Coffee into Theorems

Friday, June 3nd, 2005

I've started falling behind in updating my Israeli trip journal, but hopefully I'll do some catching up tonight. I'm now to the part of the trip where I have to write the whole entry from the sparse notes I took while I was there.Hopefully I won't take too long to finish the trip journal, or I may forget all the things I wanted to say. In the meantime, however, my life is continuing onward. I'mprogressing nicely towards getting pre-approved for my mortgage, and if my real estate agent ever gets back to me, I'll be planning a trip to Bloomington to look at houses soon.I've replaced the tires on my car, and done a bunch of other things that needed to be done. I've made tons of progress on the project I'm working on with my roommate, and he'sshown some work as well. Maybe this project will be different from all the rest. On the down side, my girlfriend is sick with a sinus infection, and I've been trying to take care of her. I'm not that good at it, though, and I keep wanting to do something to helpwhile not having anything I can actually do. But she's a tough girl, and she'll get better soon enough.

On Friday morning, we drove to a cemetary on the shore of the Sea of the Galilei, which is a lake if you're just tuning in. In fact, the sea is sometimes calledLake Kinneret. On the way to the Kinneret Cemetery, our tour guide kept telling us that we were about to listen to the best speaker on the tour when we got there. I kept thinking that he shouldn't express such positive sentiments before we listened to the speaker. I thought it was likely to raise our expectations so high that we would be disappointed. I needn't have worried. The man wasan excellent speaker, not in the practiced public-speaking manner of some of the peoplewe'd listened to previously, but in his own style. He had a casual manner, he obviously cared deeply about his work, and he was more than a little flamboyant. It helped that he was a native speaker of American English. He was from Skokie, which is a suburb of Chicago in which I spent roughly a year as a baby. I got funny looks for shouting "Go Skokie!" when he mentioned it. But he's been in Israel for many years now, researching the lives of the people buried at Kinneret Cemetary. The kibbutz on the shores of TheKinneret was founded not long after World War II by immigrants who wanted to start a new life and build a new society in the holy land. They adopted their ancient language, even though none of them had ever used it for anything other than prayer. They even kept theirdiaries in (very awkward) Hebrew, which is what our speaker had been studying.

It helped that the story of these immigrants was an interesting one. To say life was hard for them would be an understatement. Very few of them had ever been farmers, and many had never spent a day in hard, physical labor before. The ratio of men to women was quite high, the land wasn't very good for farming, everyone got malaria eventually, and they couldn't agree on anything. Despite all this, they stuck it out stubbornly, forcing the land to their will and inventing their culture, their language, and their government as they went along. Quite a few famous Israelis came out of that kibbutz, including David Ben-Gurion, who has been mentioned here before, and Rachel, a poetess so renowned that she doesn't even get a last name on her headstone.

After listening to our speaker discuss the struggles of these immigrants,and after viewing the graves and headstones, I think many people come away with a sense of pride for the perserverance, toughness, and commitment to ideals shown by these people, some of whom eventually formed the cornerstones of the nation of Israel. There is a greatvariety of people in Israel, as in any land, but a large majority of those I've met are filled with an enormous sense of pride in the unwillingness of their fellow countrymen (and women) to back down or give in. It's clear by the way in which they express their horror at those Jews in Europe who hid from the Nazis instead of fighting. I could tell by the choice of which war stories we were told at the Air Force Museum. That self-prideeven shines through in the children, some of whom stopped at nothing in their attempt to get the American tourists to say dirty words in Hebrew.

I try to be careful about generalizations about any group of people that's bigger than I can count on my fingers. Obviously, there are Israelis who more often value compromise over standing up for what they believe in. But I do believe that the culture in the state of Israel has come to unconsciously teach their children a sense of pride, for themselves in general and for the accomplishments of the country's foundersin particular. Many of the people on the trip with me were feeling that sense of pride bythe end of our trip to the cemetery. Quite a few people later cited that talk as a turning point in their lives. (A cynical sidenote: it was certainly an inspiring morning,and it might have made some people think about things they haven't before, but it's probably a little early to know if it will actually change their lives yet.)

I wasn't inspired in quite the same way as many of the others. I'm not about to move to Israel, nor am I about to change my life plans because of something I heard that day. But I was moved by the story of those people who lived on the shore of the Kinneret. They truly built something out of nothing, and not just in an agricultural sense. Their hardships were severe, it's true, but I've heard hundreds of stories of people who led even moredifficult lives and never gave up. What impressed me the most was that these people worked so hard for an ideal that they hadn't even properly conceived yet. They didn't even know what they were working for. Sure they had some vague socialist or democratic notions, but when it came down to it, they had no idea where they were going. And while they kept on trucking towards this unclear destination, they were building that destination at the same time.

You'd think that such an experience first thing in the morning would color my perceptions for the entire day, but if I do anything better than your average bear, it's shifting gears. Some quality time on the bus, and I was thinking about something completely different. I honestly have no idea where our next stop of the day was supposed to be, but it got set aside so that we could walk through the oldest livingcity in Israel, Bet She'an.

We got off the bus and started wandering off in a seemingly random direction. We weren't quite in a town yet. I could see a few structures off in the the distance (that's not the same distance we were travelling), but the biggest thing around us was a barbed wire fence with a gate that we passed through. We walked slowly up a dirt road on the side of a hill. Our tour guide talked about how 3000 years ago,the city extended out to where we were, all the way over to some unremarkable hills a fewhundred meters away. We got to the top of the hill, and we saw the remains of a stone structure there. Columns in pieces were strewn on the ground where they had been excavated not too many years ago. Our tour guide talked about how the Egyptians had been here for a while and then the Romans took the city and renamed it Scythopolis. "Scythopolis" remains the only name for the city that I can remember without thinking hard or consulting my notes, despite the fact that it hasn't had that name for over a thousand yeas. It must have been an impressive city, to be named part of The Decapolis (the ten Roman centers of culture in Palestine), but there obviously wasn't much left of it now. We could see a few buildings off in the distance in the modern part of Bet She'an, but I was beginning to wonder what we we'd originally been scheduled for.

But we weren't quite done with Bet She'an. Our tour guide said that if we followed him to the edge of the hill, we'd get an excellent view of the city. We followed him over, and when I saw the view of "the city," I was taken aback. Yes, you could see some of the modern buildings (nothing to write home about), but below, between our hill and the modern city, was a vast archaeological site. About a dozen ancient Romanbuildings had been uncovered, and many had been significantly restored. The main roadwaywas clear, with giant columns running along either side. A large theater was standing with stone rafters, a recreated stage, and a vomitorium. Incidentally, no vomitting takesplace in a vomitorium; they were actually large exits designed to let hundreds of people leave a building at the same time. There was even a bath house with the toilet seats still jutting out of the walls over the waste-disposal trough.

We took pictures, talked about the history of the city (like Israel, it had changed hands many times), and then we walked down the hill and through the site. Parts of the city were still being uncovered, including a hippodrome. Hippodromes, being essentially large oval tracks, are never quite as impressive as coliseums when they're unearthed. The ancient Roman city of Scythopolis was equally impressive up close as it was from the hill top. Unfortunately, there was essentially no sign of the even more ancient Hebrew city of Bet She'an. We were able to enter the theater to sit on the benches or stand on the reconstructed stage. I even dropped my pants in the bath house toget a picture of me on a 2000-year old toilet. As was usual, we didn't get to stay as long as I'd hoped.

Lunch was at a small mall with only a few food options, including pizzaand a kosher McDonald's. I've long held that people who eat at McDonald's while on shorttrips to foreign countries are missing out on half the fun of the visit. But in this case, I forgive any of us who did (including myself) due to lack of options. While they did have tuna pizza at the pizza place, there really wasn't anything authentically localin the mall. Besides, if I hadn't gone into the McDonald's, I'd have never known that there was such a thing as a McKebab or McShawarma (I am not making those names up). Mullafaphone has always been fairly strict about eating kosher food, so he'd never eatenat a McDonald's before. His first Big Mac, while not exactly the tastiest meal he'd ever eaten, seemed to fulfill some deep need for him. Here was a place where non-kosher restaurants were the exception, instead of the norm. I think that meant a lot to him.

Somehow we got behind schedule that day. I'm not quite sure how that happened since we didn't really spend a lot of time at Bet She'an and our lunch was veryrushed, but it was important that we get back to the hotel before sundown. Why? Becausethe Shabbat was about to start. But before that, there were still two stops on the schedule. First was a kibbutz near the Israeli-Palestinian border. Part of Kibbutz Metzer was devoted to an "educational zoo" and housed a variety of small animals includinga large selection of fowl. But we weren't there to see the zoo. We were there to listento the kibbutz's secretary talk about the unique releationship the kibbutz has with a neighboring Palestinian settlement. In the past, they'd had quite a friendly relationship, visiting each other often. This relationship remained amicable even after the Second Intifada when many Palestinians started to use violence in an attempt to gain independence from Israel. Eventually the Israeli government drew a border on the map,separating Israel from Palestine. The border cannot be official until a true PalestinianState exists, but even so, the precise placement of the border has caused much debate. In the case of the area around Metzer, the border takes a lot of the land away from the Palestinians in the area. The Jewish Israeli residents of Metzer worked hard in an attempt to convince their government to give more of that land to the Palestinians. Whichis why it was so shocking when a Palestinian terrorist slipped into their village at nightand killed five people, including two children. The terrorist was not from any neighboring village, but probably picked the target because it represented a situation where Israelis and Palestinians were cooperating. Amazingly enough, in the three years since the tragedy, the residents of Kibbutz Metzer have continued to work hard to get the borders redrawn and to demonstrate to the world that the violence and hatred have nothingto do with nations, cultures, religions, or races but everything to do with individuals.

The story is an inspiring one, but of all the events we'd had planned over the trip, it was the most rushed of any. You could see the disappointment on the speaker's face as he was forced to rush through the complex political issues and the emotional tragedy. He had planned on taking us to see the border and to show to us whyhe thought it should be moved, but there was no time for it. I came out of that trip very disappointed. It had barely been worth it to drive out there for the brief time wespent. But such is the nature of an organized tour. Nothing is predictable.

The last city we visited that day was Jerusalem itself. We would be spending the next few days there, but the tour guide and the group leaders wanted our first stop in Israel to be the Western Wall. I could write a nice long entry about the Wall and my experience at it, or I could try to cram it in tonight and not do the experience proper justice. It's getting late, so I'm going to opt for the former and call it quits for the night. Hopefully I'll get to the rest of the day and Saturday tomorrow. Good night for now.