Monday, October 13, 2008

Tel Aviv

The first city we visited (yes, I know, my presentation of our trip in this blog is out of order) was Tel Aviv. The second largest city in Israel (by population), Tel Aviv is located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, just north of Jaffa. Founded in 1909, Tel Aviv is Israel's economic center (and home of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange), with many upscale shopping areas and restaurants, a very secular lifestyle, and major cultural and performing arts centers--not to mention a beautiful beach!

The name Tel Aviv is Hebrew for "Hill of Spring"; literally, tel is an archaeological site, and aviv means spring renewal or rebirth, so the name that the Zionists gave to this city symbolized their dream for a reborn Jewish homeland--a dream that eventually came true with the granting of Israeli statehood in 1948.

Tel Aviv is also home to the White City, a collection of 4,000 Bauhaus buildings, the largest of any city worldwide. When the Nazis closed the Bauhaus school in Germany in 1933, many Jewish architects fled to Palestine to join their compatriots who had already immigrated to Tel Aviv in the 1920s. These architects took advantage of the absence of established building conventions to begin building in the Bauhaus tradition, which emphasized functionality and inexpensive building materials. Of course, the style required adaptation to the extremes of the Mediterranean and desert climate: white and light colors to reflect the heat; walls to protect against the sun; small recessed windows to limit the glare; long narrow balconies, shaded by the balcony just above, to catch the sea breeze; flat roofs to provide a common area where residents could gather and cool off in the evenings; pillars to elevate the buildings and allow wind to blow beneath and cool the apartments; garden plots among the structures to encourage self-sufficient agriculture. Despite these innovations, the concrete buildings still become extremely hot during the summers, so the residents of Tel Aviv adopted the Mediterranean custom of strolling in the parks in the evenings, a custom that continues to this day. UNESCO proclaimed the White City a World Cultural Heritage site in 2003, "an outstanding example of new town planning and architecture in the early 20th century."

These two photos show the view of the beach from our hotel--it was a relaxing way to begin our visit to Israel and to rest from our flight before heading out on foot to tour the environs.

Tel Aviv's importance to modern Zionism cannot be understated. As a political secular movement, Zionism really began with the Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl in the late 19th century, who encouraged Jews to migrate to Palestine. Zionism has two pillars: religious tradition, which provides a link between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, or the Promised Land; and secular nationalism, which seeks a homeland where Jews can be safe from antisemitism. Zionism was but one of many Jewish political movements in Europe but became the dominant one after the Holocaust. Since the 1st century C.E., most Jews have lived in exile (having been forced out of Jerusalem/Judea by the Romans)--an event known as the Diaspora. In 1800 only 6,700 Jews lived in Palestine--about 2.4% of the total population. Jewish immigration to Palestine really started in earnest in 1882, with several aliyahs, or waves, occurring until the largest influx in the 1930s and 1940s, despite Britain's efforts to control the numbers of Jews allowed into the British mandate. By 1947 the Jewish population of Palestine was 630,000--about 32.5% of the total population. A remarkable change in just 150 years.
Our recollection is that this next photo shows Ben-Gurion's house. David Ben-Gurion was Israel's first prime minister, serving from 1948 to 1963 (except for the two-year period in 1954-55). Born David Grun in Poland in 1886, Ben-Gurion was an ardent Zionist who immigrated to Palestine in 1906. The Ottoman Turks expelled him for his political activities in 1915; so he went to New York City, where he married and had three children. He joined the British Army in 1918 as part of the Jewish Legion, and he and his family returned to Palestine after Britain captured it from the Ottoman Empire. In 1920 he became general secretary of the Histadrut (Zionist Labor Federation in Palestine); in 1930 he provided leadership for the formation of Mapai, a right-wing Zionist labor party; in 1935 he became chair of the executive committee of the Jewish Agency for Palestine; on May 14, 1948, he declared the establishment of the State of Israel. He became prime minister and also oversaw Israel's military during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (known to Israelis as the War of Independence or the War of Liberation; the Palestinians call it the Catastrophe). After stepping down as prime minister, he remained active in politics, retiring to a kibbutz in the Negev Desert in 1970. (This is just a small bit of the important history that has transpired in Israel in modern times.)
Another important landmark in Tel Aviv is Rothschild Boulevard, named after baron Edmond James de Rothschild, a French member of the Rothschild banking family who actively supported Zionism and donated significant funds to support the early movement. The first boulevard built in the city, Rothschild Boulevard is perhaps the busiest street in Tel Aviv and also is central to the White City. Independence Hall, the site of the signing of Israel's Declaration of Independence, is located on Rothschild Boulevard.

Like much of Israel, Tel Aviv has not escaped political violence. In recent years, suicide bombers have attacked buses and nightclubs in Tel Aviv; here is one of the memorials to the civilians killed in one of the suicide bombings:

Israeli politicians have not been immune from violence either, and Tel Aviv is the site of one of the saddest events in Israeli history.

On November 4, 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin appeared at a rally in support of the Oslo peace accords, held in the outdoor plaza named Kikar Malchei Yisrael (Kings of Israel). After the rally, as he was walking toward his car, he was assassinated, gunned down by Yigal Amir, a right-wing Orthodox Jew who strenuously opposed Rabin's peace initiatives and signing of the Oslo agreement. The plaza has been renamed Rabin Square, and the location is marked by a memorial to Rabin's memory and to the continuation of the peace process.

Upon the stone marker, one can see that a passerby has placed a smaller stone, in remembrance of the deceased peacemaker.

As a major cultural center, Tel Aviv is home to a number of modern art masterpieces. For example, Dizengoff Square is centered on a splendid outdoor fountain designed by Yaacov Agam, an Israeli sculptor and experimental artist known for his abstract and kinetic pieces. Here are some views of his fountain:

Although Tel Aviv did not seem as modern as I remember it from 1983, it's still an incredible city, and it was a comfortable place for us to ease into the unfamiliar world we were about to encounter.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Diamond & Gemstone Jewelry Factory

One of the evenings we were in Tiberias, we visited a diamond and gemstone jewelry factory. There was a short presentation about diamonds through the centuries, but of course, the main reason for the "tour" was to have us view and, it was hoped, purchase some of the rings, pendants, pins, earrings, bracelets, and other diamond and gemstone jewelry on display. The pieces were stunning--as were the prices! Anyway, here are a few images from this evening.

First, a showcase of various rough gemstones. I can't read the Hebrew labels, but I believe there are some pieces of amethyst and opal and quartz in here.

It was not a pure shopping trip, fortunately, for we did learn about the High Priest's Breastplate. Among the other priestly vestments, the breastplate is first described in the book of Exodus, as follows:

You shall make a breastpiece of judgement, in skilled work; you shall make it in the style of the ephod; of gold, of blue and purple and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen you shall make it. It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width. You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of carnelian,* chrysolite, and emerald shall be the first row; and the second row a turquoise, a sapphire,* and a moonstone; and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper; they shall be set in gold filigree. There shall be twelve stones with names corresponding to the names of the sons of Israel; they shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes. You shall make for the breastpiece chains of pure gold, twisted like cords; and you shall make for the breastpiece two rings of gold, and put the two rings on the two edges of the breastpiece. You shall put the two cords of gold in the two rings at the edges of the breastpiece; the two ends of the two cords you shall attach to the two settings, and so attach it in front to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod. You shall make two rings of gold, and put them at the two ends of the breastpiece, on its inside edge next to the ephod. You shall make two rings of gold, and attach them in front to the lower part of the two shoulder-pieces of the ephod, at its joining above the decorated band of the ephod. The breastpiece shall be bound by its rings to the rings of the ephod with a blue cord, so that it may lie on the decorated band of the ephod, and so that the breastpiece shall not come loose from the ephod. So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgement on his heart when he goes into the holy place, for a continual remembrance before the Lord. In the breastpiece of judgement you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the Lord; thus Aaron shall bear the judgement of the Israelites on his heart before the Lord continually. (Exodus 28:15-30, NRSV)

Aaron was Moses' brother and was the first High Priest of the Israelites after their escape from Egypt. When Aaron died, only his descendants could become high priests, and thus another name for the high priests was "sons of Aaron." Because the High Priest was the people's representative before God, it was considered the most glorious of all positions, and the High Priest's vestments were designed for glory and beauty.

The breastplate was of great importance because God used it to reveal the divine will to the Chosen People. It was a type of oracle, the means by which God responded to the High Priest's inquiries. Scholars believe the process went something like this: Faced with an important decision, a person would submit his or her request to the High Priest, who would then stand before the lampstand near the altar. He would hold the Urim in one hand and the Thurim in the other (these were sacred, some believe miraculous, stones or jewels, the Urim representing light and excellence and the Thummim signifying perfection and completion). The candlelight from the lampstand would reflect from the Urim and Thummim onto the breastplate's stones. The people believed that God's breath caused the candle flames to flicker, altering the angle with which the light would shine onto the Urim and Thummim, and from them onto the stones of the breastplate. Twenty-four combinations of reflection were possible, corresponding to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, so the flashes of light could produce strings of letters, allowing God to communicate directly to the High Priest.

Which stones were set into the breastplate? This is an age-old question. Although the Hebrew names of the stones are well documented, scholars have never agreed upon their translation. The scripture passage cited above gives one possible grouping, but here is another, listed with the corresponding tribe:

Judah: Sardius (red)
Issachar: Topaz (pale green)
Zebulon: Carbuncle (deep red)
Reuben: Emerald (green)
Simeon: Sapphire (deep blue)
Gad: Diamond (transparent)
Ephraim: Ligure (dull red)
Manasseh: Agate (gray)
Benjamin: Amethyst (purple)
Dan: Beryl (bluish green)
Asher: Onyx (bluish white)
Naphtali: Jasper (green)

The stones were set in four rows, three per row, and the name of the tribe was engraved upon its stone.

Finally, I had to photograph the nails of our tour guide. This was some amazing work that must have taken a number of hours--and must have been incredibly expensive. I guess when you can't wear any more diamond rings or bracelets or earrings or necklaces, it makes sense to attach the gems directly to your nails!