Saturday, May 15, 2010

Welcome to the Holy Land - Sometimes there's Drama!

We landed in Tel Aviv at 4 in the morning. There was very little drama, aside from the man with the giant lips. I went through Israeli customs and immigration; there was a little drama while I stood waiting in line for 30 minutes, after less than 30 minutes of sleep and decided it wasn't my idea of fun at 4 in the morning. By 5, I was finally outside, looking for my monit sherut - a shuttle van bound for Haifa. Michelle, whom the blogosphere might remember from such previous adventures as Gitika's wedding in India two years ago, warned that sometimes there's drama involved. Approaching sunrise at 5 in the morning, there was no drama. A French couple next to me chatted incessantly, but I insisted on catching up on sleep. Almost an hour later I glimpsed a Toys'R'Us along the side of the road and figured we had to be in Haifa. Another twenty minutes passed, and I was making a dramatic appearance at Michelle's apartment in Haifa, with the following twitter post summing up how I was feeling:

Haifa, Israel: on to Haifa - Hi, Michelle! I haven't slept tonight, where's your couch?

Not to say there hasn't been a bit of drama in this region for the past, oh, three thousand years or so, but the drama of my arrival was largely contained to the strikes in Greece.

After a couple hour nap to recover some degree of sanity, we headed off to explore Haifa.

Michelle, pointing out the natural attractions of the city

Me, finding my own ways to enjoy some of the not-so-natural attractions of the city. One of the things I've really found enjoyable about cities in Israel so far though, is that there is a lot of art on the streets - be it just sketches on a wall, or a big metal structure like this one, or something altogether more abstract (a giant abacus?)

The Haifa main municipal building is housed in a gleaming new skyscraper (which the locals seem to think resembles a missile... hmmm, aimed at nearby Lebanon?)

The star attraction of Haifa are the Bahá'í Gardens though. The Bahá'í Faith is a religion, founded in the middle of the 19th century, which emphasizes 'spiritual unity of all humankind.' While that does sound rather abstract and maybe even a little pompous, the faith does have a lot of aspects that I can wholly support - quoth wikipedia:
  • Unity of God

  • Unity of Religion

  • Unity of all humankind

  • Equality between men and women (!)

  • Elimination of all forms of prejudice

  • World Peace

  • Harmony of Religion and Science (!)

  • Independent investigation of truth

  • Universal compulsory education

  • Universal auxiliary language (?)

  • Obedience to government and non-involvement in partisan politics

  • Elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty
So, yeah, I came to Israel, the Holy Land for three of the world's major religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and so far I've had a chance to learn about the Bahá'í Faith. Not to say it wasn't interesting... The big attraction in Haifa are the Bahá'í Gardens, which house the tomb of the Báb (the man viewed as the forerunner of the Bahá'í Faith), among other important structures. A tour here gives you some of the background about the faith and a chance to walk through the huge garden complex:

The Bahá'í Gardens

I wonder if the soaring eagle represents something to the faith too?

The entirety of the Bahá'í Faith crammed into a lens of my sunglasses?

I had been aiming for three full days of rest, recovery, and relaxation in Haifa, but the Greek financial crisis had other ideas, I arrived a day late, and two days later, I headed down to Tel Aviv to catch up with Bailey and make a three day trek to Petra, just across the border in Jordan. Petra was amazing, and will require a full blown post of its own at some point (hopefully soon), but we'll skip it for now, and stay focused on adventures in Israel, which quickly led to the actual reason I was here in the first place: Yael and Etai's wedding:

Yael and Etai holding their marriage contract, while the rabbi reads the ceremonial texts. The entire ceremony takes a refreshingly quick ten minutes. All marriages in Israel have to be religious, by the way, and inter-faith marriages are best handled someplace across a border...

Action shot of Etai smashing a glass - good luck was ensured!

Sharing a kiss on the dance floor

The ceremony was held at the beautiful and posh 'Q,' in Kibbutz Glil Yam. Apparently Israeli Kibbutzes have expanded beyond collective farming to things like hosting glittering wedding ceremonies. The official part of the ceremony was very quick, and beyond that the reception was absolutely free-flowing - we ate, we danced, we drank, ate some more, danced some more, wondered around the gardens, chatted with the newly-weds for a bit, then danced some more. Israel is generally a lot less into rigid rules and structure than we are in the States, and the wedding (on a Wednesday night) was an apt example of this free-flowing liberty. That being said, it was certainly a big party - the guest list was over 400, and the dancing went on till after 1 in the morning. Which, technically, is a rather early night out in Tel Aviv...

The next couple of days were spent exploring Tel Aviv. It doesn't have any of the history of neighboring Jerusalem (what having been founded just over a hundred years ago and all) - it is, however, a relaxed, yet vibrant city, filled with markets, cafes, night clubs, and people on the far extremes of religious observance. A lot of Israel shuts down on Shabat (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) - Tel Aviv just slows down and relaxes a bit more. Life in pictures:

On the beach in Tel Aviv. The old city of Jaffa in the background

Like I said, art on the streets. I think Sigmund Freud and I make for a nice couple. Sorry about the bunny ears, Siggy!

Michelle had come down from Haifa for the wedding and to play tour guide for a day around Tel Aviv

Fresh fruit and vegetable market. Tel Aviv is actually a very compact city, so it's easy to walk around and get everywhere you want to go

In Jaffa, the old city, where the twisting stone streets (all named after zodiac signs) host an abundance of art galleries. Or sometimes just a hanging tree...

The Frank Meisler Gallery was the most remarkable that we saw, with his variety of sculptures. The Temple of Jerusalem here.

Sunset over the Mediterranean

It's a Jewish state, of course, but there's no shortage of Mosques and Christian Churches in the Holy Land

The people of Tel Aviv tend to be on the liberal and progressive side - this is a demonstration pushing for legalization of marijuana that I stumbled upon when passing through Rabbin Square one afternoon...

Some additional general impressions on Israel... Everybody - men and women - serves in the army. I knew that. And everybody takes public transport to get to and from their army bases (the soldiers often get weekends off). I knew that as well. And while I also knew that the soldiers on their way home do take their guns everywhere with them, it was still a slight shock to see all these 18 and 19 year olds riding the train with their M-16's. Not loaded... The trains and buses do feel quite safe though - not sure I'd want to be a pick-pocket getting caught by a bunch of armed soldiers...

The other thing that kept coming up in conversations is that Israel may very well be a totally different country in another 30 or 40 years. And the threats it faces don't come from the surrounding Arab world (well, there's plenty of those too, but we're not talking about them now). There is drama here after all - internally, Israeli Jews conform to a wide array of religious practices. Currently, the majority is secular, and religion plays about the same role in their lives as it does for most secular people in the world. However, that's not everyone in Israel - exactly the same as Islam has its extremist factions, and modern Christianity produces lots of devout fundamentalists, Judaism has its fair share of Orthodox Jews of various sects. The people that I had only pictured as cartoons on the the streets of Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century are alive and well here in Israel. Generally, I'm all for a 'to each his own' approach, but that tolerance runs into some brick walls when the Orthodox sects practice a lot of the similar social practices that I find downright appalling in the extremes of the Arab world - segregation and extreme inequality between men and women, lack of formal education beyond religious studies (and even the religious studies tend to focus on rote memorization rather than interpretation), and closed-minded, ignorant, and rather militant mistrust of the outside world, especially the non-Jewish world. And where all this becomes a problem for the state of Israel is, quite frankly, sex - much like the fundamental principles of the other major religions, Jewish Orthodoxy preaches that sex is to be used for pro-creation only, which makes birth control irrelevant. Nature, however, has other ideas, and human beings tend to be hormonally induced to be drawn towards sex, even the fundamentalist and orthodox human beings, and the result is that the Orthodox population is growing exponentially in Israel, which will make them a majority in the country within another generation (which will turn Israel into a Jewish version of Saudi Arabia?), and, at the current state of affairs, will bankrupt the state, as anyone pursuing an Orthodox religious education in Israel is eligible to be entirely supported by the state while they study (until age 40 generally), and are also exempt from military service. So, that's all a little scary... The place is filled with lots of really smart and ingenuitive people, so I hope they figure out a way for everyone to get along, without becoming a fundamentalist religious state!

And on a brighter note, in a couple of hours, I'm heading off to the airport to pick up Irina (from such previous adventures as Colombia) and we'll be spending the next two weeks exploring Israel and Egypt together. So, hopefully, the next mentions of the Orthodox sects here in Israel will be confined to photographs of people the two of us will be encountering in Jerusalem!

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