Israel Musings - Rebecca Lesses

Israel Musings - Rebecca Lesses

A blog on my visits to Israel.

Posted by Rebecca Lesses at 4:21PM   |  Add a comment

My visit then proceeded into the Jewish Quarter. Last year, when I was living in Jerusalem for the summer, I never went into the Jewish Quarter itself (although I went to the Kotel [Western Wall] several times).

I took a few photos to give the students in my fall course on Jerusalem an idea of what it looks like, tried (but failed) to get into the rebuilt Hurva synagogue, and then went into a fantastic museum which is called the “Herodian quarter.”

It consists of several connected buildings from the Second Temple period. It was uncovered by Israeli archaeologists after the Old City was conquered in 1967, and over a period of several years they discovered these houses and many fine artifacts. One especially interesting feature of the houses is that there are many mikvehs [Jewish ritual baths] in them – indicating that the houses may have belonged to priestly families, who would have needed easy access to mikvehs in order to go up to the Temple.

The first photo below shows a map of the Jewish Quarter, identifying where the Herodian houses are located. They are called “Herodian” because they were built and stood during the time of the Herodian dynasty. (Herod the Great was a vassal king of the Roman occupiers from 37 BCE to 4 BCE and his descendants ruled various parts of the land of Israel after that). Subsequent photos show rooms in the Herodian buildings with artifacts found at the site.




Earthenware pots and stone table.

Stone table in room with mosaic floor.

Mosaic carpet in large room.


Part of the scale model of the Herodian Quarter.

I came out eventually, and then went down the stairs that lead to the Kotel, but instead of turning in that direction, I went right and into the Davidson Center – a visitor center for the excavations at the southeast corner below the Temple Mount. I bought a ticket and went into the visitor center itself. There was a small exhibit of coins from various periods found in Jerusalem, and a propagandistic movie that the center screens about a supposed pilgrim of the second Temple period bringing his sacrifice to the Temple. 

Coin from 70 CE, struck by the Jewish rebels in Jerusalem.

After that I went to walk around the archaeological park itself, first going to see Robinson’s Arch and the “springer” from which the arch to the Temple Mount rose in the first century.

Various tour groups were walking around, but at the end of the first century street, after all the huge stones thrown down by the Romans upon the destruction of the Temple, there was a bar mitzvah ceremony – a small family hovering fondly over a boy reading from the Torah. It was really quite sweet. I took a few pictures of them, and then went up some stairs and walked around the back of the site.

I started to hear loud booms – like gunshots – only later did it transpire that they were probably people shooting in the air (in celebration) at a Palestinian Arab wedding, and not, as I feared, some violent encounter in Silwan between Arabs and the Israeli Border Police (Silwan is a neighborhood of east Jerusalem just below the Jewish Quarter, outside the walls of the Old City, and there is considerable conflict right now between the Jerusalem municipality and the residents of Silwan over the status of a neighborhood called Ha-Bustan in Arabic ["the garden"] and Gan ha-Melech in Hebrew ["the king's garden"]).

After some wandering around the archaeological site, I went out through the Dung Gate and sat there for a while, just watching people go in and out – tourists going out to their buses, which were parked all along the road, a whole big group of Haredi [ultra-Orthodox Jewish] kids going out to their buses, the Arab shopkeepers selling drinks and snacks to whoever wandered out, the cabs going by, the couple of Border Policemen stopping every Israeli bus and getting on it for a security check, etc. I finally got a cab ride home with an Arab taxi driver who came over and offered me a ride. We sat in the front of his cab and ate artikim (one of those frozen ice cream cones), which was very welcome at the end of a hot day, and then he drove me home.


No. 2 bus, on its way into the Jewish Quarter.










Posted by Rebecca Lesses at 4:06PM   |  Add a comment

The first half of my record of a trip I took Thursday to the Old City, complete with photos.

I began the day by eating breakfast with an old friend whom I had not really talked to for about ten years. (I still have friends in Jerusalem that I met when I lived here in the late 1980s). From her house, I went to the Old City, via Jaffa Road. I took the #18 bus along Emek Refaim, up King David St., and then got off at the stop in front of the Iriya (the Jerusalem Municipality or town hall). Downtown Jerusalem is a mess because there is lots of construction for a light rail system that is being built very slowly. The main streets are all torn up and laying the tracks is going torturously slowly.

On Jaffa Rd., I stopped at the Bible Society and bought 20 copies of the National Geographic Jerusalem map from 1996 that I had tried to get from NG itself last year, without success, for my Jerusalem class. I don’t understand why the Bible Society here managed to get so many copies while NG itself possesses none. I had a pleasant conversation with two women working there, one from Denmark, one from Finland. [The Bible Society is worldwide – they translate the Bible into as many languages as possible for purposes of proselytization. The Bible Society store in Jerusalem has lots of good scholarly books] on the Bible.

Google Map of Kikar Zahal (Army square)


I then set out for the Old City – I crossed the street at Kikar Zahal [Zahal Square], and walked down the way to Jaffa Gate. They are actually renovating the park at Zahal Square – it’s been a mess for quite a while, but today workers were not only mowing the grass, but even edging it to make it look neater! 


 Archaeological garden at Kikar Zahal.

The walkway has been improved by the addition of several large trees to give additional shade. It’s actually quite handsome now.


As I got closer to Jaffa Gate itself I saw that the gate itself has been renovated – it’s been cleaned up and looks much nicer. Then I realized that I had to walk through the gate itself – the road into Umar ibn Al-Khattab Square has been blocked off because they’re doing construction in the square, so it’s a hideous mess. 
Jaffa Gate
I skirted around the construction, saying no to several shopkeepers who wanted me to come into their shops and buy something. One of them poked me on the shoulder to get my attention, which really pissed me off. I guess my patience level has been pretty low recently.
I walked along Armenian Patriarchate Road, past some Armenian shops, and turned into the area of the Armenian quarter occupied by an Armenian seminary. I walked around some, but it wasn’t very interesting. The Armenian museum was closed. There has been an Armenian community in Jerusalem for a very long time, but the community increased in size in the early twentieth century with refugees who came to Jerusalem after escaping from the genocide inflicted by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
Garden next to the Armenian Seminary.

I continued down this road and arrived at Zion Gate, where I exited and went into Mt. Zion. I went into a church that I don’t think I’ve been into before, the Church of the Dormition. It’s modern but has some nice mosaics. (“Dormition” means “Sleep” and refers to the death of Mary, the mother of Jesus).
Church of the Dormition - notice the mosaic on the ceiling of the apse of Mary and Jesus.


I then went into the room of the Last Supper (or the supposed room – I don’t see how it could actually have been the room, since from the architectural details it’s from the Crusader period; then during the Ottoman period it was turned into a mosque – the niche pointing to the qibla [direction to Mecca] is still there).
It was too full of tourists, so I left, and found some stairs going up to the roof. I cannot resist going up stairs to roofs in the Old City because the views tend to be so interesting. This one was too, giving a great view of the valley between the Old City and the Tayelet [the Promenade].
It also gives quite a view of part of the Separation Wall, cutting through the Arab suburb of Abu Dis.
View from the roof of the room of the Last Supper. We are looking across the valley to the Tayelet.
Roof of the room of the Last Supper

The Separation Wall at Abu Dis, an Arab suburb of Jerusalem.








Posted by Rebecca Lesses at 5:22PM   |  Add a comment

Today was my first full day in Jerusalem. (I got here last night around 5 p.m.) I spent most of the day resting from my air travel, but tonight I went to the Old City to see the last night of the "Festival of Light," a whole series of light installations around the city. They were really beautiful. One in particular was very striking - the "Three rings" installation done by "Lichtpiraten" at the Damascus Gate. It was very long and involved - at least a half an hour. The installation framed the whole Damascus Gate wall area, including all of the crenellations and a tree that kind of creeps up the wall on the right corner. Eerie electronic music played the whole time.

The light display was watched by tourists from Israel and around the world who come especially for the installation, as well as by people who lived in and around the Old City - Hasidic Jews walking in and out of the gate, Arab residents of East Jerusalem and the Old City, a couple of teenagers selling little lit-up plastic devices that they kept throwing high in the air, families sitting and talking with children playing around them, and the municipal garbage service, which was bringing big loads of garbage out of the Old City in trucks. A cacaphony, in other words.

Posted by Rebecca Lesses at 6:27PM   |  Add a comment

The flight from Ithaca to New York was a bit late, but now I'm in, just waiting for my flight onwards.

I last kept this blog two years ago, but I also went to Israel last summer, for about seven weeks. It was a busy and productive time - I spent a lot of time wandering around the Old City of Jerusalem, visiting holy sites and taking lots of photographs, many of which I posted to Picasa. I thought that since my Ithaca Seminar class would be spending the semester talking about Jerusalem, we should begin by having students familiarize themselves with the place itself.

This seems to be a particularly fraught time to be visiting Israel,with the Israeli interception of the Gaza flotilla a couple of weeks ago leading to such a tragic conclusion. I'll be curious to talk to people and find out their impressions and opinions about Israel's actions. I'd also like to find out more about what people think about Gaza - whether Israel should lift the embargo, or modify it, and what their reasons for thinking it should be continued might be.

I'll be spending most of my time in Jerusalem. One of my favorite Jerusalem events is happening again this summer - the Jerusalem International Film Festival, which I've managed to go to for the last several years. I'll be writing about the film festival and interesting films I see on this blog as well.

Posted by Rebecca Lesses at 3:19PM   |  Add a comment

I'm sitting in the Ithaca airport, waiting for my flight to Newark. I'm heading off to Israel again tonight. I'll spending about 5 1/2 weeks there this summer, doing research on my book - Angels' Tongues and Witches' Curses: Jewish Women and Ritual Power in Late Antiquity. At the end of my stay in Israel, I'll be going on to eastern Europe - specifically, Latvia and then Estonia - for the international Society of Biblical Literature conference, which is being held in Tartu, Estonia, at the end of July. There I will be presenting a paper on the topic of "Were there ancient Jewish women mystics?" Part of my research in Israel will go toward writing this paper.

I'll also be doing something else in Jerusalem, where I'll be staying - doing further work for my Ithaca Seminar on Jerusalem. I taught the course for the first time in fall 2009. It is called "Jerusalem: City of Faith, City of Struggle." I will be searching around the nooks and crannies of Jerusalem in preparation for the course, visiting neighborhoods where I've never been before and talking to as many people as I can.

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