Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Our trip to Israel, and the least-known major Jewish holiday

Eight days touring in Israel were an appropriate segue into a major Jewish holiday--one we counted toward for seven weeks, commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. We'd seen the Holy Land from the zenith of the ski lift on Mt. Hermon, surrounded by patches of snow, and from the barren salt shores of the Dead Sea. Celebrating the Torah in the Northwest extended the spiritual experience of Israel back home.

Israel seemed sanguine while we were there, its citizens carrying on in their normal mid-Eastern rush and brashness, despite the unease here in The States about an enemy media convince us is readying to pounce.  Efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear warheads, we're told, are likely to include US involvement, though apparently our President would prefer if Israel did the dirty work.

All this nervousness and dread wasn't part of the Israeli mentality as we saw it. Living in a "bad neighborhood" has made residents constantly on guard and yet overtly relaxed in their everyday activities.  We, as tourists, observed how they prepare for aggression but at the same time enjoy themselves, leaving the ultimate outcome to God.

My sister-in-law hosted our family for a lavish Shabbat meal, my brother-in-law the magnanimous host with luscious wine and contagious joie-de-vivre. Succulent vegetables and fruits we enjoyed came from within Israel, which is about the size of Vancouver Island off the coast of Washington State (and can fit into France 25 times), so "eating local" is normal. My sister-in-law said the green beans, asparagus and eggplant on her table had been in (or on) the farm just hours before she cooked them.

Sweet tomatoes grown with brackish water in the Negev
Our trip included many unique experiences--visiting with the Circassian Muslim sect in their hamlet of Rehaniya, debating Arab-Jewish harmony at a Women's Center in Akko, discussing the evolution of kibbutzim with a founder of Kfar Blum near the Lebanon border, munching sugary cherry tomatoes grown with brackish water sucked from beneath the Negev desert, with the innovators at Ramat Hanegev Agro Research Center--and so many more.

I would have stayed another two weeks, but had to rush home to prepare for the holiday of Shavuot. The name means "weeks," for the fact we count fifty days--seven complete weeks--from Passover, the growth process leading to the Jews' receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai.  The holiday recalls a national experience--an entire people who had endured Egyptian slavery, witnessed the fury of the Ten Plagues, left for a mysterious land under miraculous circumstances and finally quaked together at the overwhelming sensory manifestation of God's presence. They personally saw, felt, and internalized the Almighty, and it was too much; Moses then ascended Mt. Sinai in their stead for the transmission of a lifestyle that Jews continue today.

Major stuff; the basis of a faith that has endured beyond any of their contemporaries'. And yet Shavuot just doesn't get the publicity of, say, Passover or Chanukah. Yes, Christians have heard of Pentecost, but consider it the time the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles. Similar theme, perhaps: God interfaces with man--but not in the same way.

Veggies at a neighborhood Jerusalem market
Luckily, this year, we didn't have to explain work absences as much. It so happened that Shabbat, our weekly Saturday Sabbath observance, abutted the two-day holiday of Shavuot, Sunday and Monday until dark on Memorial Day. It's a joyous culmination, and I helped decorate our synagogue with flowers and boughs celebrating springtime and the season's first harvest. To honor the Torah, our congregation and many others spent Saturday night studying (midnight til 3 am); in our daytime service we heard the Book of Ruth, a reminder that for all Jews, acceptance of the Torah is a voluntary, daily commitment. Children got ice cream, and a blessing at the reading of the Ten Commandments. Like many Jewish moms, I cooked ahead for a succession of festive, formal meals.

Buskers at 2010 Folklife Festival
This year, I joined my husband and two friends on his annual Shavuot walk (usually about 30 miles round-trip), this time to my favorite Northwest festival, Folklife, which showcases an international array of funky musicians, with a craft fair, drum circles, hula-hoops and jugglers, in the shadow of the Space Needle. I've got blisters on the bottoms of both feet as souvenirs, but hobbling now is a small price to enjoy the happy, hippy confluence at our city's core.

Lawn hooping while performers on several stages played, 2010
We left for our hike from the synagogue at the conclusion of services, picnicking in a city park where we watched men practicing soccer. The weather was a perfect alternation between cool and comfortably warm, and the city was abloom with rhododendrons and irises to color our strides. Just a week before, we were in Israel's Negev desert, gazing across the Ramon Crater, a Grand Canyon of beiges set among endless sandy waves.  Perhaps the topography was similar when the entire Jewish people gathered at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. Memories of just a few days ago felt like an appropriate backdrop for this significant holiday, whether the world knows it, or not.


  1. I feel as though I had been on the trip with you Medheads! What a beautiful piece~ thanks for it Diane!

  2. Beautiful photographs & great information. I feel I will be there in my next summer vacation. Its really lovely place for visiting.
    hostels jerusalem

  3. We really need to experience things subjectively sometimes. You’re observation was right – they are constantly on guard, yet not too stiff to keep them from enjoying life. So, this Israel tour you’ve had wasn’t only memorable, spiritually uplifting and fun. It seems to be an eye-opener as well. :) -->Constance