By Kirsten Ekstrand
“It’s beautiful here. So peaceful, so calm.” I sat in the bow of a boat, sailing across the Sea of Galilee. As I alternated between quietly looking at the scenery and journaling, I sent my imagination back in time. “I can almost feel the peace that would have come the moment Christ calmed the storm,” I wrote.
For two weeks in May, I was able to travel to Israel with the Women’s Concert Choir from Moody Bible Institute, an accredited college in downtown Chicago. In the June 15 and 22 articles, I wrote about our concert ministry and our first few days of sight seeing. This article will take its readers to the Galilee region, where we spent the second half of our first week in the Holy Land.
After spending three days on Israel’s coast, in Haifa, and visiting the Carmel Mountains, Megiddo, and the ancient city of Dan, we traveled to Tiberias, a city built on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It was a Thursday night when we arrived, and in a religious city like Tiberias, that’s the night to go downtown.
For Jews, the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday night. Thursday night is when everyone begins Sabbath preparations, such as shopping. The majority of stores are closed on the Sabbath, because even if the proprietors are not religious, they realize that they will lose their kosher certificate and the patronage of the religious community. The street market in a religious neighborhood will always be a happening place on a Thursday evening, and so we went out to experience our first dose of Israeli nightlife.
|The Israeli city of Tiberias is a hub of activity the night before the Sabbath.|
ARMED WITH A FEW shekels and a pittance of Hebrew words, our choir spread out across the main shopping area of Tiberias, The first task was dinner. I chose a pita pocket stuffed with falafel (deep fried balls of mashed chickpeas; think vegetarian meatball). Pita and falafel is traditional Middle Eastern food, and I found myself eating a lot of it while in Israel.
The pitas were usually stuffed with Israeli salad, which is made of finely diced tomatoes and cucumbers, onions, and dressing. With all the fixings, a falafel and pita was a much more satisfying fast food than the average hamburger.
After enjoying a meal, some friends and I set off for the open-air market. True to the predictions, the streets were a hub of activity. As we wandered through the crowd of people, I stopped and browsed at a few shops. Everything was hung up outdoors, and there was a wide array of selection. Scarves, hats, dresses, skirts, jewelry — it was obvious that Tiberias was catering to the tourist traffic as well as the Sabbath shoppers.
Still, as we wandered the shops, I enjoyed people watching. Orthodox Jewish families walked down the street, the men in long black hats and coats, the women in long skirts with headscarves. A few young soldiers on leave for the weekend stopped to shop, still wearing their uniforms with guns on their hips. A street musician sat on the corner and played Jewish music on the accordion. The vendors offered smiles and agreed to drop the prices a little bit and give us a deal. But not too much, one of them insisted. “For you, it’s five shekels,” he said. “For me, it’s the future!”
The Galilee region is a sizeable part of Israel, sitting on the western side of the Jordan river, and stretching toward Israel’s coast. The region is the most fertile in Israel, and as a result has a large population. Historically, it is the site of much of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry.
After Mt. Arbel gave us a panoramic view of the region, we went down and toured Capernaum. This ancient town was the center of Jesus’ ministry. Our primary purpose there was to see the ruins of the synagogue, a limestone building built in the fourth century A.D. While it dates after the time of Jesus’ ministry, the first century basalt foundation can still be seen underneath. In some ways it was disappointing not to see the original, but I had to realize that a modern church would do the same thing. If the money were there, an ancient synagogue wouldn’t have turned down a remodeling opportunity just to provide tourists with the original ruins two millennia later.
Capernaum was near to our next stop, a beautifully preserved first century boat. The Galilee Boat, discovered in the 1980’s, is on display at a museum in Tiberias. The boat was discovered by two Israeli fisherman, and modern technology allowed archeologists to uncover it from its home beneath the Galilee mud and put it in a museum. Seeing a first century boat was a great prelude to our boat ride on the lake.
WE ALL RODE ON the same boat across the sea. The boat’s small crew was used to tourists. Following a salute to both the USA, our country of origin, and to Israel, they started to play “Hava Nagila,” a traditional Israeli folk dance. Our tour guide was a fantastic teacher, and we all got up and formed a big circle, ready to learn.
Before we knew it, we were dancing like natives — natives with messy dance steps, that is. Even though we lacked perfection, we had fun attempting the dances. Dance is a large part of Israeli culture, particularly at holidays. While we were unable to witness it, we were told that on Jerusalem Day, the area by the Western Wall is crowded with locals dancing, doing the steps perfectly.
After the dancing died down, I sat in the bow of the boat, looking out on the water, enjoying the peace of the moment. With so many stops and so much information, sometimes it was hard on this trip to just sit and process. This was my chance, and I could not have asked for a better place. The Sea of Galilee was the site of many of Jesus’ miracles, including calming the storm and walking on water. I sat quietly and imagined the scene. Somehow, being in the location made the 2000 years of history seem so much closer.
|Kirsten poses with a shepherd at the Nazareth village.|
I DIDN’T NEED MY imagination the next day. After singing in a morning Shabbat service in Tiberias, we went to the Nazareth village. While most of the tourist sites in Israel are ancient ruins, this village was a reconstruction. A shepherd, a watchman, a carpenter, and a weaver were all in costume, ready to explain their craft and act the part. We learned that a first century carpenter would have worked with stone more than wood, since stone is by far the more common building material in the Middle East.
While most of the village was reconstructed, it was built in part because a first century winepress was discovered there, and the locals wanted to showcase it. The winepress, hewn into the rock of the hillside, was in surprisingly good condition.
Our next stop was the Zippori National Park. While our primary purpose there was to give a concert in the Roman theater, we did take a few minutes to look at the park’s specific attractions. Zippori is known in part for its mosaics. The floor of the synagogue there has beautiful mosaic floors, and a wealthy man’s home boasts the most famous mosaic in the area. A beautifully preserved woman’s face in part of the design has been called the “Mona Lisa of the Galilee,” named for her resemblance to da Vinci’s painting.
Zippori is also known for its connection to Jewish tradition. It was here that Jewish rabbis recorded the Talmud and Mishna (Jewish writings elaborating on the laws in the Old Testament). Ironically, in the midst of this religious law, the city of Zippori stands as a very Hellenized city. The Greek culture’s influence on the city comes out in its mosaics and architecture. While a theater speaks to Roman influence, the mosaics are very much Greek rather than Jewish. Jewish art usually featured fruits, flowers, or abstract designs, but Greek art often included people and animals. Greek influences are seen as Jewish and Greek art combine. Perhaps the most startling sign of this was the sign of the Zodiac on the floor of the synagogue.
THIS WAS NOT THE only historical paradox we saw during the course of our trip. Seeing Israel through the eyes of an idealist is hardly plausible. While it may seem easy to have faith in the Holy Land, reality is otherwise. Even ancient Jews faced the difficulty of confronting culture and holding onto their beliefs, and the difficulties messianic Jews face today are extreme.
As close as history seemed while on the shores of the Galilee, I saw a different side at Zippori. Going back in time doesn’t make life easier; in fact reality and politics were just as confusing then as they are now. As I sit at my computer in the newspaper office, it’s tempting to say the land of Israel is a perfect place, the promised land where everything is easy.
My experiences there say otherwise. Israel is a unique country, and holds a place in the future of my faith as well as the past, but it is hardly a place of simplicity. As our trip continued and we spent time in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the complications were even more evident. Still, rather than allowing these paradoxes and complications to disappoint, I had to choose to let them inform my imagination of the ancient times.
It will take a little more time in the peace and quiet to ponder.
For the next installment in this series, visit R-D Reporter in Israel, Part 4.