When we went to our huge hotel breakfast room this morning, it was full of young people, not a wrinkle or gray head to be seen. Who were all these people? They were all here on an almost free honey moon. Conservative Jews worry a lot about losing members. They especially worry about mixed marriages. The young couples we breakfasted with were here from the US to be sold on the wonder and beauty of this Promised Land and its beliefs. The ultimate hope is that they will be fruitful and multiply and bring up all their children as Jews wherever they end up living. The ultraorthodox who already do live here take this to an extreme. Fertility clinics are full of mothers who already have families of eight or more and want to squeeze out a few more babies.
After breakfast Anahid took us to the hospital. Judging by all the coughing and sneezing that has made its way through the group, this wasn’t a total surprise. I have a sneaking suspicion that I am Typhoid Mary, having been more or less sick with an upper respiratory tract infection the entire trip. It was given to me by a friend who maintained that she was no longer contagious right before we left home.
The real reason we went to the hospital was to see the Marc Chagall stained glass windows there. We were surprised to learn that in Israel every hospital is attached to a mall. Patients are able to eat there and shop as their health allows. Visitors can pick up flowers and there was a giant shop selling infant clothing. It was disconcerting watching a patient tooling through the mall with his IV bag hanging on a pole. Other folks were shopping for kitchen goods, exercise clothing, you name it. The Chagall windows were in a hospital synagogue; each depicted one of the twelve sons of Jacob, the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. Signs honoring donors to the hospital hung on every wall. Nearly all of them represented American donors. Israel would not be here without decades of US support, both public and private.
The highlight of the day was a trip to Masada near the Dead Sea. The Romans were good at subduing the people they conquered, but the Jews here did not give up easily. A group of about 1,000 of them fled to one of Herod’s palaces, which he had built high in a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. He chose the spot, because it had a natural water supply and stocked it with enough food to last a year. Kind of a bomb shelter for a paranoid ruler. After Jerusalem fell the Jewish men, women, and children fled there where the Romans besieged them. They chose the spot, because they knew that Harod had left it well supplied. After a few months the 8,000 Roman forces attacked with a battering ram. The Jews knew it was only a matter of time before the Romans would make it to the top of the mesa and the fight would be over. Rather than surrender and become slaves, the Jewish soldiers killed their wives and children and themselves. When the Romans finally got inside, all they found was piles of bloody bodies. For centuries the Orthodox Jews were not proud of this event. Murder and suicide are never allowed. But when Israel became a young nation in 1948, the young fighters looked for some heroes and the Masada story became an epic saga of determination, courage and resourcefulness.
Today Masada is a national park and you can visit the ruins at the top on foot or with a cable car. Some of the original mosaics and colors on Herod's palace walls were still easy to see. The desert views from the top were amazing and we felt awed by the Jews who chose to die there as well as all the slaves who built this mountain top palace in the first place. We felt lucky to be able to visit Masada. Rains the last view days had covered the access roads with mud and no one could get close. Flash floods in the desert are often a surprise.