Scenes of Wonder and Miracles


So here are our three favorite miracles from yesterday (April 29):

— The Church of the Wedding Feast in Cana: As Christian miracles go, I have to love the one described in John 2:1-2:9. Jesus and Mary are at a wedding party in Cana, and she whispers to him that the guests are itchy for some wine, but the hosts don’t have any. Jesus finds this annoying (his mom bugging him to do something he’s not ready to do, namely reveal his awesome power), but he gives in and miraculously changes 6 pots of water into wine. As wine lovers, Steve and I had to see the place in Cana to which the pilgrims flock. Off one of the main thoroughfares, we spotted Church Street, snagged a parking spot on the street and made our way up the narrow stone-lined street through which obvious bus-loads of pilgrims were tramping. The gift shops (with names like the Waterpots, The First Miracle, Cana Wedding Wine) also confirmed that we had found the right place. The entire Bible passage is also installed in the wall outside.

The church that was built and named after the miracle is a pretty little thing, as is the garden surrounding it, but the pilgrims don’t spend much time on either; they tromp down a set of stairs, to a basement room housing a huge stone urn.

In 1879, some folks unearthed some ancient stone jars, decided they were probably the miraculous urns from the BIble, and built the Franciscan church in response. When Steve later googled the church and the miracle, we read there’s controversy over this claim. But it obviously isn’t bothering the pilgrims. We arrived around 4 p.m. and must have seen 10 busloads pass through, bearing passengers from all over the globe: Japanese, Brits, Italians, Germans, Filipinos, and more.

— The Church of the Loaves and Fishes miracle

You find this one at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee shore, just up the road from Tiberius (where we stayed). Another beautiful little church has been built on the site where folks believe Jesus multiplied a handful of loaves and fishes to feed the crowd of 5000 that turned out to hear him preach. Again, the evidence (why THIS spot?) is probably shaky; we found no posted explanations. But the alter of the church is built over a cool looking rock on which he supposedly worked his magic. Once again, I have to love any miracle that focuses on successfully feeding an unexpected crowd.

– The Ancient Boat

Though it’s an obvious stop on the Jesus Circuit around the Sea of Galilee, this astonishing site is only Jesus-related, rather than BIblically inspired. In 1986, a drought year when the lake was extremely low, two local kibbutznik fishermen found a fragment of wood and started digging in the muck. They soon realized it was the remains of a very old wooden boat. They called in experts, who quickly confirmed that it was VERY old, and a massively complicated rescue and restoration effort ensued. It took years but eventually succeeded, and tests eventually concluded that the 12 types of wood used to build and patch the boat dated back to the first century. In other words, this boat may well have been sailing on the lake when Jesus and his disciples were fishing on it. They could have passed it; even worked in it. Today the boat is housed in an ultra-modern facility that tells the story in a very thorough and sophisticated way. We walked away deeply impressed.

Now we’re in the Old City in Nazareth, where we spent the night in an old Arab mansion that’s been converted into a guesthouse. (Most of the folks who live in Nazareth today are Arab Israelis.) We’re planning to take a 2-3-hour walking tour of the city at 9:30, then drive through the West Bank (along the Jordan River) to Jerusalem. The only miracle that would surprise me is if it turns out to be boring.

On the Sea of Galilee

The water that Jesus reportedly walked on is the Sea of Galilee, so we felt pretty excited to see it. Unfortunately, when the weather started to warm up Sunday afternoon, the air got smoggy (though our student guides at the Technion Monday insisted it was only mist, not pollution.) Whatever it is, it almost completely obscured our initial views of the Galilean body of water, as Steve and I drove east from the real sea (the Mediterranean) Monday afternoon. Only when we drove to the top of the mountain where folks think Jesus gave his most influential sermon (“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” etc.) did we get a good view of the famous fishing grounds. It’s not a sea, of course, but a really big fresh-water lake. It reminded us of Tahoe, though surrounded by hills that look Southern Californian, browner and drier than the Sierra Nevada, even in springtime.
The Mount of Beatitudes is a lovely spot, noisy with birdsong and shaded by towering cypress and other trees. We had to pay 10 shekels to park in the lot, but otherwise it doesn’t feel like anyone’s running the site. There’s a pretty little basilica, built by some Italian Catholics,
and a guesthouse and a well-stocked gift shop.
But there was no one, really, for us to ask why anyone thought this was the very spot where Jesus reportedly gave the sermon. Matthew 5:1 says only that he went up into “a mountain” somewhere in Galillee, and there are plenty of those all over the place.
Still, mountains overlooking bodies of water make great religious sites. We’d started the day in Haifa with a reminder of that. Everyone associates Israel with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but it’s also the holiest place on earth for the Baha’i faith. That was started by a Persian (known as “the Bab”) in the 1800s who dreamed up sort of a Middle Eastern version of Unitarianism (“All the monotheisms are right!”). Baha’is excel at building religious monuments. They constructed a temple near Northwestern University (where Steve and I met as undergraduates) that’s one of the prettiest landmarks in Evanston. Their world headquarters in Haifa amazed us. The huge property spills down Mt. Carmel, facing Haifa harbor. The Bab is entombed in a gold-domed mausoleum below and above which beautiful terraces have transformed the mountainside. One hundred full-time gardeners tend the formal, immaculate gardens around the property. It was breathtaking.
The terraces climb further up the hill above the dome, though you can't see the in this photo.
The other great theological figure of the Baha’i faith is buried near Akko, the city on the other side of the bay from Haifa. We drove there but didn’t have time to look for the Baha’u’llah’s tomb because there’s so much else to see. Akko is 4000 years old, and among the guys who’ve called it home are Alexander the Great and Richard the Lion-hearted. (Napoleon tried to acquire it too at one point, but lost.) We wandered around the narrow twisty passages of the stony Old City for an hour or so, admiring it. (But what we’ll probably best remember is the delicious lunch of hummus and pita bread and olives and pickles ($3 per person) that we gobbled down in a jam-packed joint in the souq.)
From there we drove to the Mount of Beatitudes and on to our hotel in Tiberius, arriving a bit after 4. Tiberius is one of the biggest tourist bases on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and when we wandered over to the waterfront later, looking for something to eat, we passed big groups of Israelis and Romanians and other visitors. I wanted to eat tilapia. They call it St. Peter’s Fish in these parts, and apparently it’s native to the lake, which means when Jesus was recruiting his fishers of men, they were recruiting tilapia.
We ordered it filleted and charcoal-grilled, and it was delicious. The heat of the day had faded, so we sat outside, right next to the water and later strolled, taking in the surreal mix of sights. Around us children zoomed by on miniature electric dune buggies. We passed a McDonald’s and a Maze of Terror and a store selling Holyland Jewelry.
We returned to the waterfront for breakfast this morning and it was almost deserted and peaceful. In the morning sunlight, the Sea of Galilee still looked misty, but a few large tourist boats were moving, preparing to take out groups. We wondered if they chug out to the exact spot where Jesus walked, If so, we won’t see it with our own eyes. We’re departing from Tiberius in a few minutes to instead circumnavigate the shore, where plenty of other miraculous spots should await us.

On the (Israeli) road

Monday morning, we picked up our rental car, an adorable little mauve Fiat 500, from the Eldan car rental agency in Tel Aviv, and I have to say, our interaction with the young manager there was the nicest experience I’ve ever had picking up any rental car anywhere. We sat at his desk, and he not only filled out the paperwork with us but also counseled us on everything from avoiding tolls to the best way to drive from Nazareth to Jerusalem. This took some time, as did getting shuttled to the parking garage where the car was, as did Steve getting checked out on the unconventional controls. By the time we actually hit the road, it was almost 10.

We needed the rental car to get to all the places we want to go in the north of Israel, starting with Caesarea, on the coast about 50 minutes north of Tel Aviv.

The archeological complex contains the ruins of the seaside palaces and associated amenities (chariot racetrack, theater, baths, sewage system etc.) begun by King Herod in 22 BC. Pontius Pilot later lived in it for a while, followed by centuries in which it was grabbed by successive waves of Arabs and Crusaders. Because of our late start, we only had about an hour on the grounds, a shame, and then we had to barrel on to Haifa (Israel’s third largest city and a kind of far distant cousin, in feel, to San Francisco). There we had an appointment to meet with several professors at the Technion (often described as Israel’s MIT), followed by a campus tour guided by two adorable mechanical engineering undergrads.

The driving was a distinctly mixed bag. Every road we’ve been on so far has been in good to excellent shape, and the drivers, while aggressive, don’t seem to be entirely insane. But Google Earth on my phone failed us miserably for guidance, and 90% of the signage uses the Hebrew alphabet, so we had some bad moments, navigationally. (“These are the worst-designed roads I have EVER seen ANYWHERE in the world!” Steve roared, at one point.)

I’m hoping we’ll get accustomed to them. We have a lot more ground to cover.



We’re not in Babel, Toto

My main goal in visiting Israel was to better comprehend the people who inhabit this oh-so-influential piece of real estate (with all its ramifications for the rest of the world). And for a few minutes after our arrival Saturday night, things seemed promising. We and the other passengers from our Royal Jordanian flight from Amman breezed through immigration (negating all my worst fears about thorough Israeli screening procedures). The airport ATM efficiently popped out some shekels, and we jumped into a clean looking taxi at the front of the taxi queue. The driver was a fat, jolly guy who promised to be talkative. But the first thing he asked us as he accelerated away from the terminal was to repeat the address that we had given him. He asked again. And again, seeming only with great difficulty to finally grasp that we were saying “Gordon Street” (a major thoroughfare in Tel Aviv’s beach area). It finally seemed to click, and he asked where we were from, but then lapsed into silence, listening to the radio. A few minutes later, thinking of the recent terrible quake in Asia, I asked him if Israel ever got bad earthquakes. And once again, it took some doing for him to understand my question; to simply grasp the words.

He was born in Israel, we learned, and as such is a native Hebrew speaker. But what surprised us most our first full day here (Sunday), is how much of a comprehension gap seems to derive from that language. As a language, it’s unique — the only one in human history that has almost gone extinct and then come back, to be spoke by millions. By the late 1800s it hadn’t been used for everyday activities for thousands of years, instead being employed exclusively for prayer and study. But the early Zionists worked to revive it as part of their quest to reclaim this ancient Jewish home. When Jews flooded into Palestine fleeing the Nazi terrors and then eager to create a modern Jewish state, they spoke dozens of languages. They needed one to unite them. So Hebrew it became, and along with it, its own baffling alphabet.

Of course lots of countries use a non-Roman alphabet, but in our experience, more of them supplement the signage in major cities with romanized versions of the text (if not outright English translations) than they seem to do in Tel Aviv. One exception has been the street signs, which aren’t bad. (They’re in Hebrew, English, and Arabic.)

Another are the warnings not to climb up the (inviting) electric polls. You see them everywhere.

But then you see signs like this one next to city bicycles available for rent:

Would any non-Hebrew speaker have a clue how to access them? (Everything on the screen was in the Hebrew alphabet only.) Some restaurant receipts also are presented only in Hebrew to the bafflement of tourists.

We’ve been told that all Israeli children also study English in primary school (starting in the sixth grade, one person told us.) But clearly, whatever they learn leaves a number of folks (like our taxi driver) pretty uncomfortable with easy conversation.

On the other hand, we had a stimulating and interesting 3-hour meeting and lunch with a group of extremely bright and successful CAD software experts. They all spoke good to excellent English and seemed to understand every word we said. When we walked (for hours and hours) through Tel Aviv’s beach area and a couple of historic districts, at least 2 or 3 friendly passers by asked us if we needed help (as we studied our maps).

So I’m confident we’ll find our way here, over the next 10 days. We may just have to strain a bit at times to make sure we understand

Palm Springs Docs

Every year San Diego hosts a ton of film festivals. Besides the San Diego Film Festival organized by the San Diego Film Foundation, there also are Latino, Jewish, surf, black, LGBT, and other cinematic events. What’s missing, though, is any documentary film festival. That’s too bad, as far as I’m concerned; it’s the genre I can count on most reliably to wow me. The first time Steve and I went to an event devoted exclusively to docs (the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, held every year in Durham, North Carolina) we were ecstatic. After three days and 17 films, we felt that our brains had exploded (in a good way).

Twice in recent years I also had the chance to attend the superb Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Festival in Colorado Springs, almost entirely non-fiction. But even that’s an awfully long way to travel. So I was pleased and interested to learn that Palm Springs is the venue for the four-year-old American Documentary Film Festival. Its website said MovieMaker Magazine had declared it to be one of the “world’s top 25 film festivals worth the entry fee.” Intrigued, we decided to check it out.

In the months leading up to it, I got several hints that it might not be up to the level of professionalism of the North Carolina and Colorado events. For both of those, we’d had flex passes that made it easy to breeze in and out of the showings. AmDocs (as the Palm Springs event is known), offers one too, but by the time the discounted early fee ended, no schedule had yet appeared on the website.

We decided to gamble on a flex pass anyway. Still, weeks passed before we learned what it would allow us access to. Finally, the list appeared — more than 120 films ranging from 3-minute shorts to full-length features. Instead of being shown in a cluster of theaters that were easy to switch between, however, they appeared to be scattered over three separate cities (Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, and Palm Desert). That didn’t seem promising.

It wasn’t until just days before the festival that I noticed the website had added a list of what was playing each day in each theater. With three screens, it was clear the Camelot Theater complex would be hosting most of the action. Still, all the programs weren’t offered in a graphic form that would enable any normal person to figure out what he or she could make it to and when. Not until we checked into the festival hotel (the Saguaro) last Thursday night and consulted a physical program left for us by some friends could we actually begin plotting what our schedules for the next three days should be.

Our experience at the other two festivals helped us figure out what to see. (I’ve learned that almost any subject can be interesting.) Even the far flung venues were less of a nightmare than I’d anticipated. We wound up making the 25-minute drive to Palm Desert on Thursday and basically camping out in and around it all day long in order to attend the four screening events (7 films in all, including the shorts). We returned the next morning for the first documentary of the day (a historical look at the events that launched Mark Twain to international stardom), then drove to the Camelot and made it our base for the rest of the festival.

Most importantly, the movies did what we were hoping for — the majority of them were excellent, and a few dazzled us. Of the 16 we saw, here’s my list of the most memorable (more or less in order of wonderfulness):

— Top Spin. Both beautiful and suspenseful, it told the story of three high school students vying to compete in 2012 for Olympic glory — in table tennis.

— Jesus Town, USA. I figured this world premiere would be classic mockumentary, focusing as it did on the production of an annual passion play that’s been presented in the Oklahoma back country for 88 years. Instead, life intervened, and the filmmakers were there to capture it. Both Steve and I were in tears by the astonishing conclusion.

— 88 Days in the Mother Lode — Mark Twain Finds His Voice. A charming look at some California and literary history involving one of our greatest authors.

— No Problem: Six Months with the Barefoot Grannies. How to train some of the world’s poorest ladies to be solar engineers. Amazing.

— Cat Show. I was braced for this look at the world of cat shows to be tedious. But the filmmaker fortunately found a vivid, original, and inspiring protagonist. I felt fortunate to spend an hour in her company.

— Big Voice. Demanding Santa Monica high school choir director pushes his students to become “one big voice.” Watching the process was both moving and educational.

— J Street: The Art of the Possible. Now I know all about this influential new Israel lobby.

— Growing Home. Everything I wanted to know about what it’s like to live in a Syrian refugee camp. In just 23 minutes.

Saturday night we also watched an almost two-hour homage to the great American director John Ford. It was made by the less great Peter Bogdanovich, who was on hand to pontificate after the screening.

If the choice ever comes up for me again, I might skip Bogdanovitch. But AmDocs itself is young and promising. I’d be happy to return.