Our highlights in Israel

In my two previous posts I wrote about going down memory lane during our recent trip to Israel. I don’t want to go on and on about our holiday, so I’ll try to condense the rest of what we did during our 9 days here into one post of highlights.

While we were there, we of course visited Jerusalem. The Old City houses markets in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters and above the markets/soukh there is a whole second level of the Old City where you can walk as well. We had lunch in a rooftop restaurant with view on the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock, we had coffee and home baked Käsekuchen in the courtyard of the German Lutheran church in the Christian quarter of the old city, we visited the hall where Jesus and his disciples were said to have held the last supper and we visited King David’s tomb. As a reminder that this wasn’t just another ‘regular’ beautiful historical city, we also saw evidence of more and more Jewish settlers trying to find a foothold in the Muslim quarter and more of a visible Israeli security presence as well, especially in the Muslim quarter near Damascus Gate. It was also unsettling to see Trump kippahs sold as souvenirs.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (built over the sites where Jesus is said to have been crucified and buried) is always fascinating to me…

We went to the Western Wall but couldn’t get close as everything was closed off for a commemoration on Remembrance Day and for Israeli Independence Day the next day. Lots of security was around. There is always a lot of security around the Western Wall but this was really a step up.

While we as tourists can move easily and freely and I felt perfectly safe and fine, the situation still felt more tense than I ever remember before. Despite that, the Old City remains such a beautiful place.

We also met with a friend of my brother’s for dinner one evening who is a teacher and an activist. We ate at a lovely little Arab restaurant just across the border on the West Bank in Beit Jala which was deemed ‘safe’ for Israeli cars (Area C, explained via link at the end of this post)…

One of our reasons for coming was the wedding of the son of a distant cousin of ours. The bride is from Jewish Yemenite heritage and two days before the wedding there was a Yemenite celebration (with henna) that we attended near Tel Aviv. I was encouraged to also dress up for a small portion of the festivities, to dance along for the bride…

We drove down to the desert, partially along the the Dead Sea…

… and made a quick stop to briefly visit Masada again…

…and then got to the location of the desert wedding, where we also stayed the night in little huts. The wedding was awesome and fun, with beautiful views over a large desert crater…

The next day my brother took a bus to the south, we dropped Junior off at the airport where he flew to Istanbul on his own for a few days (and now he’s in Barcelona for another few days) while Mr E and I headed to the north.

After the desert, the North was more lush and green. We stayed in the Galilee and toured there and in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria. We also drove by a small portion of the ugly, depressing Berlin Wall-style wall between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. We skipped the Western coast sites of Tabgha (where Jesus multiplied loaves and fish to feed many people), the mount of the Beatitudes (from Jesus’ sermon on the mount fame) and Capernaum (where some of the apostles are said to have lived) because we’d been there several times before but we did stop in Ein Gev on the Eastern coast of the lake, which I don’t recall ever having gone to before and it turns out is ‘just’ a holiday resort.

We stopped by the south side of the Lake of Galilee where the Jordan River emerges and which is also the site where many Christians go for baptisms (like John the Baptist baptized Jesus)…

We also stopped by Tiberias and took a look at where my mother had worked for a year the year before she and my father were married. She worked in the Scots Hospice library at the time (the two smaller pictures below on the left, my parents are the couple on the left in the first picture) which is now The Scots Hotel (picture on the right).

We had dinner nearby there at the lake with this view…

We visited the city in Tzfat (or Tsefat or Safed, whichever spelling tickles your fancy) which is the highest city in Israel and also boasts a booming artists colony. And yes, we ate a very nice Pita Falafel there, which I had to include in the pictures.

Once, many years ago, my father picked out a piece of art for me when we were in Tzfat, which is now one of my most prized possessions precisely because he handpicked it for me. It is the whole Book of Esther written in tiny letters, fitting into the image of a woman with a wide dress. As Mr E and I walked through Tzfat we found that the artist and the gallery are still there and he still paints Queen Esthers. In the pictures below, the first Queen Esther is the one I own, the Queen Esther on the right is for sale in the artist’s shop.

We also drove through the Golan Heights near the border with Syria. It’s a very beautiful area, with lots of nature and cows in fields but right near all that there are also warnings of landmines which is quite shocking amongst all that beauty. We also passed by a deserted little mosque filled with bullet holes. It’s a stark reminder of the very difficult political situation in the Middle East.

Being in Israel again for the first time in nine years brought home to me how tense everything can feel there, especially in Jerusalem, with security everywhere, more military checkpoints or at least observation posts than I remember and a stronger than ever presence of Israeli flags literally everywhere. Nationalism feels stronger than ever there and the divide feels bigger than ever to me. During all our visits in earlier years we could quite easily go to Bethlehem on the West Bank and we intended on doing so again this time around but were told that Israeli cars driving in the West Bank are at risk and that they aren’t insured there. As we were using my older brother’s car (on a side note: he’s become an avid birdwatcher over the years, as evidenced by a sticker on his car), we didn’t want to risk anything happening to it, so we never went.

I never consciously remember having to worry whether we were in an A, B or C area in the West Bank and yet with this visit, it was made clear we did need to worry about that. It feels like the tensions are stronger than ever and no peace in sight. Very sobering thought. Despite all that we did have a good and very interesting time and I’m sure we’ll be back again in due course.

A childhood relived, part 2: the village

In my previous post I went on about the convent that used to almost be a second home to us kids when I was little. Now I will delve a little into the village of Ein Kerem where we lived.

Let me start with a picture of Mr E with a map of Ein Kerem that didn’t used to be there when I was small. He is pointing to the convent. If you head straight on to the right of his finger and then take a left into that little dead end street, that’s when you get to ‘our’ old house, situated in the open space beneath the drawing of trees, just a few meters (maybe 50) away from the convent.

There used to be a back path that connected the convent to our house, but it is completely overgrown now as you can see by the bushes to right of this picture below (the convent sold the house many years ago). Somewhere around there, in that spot between our house and the convent, a family picture of us was taken in 1980, a few months before we moved to Europe.

Walking up the little dead end street it is evident that things have become a little more polished since we left and there are also some extra buildings (partially hidden by trees now). There used to be this iron gate that fascinated me with a bicyle wheel in it and all sorts of other things but that gate is long gone now and replaced by a very standard wooden gate. Picture of my mother and grandmother on that street in the early 1970s and pictures taken last week:

The place where we used to park our car has now become a bona fide parking lot.

When you get to the end of that little road, you kind of think it stops there but it doesn’t. There is this little narrow path that you can follow and at the very end of it you can find ‘our’ red house. Here’s a picture of my younger siblings on that path (and me in the back) and pictures of what it looks like today…

Through the gate and trees, our red house is still standing and the fig tree that I used to like to climb is still there as well.

We didn’t ask to go in this time. I have been inside since we left a few times over the years (linking again to this post) and things are different from when we lived there, so it always hurts a little.

Turning back from our house, we walk back down the dead end street and then turn left, heading to the central part of the village. This view hasn’t really changed much over the years…

At the end the road bends to the right and then left and you cross the main street that runs through the village. After crossing you walk a though a little street and then to your left you find the church of John the Baptist. This village is said to be the village where he was born and grew up…

When you walk out the gate of the church courtyard, you walk into a small pedestrian shopping area. Now there are little tourist shops there. When we lived there, in a shop that now sells souvenirs and clothes and scarves, there used to be a shoemaker. He was a Holocaust survivor who had no legs anymore from the knees down. It was said that he had escaped a death train by jumping out and had lost his lower legs when the train ran over them. I used to measure myself against him, waiting for the day when I would be taller than he was. Just beyond the open door in the second picture there used to be a little post office where we had our P.O.Box and where I would often accompany my mother to pick up the mail.

At the end of the little pedestrian street you get to the main street again and just around the corner on the left there used to be a little grocery shop for basic necessities run by a bald man named David (pronounced Daveed). There’s still a little grocery shop there (and a restaurant now next to it). David always used to give us kids something when my mom came by to get bread and milk and fruit. He’d give us a little bit of pita bread or some fruit and he always had his pencil tucked behind one ear. I used to marvel at how that pencil stayed in place and never fell down!

Not far from this shop there is a wall of pictures from artists who have painted in Ein Kerem and one of those pictures actually features a painting of David, the grocer!

Speaking of painters, in the early 1970s my parents bought a painting by one of the local painters. That painting now hangs in my house…

Walking through Ein Kerem, we saw that the painter, called Yitzhak Greenfield, still lives there. We entered his gallery and when we (my brother and I) mentioned our surname and who we were he smiled and recalled my parents and even the painting he had sold them! He is 90 and still working…

Another personal encounter from the past that we had was with the German theologian and historian and his wife who moved into our house after we left in 1980. They lived there for 10 years and then moved elsewhere in Ein Kerem when the nuns sold the house. They still live there and my brother and I went over to their house for a coffee. The cool thing is that they still have our piano! We left that behind when we moved to Germany and when the German couple moved house, they took the piano with them. We know it’s our old piano because my mother had painted it blue back in the 1970s. It’s old and completely out of tune but it was so cool to see it again…

These are personal sightseeing highlights but there’s also one more official site to see for tourists. When you cross the main street from David’s little grocery store and walk on straight ahead for about a minute or two, you get to Mary’s Spring. According to tradition the Virgin Mary stopped here to drink every time she visited John the Baptist’s parents, the mother being her older cousin Elizabeth. Built over the spring is a small abandoned mosque, a reminder that this was once an Arab village…

I remember it being a bit more rundown when we lived there but it is a pretty sight now.

So, there you have it: a little impression of the village I spent the first 10 years of my life in. It was fun walking down memory lane like that. I promise that my next (and hopefully last) Israel holiday post will be more of an overview and not quite so detailed as these two ‘childhood relived’ posts have been. All in all, it was quite a magical place to grow up in.

A childhood relived, part 1: the convent

If you read here regularly you’ll know that I was born in Israel, in Jerusalem actually, and for the first 10 years of my life I lived there in a village just outside of Jerusalem. Ein Kerem is now a part of Jerusalem and has become a bit of an artists colony with some tourist shops and trendy restaurants that weren’t there when I was a child. On the whole it feels much busier now than it did when I was a child. I have just returned from another trip to Israel, it had been nine years since my last visit there and, just as with other visits, I retraced some of my childhood footsteps.

Our house was owned by and neighboured a convent and we as a family became good friends with the nuns there. We were always in and out of the place, there for events and parties, for socializing, sometimes a service in the chapel, and often to get cookies baked by Sister F in the kitchen or to get some eggs from the nun whose name I can’t remember but I can still vaguely picture her face. The convent has a guest house and one of the old nuns there was also there when I was a child. My younger brother (who has worked in Israel and still visits there a lot) is in contact with Sister C (who is 88) and arranged for a cheap rate in their normally quite expensive guesthouse rooms (hotel and guesthouses are pretty expensive in Israel!) and so we came to stay at ‘my’ convent, a place that is so familiar to me from my childhood.

I didn’t really remember Sister C’s name from when I was a child but as she opened that front gate to us when we arrived that first evening I instantly recognized her face. Such a sweet kind face! And she immediately smiled so widely when she saw me and said that I really resemble my mother. She has a point. The front gate area has been far more developed over the years. The first picture is a picture from my childhood, taken around the time I was born; the other pictures are of what it looks like today (click on images to enlarge)…

Mr E, Junior and I stayed in that convent for 4 days (my brother came two days later and shared Junior’s room) and it was pure bliss being back again. The view up to the main convent building from the entrance/reception area is still so familiar to me after all these years and the steps leading up to it were a bit of a playground when I was little. I remember running down the little slope beside the stairs and skipping up those stairs again only to return to that slope again and run down again as fast as I could.

The gardens have always been bliss. I already shared two pictures as I was reading in the garden there last week and here are some more. First off a selection of some of the beautiful flowers and plants they have…

The smell of pine trees in the summer still to this day brings me straight back to my childhood. More pictures from the gardens below. I remember sitting on those low walls as a child and in one of the old pictures you can even see me doing so when I was little…

Nowadays these nuns don’t wear habits anymore but ‘regular’ clothes. Sister C will be leaving the convent in Ein Kerem this summer and is returning to France (after 60 hears!) to a retirement home there. My mother had painted her a picture to hang on her wall that she was so pleased with. Together with her we also visited my brother’s grave, which I have written about before. While we were there she said she could still remember the funeral, of how heartbreaking it was and to add to the misery, that the rain was pouring down from the heavens that day.

Apparently visitors to the convent often ask about the child’s grave situated between the nuns and monks buried there and through that his story and a bit of the story of our family is still kept alive today. In fact, I was at the grave alone one morning last week when I happened on an Ein Kerem tourguide telling a couple that she was showing around about the “Hollandit” Christian family that had lived here. I introduced myself and she was so very pleased to meet me. She had also met my younger brother at the same spot some years ago and he had at the time told her the story of our family, which is how she knew it now and could tell others.

That little cemetery and the path to it are so idyllic…

At the beginning to the path of the cemetery there is also a lovely area with olive trees and a great view over the valley…

Also the buildings have special memories, like that main building, that arched gallery and the chapel where my younger siblings and I were baptized. The wide green double door is the entrance to the kitchen and dining area. We were allowed in that hallway when we picked up our cookies and the inside of the door, looking out, still reminds me of chatting with the nuns there. In this set of pictures there is also a picture of our room. The nuns used to live in these rooms so we never really saw them from the inside much when I was little (except the nun’s room where my brother used to practice the piano). That stone floor was the same kind of floor I used to have in my own bedroom in our house, it felt familiar walking barefoot on it.

The chapel inside is a little different now in some details but not too much. The benches are I think still the same ones as during our time there over 40 years ago…

And a picture taken outside the chapel door next to a grainy picture of me on the same spot when I was three…

The city of Jerusalem is so busy (and complicated) and this convent is a perfectly idyllic place to retreat to.

This got way longer than I intended. Next up a little tour through the village of Ein Kerem…

Counting my blessings

Recently I’ve not been in the best of places and to counteract that I’ve decided that today is for counting my blessings of this past week.

First off, it’s been a short working week as we had a holiday yesterday (Ascension Day) and at my work place the day after that (today) is also free. So, yay, very long weekend for me! It feels like a Saturday for me today but it’s only Friday and what a pleasant thing it is to have this extra free time.

The best news this past week has been that Mr Esther got his first Covid vaccination! He has asthma and is in a higher (though not highest) risk group, so was able to get it yesterday (in a town 20 minutes from here). Mini me and I waited in the car (Junior had decided on a lazy day at home) and afterwards we drove on and just made a nice day of it. It’s so nice that terraces outside restaurants are open again during the day.

Last Tuesday was my final Stephen Macht masterclass on dramatic movie analysis. I couldn’t make the final class but was sent a recording which I will watch this weekend. Those classes have been giving me joy these past 5 weeks and have set me thinking, which I love. In fact, I have requested and have been sent recordings of all 5 of the classes so I can re-watch it all if I feel the need to.

These past few weeks, on Wednesday afternoons, I’ve been doing some volunteer work for the Council of Refugees. Socially distanced with screens and masks and very few people present and by appointment only but I am really enjoying it. It also puts into perspective yet again how very privileged I am that I have not had to flee my country, leave family and other loved ones behind and start life over in a totally different country with a weird language and a huge amount of confusing bureaucracy. On Wednesday I was trying to comfort a woman my age from Eritrea, who doesn’t speak any Dutch or English or German, with a cup of tea. It’s so tough to be a refugee and I am just happy that I can try to make a little bit of a difference.

Another blessing is that I came across these pictures taken of my small family during our holiday to Israel eight years ago last February. All four of us in a picture is quite rare and these were taken by two close friends of ours who came with us on that trip. I really should frame some of these. (Pictures were taken at the Jordan river, Old City of Jerusalem, Ein Kerem overlooking the valley, at the Dead Sea and in the desert near Eilat).

Back to the present day and it’s still on the chilly side here in The Netherlands. It is getting a bit warmer, though, and in the sun it is possible to sit in our garden for a bit again and look adoringly at my two favourite garden statues.

While enjoying the sun in our back garden I decided to listen to some David Bowie again (despite me repeatedly mentioning him on blog I don’t listen to him that often). As my David Bowie song of the day I would pick this one, a duet with Queen…

Insanity laughs under pressure we’re cracking –
Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?
Why can’t we give love one more chance
?
Why can’t we give love?
Cause love’s such an old fashioned word,
And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.
This is our last dance, this is our last dance.
This is ourselves, under pressure

Funniest movie moment of this week was from the animated movie Zootopia. I had never seen it before but mini me watched it and we watched along. The scene with the sloth just made me laugh so much, it was a much needed relief.

I recall seeing this gif often online, now I know where it’s from and I love it…

This evening we had a cosy dinner with just Junior, eating cheese fondue. Yumm!

Despite continued lockdown and getting sad seeing images from India and the Covid tragedy happening there and worrying about Israel & Palestine and worrying about work and not really feeling like myself of late, there are still blessings to be found and that is a good thing.

Golden years

My younger brother found old slides in my mother’s apartment, I took them to be digitalized a few weeks ago in a store near me and today picked up the end result on a USB stick. What a little treasure it turned out to be! Memories of the golden years of my childhood came rushing back to me when I looked at the pictures, most of which were new to me.

The pictures of my childhood home brought out such warm feelings. This following picture was taken from the side of our house. We lived downstairs and there were two small, separate apartments upstairs that were rented to other people. The laundry you see drying must have been from our upstairs neighbour. I remember little of her (she moved away halfway through my childhood), I just remember she was an old lady called Frau Barur who liked to eat flowers and she scared me a bit. I remember she showed us pictures of herself as a dancer before the war, I think she was of Hungarian origin but not sure about that. She was also an Auschwitz survivor, I remember the number tattoo on her arm.

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The back of our house looked like this (you can see where the stairs are leading up to the upstairs apartment). We used to play on that little wall under the window. That used to be my bedroom that I shared with my older sister, I later moved to another bedroom. This picture was taken before I was born, though.

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In this next picture my older siblings are seated to the left of that back door to the garden and underneath the window that in later years would be the room I shared with my younger brother and sister. This looks like it was taken in the summer of 1968.

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We looked out over the valley from that side of the house and I used to adore looking at that view, at the houses below us and the rocks and trees and tiny buildings across the valley. I love that there’s a picture of that view in these slides. It’s also the view I remember seeing from my second bedroom at that side of the house. Between the trees, at the other side of the valley, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum is located. I remember looking toward those trees, trying to make out the museum and really wanting to visit it. My parents never let me, though, as they thought I was too young for that (we lived there until I was 10). I finally did visit Yad Vashem years later.

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Another picture taken at the end of the 1970s (I think, going by how big my younger brother and sister are here) shows how our back garden matured. We used to love to play there.

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The pictures also include a few with my oldest brother before he died at age 7 from an accident in March of 1969 (a year before I was born). This is him at the back of the house…

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… and planting trees (I think) with my father, my grandfather and other people I don’t know. That blue Renault was ours. I think I have a flash of a memory of it, but not sure whether it’s a real memory or just a memory connected to seeing pictures of it. In my mind it was a darker blue, though. I think these pictures were also taken during the summer of 1968.

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Speaking of my grandfather, there are also pictures of him and my grandmother. I barely remember my grandfather, he died when I was 4, but I do remember feeling a great warmth for him. This picture of him, taken somewhere in the Old City of Jerusalem, may be one of my fave pictures that I know of him! I have no idea who those kids are.

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I also very much like this one of my grandmother relaxing. I think it was taken in the gardens of the nearby convent which had a guesthouse. My grandparents stayed there when they visited. Our house also belonged to that convent, we hired our house from the kind and fun nuns who lived there.

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I think I even know the exact spot where this following picture of my grandfather was taken, right outside the convent’s guesthouse.

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The official entrance to the convent looked like this. The man in the picture is my grandfather, I don’t know who the lady is.

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There are also a few pictures from inside the house. We used to have an old olive press right in the middle of our living room. This picture was taken after my brother died and before my mother’s pregnancy with me showed, I think it must be fall of 1969 going by the sweaters everyone is wearing. The curtains behind the olive press lead to the door to our back garden.

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The next few pictures were taken during Christmas of (I think) 1976 when I was 6 years young. I’m the little blonde girl. We had a load of guests that year and were singing all kinds of Christmas carols. The first picture is of me and my brother performing a song, probably “Little Donkey” which is the only thing I ever remember performing with him.

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There were also some lovely pictures of my dad. In the second picture of all the clergy coming out of the church, my dad is the man in the middle (dressed in black). The third picture is typical of how my dad used to gesticulate when he spoke, I love that picture.

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Last, but not least, when my parents were engaged in 1959-1960 they went to Israel for a year (before moving there again in 1967). My dad was studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a year and my mother worked as a librarian in Tiberias at the ‘Scots Hospice’. They used to visit each other during weekends. This picture was of them during that time…

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The final picture I want to share here is of my mother and some sheep. Somehow this picture has a “the hills are alive with the sound of music” vibe to me. Going by the fact that my mother is wearing the same outfit as in the picture above, I think this may be outside Tiberias.

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There are of course more pictures (79 in total!) but these really were my favourites. It’s been so much fun discovering them.