Jerusalem – A Tale of Two Countries and a Trip Up North
One of the great things about Friday night and Saturday in Israel is Shabbat. In the ideal, this is a time to gather together with family and friends to count your blessings, renew your faith and have hearty discussions over good food and wine. We were lucky to be invited to a Shabbat dinner with Naomi Schacter who works at the National Library of Israel. The next day we were invited to Shabbat lunch with Lisa Wiseman who runs the American Center for the American Embassy in Israel. Both meals were home cooked and delicious. The conversations for both included a wide range of subjects and fortunately lasted for a long time. What a delightful way to enter into a new culture. The down side of Shabbat is that everything literally shuts down including cafes, pharmacies, public transportation and grocery stores. A few restaurants stay open, but they are the exception. It amazed me how completely Jewish Jerusalem observes Shabbat.
The trains come back to life on Sunday morning and we took one to the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv. My replacement camera gear finally arrived from New York but was being held in customs until we jumped through their hoops, paid a huge Value Added Tax and then suffered some more. It all seemed quite silly but I really needed the equipment to continue our project. Needless to say, I was quite happy when I finally got the stuff.
Back in Jerusalem that night we had dinner with our friends MV and Michael at their apartment in the Palestinian section of eastern Jerusalem. Near their home we gazed out over the skyline of this fabled and troubled city. I marveled at the great faiths that consider this place sacred and the great suffering that has followed that religious passion.
The Al-Budeiri Family Library in the Old City was one of the top Palestinian libraries that I wanted to visit. Like the Khalidi Library, it is part of an old Palestinian family dating back to the Ottoman times. After getting lost several times in the maze of the old city with our friend MV we finally arrived at the old building that housed the library. It is also the home of Shaima Budeiri who is also the Librarian. It was amazing to be shown the tomb of the family patriarch which is located right in the library. Shaima showed us many wonderful old books, manuscripts and maps. She invited us to tea at her home and showed us the view of the Dome of the Rock from her rear window.
Afterwards, Ellen and I grabbed a falafel and watched the amazing world go by in this Arab section of the Old City. As we exited the Damascus Gate I realized how much I respected the depth of this culture and how comfortable I felt in this part of the city. Some people had told us it was very dangerous here but I didn’t feel danger, only a desire to know more.
The Fulbright really emphasizes “people to people” diplomacy. The idea is that the best way for people to understand each other is to talk with each other. One of the best ways I can do that is to give slide talks about my work. I gave another lecture to a group called the Public Libraries Managers Union of Israel. We traveled with two librarians to the little town of Matnas Mazkeret Baty near the larger town of Rehovot. Before my lecture I photographed two libraries in Rehovot. The small branch library was interesting because it contained almost no computers. The librarian explained that in this wealthy community the children are exposed to screens all the time. The library became a place where the kids could escape into the tactile world of books and games rather than a virtual world.
It was interesting to be in small-town Israel after spending so much time in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. After my lecture we went on a historical tour of this village when it was a pioneering kibbutz. There were many similarities between how the history of this area is told and the stories I grew up on about the settling of the American West.
Ellen and I felt it was important to understand the broader context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before I could photograph more Palestinian libraries I wanted to better understand the world they live in. To do this we took a one-day tour with a group called Green Olive Tours. It is an “alternative tour” from the many Israeli and Christian tours that we see everywhere in Jerusalem. We traveled from the King David Hotel in Jerusalem to Bethlehem in Palestine. Our driver explained that he has permission to do this trip into Palestine but our guide did not and we have to pick him up in Bethlehem. We travel a bewildering series of small, twisty roads that the Palestinians have to use. It takes over an hour to travel a short distance to Ramallah. The Israelis can use a separate fast highway that takes about 20 minutes. This part of the West Bank seems like a country of walls and people selling gum by the side of the road.
Our guide Yemen takes us to the Palestinian Parliament and Yasser Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah. He briefly mentions the suspicions that Arafat was poisoned but then we move on into the remarkable city center. After seeing the fascinating open air market we head to the world-famous coffee shop called Stars and Bucks. I guess that American copyright law doesn’t apply here as we walked by Blooming Dales.
Our next stop is the Banksky inspired artist hotel called the Walled Off Hotel. It advertises as having the “world’s worst view” referring to the Israeli separation wall right across the street. The wall is big and ugly and like the Berlin Wall this side is covered with all kinds of graffiti. Some of it is inspired, some is stupid and the graffiti itself in controversial because some feel it makes something pretty out of a horrible situation. The hotel and wall are quite surreal but the humanity and wisdom in some of the graffiti gives me hope. Humor is sometimes the best resistance.
As we leave the West Bank Ellen and I have our photo taken in front of one of the most famous Banksky murals showing a young masked man throwing flowers instead of a bomb. As we drive out I see two young Palestinian men with a massive new Settlement in the background. I wonder how long peace will last in this contested part of the world.
The last place we visit in the West Bank was the little town of Bethlehem where according to Christian tradition Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity is yet another powerful Christian shrine filled with tourist but nevertheless fascinating.
Not to waste any time, our next trip starts the next day as we head back to Tel Aviv for two nights. While we were about to take a cab to a small branch library a massive security lock-down began right in front of our hotel and stopped all traffic. Being resourceful, we decide to walk back to the Garden Library for Refugees and Migrant Workers that I had photographed at the beginning of our stay in Israel. The earlier photos that I made were during the day when it was closed. We hoped that it would be open this evening as we walked through the dark. Fortunately, it was open. While drug deals and prostitution were happening around us I was able to make images using my tripod of the library in this sketchy park while Ellen watched my back.
The Beit Ariela Public Library is the Central Library of Tel Aviv. It was housed in a brutalist style concrete building that contained all the elements of a well-run central library. I photographed a room containing the books and papers of one of the founders of Zionism. I also saw this modern library being used a lot. The library held great art and even a beautiful music library.
Its Children’s Library was a delight and contained beautiful examples of models of small rooms created by some very talented kids.
The Theater Library contained some fascinating set design mock-ups that traced some of the history of contemporary theater in Israel.
At the end of the day we took a taxi to the Beit Dani Library in a poor, mostly immigrant community in Tel Aviv. There was a lot of tutoring for the children here and I photographed an energetic group of Eritrean kids learning English. I also photographed a young med school student who was getting a break on the cost of his education by tutoring poor kids in this community. Good idea!
The next day we took a train up north to the coastal towns of Tirat Carmel and Haifa. This area is famous for its palm trees, beaches and Crusader and Roman history. Tirat Carmel had a modern library that incorporated the beautiful surrounding landscape into the library. It is located at the foot of the famous Mt Carmel. The fabulous librarian Lior gave a us an extended private tour after the library was closed.
Haifa is the big bustling city of the north. Beautifully located on hills overlooking the ocean it has a great cultural life as well as bad air from the refineries and near-by port. We spent only one night there and wished we had seen more of its attractions. The next morning we photographed the library at the wonderful University of Haifa. Perched high atop Mt. Carmel the campus was designed by famed architect Oscar Niedermeyer who also designed the Brazilian capitol of Brasilia. The austerity of Brasilia could be seen in the design of this campus. But somehow it seemed to work.
We then drove our Israeli rent-a-wreck car east for an hour to the amazing city of Nazareth. To avoid traffic in Nazareth Google sent us on a tortuous, circuitous route. Our car barely held together on the crazy streets but we finally arrived at what we thought was the library. We were surrounded by signs in two languages, Arabic and Hebrew. I realized why we should have learned these languages before we made this trip.
The library was no longer at this site but an older woman who spoke a little English took pity on us and gave us some very rough directions to the new location. On a wing and a prayer we headed back to the mean streets and finally came to the Abu Salma Public Library. My notes said that this was a “struggling library in the only majority Palestinian city in Israel.” What we discovered was a beautiful, modern library filled with a vibrant mix of young Arab students and really smart and engaged librarians. I photographed a young man who was just completing his medical degree and was about to become a doctor. This was the place he did much of years of study. The library ran counter to the popular narrative that young Arabs are poor, un-educated and dangerous. I realized that this library was an important part of our project because it broke the stereotypes.
Nazareth is, of course, famous for being the home Jesus’ parents Mary and Joseph. It is also where Jesus grew up. We went to the church called the Basilica of the Annunciation founded on the spot where it is believed that Mary was told that she was going to become a teen-aged Mom. It was a modern building but really well done. I realized that Mary was a rock star here and that the Catholic church gives a lot of attention to venerating this woman. It was refreshing to see a woman being given this high regard in one of the major established religions.
We were enchanted by the Old City of Nazareth where we spent two nights in a charming pension. The 80 year- old owner explained that the city is 60% Arab and 30% Christian. He was a fourth generation Nazarethian and was Arab and Christian. I found the vibe here original and the blending of cultures and religions healthy and fascinating. One slogan on a wall said “Nazareth Brings Us Together.” Its stone-paved alleys lined with crumbling Ottoman-era buildings captured my heart. As well as a religious destination, it is a city trying to reinvent itself as a sophisticated culinary and cultural destination. The food was fabulous. Like its library, Nazareth broke the stereotypes.
The next day we headed over to the Sea of Galilee where that guy walked on the water. We photographed the library at Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee. It was designed by the same Israeli architect that designed the Tirat Carmel library. It was fascinating to see how a similar design was used by a public library and an academic library. Kinneret College contained about 50% Jewish and 50% Arabs. It seemed to be a good model for the integration of the two cultures. The earliest kibbutz was founded nearby here. The Jordanian border and the Golan Heights are right next door. And don’t forget that Jesus was baptized at the mouth of the nearby River Jordan.
As we drove back to Nazareth I photographed the beautiful Sea of Galilee and its surrounding wetlands. We have been focused for so long on libraries and cities that I found myself longing to spend much more time in this beautiful space. I did photograph Ellen reading a book at an Israeli version of a Little Free Library on the edge of the Sea. In the last light I photographed the famous ancient Roman town of Tibereus. Sadly, it has become something of a religious theme park and tacky tourist trap. We quickly scooted through the town and happily headed back for our last night in Nazareth.
2 responses to “Jerusalem – A Tale of Two Countries and a Trip Up North”
Bob, so inspiring! Your wonderful writing has helped me to learn so much more about this part of the world that is constantly in the news. Your deep and nuanced perspective and the thread of the many lives of libraries is refreshing. Thank you so much for sharing all of this! Safe travels.
Hi Bob and Ellen, Wow, what a trip!!! Thanks so much for sharing and it was particularly fun to read as we had been to some of your same spots. It makes us exhausted just reading what all that you do! Have fun…. lots of love Tina and ken