with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Two Years Living in Israel – What Is It Like?

I’ve been so neglectful in writing just a simple letter. I’ve been working on three books now, in addition to the over 200 articles I wrote for our new web page last summer, and so my writing is work and not pleasure, though my work is my pleasure. Simple letter writing gets left behind on the back burner.

Bras hang outside to dry in the heat in the center courtyard of our building. Photo by Brent VanFossenIn spite of what you are hearing and seeing on television, many people came here this summer for tours and three month stays in the kibbutzim (kibbutzes) programs. The police commander of NY is here right now in support of what Israel, as are many people. Tourism is down about 50% from what they expected, but that means that the other 50% of the tourists showed up, and enjoyed the lack of crowds and the welcome of the tourist businesses.

We had a great deal of fun when my mom was here, and then again with our friends, Bruce and his buddy, Wes, exploring the whole country from top to bottom, all of the west and only a little of the east. Brent’s parents are arriving in about eight weeks, and we can’t wait to show off the wonderful area here.

The ancient Christian and Jewish ruins in Hebron are sorta off limits from time to time, but few people ever go there anyway as part of their tour package. Bethlehem is open to Christian tourists, but few go there and there is only one small thing to see and hardly worth anyone’s time anyway, though it is symbolic to the Christians. Jerusalem is wide open and ready to explore, and the northern areas of Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), and Nazareth are wide open and totally safe. Hasn’t been anything in those areas at all. Oh, I think there was one protest thing but it fizzled last year in Nazareth, but that had more to do with the building of a mosque than it did with the Palestinian thing.

Street in downtown Tel Aiv, photo by Lorelle VanFossenIsrael is such a place of contrasts. Tel Aviv, where we live, is new but feels old compared to American standards. It has a Pioneer Square (Seattle) feeling to much of the city. Yet Pioneer Square is older than Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv was built on the sand dunes just north of the old city of Jaffa (Yafo) 90 years ago. Now Tel Aviv encompasses Yafo, more like a suburb, like a neighborhood in a big city.

Where I live was once considered the very edge of town. Old taxi drivers tell me about parking their cars on the edge of town, with buildings on one side and sand dunes and scrub rolling off towards the Judean mountains on the other. The last street in town for a long time was Ibn Givrol. I now live one small block east of that and the city reaches out to fill much of the land that heads towards those same mountains. Tel Aviv has new skyscrapers and buildings to rival any new city in the world, and it continues to grow at a pace faster than most other cities in the world.

Leaving Tel Aviv and heading towards one of the oldest cities in the world, Jerusalem, one of the most stark landmarks you first see is “Mount Tel Aviv”. The mountain rises up out of the flat ground like something left behind in an ice age. Unfortunately, its tale is much simpler. It is a gigantic mountain of garbage. Israel may have one of the world’s most incredible and efficient irrigation systems for agricultural land, and it may have the most technologically advanced capabilities in the new “Silicon Wadi” alternative for Silicon Valley, supplying incredible computer and medical technology to the rest of the world, but when it comes to recycling and protecting the environment, Israel is in the dark ages.

After Mount Tel Aviv, whose sides turn green during the rare rainy part of the winter, you pass the new Ben Gurion 2000 airport under construction and a couple years behind schedule. The highway is being remodeled to accommodate the new on and off ramps for the new airport, but so far much of it resembles the I-90 interchange nightmare of Seattle for so many years. Roads and ramps leading off to nowhere as they work every so slowly to finish the project. Beyond the construction is the current airport which will eventually be blended in with the new one. On the east side of the airport you will find huge warehouse hangers where Brent works at Tahsha Ahvereet (Israel Aircraft Industries).

Keep going and you will eventually come to farm lands on the north side of the highway, but a glance to the south side, especially at night, you will find a gigantic Christmas Tree. A factory of some kind, I’m not sure what, is absolutely covered with what looks like small white Christmas lights from a distance. Returning from Jerusalem at night the factory looks like a giant cruise ship lit up out on the dark water. During the day you can hardly see it for the grey tones against the grey landscape of the desert.

Every time I start the ascent of the mountains to Jerusalem my emotions jumble up in confusion. First, it is a wondrous and amazing experience to drive through this narrow cut in the mountains, the walls slanting up and away from you, newly transplanted trees struggling to survive in the lack of water and harsh temperatures dotting the rugged mountainsides. The road twists and slants and zooms up and then straight down and back up again, not so different from the precarious nature of the old Highway 2 to Leavenworth. The cars whipping in and out at high speeds along a road familiar to everyone driving it, except me, add to the fear and panic of the adventure as the lanes begin at four across and drop to two then three then to two and then down to one and then back open again as the mountains and recent construction allows.

Between the wonder and the terror I am also seized with regrets and sorrow for alongside the road are the remains of ancient vehicles, mostly jeeps and trucks, seemingly abandoned by the side of the road. A closer look reveals them to be painted with rust resistant paints and decorated with small plaques and bullet scars. If we paused to examine these strange relics, the plaques would explain that these vehicles have been left here on purpose as a reminder of those who were shot down and killed trying to cross the line to get into Jerusalem during the War of Independence in 1948. By the end of the war, Israel had finally pushed through the blockades of the mountains and laid claim to the western side of Jerusalem.

The walls of the old city of Jerusalem along the west side near the Damascus Gate followed the “green line” border between the new state of Israel and Jordan. Israel has war and terrorism memorials all over the country but this stark reminder of those who died to free Jerusalem seems to cut right to the heart as you imagine the drivers and passengers trying to drive through a hail storm of bullets to break the line and dying right where the vehicle now rests over 50 years later.

If I’m not driving, I tend to want to close my eyes against the cascading impact of the emotions flooding my heart. I don’t know if I will ever get used to the feeling of going through these mountains, but it does grow less every time.

As we climb the last hill into the city, I expect to see and feel the wonder and peace of the ancient city of Jerusalem, symbolic home to three major religions and a lot of minor ones, but instead it is an immediate assault on the senses of a big city out of control with some serious bad planning. When Israel gained control of the west side of the city, they immediately went to work building and tearing up and down what they could to create their future capital city. From what was once small isolated neighborhoods outside the walled city, it is a hodge podge of every style, construction type, and building height you can image.

Maneuvering through the new city, you are once again assaulted by the contrasts and dichotomy that is Israel. Everything is old and new and very old and very new and a little of everything in between. Suffering for centuries of war and control by different rulers and countries, Jerusalem hardly resembles anything of the times before, just the time now, which is enough for the old weary city. When the next conquerors come, and they will, it will shift and change again.

Jaffa Gate, one of the entrances into the old city, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenMy favorite part is the old city of Jerusalem. I love the giant walls that tower over me as I stand before them feeling small and powerless against all who have come before me and who are now lost to the dust of time.

I usually enter through Jaffa Gate, a major entrance to the old city. It opens into the Christian Quarter by the Tower of David Museum. Part of the mystery of the city for modern tourists is to relate to what is compared to what was and this museum is a prime example in many ways, starting first with its name. Called a citadel by the locals, the location was originally a palace built by Herod in the first century BCE. After much destruction and rebuilding, by the time the Romans occupied the city in 70 CE(AD), the palace had become a fortress as it is an ideal location for overlooking the entire city, especially the west side. The mystery of the name, Tower of David, isn’t solved but hinted at by early text from the last of the Crusaders who claimed that this was the palace of King David. The impregnable fortress was the last challenge for the conquerors, who used what remained of its towers as symbols to defeat. When the later Christian tourists came to Jerusalem, they continued to believe that this was the palace of King David and the tower, actually 17th century minaret built by the Turks who ruled at that time, became known as Kind David’s Tower, a site Along the west side of the old city, people walking to the Yaffo Gate, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenvisible from just about everywhere in the city.

The reality is that David, in this area over 1000 years before, never set foot in that area which was just a rocky hillside when Herod built his palace. Ah, what little credit Herod gets for his great works of architecture in Israel.

Let us not forget that Herod totally rebuilt the entire city of Jerusalem to his specifications 1000 years after David, destroying what little remained after the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE (it was built in the 10th century BCE by King Solomon), and rebuilding the Second Temple and it’s surrounding area (originally first built in 516 BCE) creating the largest sacred site in the entire Roman Empire. Herod built the great retaining walls around the temple that makes up what we call the “wailing wall” in the remains found today. So why does David get the credit for a place he never visited?

Part of that is answered by the significance to the Jews and Christians about the legend of David, the boy who would be king who slew the great giant, who happened to be a Philistine….Palestine….interesting connection, isn’t it? Anyway, David plays such a role in the “founding” of the Jewish and basis for the Christian religions that the early tourists just assumed that the old citadel/fortress must be the remains of his original city and palace. They were a few kilometers off. Once an idea takes hold in the minds of humans, it takes forever to prove it wrong. The Israel Tourist and Archeological Boards have renamed it The Citadel. While they are trying to get new tour books and maps to name it appropriately, they still put “Tower of David” in parentheses or ignore the new name completely and stick which what people expect. So it goes trying to change people’s minds.

It was to this museum Brent and I came in October of last year right after the fighting broke out. Brent was terrified of the riots and violence but I assured him that we would be far from it and safe. I was determined to see Dale Chihuly’s glass exhibit which arrived about the same time as we did, a year before, and was supposed to close that weekend. In the end it stayed on exhibit for a few more months as no one from Seattle wanted to come to Israel to dismantle it. They, too, watched too much television.

The exhibit was beautiful, especially seeing it at night with all the lights making the glass glow in unearthly colors around the ancient ruins and partially restored fortress. It made me homesick to see such familiar exhibits of his shell collection, the sea urchins and the Japanese glass balls which Brent promptly dubbed “Christmas Tree balls and decorations”.

The highest point of the fortress in the tower offers the best view of Jerusalem, looking out over the old city to the east and then the rest of the vast new city to the north, south and west. We stood up there in the slight mountain chill of the evening looking over and down towards the Western Wall (Wailing Wall) and its brightly lit courtyard and the glowing dome of the El-Aska Mosque, or Dome of the Rock, above the wall. The scene of recent massive protests and violence, you could hear a pin drop in the late night of the city below us. Amazing how quickly things change.

Sloping narrow street in the Old City of JerusalemIf you walk pass through the Jaffa Gate entrance into the Christian quarter, and down David Street, you are only a few steps from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the supposed site of the crucifixion. You hardly find it as you weave through the narrow sloped streets and twist around.

It its latest incarnation, the old city is designed on the basis of the ancient arab medinas, a city within a city within walls that twist and turn and confuse any attacker. It is a maze and it takes time to learn the main streets, and a step down one of the side streets can lead you to all kinds of sights and sounds and get you lost. Everyone is very helpful and friendly in the old city and they are always willing to help you find your way back to a known path, of course after you peruse their vast selection of do-dads and knickknacks.

The small courtyard entrance to the Holy Sepulchre, photo by Lorelle VanFossenThe Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a work of art celebrating the gaudiest artistry of human history. Resembling the old city, it is a hodge-podge of rooms and levels going off in different directions all at once. The popular spots in the church are the crucifixion spot, “the slab” of marble which Jesus’ body was supposedly laid out on in preparation for burial, and a small “tomb” or chapel that supposedly hosts the remainder of the stone from which Jesus rose after his death. Early pilgrims chipped away at it so only something the size of an old full volume dictionary remains protected behind a glass The temple inside where Christ was buried, according to some legends, photograph by Brent VanFossenbox. People kiss and touch the glass box with reverence as they crouch in this small shrine temple within a temple.

Also suffering from many incarnations, little or nothing remains of the ancient church built by Queen Helena in 326, nor of its successors. In the 12th century the Crusaders finally built part of what remains today. In the bible it says (John 19: 17) that “bearing His Cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew – Golgotha.” Gulgoleth is Hebrew for skull. Ancient medieval tradition says that the skull of Adam was buried on this hillside and that when Christ was crucified, some of His blood flowed and touched Adam’s skull and restored it to life for a moment. The Hebrew word Gulgoleth translates into the Latin, Calvaria, from Calva which means skull. This is where the English term Calvary came Altar stone representative of the stone Christ was laid upon and prepared for burial, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenfrom.

The church is “owned” through a complicated shared agreement between the Greek Orthodox, Franciscan Order of Catholics, Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians, and Syrians. The latter three have the least say in the day to day running of the church but their presence is still felt. Each of these orders have chapels and sacred areas in the church, adding to the mixed up feeling of the design.

Marble stairs inside the Church, photograph by Brent VanFossenInside the church are the final stops or stations of the Via Dolorosa, the last walk of Christ as he carried the cross to his death. The stations are marked through the old city from the church to the start at the Lion’s Gate or Gate of St. Stephen on the east side of the old city. There are small chapels and fairly clear identifying markers at each significant point such as the Fifth Station where Simon the Cyrenian took the cross from Christ to carry it and the Sixth Station where a woman wiped the sweat and blood from Christ’s face, and so on.

As the Station Three on the Via Dolorosa where Christ is said to have fallen while carrying the cross, photo by Lorelle VanFossennewer part of the old city was built over the route, who knows where the actual spots really are but the ancient tourism directors of the city, with the help of Queen Helena, clearly marked out this path that once wove through the rocky hillside. In case you aren’t familiar with how this all came to be, no one knew the exact spots for anything that had to do with Christ because most people at the time thought he was a common criminal. Even the descriptions of some of the actual places are fairly vague as written by Paul and the other apostles.

Three hundred years after Christ’s death, and after many uprisings and down-troddings, King Constantine sent his mother, Helena, to Israel to locate the holy spots. She came during intense heat and drought, suffering from the horrible elements, and wandered the countryside claiming that God told her where the spot Looking out from the cemetary near the Lion's Gate at the Kidron Valley, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenfor this and that was and marking it. Churches and shrines were built over each spot, as best as they could be, as markers do move during time and construction.

Since then, with more uprisings and down-troddings, many of these were destroyed and forgotten only to be “found” and rebuilt again, so who knows where what happened. Brent and I, cynics about the whole identification of THE SPOT process, explore each of the three different spots where Jesus supposedly did this or that, each with a church over the spot and the spot located in the basement of the church (Brent whines, “If I see one more church basement….”), we just agree that any spot is a good enough spot and being close is just fine. Just pick a spot and call it “the spot” and we can pause and give honor to what happened, even if the spot is now under 12 feet of stone and concrete and about 50 feet away from where we are.

Western or Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenThere is much in the old city that I love. The Western Wall only impresses me with the people attracted to it. It is not the wall of the temple as many think but the surviving wall that surrounded the temple grounds.

The mosque of El-Aska now stands over the ruins of the Second Temple, and people call the Western Wall the Wailing Wall as they mourn over the destruction of the Temple. I think some of that moaning and groaning is the Jews’ failure to hold on to their property rights. After the destruction, many of the Jews either converted or were exiled. Those few who remained weren’t allowed to walk over the remains of the temple land as the temple was originally built on the mountain “spot” where Abraham was ready to sacrifice his only son to God and where the Lord appeared to David and where Solomon built the first Temple because of these events. It is said that the original First Temple had these sacred spots deep inside of it, only accessible by the highest priests. No Jew is supposed to ever step on that spot. Rebuilt 70 years after its destruction, the Second Temple lasted until Herod rebuilt it almost 500 years later, and that one lasted less than 200 years. After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, the Romans Map of the Old City area and the original area of David's City, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenbuilt a temple on the spot dedicated to Jupiter, and then later when the Caliph Omar came here bringing his Muslim beliefs in 638, a mosque has stood there and no Jew will walk through the Temple area for fear of “stepping on the spot”. They will visit the courtyard area surrounding where they think the temple stood. After all these centuries, who really knows who thought what and where the real spot is, but the conquerors always rewrite history.

The Jews may wail at the wall, but they lost their property through many wars and abandonments. When Israel won the land and the west side of Jerusalem in the 1948 War of Independence, the Arabs (Jordan) prevented Jews from entering the Old City to visit the Wailing Wall. When they won the land in the 1967 Six Day War, Jews rushed into the Old City to the Western Wall, thrilled to be able to touch and pray at it after being prevented for 20 years. Unfortunately, Jordanian snipers were ready for them and shot the Israeli soliders down as they raced to touch the wall that represented so much to them.

Israel claimed the land the mosque sits on when they won the old city, so if the mosque ever is gone, by war or earthquake or other natural disaster, the land under it is theirs to dig through or whatever. There are tunnels leading to some of the ruins under there that I’ve yet to see. This winter when the temperatures drop and the tourists go home Brent and I will go exploring there.

With Bruce and Wes, we took the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) tour of the old city of Jerusalem and I learned so much. It was amazing and wonderful. We learned that during the Six Day War, in retaliation for being forced out of the old city, the Jordanians blew up much of the Jewish Quarter, leveling it to the ground. As Israeli archeologists moved in, as is required by Israel law, to check it out before rebuilding, what they found wasn’t a surprise to them but it still stunned the world.Oldest menorah found from the ruins in the Jewish Quarter after 1967, dated back to the First Temple period, photo by Lorelle VanFossen

Layer upon layer of ancient ruins uncovered because of the last act of war. The challenge was to decide what had to be destroyed in order to discover what lie below, going down through time in the ground. Much from the First Temple time period, 960 BCE to 587 BCE, was just lost to time and depth as well as the decision to protect what was found from the Second Temple period, 520 BCE to 70 CE (AD). How did they decide what to keep and what to destroy to get down to the deeper layers? Wow.

A museum to the First Temple period was constructed over part of the ruins to preserve what they found at the deepest points and that was a highlight of the tour. Deep down we went, exploring the ruins of a First Temple home, probably of a rich person, or the priests, with their bathtub carved into the stone and some pottery and jewelry remains. One “multimedia” exhibit showed the city today with projections of what it used to look like during the First Temple period. It really helped me to understand what it once looked like, something hard to fathom when looking at the city now.

Tel Aviv, Israel


  • Elizabeth
    Posted September 11, 2005 at 15:00 | Permalink

    Dear sir,

    I would like to know how long was the via dolorosa road where jesus took his last walk? And where was it can part be seen today. Also how long did simon carry the cross for jesus. Thank for the answer if you can give it to me.


  • Posted September 11, 2005 at 16:46 | Permalink

    Would you like the reality answer or the one that will make most religious people swoon with furvor?

    Well, since I don’t do religious furvor or swooning, Here is the reality answer.

    The path Jesus may or may not have taken in Jerusalem is not the Via Dolorosa as it stands today. Whatever the path may have been, it is now buried under several stories of rubble and destruction and construction. Historians and scientists can only guess how far and exactly where.

    Today’s Via Dolorosa twists and turns through the Old City of Jerusalem as a tourist attraction, not as a preserved part of history. Remember it was several hundred years before anyone took the concept of Jesus seriously. Jerusalem was destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed and rebuilt in that time. Emperor Constantine sent his mother, Queen Helena, to the hot, horrid desert mountains of Judea in the Middle East who walked around and had “visions” of where Jesus walked, talked, and did his thing. And marked the spot with a church.

    If you believe in the bible, then you believe that god spoke to people in visions and dreams. If you are alive to day, anyone saying they are getting messages in visions and dreams is next in line for some serious medication. So only you can decide how close or not she may or may not have been to the actual spot, lost to time.

    My friends in Israel taught me to think bigger than spots. “It’s holy air you are breathing” not “this is the spot where X happened.” That puts you closer to the reality than the reality of today.

    As for Simon carrying the cross or the name of the woman who wiped Jesus’ face called Veronica because that was her name or the name of the house where this happened was called the House of Veronica – most people vote for the latter. But in reality – who knows. Don’t forget the New Testament wasn’t started until decades after the death of Jesus and had its own problems becoming the book we recognize today. Who knows what the real truth is. But faith has nothing to do with truth or reality, right? It’s built on belief.

    Religious fanatics make up stuff all the time about their religious beliefs, and merchants know a good marketing scheme when they see one. Rent for businesses along the Via Dolorosa are much higher than in other parts of Jerusalem for the traffic of clients. Until the Intifada, tourism was one of the largest incomes the country had outside of weapons and military sales. Under the rule of the British, French, Turks, and others in recent history, tourism in Jerusalem was slim. After Israel got control of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, they have invested millions of dollars to build a good tourism infrastructure alongside the Arabs living in the area. Money talks. And that money wants you to believe that Jesus touched this and his feet walked here.

    Just believe what you want, and you will find your own truth.

    Here is more information about the building of the Dome of the Rock and Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the visit of Queen Helena, pointing out that her visit was fairly political and “well timed” to help support her son’s rule. Ah, the politics around religion never ends.

  • Michael J. Glaze
    Posted May 31, 2006 at 17:49 | Permalink

    Quik ? Have you been to the AREA of Megiddo or Armageddon. I have looked at the areo on Google world maps and photos. Today the area is mostly farms. I see nothing from the outer space photos to suggest a NARROW pass or closed in area. While it would hold armies of old. Thousands of men shoulder to shoulder. It looks like an area today that a brigade or a large Battalion would fight over. Not millions. Is there any non-passable mountains or such? I guess what I am saying is it is a dumb place to have a modern battle. Am I right?
    From Seattle, Til yer nightmares become saddled horses Michael

  • Posted June 1, 2006 at 1:59 | Permalink

    Hey, Michael!

    I have been extensively to what is now known as the Jezreal Valley, the former Megiddo/Armageddon. Excellent farm land and you have to duck often between the fighter jets doing practice runs and the organic crop dusters that fly over. In the spring it is awesome for patches of wildflowers and in the nearby Carmel Mountains and a little north into the “mountains” above Tiberias, the flowers in Spring are incredible. The famous Black Iris grows along the tops of the Carmel mountains and are very amazing to see.

    And when they talk about mountains in Israel, they are talking about things about as big as Cougar or the hills around Bellevue and Kent. Things you can walk over in a a couple hours. We called them hills, but they call them mountains.

    As for fighting, who said anyone had any brains when it came to war? Huh?

    The hard part of history in that area is that the loser often burned, poisoned, and destroyed everything on their way out to make sure the winner suffered. Who knows what trees, forests, and anything natural that might have once been there that is gone forever because of the wars? Israel has done an amazing job of reforesting the whole country, but the damage was done over thousands of years battling over what? Whose god was better? Whose right? Who cares?

    Thanks for the info on the film. I moved it over to the film post to help others understand that this is NOW not soon.

    I’ll be back in Seattle late this fall, I hope. Let’s try to get together then!

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