Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Jerusalem 2

Friends: I was glad I left my pump attached to my bike when I visited the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. There is no telling what reaction it might have provoked from the guards inspecting my backpack. It was by far the most thorough inspection I've been subjected to in my time here. My detachable head-light utterly befuddled the guards, occupying them for several minutes. The pump could well have drawn bomb experts from all over the city.

It had taken such an effort to gain entrance to the Knesset, I felt obligated to prolong my stay in the visitor's gallery, even though I couldn't understand a word of the proceedings, entirely in Hebrew. There were just two others in the gallery, what appeared to be a couple of high school students looking very serious in their all black attire and black yarmulkes. We were behind a glass partition, in a balcony overlooking the proceedings, so I could have asked them what was being said without causing any disruption, but it was obvious it was nothing of significance. Someone at the rostrum appeared to be filibustering or just stating some case for the record. The handful of legislators in attendance were mostly in pairs huddled in conversations of their own, paying no attention whatsoever to the speaker.

I could have left after three or four minutes and have had as much of an experience as I was to have. But it was late in the afternoon and I had time to spare before I was due at Evey's for another dinner with her and Dan and their friend Lynn, who had moved to Jerusalem a few months ago from Chicago. The benches were padded and my legs could use a rest after spending the better part of the day roaming the Yad Vashem (Holocaust Complex) and some further exploration of this city of steep hills on my bike. I tracked down the hall where the the Last Supper is said to have taken place and the Cinematheque and a few other sites.

The interior of the Knesset, like the exterior, offered a simple, yet magisterial elegance. It was a long walk back through its huge, stately plaza to the high-gated entry where I had left my bike. And then a long wait before I could rouse someone to return my pack. That was something I was getting used to. I was kept waiting nearly five minutes at the Yad Vashem for my pack before someone returned from their break.

The Yad Vashem (taken from the book of Isiah in the Bible meaning monument and memorial) resides on 46 acres just below the summit of Mount Herzl. The upper part of Mount Herzl is the grave of Benyamin Herzl, an Austrian who in the later 1800s was the first to propose the creation of a Jewish state. Also on Mount Herzl are the graves of many of Israel's heads of state, including Golda Meir. It was Herzl's book, "The Jewish State," written in 1896, calling for the establishment of an independent state for the Jewish people, that led to the creation of Israel. He died in 1904 and was buried in Vienna. It was his desire to be buried in Israel when it became a Jewish state. His wish was fulfilled in 1949, a year after Israel came into being. He is honored every year on the anniversary of his death.

Yad Vashem wasn't established until 1953. It has grown considerably over the years. There are more than half a dozen buildings and memorials, each stunningly powerful. The complex attracted the biggest crowds by far of any place I've visited here in Israel. There are vast and grand memorials all over its grounds. The centerpiece is a lengthy pyramid of an arcade opened in 2005 tracing the history of the Holocaust with dozens of exhibits and video presentations. It was mobbed with groups of school children and recent recruits to the IDF (Israel Defense Force) in packs of ten to fifteen each with their own guide. Most were speaking Hebrew, but there was an occasional, non-military, English speaking group as well. The soldiers arrived with their M16s, but had to check them somewhere. Wherever that was could have provided quite an arsenal for anyone contemplating a revolution. I thought for the first time I might see one of those machine guns fired when I saw a guy point his M16 to the sky out in the plaza before entering the complex. But he was only checking to make sure it wasn't loaded. It was probably a good thing his commanding officer wasn't looking.

All these boy and girl soldiers, fresh out of high school were learning further why they had been conscripted. One exhibit traced the history of anti-Semitism highlighted by Hitler ranting that the Jews are a "sub-human race that must be destroyed." But long before Hitler came along, they are told, "Christianity developed a hatred of the Jews for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah." Questions are raised why the world allowed the Holocaust to happen when it well knew what was going on. A statement on one wall asks, "Why wasn't Auschwitz bombed?" Accompanying video footage shows the bombing of sites in the vicinity of the crematoriums. They could have easily been bombed as well, or, at the very least, the train tracks leading to Auschwitz, putting the operation out of commission. Another quote on a nearby facade from someone at Auschwitz laments, "All of us, dying here amidst the icy arctic indifference of the nations." But a following exhibit documents some who did come to the aid of the Jews.

There were stools here and there, and benches too, so one could sit and watch the many videos. Visitors are welcomed by an exceptional ten-minute film just after the entrance. It is projected on the full length of a towering triangular wall that forms one end of the building. It depicts the seemingly idyllic life of European Jews in the early '30s. It was a continual pan of rural and urban folk in archival footage dancing and skating and singing and conversing and waving to the camera, but with eerie, foreboding music in the background. Just after this introduction one is assaulted by the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and the hell that was to follow. There was more archival footage of all that (goose-stepping and heiling and life in the ghettos and cattle car transport and concentration camps and war footage), as well as contemporary survivors recounting the horrors of the time. As one can well imagine, it is the ultimate of the Holocaust museums around the world.

Another building is devoted to the one-and-a-half million children who were victims of the Holocaust. It's a nearly pitch black experience walking into a nearly pitch-black cavern solely illuminated by the dim flicker of seemingly distant candles on all sides and above and below. One loses perspective and it almost feels as if you're floating through the cosmos as you follow a circular path. A woman's voice continually recites the names and home towns of victims. I emerged from it to the site of several people clutching each other in tears. It was a truly intense, deeply haunting experience. Similarly haunting is a monument to the deportees--a cattle car mounted on railroad tracks that end abruptly fifty feet in the air amongst a clump of pine trees. Large slabs of rocks arranged in a quarry-like maze paid honor to entire towns that had been wiped out. Another exhibit pays tribute to those who came to the aid of the Jews at the time.

There hardly seems reason to stick around Jerusalem after absorbing all that Yad Vashem had to offer, but there are still many other museums and holy sites to visit. The prime attraction for me though is Friday's Critical Mass bike ride. It takes place in early afternoon rather than in the evening, as in most cities around the world, as sundown marks the start of Shabbat when everyone gathers for a meal with loved ones. A friend of Evey says it only attracts 25 or 30 riders, not a great deal, but more cyclists than I've seen in my three days here so far.

I've noticed a couple of signs for bike routes along main thoroughfares on the sidewalk, but nothing on the streets. Nor have I seen a bike rack anywhere except outside the Knesset, a skimpy low-lying loop rack good only for locking a wheel, not a frame, unless one had a long cable lock. I am eager to hear what the local bike activists have to say about the state of bicycling in Jerusalem. I have two weeks left in the country. Since it is less than 200 miles to its northern extremity, I don't need much more than a week to complete the northern circuit of the country up to Lebanon and then back to Tel Aviv. Another reason to prolong my stay in Jerusalem is to enjoy the company of the ardent, veteran travelers I'm sharing a dorm with at the hostel. One is a 55-year old American who has lived in Berlin the past 34 years, presently working as the private gardener on someone's estate. This is his fourth visit to Israel. Another is a 30-year old Swedish high school teacher and former bike messenger, who likewise has traveled the world, though never by bike.

Later, George

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