in the case of the images, written permission of the Israel Museum.



Dust is on my mind: Getting grave about art

December 5, 2013

I’m a little embarrassed to say that I’ve been thinking a lot about dust lately. Any home improvement in Israel forces one to come to terms with the reality of minute particles of concrete and stone that get into your eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs and finally settle on every surface.
Dust to dust. Now that’s a thought. Someday some house cleaner will be wiping bits of me off a shelf along with the bits of concrete and stone. Is it a kind of immortality?
Dust has a way of cloning itself, building little colonies, tiny mounds and valleys, creating landscapes that can even be beautiful.
Dust has a mind of its own. Despite your best efforts to capture it (and rid yourself of it), it clings, and hides, reappearing where you least expect it. And it does so with a vengeance after renovations.
So I was intrigued by a new exhibition called Collecting Dust, one of four shows of contemporary Israeli art that opened yesterday at the Israel Museum Jerusalem. I loved this show from the outset for the title alone, which reflected what I’d been preoccupied with for the past two weeks.
A few of the works in the show curated by guest curator Tammy Manor-Friedman are classics, like Bartolomeo Bettera’s still life of dust-streaked musical instruments, focusing on the transience of life. But the Israeli artists exhibited have a variety of interests.
Gal Weinstein’s “Petra,” for example, created with tiny bits of steel wool, sprayed with a mixture of Coca Cola and balsamic vinegar to induce rusting.
Petra is, of course, a huge and ancient necropolis. And rusting is a kind of decay. And yet this beautiful abstract landscape suggests art overcoming mortality.
Another, even more dramatic work, “Dust Cloud,” by Weinstein consists of a series of four still photographs of an eruption, that “gives form to something formless,” as Mira Lapidot, the museum’s chief curator of fine arts, put it.
Another photograph, by Sharon Ya’ari, captures a typical Tel Aviv sidewalk scene, including a broom and a pile of dust, signs of more home improvements.

One of the three other shows, Gideon Gechtman’s posthumous retrospective (1942–2008), is informed throughout by the artist’s sense of his mortality. Born with a heart defect, Gechtman underwent corrective surgery at age 31, following which he created an installation that included nude photographs showing his transformation from individual human being to patient/object. Later, he published newspaper notices announcing his own death and pasted up obituary notices in public places. Then he started playing with the obituary notices, creating them in various colors, even one with his name in neon lights.
Years later, Gechtman dealt with the loss of his firstborn son, Yotam, at 26, in an installation that includes mock hospital furniture and paraphernalia.
This exhibition is demanding and sometimes hard to bear, but it also arouses wonder at this artist’s ability to transform deep anxiety and grief into works that transcend time.

Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text 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.

A city for all seasons and all people

December 16, 2012

The Baha'i shrine and gardens are said to be the most-visited site in Israel.

The Baha’i shrine and gardens are said to be the most-visited site in Israel.

Haifa is not just Israel’s prettiest city. It also has a major human asset: inhabitants of diverse faiths living side by side. The city’s month-long Holiday of Holidays in December celebrates this diversity through art, theater, dance, music, and food, in a grand mix of both high and low culture.

The festival began nineteen years ago, a year in which Christmas, Chanukah, and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan were said to have coincided.  (In fact, if several on-line calendars are to be believed, Ramadan fell in March that year).It is a joint venture of the municipality and Beit Hagefen, the Arab Jewish Culture Center.

Beit Hagefen uses culture to bridge differences between the city's diverse groups.

Beit Hagefen uses the arts to bridge the differences between the city’s diverse populations.

Concerts, art exhibitions, street theater, and an outdoor market with jewelry, crafts, and ethnic food take place mainly in two adjacent neighborhoods—Wadi Nisnas (Mongoose Gully) and the German Colony—where the population is mostly Arab (Christian and Muslim). An enormous plastic Christmas tree, flanked by large Chanukah menorahs, stands at the foot of Hacarmel Street, the broad main thoroughfare of the German Colony. Oddly missing are Muslim symbols; a lone representative—a crescent—can be found on the walls of Beit Hagefen, in a work of art representing the houses of worship of the three religions.

Each year, some artistic installations remain, so that visitors and residents can continue to enjoy them in subsequent years. Among the most striking works are those by Haya Touma, a Kishinev-born Jewish ceramicist whose art reflects the agony of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The artist was married to the historian Emil Touma, a Christian Arab who was among the proponents of coexistence between Arabs and Jews. One of her works, on an abandoned house, consists of a sculpted door topped by a photograph of a bride and groom, perhaps from the 1930s; to the side of the door is a plaque with the hand-written inscription: “Somebody lived here until 1948.” This is a reference to events in Israel’s War of Independence.

Haya Touma's installation in Wadi Nisnas: "Somebody Lived Here until 1948"

Haya Touma’s installation in Wadi Nisnas: “Somebody Lived Here until 1948”

On the eve of the war, the city had 130,000 residents, half of them Jews and half Arabs. When the British left suddenly, on the night of April 21-22, 1948, fierce fighting ensued. The Haganah captured the Arab quarters and took over the city; all but 3,000 of the terrified Arab residents fled. That summer, by order of the then prime minister David Ben-Gurion, Haifa’s Ottoman-era walled Old City, where many of the Arabs had lived, was razed. Today, 30,000 of Haifa’s 300,000 residents are Arabs.

Oddly, the city’s biggest attractions for tourists were built by neither Arabs nor Jews. The German Colony was a settlement of Templers, Christian visionaries who first came to Palestine in the 1860s and whose Haifa village was to be one of seven in the country.

The German Colony was built by Christian visionaries.

The German Colony was built by Christian visionaries.

Throughout Palestine, the Templers (not to be confused with the Knights Templar) built roads, founded modern industries, and introduced new farming methods, which made them a welcome presence. Until World War II, that is, when some became Nazi sympathizers, giving the British an excuse to deport many of them; some were exchanged for Jews held in Nazi Germany.

The Templers built houses of smoothly finished stone, with thick walls to keep out the heat and humidity of this port city. Today their buildings house restaurants, cafes, boutiques, a museum, and the offices of Arab lawyers, accountants, and physiotherapists.

One building, originally the Templers’ Appinger Hotel, is today the 40-room boutique Colony Hotel, which has retained the colorfully patterned floor tiles and furnishings reminiscent of the period.


Just above the German Colony rise the magnificent Baha’i gardens and shrine, which city representatives say is the most-visited site in Israel. The golden-domed shrine is one of the two holiest sites for the five million members of the faith. It contains the remains of the Bab, the forerunner of the founder, Baha’ullah. It is this shrine, of a faith that preaches the unity of all humanity, that is a beacon to visitors approaching Haifa by sea.

And to add to the mix, Haifa has some 2,000 Ahmedis, members of an Islamic reformist movement that originated in India in 1889 and today has several million members in 200 countries. Ahmedis say they aim to purify the term jihad, claiming that in the Quran it never appears in a context suggesting war. They believe in disseminating their religion by peaceful means and have translated the Quran into 120 languages, including Yiddish. In Haifa they live in Kababir, a neighborhood that community head Muhammad Sharif says is “truly mixed.”

Of course, not all is idyllic in Haifa. It is still recovering from tensions and unrest that accompanied the second intifada, that began in September 2000. But it is a place where it seems that serious attempts are being made to heal the rift.

And Haifa is not just a place to experience multiculturalism. It is a gateway to the north of the country, where visitors can easily spend several nights and take day tours to Tiberias, Nazareth,  Acco, Rosh Hanikra, and Caesarea. New hotels of all kinds are going up, and plans are afoot to move the port to the north, freeing the old port to be developed for tourism and entertainment, as something similar to the Tel Aviv and Jaffa port areas.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.

The land of the well and the home of the huge

October 25, 2010

A ranch near Chama, New Mexico, has this chilling sign at its entrance.

On Sunday morning my husband and I stood in line outside the Centre Street Café in Jamaica Plain waiting to have brunch. Ahead of us in line were two young men and a young woman, talking enthusiastically about everything, including the food they were about to eat. They looked like college seniors, but they were all doctors, residents in emergency pediatrics.

The young woman recommended the Huevos Mexicanos, made with organic eggs and organic vegetables (of course, at organic prices). Organic is great, if you can afford it.

Visit America and stumble on the greatest paradox of all: The country seems obsessed with health yet one in three adults is obese.

It’s not just health that obsesses Americans. It’s wellness. The word has been around since 1653, but the concept appears in so many different contexts it seems to have no bounds. Yet Merriam-Webster Online does not hesitate to offer a definition: “the quality or state of being in good health especially as an actively sought goal.”

And boy are they actively seeking it. Search Google and you’ll find 67,600,000 hits for wellness. Wellness for children, wellness for adults, wellness for seniors. But above all, wellness for pets. Two of the top three wellness sites are for pet food. Yes, pet wellness is right up there with godliness.

But wellness for people (though not for everyone—God forbid there should be medical coverage for all) is growing in popularity too. It’s no accident that Whole Foods Markets has been climbing steadily up the ranks of the Fortune 500 companies, from 479 in 2005 to 284 in 2010, and that it doubled its revenues between 2005 and 2009 (going from $3.86 billion $7.95 billion), and this despite the recession. With enough money, it seems, you can buy wellness in this country.

So why are so many Americans obese? Why are so many Americans sick with all the illnesses—cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and Type 2 diabetes—that come with obesity? Why are nearly 17 percent of children ages 2 to 19 obese?

They’re the people who are not shopping at Whole Foods. The highest obesity rates in the US are among blacks, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Next are Hispanics. A study showed that between 2006 and 2008 blacks had 51 percent higher prevalence of obesity, and Hispanics had 21 percent higher prevalence, than non-Hispanic whites.

Geographically, too, obesity is highest in a cluster of states: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia. In 2009, only Colorado and the District of Columbia had obesity rates lower than 20 percent.

As I sat in Jamaica Plain eating my organic eggs (my pesticide-and-hormone-and-antibiotic-filled eggs in Jerusalem taste about the same) I pondered the great American paradox, in the land where wellness is first of all for pets and very definitely not free.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

By the rivers of Babylon we wept for Zion and bumbleberry pie

October 20, 2010

The decor is flagrantly Western at Wildcat Willies; to get bumbleberry pie you have to go to the tiny cafe in the adjacent gift shop.

Zion National Park is being loved to death, and the tremendous commercial growth of Springdale, a wannabe Sedona at the park’s southern entrance, is one of the consequences. Yet some things seem not to have changed: You can still get bumbleberry pie in Springdale.

In the 1970s, when my husband and I first drove up to Zion, there were signs for miles around advertising bumbleberry pie, something I’d never heard of but was tempted to taste. The café in Springdale that served it had a silly, forgettable story about the pie and its secret recipe, but the pastry itself, with its rich filing made up of a mysterious combination of fruits, was unforgettable.

When we returned in the 1990s and camped in the park, the café was a full-fledged restaurant, but the pie was still as delicious as we remembered it.

This year, after we were crowded out of Zion, we decided to console ourselves with a piece of bumbleberry pie. Alas, everything was changed. Now there was a Bumbleberry Inn, a Bumbleberry Motel, Bumbleberry Gifts, a Bumbleberry Bakery, and a Bumbleberry Theatre. There was also a new Wildcat Willies [sic] on the premises, now a pricy restaurant with Western décor where drinks are served in Mason jars, the service is ridiculously slow, and the pizza is superb.

To get a piece of bumbleberry pie for dessert we had to go to a tiny café in the adjacent gift shop. The story that came with it was as silly as ever (though a Google search turns up a plethora of bumbleberry pie recipes, most of them using blueberries, raspberries, rhubarb, and apples).

But this time the pie was a poor ghost of the fragrant treat we remembered. Heraclitus might have said something about not being able to bite into the same pie twice. But for us, losing Zion and the bumbleberry pie on the same day seemed an awful lot to bear.


Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

Return to Zion

October 8, 2010

A ranger halts westbound traffic during road work on SR9.

Every return to Zion opens the heart.

The thin-layered red rock, like piles of tinted puff pastry; the deep gorge that is the centerpiece of the park, carved by the deceptively named Virgin River; the waterfalls; and the wildlife—for all these my husband and I keep coming back to this national park in southwestern Utah.

And so, when a change in itinerary at the end of September brought us to the area, we hoped to camp in the park. Road repairs on SR9, the single road through the park, slowed traffic to 20 miles per hour, which enabled us to get better-than-usual views as we headed southwest toward the visitor center and campgrounds.This would be our sixth visit, and it would make up for abortive visit No. 5, last year, when an attack of severe back pain made me realize, after we had located a campsite, that I couldn’t put up a tent. I felt then that I had turned my back on Zion. Perhaps I had become an anti-Zionist.

This time, fate was conspiring against us again. The sky lowered and it rained occasionally. A massive storm system covered the entire southwest, and thunder showers were forecast. Not great indications for tent camping, but we were still hopeful. Then a ranger told us that one of the campgrounds was already full and that another was filling up quickly, though it wasn’t even noon. We would have to hurry. But it’s hard to hurry at 20 mph.

By the time we got to the campground, it was full. The visitor center, which looks more like a supermarket for books, T-shirts and tchotchkes than a place to get information from a ranger, was full. Its parking lot was full.

Michael McLory, who was manning the register at the visitor center that day, told us that the park has 3 million visitors a year.

“Between Easter and Thanksgiving it’s always busy,” he said. “They’re lovin’ us to death.”

And it’s been that way for decades. Until the end of the Sixties, the park was not well known, Ranger David Rachlis said in 1995 in a wry evening presentation entitled “All roads lead to Zion.”

But completion of Interstate 15 in 1971 meant that “25 percent of the population of the United States lives within a day’s drive of Zion.” Instead of being a mysterious part of the wilderness, the park had become just an “exit off the interstate,” and visitors were coming “not just to see nature’s spectacles, but for recreation.” The national park, he said, was becoming part of the vast “Las Vegas recreational park.”

In the 1970s, 12 to 14 tour buses arrived each day; by the 1990s, 60 to 70 were jockeying for parking space.But, Rachlis added with a wistful sigh, after eight years in the park, he had come to realize that “the true Zion has always been just a few steps from the roadway.”

And we undoubtedly would have been reminded of that, as we were in 1995, had Zion allowed us to stay. This time Zion rejected us. Does this make us post-Zionists?

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.