Heights, Depths & Alleyways: Masada, Deadsea & The Shutters of Machane Yehuda. Guest Post by Woody Goldstein 

When I awoke this morning, on our eighth full day of this amazing journey through Israel,day (ninth day of actually being away), I was moved by the fact that I was still in Jerusalem. This city has had a profound effect on me. It is an historic and iconic city that we’ve all read about and heard about, since our youth; and now we are all here, about to embark on another day of amazing activities. Wow!

I checked the weather, and although overcast, it was not raining. This was a welcome change after several days of cloudy, rainy weather.

After a moment of breathing in the Jerusalem morning air through my open window, I quickly went about getting ready to join my fellow travelers who, as Carole-Ann indicated, feel like extended family members

Once again, we had an early departure and I definitely did not want to hold up the group, on a day that promised to be filled with more wonderful and thought-provoking experiences. 

Today, for a unique and special experience, we split up into two groups, one for first-time Israel visitors headed to Masada, and the other, along with Rabbi Sharon Sobel, went to Hebron. (Rabbi Sobel will write about her groups experiences in a separate post). As a first-timer, I went to Masada. 

Our terrific travel guide, Ofer, took a few moments to give us an overview of the day’s planned activities and then Avi, our skillful driver navigated his way through the heavy Jerusalem traffic, filled with lots of horn-honking. Soon we were on the highway that would take us to Masada. 

On what turned into a beautiful sunny day, we rode through the Judean desert on land bordering the Dead Sea, and within easy sight of mountains which were inside Jordan. It was so good to learn that the Israelis and Jordanians actually do live and co-exist peacefully. This was but one of many valuable facts and information that Ofer continued to provide throughout our journey. 

Our ride through the Judean desert took us to 300 feet below sea level; a fact that was told to us by a sign which said “-300” and which was further clarified by Ofer. We drove past the Cumron Caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. It was interesting to reaffirm their significance in Jewish history and learn of other parts of their story, including how a shepherd boy accidentally came upon them in an open cave. 

As our ride continued, we learned from Ofer that the Dead Sea was composed of 36% salt and other minerals. We were cautioned not to put our heads under water since this would cause severe burning of our eyes. Also, he confirmed that the mineral composition of the water would cause us to float, and that it had healing powers.

We drove past the Ein Gedi oasis and learned that the Apple of Sodom, from this region, was inedible. 

After about a 2 1/4 hour ride, including a 20 minute stop at the Ahava cosmetics factory, we were standing at the entrance to the cable car that would take us to the top of Masada, where King Herod’s fortress and castle awaited us. A few members of the group chose to walk to the top of Masada on a trail followed by our ancestors so many years ago. The majority opted for the cable car. 

The short cable car ride to the summit of the plateau, which was approximately 1,600 feet above the desert, provided breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding desert and mountain ranges. 

We then entered this Herod-designed fort. As we walked around the castle, we were shown some living quarters, including painted walls that dated back 2 thousand years. I was in awe, as I touched the original walls I imagined the family cooking in the pit. We were also shown many other parts of the fortress, including its sophisticated cistern water system and rock quarry; and a mikvah. 

In fact the castle-fortress was never used as a fort, but did house 960 Jews who had fled the Romans to live there, in what they thought would be a safe environment. Unfortunately, as has happened so many times throughout history, the enemy, this time the the Romans, 10 thousand strong, come to root out the Jews. 

We were shown the ramp that the Romans used to push their fortress breaking machine high up against the plateau and a picture of the battering ram that caused the breach in the castle wall. When the Romans arrived, they found the Jews dead, since they had chosen to kill themselves, rather than face the horrible fate that would have befallen them at the hands of the Romans. We learned that only the last man committed suicide. After looking at the breach wall, I turned to the wide open plaza and imagined the dead people lying in the open area and in their homes. I could never think of killing my family, but definitely understood the decisions that were made 2 thousand years ago. This was also easier to comprehend having been to Yad Vashem yesterday. Who would not choose to kill their family to save them from the hands of the Nazis?

As we began to return to the cable car, we met our walkers who told us about their experience, and of some people they met. 

We all descended by cable car and returned to the bus for a short ride to the the Crowne Plaza and Spa at the Dead Sea for lunch and some beach or pool time.

After lunch, several of the group took an enjoyable albeit chilly dip in the Dead Sea. From my viewpoint they all seemed to have a good time while being virtually unsinkable. Some of us chose to lounge poolside and take in the Israeli sun. We also learned that a stranger called Howie a ‘stupid American’ for licking his salty hands after his dip in the water. That’s a shame, since he is far from stupid; but as usual Howie took it in good spirits 

Since it was already 3 PM, we boarded our coach bus and headed back to the hotel for some free time and dinner. We returned to our hotel at about 4:30, tired and satisfied from another day of enlightening and moving experiences. But today’s adventure was not over. 

After dinner on our own, we all re-boarded the bus for a guided “Graffiti Tour” of the Machane Yehuda market, or the “center of Jerusalem” as our private tour guide Shuki called it. We walked through the shuk, and experienced its sights, sounds and aromas as the bars took over, since the other shops were closing. The streets with music certainly enhanced the mood of the evening. We even saw some fruit of the region and were impressed by the basketball-size cabbages. When the shops closed, the vendors pulled down shutters, which was a good segue to the next part of our tour.

We met Berel who continued the tour of the marketplace and the told us about various shutter paintings. They were all quite amazing. He also explained the difficulties, and successes of the movement, which started in the Machane Yehuda market, and whose mission is to connect all of us through art. To this end, the paintings include Jews and non-jews, from various walks of life, including mobster Meyer Lansky, who provided money and other resources for Jews escaping countries in Europe dung the 1940s. (Rabbi Sobel’s note: the goal is to paint portraits on the shutters of people who have made a difference in the world. Solomon Souza is the artist who is heading the project. To date, over 200 shutters have been painted.) 

The paintings on the shutters, which we call gates in the USA, were magnificent, and brought new meaning to the word “graffiti.”

I also learned that Berel was in Israel only for a short time, having made Aliyah 6 years ago, when he, emigrated from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. This was of particular interest to me since I grew up in that neighborhood. In fact as Berel and I spoke, I learned that he went to school in the same building that had formerly housed the Brooklyn Jewish Center, where I went to Hebrew School and became a Bar Mitzvah. 

The day drew to a close when Rabbi Sobel shared her emotional and prayerful reflections of Tuesday, which included our visit to Yad Vashem. 

As I prepared to retire for the evening I recalled the events of the day and that we are leaving at 7:00 AM tomorrow for the Western Wall, along the southern side, to celebrate Steven Budnick’s Bar and Jill Weiss’ Bat Mitzvah. The wonderful journey continues.