This year has been, for me, one of exceptional highs and lows.
The religious high point, without a doubt, was being able to stand at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, on my recent trip to Israel. But there were other high points, as well.
One of them was Masada, a naturally isolated fortress of stone, sticking up 1,300 feet from the Judean desert floor overlooking the Dead Sea. It’s famous in Jewish history for being the place where the last Jewish rebels held out against Roman rule, and where they chose suicide over slavery when they finally lost, in the year 73.
I had read about the place, and seen pictures of it, ever since my days in Hebrew School, but I never really expected to get there myself.
And no, I didn’t climb it via the so-called “Snake Path” that zig-zags up its side for more than five dusty, rocky, difficult miles. There’s a cable car for us mortals, and just climbing the flight of stairs to get to its entrance was enough exercise for me!
But my tiredness left me as I walked around the top of that place…giving way to frank amazement. It’s a beautiful view, but it’s all just — stone!
In fact, for the whole bus ride south from Jerusalem, I had been in shock. I have never in all my sheltered suburban life seen mountainsides that were completely bare.
Not a scrap of green, not a blade of grass — let alone a burning bush! One time, I thought I saw some blurry white shapes on a hillside and thought to myself, “Oh look sheep!” But no. They were just white stone outcroppings against a slightly-less-white stone background.
The whole experience marked me even after returning home. I can no longer let the water run, while I’m washing dishes or brushing my teeth. I have to shut it off — even though I know that that water isn’t going any closer to Israel than Manhasset Bay.
A low point came soon after the heights of Masada — in the Masada gift shop, in fact. I had been so worried about carrying too much stuff that I left almost everything back at the hotel…including my credit cards and almost all my cash! I had to choose between buying souvenirs, or a sandwich and water bottle.
For once in my life, I had to walk through a gift shop with my hands in my pockets. Trust me, I will never let that happen again.
Another high point was the beautiful city of Tzfat (also spelled “Safed”), in the north of Israel. Literally the highest-elevated city in Israel, at 3,000 feet above sea level, it is known as the home of Kabbalah mysticism.
More importantly for me, it is also home to gifted artists, designers and jewelers around every corner. Did I remember my wallet enough to bankrupt myself buying things to take home (some of it even for folks besides me)? You know I did!
My lowest point — both literally and figuratively — was The Dead Sea.
My first obstacle was the beach, composed entirely of black clay. Remembering from art class what happens when clay gets wet (there’s a reason they call it “slip”), I was terrified that I’d wrench my knee more seriously, or even my hip, before the day was out.
So I baby-stepped to the water, carefully dodging all the submerged, razor-sharp rocks. That was good because we’d been warned that in that water — nine times saltier than the Atlantic — any little cut will sting and burn. Especially, they said, don’t get any in your eyes!
“Did you at least get the amazing floating experience?” people who’ve been there ask me.
You tell me.
Here’s what happens: The parts of your body with the most, um, adipose tissue, will be the ones that float the best. For me, that part is not my face. So my experience of trying to float felt much like wearing a life preserver backwards— except that it’s an evil one, that’s trying to drown you by pushing your butt into the air and your face under water!
In the ensuing struggle I managed to flick some of the stinging water into my own eyes. I finally got out and collapsed into a chair until I got back on our bus.
No trip to the Holy Land would be complete without a camel ride! My limited pony-riding lessons got me seated on the beast’s back. But then it lurched to its feet like no pony ever did — unfolding itself one set of joints at a time.
In stage one, I was thrown backwards. I remember thinking “This is awkward!”
Then the back legs unfolded, throwing me forward over the camel’s head. Over, but not off! Somehow, I managed to stay on board.
So that’s my motto for 2020: Just hang on, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride!