18 Days in the Land of Israel
EIGHTEEN DAYS IN THE LAND OF ISRAEL
When Bernie Pucker offered to organize an artist’s retreat for me in Israel I was flattered and excited yet deeply conflicted about the proposition. I was fearful of the political, social and religious tensions of the place, anxious about being alone and away from my wife for an extended period of time, and unsure about how I would respond to the pressure of creating “commissioned” art. But I think what caused me the most trepidation was my uncertainty about what a trip into the land of Israel would stir up inside me emotionally. I was raised in the Jewish tradition, indeed I had a serious flirtation with orthodoxy after the death of my father and throughout my childhood being Jewish was central to who I was and where I belonged. But early in my adult life I “lost faith.” Today I’m antitheist. I’ve become angry and saddened with many of the attitudes and policies of the State of Israel. I wondered how I would react to this place and the people who live there. What would it feel like to me? What would it look like? What would I make of it photographically? I was deeply intrigued by the size of the challenge and decided I had to take advantage of the opportunity. I thanked Bernie and told him I hoped we could make it happen.
I arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv the evening of 3 May 2009 after a twenty four hour journey. I was hyped up. Now it begins. Eighteen days in the land of Israel.
I took a sherut (shared bus) from the airport to the apartment rented for me in the Abu Tor section of Jerusalem. I unpacked my stuff and grabbed my camera – as I did religiously every single time I left the apartment – and headed toward the German Colony neighborhood which was a ten minute walk from my rooms. I found a café on Bethlehem Street and ate tabouli, yogurt and vegetables and drank some wine. I walked back to my apartment, got into bed and after considerable tossing and turning I crashed.
Early the next morning Ron Beer, a personal guide arranged by the gallery, arrived at my apartment. We spent the entire day in Old Jerusalem working our way through the Old Quarters, the New Quarter, the Wall, the Archaeological Park, the Temple Mount and many other historical sites and museums. I took photographs as we went. Along the way he lectured and quizzed me on religious, historical, architectural, cultural and political matters. When I couldn’t answer one of his questions, which was most of the time, he would slowly and methodically prod me with clues until eventually the answer became clear. He was educating me. When he was satisfied with my response his eyes sparkled, he smiled broadly and said, “Yoffi.” He introduced me to that word: Yoffi. It became our code. We used it to convey: “Got it, good, yup, okay, everything’s cool, love ya.” After a while I realized it was really shorthand for a philosophical position the basic tenet of which was, “I know you’re here, you know I’m here, we both know the rest of the world is here and at this moment somehow it’s all making sense, right?” Ron was as much a force as he was a guide, a living, breathing, walking, talking, gesticulating Rosetta Stone immersion course on Israel and the World According to Ron Beer. I liked him very much. But after such an intense introduction I needed a day to myself before the two of us went to the desert for an overnight trip.
Before leaving Boston I asked a number of people who had spent time in Israel for their recommendations of “must-sees.” The Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum was on everyone’s list.
It took me three bus rides to find my way to Yad Vashem. The first two took me in the wrong direction to the outskirts of Jerusalem. Turns out that most of the bus drivers I rode with in Jerusalem were aggressive, tailgating, speed-up-then-step-on-the-brakes, horn-blasting, invective shouting men. More often than not their manner to passengers was very rude. It also turns out that many car drivers were the same. Taxi drivers too. This noise was constant all day and evening throughout Jerusalem. Whenever a traffic signal turned yellow the honking began.
I arrived at Yad Vashem shortly before noon. I was transfixed from the moment I walked into the Holocaust History Museum designed by Moshe Safdie. The building itself steals your breath away. It is a dimly lit vaulted space monumental in scale and presence and it seems to go on forever. It is filled with artifacts, fragments, narrative, history, photographs, memorabilia, multimedia presentations, artwork, sounds, testimonials, voices, dioramas, faces and names. The physical and emotional magnitude is still incomprehensible. The experience was exhausting, overwhelming and completely riveting. For three and a half hours I slowly, attentively walked the exhibition corridors. Near the end I viewed a documentary film about the liberation of one of the camps. I stood and watched as American soldiers lifted, carried, then dropped the naked, emaciated, concave body of a dead female prisoner onto the hard floor. As her body hit the ground it stirred up a cloud of dust and shuddered like a piece of petrified wood.
May 6th – May 7th
Ron arrived back at my apartment first thing Wednesday morning as scheduled. When I opened the door he smiled and asked, “Yoffi?” I smiled back and answered, “Yoffi.” We carried my overnight bag and photo gear downstairs into his four-wheel drive vehicle and drove off for our tour of the desert.
Immersion course 102. We visited the archaeological site of Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. We took the tram up to Masada and explored this astounding fortress inch by inch while Ron explained detail by detail this story of rebellion and suicide. I did the requisite back float in the Dead Sea, cut my heel on calcified salt, covered myself in mud and ate lunch at the Dead Sea Spa. We drove through flat desert, rocky desert and limestone mountains, past Lot’s wife. Ron drove us off road to an area of decayed palm trees because he thought it might be something I would enjoy photographing. He was right – but unfortunately I didn’t capture the essence of the place as I would have liked. I spent the night in a zimmer ((an Israeli Bed and Breakfast) on a two thousand acre farm in the desert called Hatzeva. One hundred and fifty families cultivated this land with absolute precision via computer controlled irrigation and greenhouses. They yielded vast quantities of grapes and other fruits, flowers and vegetables. In the middle of the desert. We stopped in Beit Y’atir, the West Bank settlement that Ron calls home. He lives with seventy other families, many of whom are Orthodox and communal. I shared a snack with his wife and their children. We visited the local yeshiva. He took me across the chain link fence to the Arab territory where we had tea and homemade liqueur with his neighbor Machmud. I met Machmud’s children and his mother. Machmud’s wife didn’t come out of the house. The differences between Machmud’s primitive home and stable and the middle class community of the West Bank Jewish settlement where Ron lived was very upsetting. Driving back through the West Bank on the highway toward Jerusalem we passed Bethlehem and Hebron, palatial homes on the hillsides, decrepit villages along the road, a man who invited you to sit on his camel for a fee and a photo op, Bedouin settlements, abandoned camps, donkeys and sniper walls. When we neared the Israeli Jerusalem border we passed two groups of people who were standing on the opposite side of the highway. They were close enough to see one another, but were separated by a distance of about one hundred feet. One group was standing behind cement barriers. Ron told me they were all hitchhikers. One group was Jewish the other Palestinian. The barriers were guarding the Jewish group from hit and run drivers.
May 8th – May 20th
Okay. I’m back from the desert and I’ve completed my four day intensive introduction of Paul meet Israel. I’m in a state of hyper-stimulation. I’ve concluded the only way I’m going to make any sense out of this trip and the only way I’m going to make a body of photographs with some sort of cohesive meaning and aesthetic is to narrow my focus. My decision was to spend the rest of my time inside Jerusalem. I established a routine of getting up early, packing my camera equipment, putting on my vest and walking to Emek Refraim in the German Colony for breakfast. Typically, I would sit at an outside table and watch the neighborhood wake up. Then I would start walking, looking and photographing. I did this all day, every day and most evenings. During the next two weeks my territorial focus became smaller and smaller: German Colony, Old Jerusalem, Jaffa Street, Machane Yehuda. Mostly I was alone.
Besides the pressure of wanting to “make good work” most of the concerns I had at the beginning of my trip abated. The people I saw looked strangely familiar. I felt both kinship and estrangement. The most troubling feeling was the palpable sense of simmering conflict in the throngs of people, the visiting pilgrims and the clash of cultures. In twenty-first century Jerusalem it is revealed that humans do not think or behave differently from how we did in ancient times. We are still driven by blame instead of understanding, hate not love, war not peace. Yoffi? Yet somewhere between the heat, noise, thousands of Israeli flags, a visiting Pope, stray cats, filth, falafel, borekas, desert winds, goats in the street, calls to prayer in the pre-morning darkness, Bedouin slums, horns blasting, traffic jams, armed police, Germanic precision, students carrying machine guns, tzittzit, Nike logos, cigarette smokers, ants on the floor of my apartment, dust on everything, Kafkaesque characters slinking in and out of doorways and alleys, the ancient, the contemporary, Shtetl-like neighborhoods, luxury condominiums, archaic, high‐tech, the secular, the ultra-Orthodox, Muslims, Christians, Armenians, Jews, my hallucinatory fever-dream visions of a city that has been viciously fought over and leveled, then rebuilt, then destroyed and rebuilt time and time again…I think I saw the sanguine Biblical Israel of my Hebrew School memories and the spirited people and New York City streets of my adolescence.
― Paul Cary Goldberg