Israel's Good Name

Weizmann Institute of Science

In Central Israel, Israel on December 7, 2014 at 4:22 AM

The day after visiting Mount Meron I took a bus and a train down to visit a friend in Rechovot. This friend, Levi Burrows, went to high school with me in Miami and invited me down to tour the Weizmann Institute of Science with him. I graciously accepted and met him at the institute’s gates under heavy rainfall. We sought shelter in his studio apartment before setting out to explore the interesting campus grounds. The Weizmann Institute of Science was established in 1934 by Dr Chaim Weizmann, a biochemist and statesman – the first president of Israel (1949-52).

Chaim Weizmann

Chaim Weizmann

Designed to be a light unto the nations, this institute was a breakthrough in the fledgling Israeli culture of academics. We started with the Levinson Visitor Centre with its maps, written guide and short video presentation about the institute and its scientific achievements. Maps in hand, we began our self-guided tour of the campus and stopped first at the Jubilee Plaza.

The Jubilee Plaza

The Jubilee Plaza

We took a moment to examine our location and the plaza’s geometric beauty before bee-lining towards the institute’s most iconic structure, the Koffler Accelerator – a particle accelerator for nuclear research.

Koffler Accelerator (photo: Wikipedia)

Koffler Accelerator (photo: Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, we were unable to gain entrance to climb to the top, despite the fact that the facility is currently inactive.

Artistic approach to the Koffler Accelerator

Artistic approach to the Koffler Accelerator

Moving on, we got caught in yet another downpour and took shelter at the plasma laboratory. There, standing beneath an awning with a nice view of countless helium gas balloons, we enjoyed a tough little grapefruit we had picked up just a few minutes prior. Not just filled with buildings and scientists, the campus also has an extensive tree collection, with ID numbers affixed to each trunk. Grapefruits seemed to be quite common, which nourished us on our exploratory tour. When the rain died down we headed for the quieter eastern side of the campus and came upon the interesting Memorial Plaza with its Holocaust memorial sculpture, and then the gardens of the Weizmann estate.

Holocaust memorial sculpture

Holocaust memorial sculpture

Walking the wet, meandering paths, we first encountered the grave of Chaim and Vera Weizmann. Chaim passed away at age 77 in 1952 and his wife Vera fourteen years later at age 84. Their tomb was specially designed as a cenotaph in memory of their son Flight Lt Michael Oser Weizmann who was shot down as an RAF fighter pilot during World War II and immortalised in a tombstone of missing soldiers.

Chaim and Vera Weizmann's grave

Chaim and Vera Weizmann’s grave

Just after the grave we found the Weizmann presidential car, a custom Lincoln Cosmopolitan sent as a gift from Henry Ford II in 1950.

Weizmann's custom Lincoln Cosmopolitan

Weizmann’s custom Lincoln Cosmopolitan

The rain began to come down again as we made a mad dash for the Weizmann House. Comfortably dry inside, we received our handheld audio guides and began the tour of the house, starting with the foyer. An architecturally unique house, designed by Erich Mendelsohn, there are several points of interest: the high porthole windows, the thick walls filled with cork and sawdust, and the prominent circular staircase.

Inside the Weizmann House

Inside the Weizmann House

After exploring the house we sat down to watch a 10-minute summary of Chaim Weizmann’s life and then headed out to continue our tour of the campus. We made an unnecessarily long loop around the edge of the grounds and stopped to pick another grapefruit.

Levi picking a grapefruit

Levi picking a grapefruit

We ate the grapefruit as we dodged scattered rain showers and talked about important things. At last, after a quick look at the heliostats field and a large sundial we made it to our next major destination, the Clore Garden of Science. Due to the unfavourable visiting conditions (i.e rain), we received a small discount and entered the outdoor science museum. Somewhat similar to Madatech in Haifa, built in the historic Technion building, this hands-on science museum is actually the only one of its kind in the world, with nearly eighty exhibits.

EcoSphere

EcoSphere

Due to the rain, some features didn’t work (for lack of sun) and some were locked (for safety) but there were some interesting things to see and try. Two things that I really wanted to see were the 360° rainbow and the solar furnace but, sadly, I didn’t see either in action. We did enjoy ourselves with the Pipes of Pan, the sound mirrors and the Archimedes’ Screw. At one point we chased down some employees to open the indoor exhibitions and the EcoSphere (a geodesic dome) and, respectively, had a creepy time at the brain exhibition and a cool time with echo amplification.

Experimenting with echo amplification

Experimenting with echo amplification

There was also a thermal camera which certainly gives a different look on life.

A thermal version of me

A thermal version of me

When we were sure that we’d seen and tried everything we left the science park and looped back to the more populated western side of the campus, passing the original campus building (also designed by Erich Mendelsohn) and the well-designed library. As the sun began to set we left the campus and got schwarmas to eat on the town then had a beer back at the apartment and called it a day. It rained when I first came and it rained as I left but all-in-all an enjoyable day was had, plus I got to hang out with my old friend Levi.

Mount Meron

In Galilee, Israel on November 30, 2014 at 4:29 AM

This past Tuesday my parents and I took a little drive over to the nearby Mount Meron, the highest peak in the Galilee, to hike the peak trail. Turning off Road 89 in the direction of the Meron Field School, we stopped to take a little look at the Hamama Ruins. These arched structures are from the Ottoman Period and can be found throughout the area. In fact, we passed one on the drive home and I know of another one at the access road to Nachal Kziv from Ma’alot’s Industrial Area.

Hamama Ruins

Hamama Ruins

Mount Meron reaches up 1,208 metres (3,963 ft) in elevation, surrounded by smaller Galilean mountains, and actually affects the weather and rainfall. On the road up, we pulled over so that I could take a photo of the the mountain from a somewhat stately angle.

Mount Meron

Mount Meron

We continued driving up until we reaches the peak parking lot and disembarked, ready to get our hike on. The first things we noticed was the nippy chill and the fact that we were standing inside a cloud. What looks like fog in this picture is actually a low cloud, and the interesting flora on the slope made for a unique vista.

Cloudy mountain slope

Cloudy mountain slope

Crossing the access road, we began the circular trail around the peak. There is a military base at the very peak and the trail wraps around it, marked as both the peak trail and the extensive Israel National Trail (which begins at Tel Dan and ends in Eilat, approximately 1,000 kilometres long). Thankfully, the peak trail is just a mild 2 kilometres long – perfect for families. Before long we reached the first observation point, looking out to the east. Although it was too cloudy to see anything, the sign mentioned that one can see Mount Hermon, Mount Bental, Safed as well as the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) – pretty impressive.

The trail continues...

The trail continues…

Continuing along, we ran into some soldiers doing camouflaged training or something, some very interesting plants and this cool-looking mossy tree:

Interesting moss growth

Interesting moss growth

And looking even closer on a different branch, here is lichen and moss growing side-by-side, byproducts of the damp environment:

Lichen and moss

Lichen and moss

Next we reached the Lebanon Lookout with a view of Manara Cliff, Yir’on, Yesha Fortress and Lebanese towns of Bint Jbeil and Rmeish. The visibility from this observation point was remarkably better, although limited to just a few kilometres. What amazed me most was seeing the rolling clouds beneath us, similar to being on a plane and looking out the window.

View to the north

View to the north

Just a wee bit along the path we came across the remains of an ancient winepress cut into the mountain bedrock. The grapes would be manually crushed on the left while the juices would flow into the carved cistern on the right. Today, muddy water replaces grape juice and fire salamanders use this pool as a breeding sanctuary (these salamanders are more often associated with Tel Dan). We watched as the tiny salamander tadpoles swam around the murky pool, but trying to capture them on camera proved to be tricky.

Ancient winepress now salamander pool

Ancient winepress now salamander pool

Moving on, we spotted sections of the soft topsoil where wild boars had turn up in search for goodies (perhaps mushrooms and truffles). Right beside a feeding area we saw these mushrooms untouched, patiently awaiting demise in the jaws of a wild boar:

Wild mushrooms

Wild mushrooms

The third, and final, observation point is the southern/western one – views of Mount Tabor, the Gilboa Mountains, Haifa University, Mount Carmel and Ma’alot. This side was heavily clouded and we could only see the closest ridge. Although just below the lookout is Beck’s Ruins, the story of an unfulfilled dream to build a Jewish settlement atop Mount Meron. Back in 1831, Rabbi Israel Beck immigrated to the Holy Land and settled in Safed owning a printing press. When Safed suffered a disastrous earthquake in 1837, he turned to the Egyptian governor Mohammad Ali to build on Mount Meron with ten other Jewish families. Within two years, due to hostile Turkish overlords and hard rural living, the settlement was abandoned and the Beck family moved to Jerusalem.

Beck's Ruins

Beck’s Ruins

Shortly thereafter the trail reached the road and the clouds became quite dense. It was very agreeable walking through the cloud, seeing the mist whip by with the brisk wind. We continued on to the car and ended up getting rained on as we got further down the mountain, below the clouds. Fascinating stuff, I say!

Mitzpe Oded & Kever Yosef

In Israel, Samaria on November 24, 2014 at 4:59 AM

The following two places are found in the heart of the Shomron (also known as Samaria) and I had the pleasure of visiting both on the same day. Due to the fact that I often do the night shift for the Safaron driving, I took a lazy Wednesday afternoon to visit nearby archaeological ruins in the town of Yakir. The military outpost Yakir, where I usually serve, is just a few minutes walk from my destination, Mitzpe Oded.

Sunny at Mitzpe Oded

Sunny at Mitzpe Oded

Mitzpe Oded was founded as an outlook in memory of Oded Fink who died of illness at age 30, a man with an appreciation for the land of Israel, its beauty and heritage. The outlook provides a view of the towns of Karnei Shomron, Immanuel and Yitzhar as well as the famous Biblical twin peaks of Mount Gerezim and Mount Ebal in the far distance and Nachal Kana running directly below. The second portion of this blog post, Kever Yosef, is located in the city of Shechem which is between Mounts Gerezim and Ebal, some 16 kilometres (10 miles) away as the crow flies.

Panoramic view from Mitzpe Oded

Panoramic view from Mitzpe Oded

The first ruin I saw as I approached the lookout was a six-foot tower rectangle of rough ashlars, as can be seen above. The sign declared the structure as a “shomera” which is the Biblical name for an agricultural watchtower and was comprised of two levels – the lower of stone blocks and the upper a wooden hut. Here is another agricultural watchtower that is unmarked and unkempt right outside the entrance of Yakir Outpost. I had been wondering what it was ever since I had first laid eyes on it, now I know.

Ruins outside Yakir Outpost

Ruins outside Yakir Outpost

Beside the agricultural watchtower at Mitzpe Oded is a unique textured millstone that was used for coarse wheat and barley grinding. The grain would be ground into a coarse flour used for porridge, as well as for sacrificial purposes.

 

Unique millstone

Unique millstone

To the north of the millstone there is the base of a square structure and then a confusing little trail down the slope of the mountain. I ventured down a bit, didn’t see anything fascinating and headed back to the outpost. Later on that evening I got a series of calls and found myself driving the Safaron armoured truck to Tapuach Junction for a fun (and not classified) operation. I was to be working with Border Police in Shechem (Nablus) as that night was predestined to be the night when the IDF allows Israeli visitors to Kever Yosef (Joseph’s Tomb) located in the heart of Shechem.

"Tomb of Joseph at Shechem" (1839) by David Roberts

“Tomb of Joseph at Shechem” (1839) by David Roberts

While today’s Kever Yosef doesn’t look quite like it did back in 1839, it’s now a white-domed structure over the tomb with a few side chambers and a yard surrounded by a tall fence. In this aerial view, the white complex of Kever Yosef is quite distinguishable:

Aerial view of Kever Yosef

Aerial view of Kever Yosef

Driving in one of many armoured military convoys, we entered the city and headed for Kever Yosef on the edge of the Balata refugee camp. I was a little surprised that we didn’t get any stones thrown at us, but figured we’d probably get stoned later on that night. I parked my large vehicle blocking the north-west access alley (see map) and with the entire plaza area locked down and secure we prepared for the busloads of visitors. This was all an eye-opening experience for me and I enjoyed every minute of it. In this panoramic of the “plaza” area just outside the tomb complex, the buses come from the street on the left side while behind me and to the right are completely secured and blockaded by soldiers and military vehicles. I was fortunate enough to partake in the inner circle of defence, so I was able to visit the site rather easily.

Panoramic of the plaza in front of the complex

Panoramic of the plaza in front of the complex

The first batch of buses came and the visitors streamed into the complex, eager to seize a prime praying location as close to the tombstone as possible. Eventually I made my way into the domed chamber but the sheer multitude of people discouraged me. Someone offered me a memorial candle to light, and so I did, lighting it in a niche that had crude swastikas scrawled on the concave wall. The history of Kever Yosef is pretty hairy, and despite considered a holy site for Muslims, finds itself the victim of destruction and hate crimes. I’m not sure how the situation usually is during these late-night visits, but that night was extremely quiet.

Memorial candles

Memorial candles

After about 90 minutes or so, the visitors were herded back onto the buses so that the second batch could come. In between groups, there was a nice quietness about the place and I was able to take a photo of the site without people being in my way.

Kever Yosef

Kever Yosef

The second busloads arrived and I was distracted by a man who fell as he made his way from the bus to the tomb and needed mild medical attention. As the paramedic bandaged him up, the injured man told us that he himself was at once the director of MADA Jerusalem (Israeli version of the Red Cross) during the Yom Kippur War before being sent down to the Sinai to treat injured soldiers. The stories that the “average Joe” on the street has are absolutely fascinating here in Israel, with its extremely short and volatile history. After the second batch of visitors were whisked away, and all the dressings and signs were taken down from the complex, I entered the tomb chamber and was pleasantly surprised to see this raw, yet fresh, look at such a rich historical tomb:

The bare tomb

The bare tomb

When the last of the soldiers and Border Police were aboard their armoured vehicles, we drove back out of the troubled city of Shechem, fully expecting an onslaught of rocks and worse. Again, we passed through unscathed. I’m still astounded at the fact that despite having entered many Palestinian villages and cities, I’ve never once got even as much as a stone thrown at me – what are the odds? Anyhow, such is life in Israel’s “Wild West” and I hope I get more chances to have blog-compatible experiences so that I can document them here.

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