|Day 1 – 4
I had forgotten how hot it gets. The British writer Rudyard Kipling said of India, “Only mad dogs and Englishmen venture out in noonday sun.” Had he been speaking of Israel, he might have added, “…and American tourists.”
The night my family and I arrived in Tel Aviv, we took a long walk before meeting friends. I should be over it by now, but I still get a thrill from seeing every sign – especially street signs — in Hebrew. Famously, the signs are also always in Arabic and English, too.
The next morning, we visited the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, aka TAMA (like MOMA). More on TAMA later, but I noted all the attributions on the paintings and sculptures followed the same linguistic model as the street signs. What struck me as significant about this is it seems inconsistent with the structural segregation one would expect reflected in an Apartheid society. On the contrary, it’s entirely egalitarian.
In New York City, there are often Spanish signs, of course. But not every single street and highway sign, without fail, and not at all in fine art museums. I mentioned this to a lawyer friend who makes a pilgrimage here every summer to study Torah and the Law; he commented that it’s so easy for people to believe the Apartheid libel from thousands of miles away, but not so easy to accept when you see Israel up close, with your own eyes. My solution? Birthright for adults.
The food is terrific. The variety of the produce — the fruits and vegetables — is astounding. If one chose to be a vegetarian, as many Jews and especially Orthodox are, Israel is the place to be. By the way, if you’re ever here, try the hummus. I’m joking, of course. As you’d expect, we’re drowning in it. But it’s even better in Israel than – dare I say it – Main Street in Flushing.
Media fascination with Israeli technology overshadows the agricultural miracle that was Israel’s greatest achievement in the earliest days of the nation state, hence the moniker “Land of Milk and Honey,” now rarely heard. The early settlers’ greatest pride was that they took a barren patch of land punctuated by arid deserts and malarial swamps and made it a verdant wonderland. I bought my first tree in Israel when I was 8 years old to honor an uncle who died. It’s what we were strongly encouraged to do: make the Promised Land green.
Back to TAMA. We were not prepared for the quality and diversity of the collection at this strikingly modern fine arts museum. The collection of Impressionists was astounding, including Matisse, Utrillo, Van Gogh, Gaugin and, of course, Pissarro, who was Jewish. It also displays pieces by Dali, Picasso, Giacometti, and Warhol. The lobby features the largest Agam and the biggest Lichtenstein either I or my wife, who is an art dealer, have ever seen. The foundations of this magnificent art repository are based on the extraordinary philanthropy and bequests from a Who’s Who of American Jewish benefactors. While there, it’s impossible not to reflect on the monumental role American Jewry has played in shaping the cultural identity of modern Israel.
We spent time with a friend of ours who made Aliyah a few years ago. We talked the about the differences between the realities of Israel and the negative perceptions promulgated through anti-Israel propaganda. He pointed something out to us that we had never heard before.
Israel proper was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire only until WWI. But some tenets of Ottoman law influence Israeli law to this day, especially in real estate matters. I’m not sure why, but I presume it’s because in Israel claims to land can extend back well over one hundred and fifty years.
This tradition is reflected in a loophole that impacts who pays real estate tax, and how much they pay. These taxes are hyperlocal in nature, and those revenues are used for hyperlocal infrastructure like roads, especially. When one sees Arab towns with uncompleted homes, particularly roofless rooms, and bad roads, it’s not Israeli government neglect.
Dating back to Ottoman rule, if a home is under construction, even perpetually, no tax is assessed. Because the tax revenues are consequently distressed, there are inadequate funds available to fix the roads. Even when an extended family increases in size and the home is expanded, if the owner maintains a roofless room, there is no additional tax burden. It doesn’t look good on TV news, but it’s not Apartheid housing policy. It’s literally a conscious choice made by the owner. Between paying real estate taxes and having better roads, street repair doesn’t stand a chance.
This morning we drove to Tzfat (Safed). It’s an ancient town, closely associated with the foundations of Kabbalah. Today, its recognized as an artist’s colony. We met an artist and bought several prints for our personal collection. Each piece is spiritually symbolic and incorporates elements of Jewish mysticism.
It’s very Orthodox here (i.e., Lubavitcher Hasidic) and there are pictures of the Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson (z”l), everywhere. Compared to Tel Aviv it seems like a different country. Even so, we met a café owner who is in 6 episodes of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, the hit Israeli TV series now showing on Netflix. I haven’t seen it yet; he said he plays a bad guy. Israel is a country of stark contrasts.
Tomorrow, we drive to Ein Bokek (Safed), a resort town on the banks of the Dead Sea. The first Dead Sea scrolls were discovered 40 miles from there in Khirbet Qumran. Driving there, you can look across at Jordan, a one-time foe, now cooperatively engaged with Israel on a variety of matters. It remains a tense peace, however, due to Jordan’s close ties with the Palestinians. There is nothing analogous in the United States. You would have to imagine Canada was our sworn enemy to get a feel for what its like.
Then on to the Holy City, Jerusalem. The spiritual pilgrimage of a lifetime.