Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Happy 62nd, Israel!

The Fourth of July is perhaps my favorite American holiday.  So it should be no surprise that Yom Ha’atzma’ut is one of my favorite Israeli holidays, and for many of the same reasons: summer weather, barbeques, celebrations, and of course, fireworks.  But as proud of an American as I am, Yom Ha’atzma’ut is more meaningful to me as a Jew. It celebrates the return to our Biblical and historic homeland, to Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and the fulfillment of God’s promise to us as His Chosen People to bring us back to the Land of Israel.
While I’ve been able to attend memorial ceremonies and Independence Day parties before thanks to the large and vibrant Jewish community in Boston, the experience obviously cannot compare to what it’s like here in Israel.  But before I get to celebrating Israel’s 62nd birthday, I will write a bit about Yom Hazikaron, and the importance of remembering the soldiers who died defending the State of Israel and her citizens, and all the men, women, and children murdered by Islamic terrorists simply because they were Jewish.
I marked Yom Hazikaron on Sunday night by attending a memorial ceremony designed for American olim and other English speakers.  The ceremony began with the traditional siren, when all of Israel comes to a standstill to observe a minute of silence.  Then, there was a tribute to Staff Sgt. Ari Weiss, an American oleh and sargeant in the Nahal Bridgade, who was killed three weeks shy of his 22nd birthday in Shechem battling Hamas terrorists in 2002.   A touching video showcased who Ari was and why he was so loved by his friends and family. Ari’s father, Rabbi Stewart Weiss, spoke beautifully after the video tribute, re-telling the audience what he said to the people who attended his son’s funeral: that everyone go home and sing “Am Yisrael Chai” in Ari’s memory.  Thank God I haven’t personally suffered the loss of anyone serving in the IDF, so the ceremony really helped me internalize and personalize what it means to lose a loved one.
I have never lived a day in my life without the State of Israel being a fact, and it’s easy to take her existence for granted.  But the juxtaposition of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzma’ut reminds us that throughout Israel’s history, its citizens have had to defend the State each and every day, and often with their lives. This is why it’s so appropriate for the day of mourning to be followed by celebration, reminding us that these losses were not in vain, that helped create and protect the State of Israel.
So Monday night, as the sun set, mourning and sadness turned into jubilation and celebration.  I went with a group of friends to the downtown Jerusalem area of Ben Yehuda Street and it was, as you can imagine, quite a scene: older people, younger people, families, teenagers, everyone really, enjoying the revelry.  Over on Hillel Street, there were two stages set up with DJ’s playing different kinds of music and people hanging out and dancing.  And of course, my favorite event, two sets of fireworks, one shot off around 11:15pm, the other at midnight (I must say that coming from Boston, I am extremely spoiled when it comes to fireworks, and I have yet to see a display that comes close to the yearly displays in Newton and Boston).  After the fireworks, we headed to Machane Yehuda, where the entire shuk was transformed into yet another street party, this one aimed more at young adults. There were makeshift bars set up, a stage with a band, and streams and streams of young Zionists celebrating Independence Day.  Then yesterday was part two of the celebration, joining the all-Israeli activity of barbequing in Efrat with my cousins Ephraim, Batya, Shlomo, Julie and their kids…plenty of hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, and steak to go around.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Italia to the pics!

Now that I’m settled in the new apartment on Har Hatzofim in Jerusalem, I have a chance to post an update on my trip to Italy over vacation. Here’s a quick little rundown:

Best Gelato – Vivoli, Florence
Best Dinner – La Giostra, Florence
Best accommodations – Florence
Best views - Florence
Best City – Florence
Oldest history - Rome
Best Shabbat Experience – Venice
Co-MVPs – Lindsey and Annie for helping us plan everything so well (thanks, ladies!)
What can I say about Italy…other than Florence rocks. Well, for starters I probably ate my weight in gelato, so the trip had to be amazing. I traveled for a week to Rome, Florence and Venice with Tom and Adam, and while I would have loved more time to see more of the country, we did a great job maximizing our time and seeing everything we had set out to see.

Our first day was a Monday in Rome, the only less-than-perfect-weather of the trip– it alternated between sun and brief rain showers.  We hit the Ancient Center area, heading first to the Colosseum which is just as massive as it looks in pictures. We took a tour of the inside as well, and it’s truly amazing to think how it was built so many hundreds of years ago with the technology they had back then. Next was Palantine Hill and the Roman Forum, where the major buildings and temples of the Roman empire were built. As a Jew, the most important structure there is the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the destruction of the Second Temple and of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. On the inside of the arch, very clearly, there is a depiction of the Romans hauling the menorah away and enslaving many Jews (some of whom were used to build the Colosseum). In the afternoon, we walked around to some of the other main sites in the city, Piazza Navona, Tiber Island, and Piazza Campo di Fiori.

Tuesday we went to Vatican City and toured St. Peter’s Basillica.  One thing I was struck by, first there and then at each of the other churches we visited is how intricate the artwork is, where there are literally hundreds of little paintings and sculptures adorning the insides of these places of worship.  We then climbed up nearly 500 steps to the top of the basilica dome for an amazing panoramic view of Rome, the only annoyance being the crowds at the top making it very difficult to move from one end to the other.  After walking back down, we headed to the Sistine Chapel and were amazed at the enormous lines we passed.  Thankfully, we had pre-booked our Vatican Museum tickets, so we bypassed the entire 3-block long line and went right in. Obviously everybody goes primarily to see the Sistine Chapel, but the way you get there is an interesting way to see other parts of the museum. You follow the signs for the Sistine Chapel, and you wind up walking through all sorts of galleries and rooms full of Renaissance art and seeing a lot of cool things you weren’t planning on seeing. It was along the way that I saw some beautiful ceiling paintings, impressive probably most because of the vibrant colors and the location. But of course what I saw along the way paled in comparison to what we saw inside the Sistine Chapel, which definitely lives up to its reputation.  The entire chapel features brilliant artwork, the most famous of which is Michelangelo’s ceiling, which depicts Bibilical stories across 33 different panels.
As you could probably guess from the top of the entry, Florence was far and away my favorite part of the trip. There’s something very friendly and inviting about the city, and it definitely helped as tourists that the main sights are so close to each other. Our first activity there was the Duomo church, the dominant centerpiece to the city’s skyline.  It is a giant building, with a dome on one end, and a separate bell tower on the other end. The coolest part of the church was climbing its dome. On the way up, there is a balcony where you can stop to look at the paintings high up on the inside of the ceiling. The reward for climbing the 500 steps was well worth it. We had a clear day to see all of Florence and the surrounding Tuscan mountains, truly a spectacular sight, and much less crowded than St. Peter’s Basillica the day before.

It was after descending from the Duomo and having lunch that we visited Vivoli, almost without a doubt the best gelato place in the world. I have to give an additional shoutout to Lindsey for telling me if I did one thing in Florence, it had to be to go there.  They had upwards of 25 flavors and a good mix between chocolate-based and fruit-based selections.  I had very high expectations and the gelato definitely exceeded those expectations, each variety full of flavor and having a perfect balance between being rich and being creamy. We ate there three times in the two days we were in Florence and after sampling about 13 flavors, my favorite combination was chocolate mousse, banana, and merangue.

We saw quite a bit of artwork in the afternoon, first at the Plazza della Signora, which has a copy of Michelangelo’s David, as well as a dozen other famous sculptures.  Then we went to the Uffizi gallery, which showcases some of the Renaissance’s best artwork. After the gallery, we walked over the Vecchio Bridge and the Arno River to southern Florence and hiked up to Piazza Michelangelo for sunset. This hill provided a different but equally beautiful viewpoint to take in the city skyline and its surroundings.

My favorite part of our second day in Florence was getting to see the synagogue there. It was built in the 1870s and is a gorgeous Byzantine-style building.  It was particularly nice to visit a Jewish community institution after spending so many hours either in churches or looking at Christian artwork.  The synagogue also has a museum of Jewish history and art, and it was while browsing the collection, I met a couple who currently live in Vancover, but who came to Florence 36 years ago as refugees from Ukraine. They had fled Ukraine and were granted asylum in Italy for a year, a few months of which they spent in Florence, before being granted permanent citizenship in Canada. This was the first time they had returned to Florence since then, and the wife was understandably emotional telling me about their journey and what it was like to return to that place.

We took a train to Venice at night, and it was cool to see the canals there lit up at night.  Since the entire city is full of water and canals, the public transportation is comprised of a fleet of waterbuses that go around the different islands. We took a waterbus from the train station to right near our hostel, a fun way to see the city for the first time.  Our top priority for Venice was seeing the Jewish area of the city, known as the Jewish ghetto (it was in Venice that the word ghetto originated to describe the area where Jews were forced to live.) We had quite an adventure getting there, but due to some very good fortunes, a random guy we asked told us, “go over the next 3 bridges, turn right after the 4th and go straight from there.” Sure enough after turning right, there were signs all over (in Italian, English and Hebrew) pointing to the synagogue. We got to the Jewish museum two minutes before the tour started, which was pretty clutch.  The tour took us to 4 of the 5 synagogues in Venice, and we learned that the 2 in use split the year in half: one is open from Sukkot to Pesach during the winter months and the other between Pesach and Sukkot for the summer months. 

Another highlight of the trip was visiting the Fenice Opera House and happening to get there during the orchestra’s rehearsal on the main stage. We sat in on the rehearsal in the luxury boxes and watched and listened to the different arrangements, a pretty nice and unexpected treat.  Since I was in Venice for Shabbat, I wanted to see what the Shabbat experience was like there, so I walked back to the Jewish ghetto and attended Kaballat Shabbat at the summer months shul, and then headed to dinner at Chabad. The dinner was held at the one kosher restaurant and the 200-plus people in attendance were split between the inside of the restaurant and tables outside. I sat outside with a whole group of Israelis, seated at a giant table along the banks of one of the canals, which was a pretty nice Shabbat atmosphere.

I spent my final day in Italy largely on the water. I got a waterbus day pass and went from the main part of Venice to two of the side islands: Murano and Burano. Murano is famous for its glass-making industry, so I went to a factory to see a glass-blowing exhibit and to check out all the cool glassware around the island. Then I went to Burano, which in addition for Venetian lace, is known for the houses and buildings painted bright pastel colors.