Everything you wanted to know about Bar and Bat Mitzvahs but ….

http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/features/1.673307

One of the oldest Jewish jokes is about the 13-year-old boy who takes the podium at the front of his synagogue to recite his bar mitzvah speech. ‘Today I am a fountain pen,’ he says.*

Marty Friedlander
Haaretz Contributor

Judaism is a religion of commandments – 613, to be exact – which every adult is commanded to observe. That leaves a big open question: At what age is a person considered an adult?
The Talmud tells us that it is when they are physically mature enough to procreate. In the tractate Kiddushin (page 16b), we are told that boys reach the “age of responsibility” at 13, and girls at 12. Biologically speaking, that is somewhat arbitrary – children reach puberty at different ages. In fact, some rabbis will say that a younger child who shows signs of puberty can already be considered a bar or bat mitzvah.
The original wording for someone who has reached the age of responsibility for him- or herself was bar onshin (literally, “criminally liable”), someone who is punishable for offenses committed. The parent is no longer held accountable. Over the years, this negative term was replaced by the affirmative bar mitzvah – literally, “son of the commandment.” And as girls began to have their own coming-of-age ceremonies less than a century ago, the term bat mitzvah was coined (bar is Aramaic for son, bat for daughter.)

For hundreds of years, the bar mitzvah “ceremony” was exceedingly low key. The boy was called up to the Torah on the first possible day after his 13th birthday, and would recite the blessings before and after the reading aloud of a few verses. His father would then make a formal statement of the handover of responsibility: “Blessed is the One who has released me from punishment because of him.” End of story.
The boy became a full-fledged member of the tribe, with the rights and obligations accruing from that status. Over time, some rabbis ruled that it wasn’t sufficient to recite a couple of blessings, that the bar mitzvah should also read aloud his section of the Torah, or alternatively, give a Dvar Torah (a lesson on the weekly portion that he would have painstakingly prepared), demonstrating that he had studied the laws and had an adult grasp of their meaning.
From blessings to bashes
Little of this rings true to anyone who has seen the sort of bar or bat mitzvah parties that are now thrown in honor of adolescents. When did these over-the-top affairs become de rigueur? (Who can forget Elizabeth Brooks’ $10 million bat mitzvah back in 2005, which featured appearances by Aerosmith, 50 Cent and the Eagles. Her dad was later convicted of defrauding his company’s investors, who unwittingly underwrote the obscene party.)

The man who is perhaps most to blame for the trend, which in some circles can send parents to their bank to for a second mortgage, is a 16th-century rabbi from Lublin, Poland, named Solomon Luria – better known by his acronym, Maharshal. He ruled that a festive meal should be held to mark the occasion of a boy reaching the age at which the commandments become compulsory.
Women, meanwhile, would have to wait until the early 20th century to get Jewish education, civil rights, suffrage — and their own fountain pens. One would have thought that the liberal Reform Judaism movement would have been at the forefront of the trend, but its founding fathers believed that a child of 12 or 13 was too immature to be considered an adult. For more than a century, the movement sought to replace the one-off bar mitzvah ritual at 12 or 13 with an extended period of study that culminated in “Confirmation” at 15 or 16.
By the 1970s Reform realized it was missing out on the big new trend, and reintroduced the idea of bar and bat mitzvahs. By then, all of the non-Orthodox movements were on the same page, with full equality for boys and girls.
The first recorded bat mitzvah was that of Judith Kaplan, daughter of the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, in 1922. Unlike Reform, Mordechai Kaplan’s movement was more anchored in the tradition. Like Reform, it was strongly egalitarian. And so it was that Judith read the Torah portion verses from a printed Pentateuch that Saturday morning – albeit after the men had already read the same portion from the Torah scroll. Still, it was a start.
Before long, the Conservative Judaism movement became the strongest mainstream proponent of bat mitzvahs. At the start, bat mitzvahs were celebrated at Friday night services. The girl would often read the Haftarah portion from the Bible; meanwhile, the bar mitzvah boys were inducted into the adult world at the Sabbath day services, where they read the Torah portion. Not exactly egalitarian.
Women-only parties

And whither Orthodoxy? One would guess that the hidebound movement would take centuries or even millennia to adapt to changes in modern society. Not so. Modern Orthodox Jewish girls, whose mothers never would have had a bat mitzvah only one generation ago, are now marking their coming of age by reading the Torah at synagogue in women-only services (admittedly, this is still the exception and not the rule) or by giving a Dvar Torah based on their portion.
In Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) circles, the current practice is to gather for a women-only party at which the bat mitzvah gives a Dvar Torah. This new (and still-evolving) trend is perhaps an outgrowth not of any need to keep pace with the other movements of Judaism, but of the early 20th century advent of the Bais Yaakov school system, in which Haredi girls were for the first time encouraged to gain Jewish literacy and empowerment.
There are also ethnic differences within Judaism toward bat mitzvahs. Ashkenazi Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was the leading authority in American Orthodox Judaism until his death in 1986. He was staunchly opposed to any recognition of the bat mitzvah in a formal setting, arguing that the synagogue is “no place for optional, non-mitzvah matters.”
Conversely, the late Chief Rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef – the most respected Sephardi rabbi of the past 50 years – argued that girls had as much a right as boys to have a party in honor of their having attained adulthood, and that fathers ought to recite the same formulaic “Blessed is the One who has released me from punishment because of her” as they would for a son.
Entering adulthood in Israel
Many Israelis do not identify as religious Jews, and do not belong to a synagogue. Sometimes they have their child’s bar or bat mitzvah at the grandfather’s synagogue, particularly on a weekday, when there is much less attention focused on them and their child.
Many schools and community centers around the country offer bar and bat mitzvah classes that culminate in group ceremonies. Or the parents may charter a bus and bring family and friends to Jerusalem for the day, beginning with the young man being led to the Western Wall in a procession that looks like a wedding for one. There he will be called up to the Torah. Of course, all of these options are a pallid prelude to the party held at a banquet hall, complete with four-course meal, hundreds of invited guests, video and still cameramen and deejay.
To many community leaders and parents, the notion of throwing an over-the-top bash for a 12- or 13-year-old child who hasn’t exactly discovered a cure for cancer sends all the wrong messages. What’s more, it can be said that in many cases, the bar or bat mitzvah in fact marks the child’s exit from organized Judaism rather than his or her entry. Can this coming-of-age transition be made relevant?
In the past few years, there has been a growing trend of bar and bat mitzvahs donating a portion of the gifts they receive to charity or volunteering their time. The genuine act of selflessness demonstrates they are indeed ready to join the community.
Another solution devised by some families is holding the event in Israel to cultivate Jewish identity and immersion in the modern Jewish and Israeli experience. And if the guest list is limited to grandparents, parents, siblings and a few aunts, uncles and cousins, then the cost can be well under $10 million.
* The joke refers, of course, to a line that would presumably begin the boy’s speech: “Today I am a man.” The joke on the joke is that the punch line now has to be explained to anyone below age 60, since fountain pens long ago ceased to be the bar mitzvah gift of choice.

Marty Friedlander
Haaretz Contributor

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An Alternative Hanukkah Tour of Israel

http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/travel/tourist-tip-of-the-day/1.632288?date=1450254398927

An Alternative Hanukkah Tour of Israel: From Hasmonean Archaeology to Turtles

Six ideas for places to go and see where the Hanukkah spirit all began (or tastes like).

Marty Friedlander
Here’s an idea for the intrepid reveler: This year, beyond celebrating one of Judaism’s happiest holidays by lighting candles, binging on sufganiyot and engaging gifts, why not head out on the road to discover the real roots of the holiday!
Hanukkah marks the prevailing of the Hasmonean dynasty, originating with the High Priest Mattathias, over the Hellenists – Greek Syrians who defiled the Temple in Jerusalem and sought to stamp out Judaism in their drive to Hellenize the empire. This 2nd century BCE clash of civilizations was acted out throughout Israel, just a short chariot drive from home.
Here are six ideas for Hanukkah exploration, ranging from the geohistorical to the gastronomic.
1. Matthias’ home town, maybe
One of Israel’s fastest growing cities is Modi’in, named for Mattathias’ home town, which was allegedly somewhere in the vicinity. But where exactly? Perhaps it was Khirbet Umm al-Umdan, discovered in a salvage dig in 2001 but only now opened to the public,in a neighborhood of modern Mod’in. The archaeologists Alexander Onn and Shlomit Wexler-Bdolah found a late 2nd century BCE village that includes residential homes and alleyways; a round building that may have been a watchtower; wine presses and water cisterns; a ritual bath; and a synagogue that is one of the oldest in the world. Make your way to Modi’in, park at the lot on Reuven Street (don’t ask me, ask Waze) and walk down the footpath.
2. Watching giant turtles and thinking of empire: Nahal Alexander
You may say that watching the enormous soft-shelled turtles frolicking in the clean waters of the Alexander stream, a formerly polluted wasteland, does not seem like a quintessential Hanukkah activity. But then consider the namesake of this 32-kilometer long waterway, which wends its way from the Samarian heights near Nablus to the Mediterranean Sea at Michmoret, north of Netanya. Alexander Yannai, great-grandson of Mattathias and one of the more bloodthirsty Hasmonean kings, conquered the coastal area to the north of the stream and expanded the Jewish kingdom, not shying from massacring his fellow Jews. It is comforting to visit this now-tranquil area and to realize that the noble, primordial turtles have outlasted and outclassed the warmongering Yannai, also known as Alexander Jannaeus, about whom Chabad writes “The circumstances are surely tragic when the day a Jewish king dies is declared to be a holiday.”  You can easily access Nahal Alexander via either of two exits on Route 4, at the Ruppin or HaOgen junctions.
3. Tel Maresha: Get down and dirty
Archaeology is the science of revealing the material culture of past civilizations. What better way to spend a few hours of your Hanukkah vacation than to get your hands dirty finding ancient pottery, coins and everyday objects in an actual excavation that takes place in an underground manmade cavern? Somewhat ironically, the dead culture you will be digging up is that of the Hellenistic Edomites who lived at Maresha (15 minutes south of 20th century Beit Shemesh). So who won? Us or them? Archaeological Seminars, the private company that operates the dig, can be reached at office@archesem.com or +972-2-5862011. The experience lasts about three hours, and includes an unforgettable cave crawl.
4. Tel Kedesh: If you can find it
When Judah Maccabee fell in battle, he was succeeded as leader of the revolt by his younger brother Jonathan, who went on to win a decisive battle against the Seleucid king Demetrius near this Roman city. Kedesh is one of the lesser-known gems in northern Israel, and to ensure that that remains the case, it is entirely devoid of tourism infrastructure – no signage, no information sheet, and no trash bins, either. It’s a mess. But that shouldn’t detract from the pleasures of discovering exquisite sarcophagi, mausoleums and one of Israel’s few Roman temples. The Roman ruins of Kedesh lie at the foot of an immense tel that begs additional excavation, though with Lebanon a couple of hundred meters away, the tel might be begging a while longer. If you go, prepare in advance for your quest: Google “Kedesh Roman city temple” and print out some informational literature. It is located along Route 899 on the road to Kibbutz Malkiya.
5. The Banias, home of dancing goats
While up north, visit this beautiful bastion of Hellenism: spectacular ruins of the Greek temples tucked into the cliff face at Banias, an ancient city named for the resident demigod-of-choice, the half-man/half-goat Pan. Hellenistic paganism reached absurd heights here: See the odeon where the local faithful were entertained by – and worshiped – a troupe of dancing goats. And if you have an hour to spare, hike over to the “suspended trail” that cantilevers over Nahal Banias, the easternmost tributary of the Jordan River. This is also the place where the Syrian Greeks (the Seleucids) defeated the Egyptian Greeks (the Ptolemaids) in a decisive battle that put Antiochus and his dynasty into the driver’s seat in israel, leading 30 years later to the Jewish Revolt.
6. Levinsky Market: Flavors of Hanukkah

Strangely, some readers couldn’t care less about the clash of civilizations between Jews and Greeks, and are driven mainly by their salivary glands. For them, we recommend a Hanukkah-week visit to the Levinsky Market in southern Tel Aviv. It is a little known fact that in spite of their avowed abhorrence of all things Greek, Mattathias and his sons would often make furtive sorties to Pinso or Eema for their exquisite Grecian cheese bourekas.

Selling nuts and dried fruits at Levinski. Photo: AP.
And this is a boureka.

Marty Friedlander
Haaretz Contributor
read more: http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/travel/tourist-tip-of-the-day/1.632288?date=1450254398927

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Natural Springs of Israel: Seven Cool Watering Holes to Visit This Summer

http://www.haaretz.com/travel-in-israel/parks-nature/1.671869

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Can you buy genuine antiquities in Israel?

This article first appeared in Haaretz on January 14, 2015

Here’s the URL, but unless you are a Premium subscriber you probably can’t access it online.  http://www.haaretz.com/life/archaeology/.premium-1.637020

Even if you’re getting a real artifact from Israelite history, chances are it’s not kosher.

By Marty Friedlander Jan. 14, 2015
An ancient oil lamp (Moshe Gilad)

Israel is awash in ruins and plenty of tourists want to take a piece of history home – and they can, sometimes for little more than a history textbook would cost. There are plenty of authorized shops throughout Israel where antiquities are sold. Usually you can be relatively certain that the artifact is genuine, and that it is what the seller says it is. But don’t be surprised if he turns coy on details.

If an artifact is being sold openly in Israel, it must conform with the restrictions imposed by the Antiquities Law of 1978, which forbids the sale of any manmade item from before 1700 CE. However, there was a grandfather clause in the law that permitted the sale of items already in the inventory of the antiquities shops. And there are dozens of authorized antiquities shops, many in the Old City of Jerusalem, and in upscale hotels. All offer a certificate of authenticity with each sale.

The upshot is that the salesman may show you a perfectly genuine Hellenistic oil lamp – that he swears has been sitting on the shelf of his shop since Menachem Begin entered office. “What can I do? Sales have been slow.” [Wink, wink.] This means, of course, that the lamp was almost certainly robbed from a bona fide site.

Israel is blessed with thousands of archaeological sites and many are virtually unguarded. Just this December the police arrested six men from the village of Seir, near Hebron, for robbing a cave high above the Tze’elim stream in the Judean Desert. The unique artifacts they found included a 2,000-year-old lice comb that most probably belonged to a Judean seeking refuge in the desert during one of the revolts against Rome.

Yet the arrest was the exception to the rule. Most of the thievery goes undetected, and the loot makes its way into the antiquities market.

The stolen stele of Seleucus

Consider, for instance, the Heliodorus stele, which according to media reports was purchased in 2007 by New York financier Michael Steinhardt.

The magnificent 2nd century BCE inscription in Greek, which was “of unknown provenance,” included a letter from Seleucus IV to an aide named Heliodorus. But to the frustration of scholars, the bottom of the stele was missing, leaving a gap in the historical tale. No one was saying where the stele was found.

Subsequently, it was realized that three inscribed fragments unearthed in 2005 and 2006 in a cave at Tel Maresha in Israel were in fact the missing pieces of the Heliodorus stele. Tel Maresha head archaeologist Ian Stern distinctly remembers arriving at the site one Sunday morning in 2005 to find that the cave had been “turned upside down”; possibly it was that weekend that the Heliodorus stele was discovered and robbed.

An artifact of “unknown provenance” can be sold; one from Tel Maresha or any other specific place will go to a museum collection or basement.

Which brings us back to the original question: Is that Persian period juglet in the store window genuine?

The shopkeeper will say yes. And most likely, it is. There’s such an abundance of genuine material available that it makes no sense to start making counterfeit pots and vessels.

Ah, but was it robbed as part of an illegal excavation? This is a far tougher question, one that if asked is liable to have you thrown out of the store. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is the byword of this business.

Coins are different. They are more likely to be counterfeit, several Old City antiquities dealers admitted to this reporter. Archaeologists concur.

A Hasmonean-era coin. This one is genuine but ancient coins offered for sale are more likely to be fake than other types of antiques. Photo by: Moshe Gilad

No export allowed

While the Antiquities Law permits the sale of some the full gamut of artifacts, it forbids the export of some, including columns and ossuaries (stone boxes for secondary burial of bones). A beautifully carved and ornamented Second Temple-era 2nd temple ossuary can be acquired for as little as $1,500, but cannot leave the country.

Perhaps you are wondering about crossing into Palestinian Authority-controlled areas, tjhinking there might be fewer restrictions. But it isn’t so. The Palestinian Authority strictly enforces a tough antiquities law of its own.

As for the Israeli law – given the improbability of antiquities shops sitting on inventories for decades, one might ask how such a dubious enterprise is allowed to continue. One answer is that by permitting the sale of items of “unknown provenance,” even the academic world benefits, such as in the case of the Heliodorus stele. If the inscription had been sold on the black market, it would have never been displayed in public.

An alternative to acquiring antiquities in the somewhat unsavory retail marketplace is to burrow through the stockpile of less-significant shards at an actual dig site. For instance, at Israel’s most popular hands-on archaeology-for-a-day program, “Dig for a Day” at Tel Maresha, the staff scrubs, examines and catalogs all of the shards found by the volunteers, and then offers the diggers a chance to take home the discards, which consist mainly of shards that lack identifying features.

For the archaeologist, the piece may be no more than a discard. But when the tourist sees it on her coffee table back home, it conjures up the memory of that day when she felt such a strong physical connection to an ancient culture, that is still very much alive.

Perfectly legal, and genuine, shards from which amateur diggers can help themselves. Photo: Marty Friedlander

The author is a licensed tour guide in Israel.

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Life goes on

A collective thanks goes to all my friends and clients who’ve been writing to see how we’re holding up. Pretty fine, so far. I was with my mother (a feisty 86-year-old who had hip and elbow surgery last month following a fall) when the sirens went off in Jerusalem at about 6 pm yesterday. She balked at going down the steps to the basement of her building, and we made it as far as the hallway. Ten minutes later my niece showed up, reporting she just saw an Iron Dome interception of a Hamas rocket over the skies of Jerusalem. Ten minutes after that, all was back to normal.

So far, we’ve been extremely lucky (and skillful), but I hope and pray this ends soon. Our luck will run out – a tank shell will hit a mosque in Gaza, a missile will score a direct hit on an apartment building in Israel, soldiers on a ground assault will walk into a booby trap. We’ve been down that road before. Israel always gets a few days to inflict some damage to the enemy’s infrastructure, we exhaust the list of primary targets and then start on the next list;  then comes the boomerang.  In the meantime we’re in a pissing match over whose is bigger, and people are dying.

A few friends’ kids have been called up; the army takes advantage of these days to give them the training they were scheduled to have anyway a  few months later, so the time and money spent on this reserve service isn’t wasted.

Still, all of this is in the background to our regular life here.  The sun shines, life continues apace.

Got to run over to the David Citadel Hotel – brave tourists await!

Kol tuv (all the best),

Marty

 

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Beware the Tides of March

Who would have thought that this lackluster, nearly bone-dry winter could be salvaged? And yet it has. In the past three days (March 12-14), we’ve racked up some respectable precipitation. In the case of Jerusalem, we are now at over 75% of our annual rainfall. Hurrah! This is more than we saw all of January and February.

Of course, there will be the usually litany of rants and complaints:  too little too late, the hail destroyed vulnerable crops in the field; most of the water flowed into the sea. Yeah, yeah.

Leapin’ lupins!

I know what you’re saying: no way he took this picture himself. Okay, you got me.

This week, Rena and I took a day off and went to see the wildflowers. The lupins at Givat Haturmusim were out of control. The red carpets of anemones along the southern bank of Nahal Bsor were a luxuriant shag rug of vermilion blooms. And that was with the driest winter in 50 years. Now nature’s got another 5-6 inches of rain to fool around with.  God only knows what she’ll come up with. I can’t wait.

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A tale of two chronologies

Be it Jerusalem’s City of David, Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley or any of dozens of other sites, the visitor to Israel is able to match Biblical narrative to geographical location. But where does science end and faith begin?

By Marty Friedlander

“Biblical archaeology” is a loaded term. For some scholars, the two words neatly dovetail, proving one another’s case, while in the opinion of others, science is often subverted in a quest to prove the authenticity of the Bible. In Israel, the argument has developed along geo-academic lines: Hebrew University in Jerusalem is considered the bastion of Bibliophiles, with archaeologists like Eilat Mazar claiming to have found a 3000-year-old palace built for King David, using verses from 2 Samuel 5 to confirm her claims.

Did he or didn’t he survey his kingdom? Only the royal chamberlain knows for sure

 Conversely, Tel Aviv University archaeologists are known for doubting whether King David even existed, or if he did, if he was much more than a local chieftain ruling over a village called Jerusalem. The department, led by Israel Finkelstein, favors “low chronology” dating of ancient cities like Hatzor, Megiddo and Gezer, where Finkelstein contends that structures that were originally attributed to King Solomon and the 10th century BCE (as per 1 Kings 9:15), should in fact be dated to the 9th century. And if a king’s palace doesn’t exist, then it goes to show that the king never existed.  

The Tel Aviv/Jerusalem spat sets the stage for academic fireworks at practically every press conference announcing an Iron Age (1200-550 BCE) discovery. Watching the controversy unfold from the sidelines makes for fascinating spectacle. All of the players hold strong opinions. After all, if the Bible is God-given, then proving it right or proving it wrong involves much more than simply placing a date on an old pile of rocks.

 

Archaeology in the Land of Israel has always been exploited for agendas that go beyond mere scientific knowledge. Consider this: In 1925, American fundamentalists who objected to evolution being taught in the public schools – and initiated the Scopes Monkey Trial to bolster their position – began contributing funds for the University of Chicago’s excavation of Megiddo, a quintessentially Biblical site. With their biblical faith challenged in a Tennessee classroom, they found succor at a Jezreel Valley archaeology site.

 

It can also be fun to watch the discomfort of the different schools of thought when a significant find is made that strengthens the other side’s case. Yossi Garfinkel’s discovery five years ago of a walled Davidic-era military city at Khirbet Qiyafa on the outskirts of Judea (and just where 1 Samuel says it is) caused a lot of squirming among the Tel Aviv crowd. And Eilat Mazar’s failure to provide ample evidence of her claim to finding King David’s palace in Jerusalem has put the Jerusalem school of thought on the defensive.

Everyone in the archaeology profession has an opinion; sometimes it even coincides with the truth. Half of the fun of visiting these sites is detecting the behind-the-scenes story and picking up on the clues of what other motivations are at play. Like everything else in Israel, every historical site boasts multiple layers of past and present.

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Nisco Museum of Mechanical Music

After moving to Israel in the mid-’70s, Nisan Cohen opened the Middle East’s only museum dedicated to music boxes, player pianos, hurdy gurdies, gramophones and other devices. By Marty Friedlander

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. While more than a few sites in Israel may inspire similar reflection, only one hits the nail so squarely on the head.

Nisan Cohen, the founder (and sole employee) of the Nisco Museum of Mechanical Music is both a proponent of simple living in natural surroundings, a la Walden, and a human being who “steps to the music he hears, however measured or far way” it is.

In a former life, Cohen was an American Jewish filmmaker, but after moving to Israel in the mid-’70s, he opened the Middle East’s first and only museum dedicated to music boxes, player pianos, hurdy gurdies, gramophones and other devices that produce music mechanically. His extensive collection is the product of an inquisitive mind that clearly takes pleasure in seemingly simple delights.

All of this would be no more than a noteworthy oddity without the electric presence of the man himself. Cohen is one of a kind, and his fascination with mechanical music machines is catching. He practically dances from instrument to instrument, and like the children of Hamelin, you line up behind him.

Guided visits last 40 minutes, and start on the hour, but it would be wise to call ahead and see if Cohen can accommodate you. You might even want to reserve the museum for a private concert, which can be tailored to your own musical predilections. Tours are NIS 30/20 for adults/children.

http://www.ein-hod.info/nisco

The Nisco Museum of Mechanical Music is located at the foot of Mount Carmel in the Ein Hod Artists’ Village, which also houses the Marcel Janco Museum of Dadaist Art and the ateliers of more than a dozen artists.

Ein Hod is on Route 7111, just two kilometers from the intersection with Route 4 (between Zichron Yaakov and Haifa). Look for the Nisco Museum sign just before the turn into Ein Hod. Telephone: (052) 4755313.

The museum is open every day of the week, from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M.

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Temple Mount sifting project

Construction of a mosque at the site left a pile of debris ready to be sifted. This is political archaeology at its best.

By Marty Friedlander

We’re all familiar with the old Chinese curse, “You should live in interesting times.” As a tour guide in Israel, I often see my clients mouthing the words “How very interesting!” as I describe a hotly contested site or issue, while what they are really thinking is “Thank God I don’t live here!”

No place is as “interesting” as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which both Jews and Muslims claim as one of the foundations of their history and theology. Both religions agree on the idea of a single God, but not much else.

Case in point: In 1999, the Waqf – the Muslim religious trust that administers the holy sites – began work on a new mosque to be built in the southeastern corner of the expansive Temple Mount. The new Marwani Mosque would have room for thousands of worshipers. It was built below pavement level, necessitating the removal of thousands of cubic meters of fill that had been deposited over the past two millennia.

But due to heightened Arab-Israeli tensions at the time, the construction work was carried out without any supervision. Not a single archaeologist was present as the historically invaluable strata of Temple Mount fill were bulldozed and removed from the site.

This unfortunate circumstance created a unique opportunity.

The discarded fill layers were subsequently recovered from the garbage dump by a team of researchers working under the archaeologist Gabi Barkai. And wannabe archaeologists now have the chance to sift through buckets of this historically invaluable dirt.

It is political archaeology at its best. In the course of a 90-minute visit, you receive an in-depth rundown of the history of the Temple Mount, and then a quick lesson on what sort of things you are looking for. Typical finds are mosaic tiles, glass fragments and ancient pottery dating from Temple times to the Umayyad, Crusader and Mameluke periods.

Everyone finds something. This writer once found a copper coin. Your imagination takes flight: what was this particular item doing at the Temple Mount, who brought it there, for what purpose? Who was the last person to touch it before me?

And if you’re still not sated, click for a video report on the dig

This blog post was adapted from a “Tourist tip of the day” I wrote that originally appeared on the Haaretz website on April 12, 2013

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Of walls and words

One man’s fence is another man’s wall. Welcome to the PR politics of M-E nomenclature.

Consider the two images on this page: One is of a sophisticated but antiseptic-looking fence, the other is a forbidding concrete monstrosity of a wall. Which is the one we see in the media? If I told you that only 6% of the (to use the middle-ground term) ‘security barrier’ looks like the image on the right side of this page, would you believe me? Of course not, we have been taught by the press Pavlovs to know what Israel puts up between itself and the Palestinians.

Wall is a forbidding term, and casts a strong, repulsive visual and mental image. Whereas, fence, well hey, good fences make good neighbors, right?

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