Following the bar mitzva observance of our son Tsvi in February 2006, I traveled with him and my father, Bob Tilsen, to Israel for ten days. My dad lives in Minnesota and Florida, so we see him only on holidays and during vacations. I really wanted us to be together, so that I could be with my dad, and so my son could get to know his grand- father better, and so my dad could be as proud of Tsvi as I am. As three generations traveling together, we heard many kind or curious remarks, from everyone from passport control to store clerks. We rented a car and followed our own schedule, visiting archeological, historical, natural, religious and cultural sites. Although our trip was personal, among my pleasant rabbinic duties was visiting some of the BEKI youth in Israel on educational programs.
Jochai Ben-Avie, son of Michael and of Sascha, was an extraordinary spokesperson for a high school year in Israel program; Tsvi was ready to sign up on the spot, but of course he is not quite ready for high school. Jochai was very much at home in Jerusalem. Seeing him thriving made the whole journey worthwhile.
Edward Abramovitz, one of our star benei mitzva tutors, was thriving at a Jerusalem Yeshiva with other college students. He was trying to get a little more Talmud under his belt before beginning college next year. I was glad to be able to bring back a good report to his parents, Alan & Sally. Seeing Edward thrive made the whole journey worthwhile.
Judi Bartosiewicz, a professional student doing a semester long architectural internship, was absolutely glowing in an upscale neighborhood in Ranana. Her mother, Betty, was concerned for her being so far away, but understood how important it was for Judi to be in Israel. Like Jochai and Edward, Judi seemed very much at home. Seeing Judi thrive made the whole journey worthwhile.
As it turned out, Lauren Kempton was in Israel at the same time, and in addition to seeing Jochai and Edward, she was able to visit with Danielle Rothman, Stephen & Sherry’s daughter, in Jerusalem. Her assessment of these young people matched my own.
We spent just a couple of hours with my distant cousin Beth and her children in Jerusalem. (Her husband could not get out of the clinic early enough to join us.) We met in the food court in the Malha Mall, a huge three story complex. It was strange to be at the mall. Twenty five years ago I had lived for a school year in a house on a dirt road in Malha. Shepherds grazed sheep, and occasionally a camel wandered by. Beyond our little house was undeveloped land, a railroad track from the Ottoman era, and the Judean Desert. Today, where that idyllic house once stood, there is a Burger King, and the biggest mall in the Middle East.
But it was great to see my cousin and her three children, Adi, Gilad, and Kessem, each matching the age and gender of our oldest children Gilah, Tsvi and Tova. Beth and I share a common ancestor, Dov ben Zev (Berel ben Velvel), who lived in Tsefat, northern Israel, about 180 years ago. Of course, through the unfolding of time and Jewish history, his descen- dents found their way to Minneapolis, and Beth found her way back to Israel, where she has three beautiful, bright and good children. Seeing her family thriving there made the whole journey worthwhile.
At the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, we saw the Shrine of the Book, an exhibit about the Dead Sea Scrolls. The one Biblical book found in its entirety in the caves of Qumran was the Isaiah Scroll, a facsimile of which was on display in full at the shrine. It so happens that Tsvi’s bar mitzva haftara, which he had read just days earlier at BEKI, was also from the scroll of Isaiah. As Hebrew orthography has not changed that much since the days of the Dead Sea Cult at Qumran, we were able to locate that passage, and Tsvi read it directly from the Qumran scroll. That second rendition of his haftara made the whole journey worthwhile.
A few days later, Tsvi climbed up to the cave at Qumran where the scroll was found. (He did not notice the sign that says, in Hebrew, “Deadly Hazard! Loose Rocks! Do Not Climb Here!” until he was on the way down.) I climbed half way up. My dad waited near the bottom, not wishing to add to the eighty-one years of wear on his knee.
We spent a good deal of time at Qibbutz Yizra’el and in New Haven’s sister-city Afula. We went from one end of the country to the other, from Majdal Shams in the far north, to Acco in the west (not really far), to Eilat in the south. Israel is small enough that we were able to drive from one end of the country to the other on a single tank of gas. (Small country, small car, big gas tank.) Both my dad and Tsvi especially enjoyed the tank museum (basically a big parking lot for tanks) at Latrun and the (formerly) Syrian and Israeli bunkers in the Golan.
A highlight of our travel was a visit with Dr. Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute at Qibbutz Qetura just north of Eilat. More accustomed to meeting researchers and graduate students than rabbis, retired home builders and bar mitzva boys, she gave us a close-up and technical tour of her attempts to figure out what you can do that is socially productive and economically feasible with basically a lot of sun, sand and salty soil. We saw several projects, some successful, some abandoned.
We received VIP treatment at the Institute through the grace of Dr. Sarah Sallon, a Hadassah Medical Center researcher whose project on medicinal plants is of special interest to California industrialist and philanthropist Lou Borick, a close friend of my father since boyhood. Dr. Sallon’s project is to collect and test plants from around the world that, according to local folk practices, have medicinal properties. As some minority cultures, as well as rare plant species, are in the process of disappearing, this is an urgent pro- gram that can preserve their medical heritage for the benefit of future generations. Some fruits of her research are now FDA-approved and available globally. So Lou had put us in touch with Dr. Sallon, and she said that as long as we were going to Eilat, we must see Dr. Solowey’s work. And seeing her life-long efforts to make the desert productive, for the benefit of all humanity, made the whole journey worthwhile.
The most extraordinary sight came at the end of our visit to the Institute, in a quarantined greenhouse. There in a plain pot was “Methusaleh,” a sapling sprouted a year ago from a nearly 2000-year old date seed found in a jar at Mesada (see Steven Erlanger, “After 2,000 Years, a Seed from Ancient Judea Sprouts,” NYT 12 June 2005). The archeological evidence and carbon dating proved its age. This was quite an accomplishment, as a seed that old – or anything like it – had never been successfully germinated. That one seed embodied the story of the Jewish People’s rebirth in the Land of Israel.
But its significance went beyond being a mere feat of botanical prowess. Like apples, date palms come in many varieties. If you don’t know anything about apples, then you might just know that there are red apples and green apples. If you do know about apples, then you know that there are many distinct varieties, each with its own flavor, texture and aroma. Dates come in many distinct varieties, too.
Like poodles, Judean date palms are a cultivated variety. They do not exist in the wild; they are bred that way. If there were no people breeding dogs, there would be no packs of wild poodles running around. Cultivated dates depend on people for care and reproduction. The Judean date, which appears on the ancient coins of Israel, was a national symbol. But within a couple of generations after the destruction and depopulation of Judea by the Romans in the second century, Judean dates became extinct. No one has tasted one of these Biblical fruits in about 1,700 years. Should this sapling (or its undocumented sibling growing nearby) prove to be a female, then in another four or five years, Dr. Sallon, Dr. Solowey, Lou Borick and eventually all of us will taste Judean dates. Seeing Methusaleh thrive made the whole journey worthwhile.
Upon our return, Bob, Tsvi and I enthusiastically began to tell of our adventures to anyone who asked. On our first Shabbat back, Tsvi was telling Morris Cohen about some of the things we did and people we saw. Morris asked him, “What was the best part of your trip to Israel?” Perhaps an obvious question, but one I had not thought to ask him myself. Tsvi said, “Spending the time with my Grampa Bob.” Hearing that made the whole journey worthwhile.
The righteous bloom like a date-palm; They thrive like a cedar in Lebanon; Planted in the house of the Lord, They flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit; They are full of sap and freshness; Attesting that the Lord is upright; My rock, in whom there is no wrong. (Psalm 92).