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Sunday, February 27, 2011


Jerusalem is more than a city; it is a dream many people share, and for pilgrims here, it is a solemn, holy place with sites that point to their beginnings. I am no different. In this holy city stood the Temple, destroyed by despots, and until recent times even the last vestiges were kept from us. On these streets walked some of the most influential people of all time.

Last evening when we stood on Mt. Scopus, a site lost and then regained in blood, we looked over the city at twilight, said our shehechayanu in thanks and shared our Kiddush. My heart filled with the emotion of the moment and the recognition that the ancient dream of “Next year in Jerusalem” was now.

But this morning is another day, and we are out to try to find the real Jerusalem. This is not easy, for this is also a city of today, and the streets are filled with shops of all kinds and signage in different languages.



But we pass street signs that remind us of the city’s soul.

Western Wall

The city is divided into four quarters: the Jewish quarter, the Muslim quarter, the Christian quarter, and the Armenian quarter. One might ask about the Armenian quarter, but do not forget that prior to WWI, this land was part of the Turkish Empire. We visit all the quarters during our time here including the only shopping mall in Jerusalem where, despite security to enter, everyone shops and eats together.  We also to through the Arab market, the souk, a long narrow corridor of stairs with shops on either side and vendors plying their wares.

Jerusalem is a white city. Jerusalem stone, used as construction material, is white; the buildings are white and, as the stone ages and weathers, it begins to turn different shades of beige. Nevertheless, from far away, the whiteness is striking.



The stone also takes on different textures and shapes as it weathers.  Some are quite beautiful, and some look as though they have been carved.  These photos were taken outside the National Cemetery and illustrate the stone's beauty.

Jerusalem Stone_Page000

Our first stop of the day, the Hadassah Hospital, is emblematic of the city. The hospital was built on this site after Jordan occupied the original Mt. Scopus site after the 1948 war. The building is a marvel, and this world-class hospital is extraordinary. Currently under construction, the Tower which will greatly expand the facility.

Hadassah Tower

We are here to see the Chagall windows in the synagogue. (I highly recommend the Chagall windows in the Union Church in Pocantico Hills, NY (  Before he did his designs, Chagall sat for two hours a day to see how the light filtered into the room. As a result of his work and understanding of the light, the hours pass and the light highlights different thematic aspects of the windows. The beauty is beyond the words at my command.

chagall windows_Page000

Some windows were shattered during the ’67 war. Although over 80 years old at the time, Chagall re-created them, and he even used some of the same glass with shrapnel still imbedded. Today there are precautions to save the windows in case of attack. How sad to have to think like this.

One sits in silence in this quiet synagogue awed by the beauty and overcome by the peace in the center of a bustling hospital.

We spend a short time in the Women’s and Children’s Center. Here 70% of the patients are Arab. All things are done in both Arabic and Hebrew, and because sick children sometimes have lengthy hospital stays, school is provided. Parents have a place to sleep in the rooms with their children.

In Israel, all citizens must belong to one of four health plans for which they pay premiums. Palestinian children are brought in and treated for free if they are unable to pay. Doctors volunteer their time to train Palestinian doctors and nurses at no charge. Israel considers healthcare a bridge to peace. During the intifada, for instance, EVERYONE was treated.

There is also a concern for mental health. During the intifada, treatment was given to cleaners, admission people, and others who were not trained to see the kinds of horribly injured and mutilated victims of bombing. Staff was sent on retreats accompanied by psychologists and other mental health professionals to help them recover from the traumatic experiences and sights that became a daily part of their work.

The two Hadassah hospitals in Jerusalem were nominated for the 2005 Nobel Prize because of their commitment to the idea that healthcare is a bridge to peace.

Can you tell I am a member of Hadassah?

Our next stop on our tour is the National Cemetery, akin to our own Arlington National Cemetery. Here are buried many of the important personages as well as the brave soldiers of this country.

We begin at Theodore Hertzl’s grave. Hertzl is the father of modern Zionism. He actually died in 1905 in Budapest and was entombed here in 1949. He inspired the Jewish people through political Zionism.

Hertzl's grave

On the square in front of Hertzl’s grave Israelis welcome the major holidays of Israel. Yom Hazikaron is Israel’s Memorial Day. When it ends, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day begins. We ask our Margaret Morse guide, David, how people can emotionally move from one holiday to the other, from mourning to celebration. He answers frankly saying many cannot. In so small a country where each generation has fought a war of survival, there probably is not a family in the country who has not lost someone. But everyone recognizes the significance of these days.

We visit the graves of Yitzhak and Leah Rabin. Rabin was the assassinated “martyr for peace” whose memorial we visited in Tel Aviv. (  Then to Gold Meir’s grave, the Prime Minister who brought Henry Kissinger to the Golan Heights and who held her cabinet meetings in her kitchen. Then to Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem for 27 years. Many feel he put the modern face on this ancient city.

These gravesites were emotionally moving, but not nearly as moving as the section of soldiers’ graves we visited. 22,000 Israeli soldiers have died for “the cause of the Jewish people.”  One grave here is the resting place of  David's nephew. Most of them are teenagers or in their early 20s.  In Israel, three years of military service is required of male high school graduates; two years is required of females. 

National Cemetery_Page000

Finally we visit a pool memorializing the Palestinian Jews who died fighting with the British against the Germans during World War I and memorializing the first operation of the Israeli Navy.

Israeli soldier
A young Israeli soldier.  In this country they always must be on the ready.

It has been a truly interesting and emotional day, but it is not over yet.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011


I am always up for a mini-vacation. Sometimes just getting away for a brief weekend can really feel like a long time away from home, and this Valentine’s Day weekend did just that for us. Valentine’s Day and  Sunday matinee tickets for Broadway’s Billy Elliot gave us a perfect “reason” to spend the weekend in New York City.

Backpacks worked for our overnight things. No suitcases, no wheels, and free hands. We left the car at Ramsey 17 and took the train in. I love trains, and I love traveling off-peak. With my Kindle, I just kick back and read for a longer period of time than I usually have. And no worry about parking! At Penn Station we hopped on the A train to Columbus Circle, a perfect starting point, and then a brisk walk to our hotel on 58th Street.

The Hudson is not your ordinary hotel. There is no marquee announcing its location. There is no address on the lime green, glass automatic doors, and within those doors there is no sign designating the escalator with its glass and lime green lighting as the trip up to the reservations desks in the main lobby.

Not like a hotel at all!

Reservation desk

We’re early, of course, because we have plans for the day. We check our backpacks and set off.

First stop is the Lubin House, Syracuse University’s townhouse on 61st Street. It’s a can’t-miss location. There aren’t too many buildings with big orange flags out front with a big Syracuse on it. Lubin House also has an art gallery open to the general public, and the exhibit there, in concert with the Dahesh Museum of Art, is worth a stop for anyone.

The exhibit, The Essential Line, is a study of the role of drawing in academic art in the 19th century. At that time, art students spent years studying drawing for it is “seven-eighths of what makes up painting.” The exhibit traces the development of a student of the time who first began copying paintings, graduated to sculpture, and finally was allowed to draw live models. The drawings display a heightened sense of observation, and in the exhibit, notes point out the exceptional growth in producing drawings that also expressed emotion and message. Drawings of horses or portraits of men keenly reflect an understanding of musculature and tension, for instance, and in the Palitz Gallery, we could take our time, observe, appreciate and learn. After the exhibit, and I recommend checking out this venue to see if there is an exhibit open to the public, we thought about our next destination.

We debated about heading over to the zoo on 63rd, but decided it was still a bit too windy, so we went off in search of a Starbucks, some warmth, and a chance to nibble on a protein bar. There we just relaxed and talked for almost an hour. Again, a mid-day rarity for us, and it was lovely.

Back to the hotel for check-in and some really big laughs. I was thankful I’d looked up reviews on the hotel prior to our trip because I would have been shocked! Reviews are sometimes ludicrous: too noisy (this in NYC, people), hard to find (that’s part of the charm), and tiny rooms. I was glad I read that because our room made a cruise stateroom into a suite!

8x8 for the sleeping area, and in that space was a queen bed,


a desk and chair, two night tables and two lamps,


These are the lamps, and they are part of the art of this room

two pull out tables, a sound system, drawers, two huge mirrors, a TV, and a wall tray for, I suppose, men to place their pocket contents. True, one had to walk sideways getting in and out of bed, and the wall mounted TV had to be flat against the mirror on which it was mounted to get through from that side, but all in all, it was really cute!!!!! No kidding. There was a tiny ice bucket.

ice bucket

I liked it a lot because it was so different and tiny. The view from our 19th floor took in the Hudson River even if you had to kneel on the bed to see out.

Let me say, everything was coordinated perfectly, and the lamps were lovely. As we entered from the hall, to the left was the doorway to the all white bath


with a window separating the teeny tiny tub from the sleeping area. Pull a shower curtain across or not—depends on the wish for privacy.


Good lighting in the bathroom and all the necessary accoutrements. Just cute!

To the right was an, I’ll say alcove, with a luggage rack, though I’m not sure how one would open a full size piece of luggage in the room, and a substantial number of hangers.

The place was adorable. The desk had pencils, a teeny tiny pad with graph paper inside—I guess to enlarge the teeny tiny writing you might do in this teeny tiny room. And full-size stationery and fax sheets.

pad & pencil

Out in the hall was the "canteen," an interesting bar with stools in front of a series of doors behind which were snack and drink machines.  First time we had something like this, but I could envision friends gathering here for a quick snack; after all, they surely could not gather in anyone's room.


We headed to the Library for a drink with smiles on our faces, and that’s when I came to become really fond of this hotel. There is a wonderful club atmosphere and plenty of places to meet people.

The Library is huge, and yes, there are actually books there; many are out of reach up by the ceiling and surrounded by an unwalkable catwalk, but on our level there are book racks displaying some intriguing volumes.


The art on the wall is comprised of a huge black and white Holstein cow in a variety of headgear. Funny and fun. The seating is nice; big cushy leather or recliners (although poor Rob found one where the back gave way until he fixed the arm) There are pool tables, chess boards and group seating. The bartender is fast and efficient, and we began our night of vodka. AND THIS IS WHY YOU DON’T NEED A BIG BEDROOM; YOU WANT TO BE HERE!

library bar

Between March and October, the hotel has a rooftop bar and a terrace garden which we could only see through the hugh glass French doors. What a great place to meet.   You might be wondering if I'd recommend the Hudson.  I would.  I wouldn't be surprised if we end up there again.  But remember what I said about the teeny tiny room; it's just as I describe it.  If you are in the least bit claustrophobic, this is not the place for you.

roof garden

We went back to our room and changed. We had dinner reservations at the Firebird, a great Restaurant Row classic known for its Russian food. The walk to the restaurant was casually pleasant. The Avenue is a mélange of ethnic restaurants, and frankly, I could have eaten my way down to Restaurant Row. We had planned to go sometime last spring, but we hit traffic coming into the city and had to cancel. This was our make-up day, and, as a friend said, you want that hearty Russian food in the winter.

With 160 or so vodkas on their list, Rob had done his research before hand, but on the advice of the bartender in the Library, he altered one of his selections. We had Ruskova and Chopin vodkas, and tasted each others. Delicious. We chose the $45.00 prix fixe dinner, and it was fantastic. As we both had the same thing, my report is limited, but I can say that the food was outstanding.

We began with salmon caviar blini (for an additional $5.00 per), Alaskan salmon caviar, buckwheat blini, and crème fraîche. Glorious. We continued with Beef Strogonoff, filet mignon tips, onions and mushrooms in a veal jus, fresh pasta, and for dessert with our coffee, Romanov, vanilla ice cream, strawberries served with a Grand Marnier reduction. Dinner was heavenly!

The restaurant was busy, and it was sometimes a big noisily energetic, but when a large party left, things quieted down, and we were left to enjoy our dinner. Service was friendly and excellent. Before we left, we went upstairs to the private room. I’d like to plan something there.

Later some more vodka at the hotel finished the evening.

Sunday, I slept a little later. Checkout is at noon, so Rob went down to Café Europa on the corner of 58th and brought back big hot cups of coffee to go with our protein bars.

At noon, we headed to Sapporo in the theater district for a wonderful ramen lunch. It was heartening to see that the restaurant was filled with entire Japanese families and a few single fathers with their young children. Once again we chose the same dish, Sapporo Special Ramen which is noodles in Miso flavored soup with sliced and minced pork, fishcake, mixed vegetables, corn, scallions and spinach. At $9.95, this is a delicious and incredible bargain of a meal. We also ordered one order of gyoza, Japanese panfried dumplings-pork and vegetable. Everything was superb. I also watched the experts and picked up a better way than slurping up the ramen!

A stop in Starbuck’s before the theater seemed the right thing to do. Now comes my big gaff, and one which could have ruined everything. We got to the theater about 2:30 thinking the doors would be open and we could read the Playbill before the 3:00 matinee. NO NO NO. This matinee was at 2:00! Incredibly, backpacks and all, they seated us! Row F Orchestra and not aisle seats. I don’t even want to think what the people we climbed over thought because I can only imagine what my thoughts would be if two backpacking latecomers barged in during the first act. We hurried and not a word was uttered. Thank goodness for us we knew the story and we caught up instantaneously. But if after all that, we had missed the show….

Anyhow, I loved the show and the dancing, and afterwards we walked back to Penn Station just in time for a train, and we were home before 8 PM. One of the best mini-vacations ever!

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Thursday, February 17, 2011


I leave Beit Alfa’s synagogue with such a good feeling, but this day in Israel continues to astound as we travel to Beit She’an National Park, a place often visited because of the 15 layers of civilization uncovered there. It’s so difficult for me to imagine conquerors incorporating what they find and continuing to build atop the previous civilization-- growing the earth up to a mound and then a hill for archeologists to dig down through that hill to that mound until they reach the flat earth again and an early civilization that lived the best it could on this spot.

Beit She'an

Beit She'an

The most important occupation archeologically because of the pieces of antiquity uncovered was the Egyptian, dating back to the 15th century BCE when Pharaoh Tutmose III made Beit She’an an Egyptian administrative center. It was occupied by the Egyptians for approximately three centuries, and then by Canaanites during whose occupation it was first mentioned in the Bible. Israel conquered it, and in a fight against the Philistines, the dead bodies of King Saul and his son, Jonathan, were hung from the walls and were memorialized in a psalm of David. Antiochus, of Chanukah fame, ruled here too. The Romans ruled as did the Byzantines, but throughout all of these occupations a small Jewish community remained. In 1322 this community produced the first Hebrew book on the geography of Israel.

As we walk on the streets that bore those people in ancient times, I mention to our guide, David, how astounding it is that Israel allows us to tread on the mosaic tiles of the streets and to touch the remaining objects of antiquity. He smiles and reminds me that these streets were built to be walked upon, and that they will be here far longer than any of us. Point well taken. How wonderful, though, to become a part of the history rather than gaze through glass panels in a museum.

Beit She'an

The first place we stop is the Roman bathhouse. Here the clay structures at the bottom were heated by a draft of hot air from an external furnace. Water then dripped down on the hot clay causing steam to rise—a steam room! You can see the seats the men sat upon while they enjoyed their "schwitz."

Beit She'an steam room

There were three rooms in the bathhouse. The Romans were extremely organized about the care of their bodies. They exercised regularly, and these rooms were often used afterward. The hottest room is called the caldarium. If one preferred a lukewarm bath or a place to go between the steam room and the caldarium, the place to go was the ornately decorated tepidarium where one might relax and enjoy a message. Prefer a cold bath? The place to visit was the frigidarium. After a hot bath or a tepid soak, one would go to the frigidarium where the cold water would close the pores of the skin. The frigidarium was usually a swimming area, but it may have also been used as a baptistery because of the decorative cross that still exists.

The bathhouse with its tiled floors, ornate decorations, and, frankly, un-ancient (no such term, I’m sure) perspective, was extraordinary. It must have been magnificent. I can imagine Romans after exercise, relaxing and enjoying this spa just as we do today in much simpler surroundings.

From the bathhouse we walk to the Cardo Maximus. This was the main boulevard in Roman cities running in a north-south direction. It is a wide avenue, like a wide highway, and in Beit She’an, the markets were set up along side the Cardo Maximus. The Cardo is a colonnaded street, and the columns are decorated with depictions of Dionysus and other gods.

Beit She'an

Beit She'an and David
Our Margaret Morse Tour guide, David, explains the sculptured figures and their significance

We can still see the mosaic tiles of the thoroughfare, and it does not take much for our imaginations to imagine the crowds here on market days, purchasing goods, and enjoying the liveliness of street musicians and other entertainers.

On to the Roman theater, built around 200 CE, which originally had three tiers and eight entrances. It seated approximately 7,000 patrons. It also housed a Roman Temple. Some speculate that the theater was also used for gladiator fights with animals because the seating is high enough above the floor of the theater to protect spectators. In any case, it is an extraordinary sight to behold.

Beit She'an

Beit She'an
As amazing as Beit She’an is, we are all anxious to move to our next stop—Jerusalem. Initially we are heading not to our hotel but to Mt. Scopus overlooking this most important of cities, and there we will have a Kiddush and say the Shehecheyanu before we enter the city. This is a special prayer for important moments in our lives. Entering Jerusalem, and for me it is the first time, is, indeed a special moment in my life.

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011


My brother-in-law, Giora, hails from Beit Hashita, a kibbutz in the eastern part of Israel's Jezreel Valley in the shadow of Mt. Gilboa. While our Margaret Morse Tour bus did not make this olive-producing kibbutz a stop on its way to Beit Alfa and its 6th century synagogue’s mosaic tile floor, when I saw the sign for Beit Hashita, I was thrilled. It is a shame we could not stop to visit. It all happened so fast, I didn’t even have time to take a photo. Still, this was a real connection for me.

Not that I was disappointed in Beit Alfa. Here was the site of a new kibbutz in 1928, and during the excavation, this magnificent preserved floor was unearthed. Virtually nothing else of the synagogue remains, but when I step back and think this artwork dates from the 6th century, I am floored (pun intended!) What we see here is a combination of religion, art, and history.

Beit Alfa synagogue

Considering the Jewish people do not use pictures in their houses of worship, this floor brings us to another time--somewhere in the evolution of the idea of a house of worship. There are depictions of the zodiac, of animals, of crops, and of religious objects like menorahs. All these objects are essential parts of the lives of the worshippers. The floor is ornate and richly decorated in colors.  We were able to see a short film suggesting how the artists might have been found and brought to this little town to create this great work.

In the days of the Temple, Jews went to Jerusalem three times a year to make sacrifices. It wasn’t until the destruction of the second Temple that synagogues developed ritual purposes. In the first century of development, people entered as if going to Jerusalem, and they would pray facing that direction. In the second and third centuries, interior and seat were developed with a permanent Ark. In the fourth century, under Byzantine control, Jews were forbidden to build beautiful synagogue buildings, so the beauty was developed in the interior of the building rather than the exterior. Knowing this, scholars have been able to reconstruct a model of what the Beit Alfa synagogue may have appeared as a product of the sixth century.

Beit Alfa synagogue

These time frames I write of are almost beyond comprehension.

The floor tells a story. The top and bottom panels are biblical stories, but the middle is the Zodiac because the people here were farmers and used the zodiac as the calendar for their toil.

Beit Alfa synagogue
I rotated the photo so you can better see the mosaic depicting the binding of Isaac

Beit Alfa synagogue
The sun is pulled by a star chariot and is surrounded by the signs of the zodiac

There is writing on the walls which tell the story depicted on the floor. The names of the artists are mentioned as well as the sum paid for their work. It is assumed that the mosaic artists came from Beit She’an in another part of the Jordan Valley during the reign of Emperor Justinius.

Beit Alfa synagogue

Beit Alfa synagogue

Beit Alfa synagogue

This was a simple stop; probably some might review it as “nothing much to see,” but this floor and a combination of one’s knowledge of history, a guide as phenomenal as our David, and a willing imagination makes this stop an important and memorable one.

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Tuesday, February 01, 2011


Everyone is excited about the last stop of the day on our Margaret Morse tour of Israel, Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee. This famous body of water is fed by the Jordan River, and our wonderful guide David keeps teasing us about crossing the Jordan. Surprise! At the point we cross, we see barely a trickle, unfortunately partially due to a long, hot, dry season. Nevertheless, it IS a thrill to cross over Jordan which feeds the Sea of Galilee.

Tiberias, founded in 18 CE by the son of Herod, is today’s city by the sea, but it was important in ancient times too as a place of hot springs and temperate climate. Roman soldiers came to relax in the hot springs.  Even then a little R&R was important. Today, too, it is enjoyed as a winter vacation spot with its spas. This city on the western shore is one of four Jewish holy cities. It is the scene of many episodes in the life of Jesus, and it is also near the site of Israel’s first kibbutz. The Druze have also found a home nearby.

In 1986, an ancient fishing vessel was found on the northwestern shore. That vessel has been studied and recreated and was once exhibited at the kibbutz. Our guide David tells us that replicas have been made, and visiting Christians who often come to be baptized here board these ships to pray on the waters. In ancient times, fishing was an important industry, and one fish, the musht, is commonly known as “St. Peter’s Fish.”

Once again we are astounded by the small size of this country. The far shore of the Sea of Galilee is the Golan Heights, now controlled by Israel but once in Syria’s hands. I cannot help but think “safety.” Every view of the Golan Heights is a reminder of the important role these mountains play.

Sea of Galilee  Boat
The Golan Heights are soooo close
With our full touring morning of the Hagoshrim kibbutz and the Golan Heights, we arrive in Tiberias at lunchtime, and Margaret Morse has a wonderful surprise. Our delight, fortunately or unfortunately, echoes a Jewish stereotype, but we don’t care. There’s real laughter. There on the waterfront overlooking the Sea of Galilee toward the Golan Heights is The Pagoda, a marvelous Chinese restaurant. We sit in an open air pavilion covered by a pagoda-inspired roof designed by a Chinese architect.

Pagoda Chinese restaurant in Tiberias

Pagoda Chinese restaurant in Tiberias

No hummus here but a scrumptious Chinese feast served family style to our many tables. Here is our menu:

Wonton soup, chicken, egg roll
Fried rice and vegetables
Beef and vegetables
Sweet & sour chicken
Pineapple & banana rolled in chocolate & sesame seeds
Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry not-ice cream.

What is amazing to most of us is that the non-dairy products here are incredibly delicious. Whatever that chocolate, vanilla... was, it thrilled. Whatever we’ve been putting in our coffee is delicious. Who knew?

Did we enjoy lunch? You betcha!

From The Pagoda we head to the water and our waiting tour boat and our cruise on the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is not what I picture a sea to be. It is long and narrow—13 miles long and 7 miles wide. It seems more like Greenwood Lake, NY or Lake George, NY. In fact, the sea’s modern name is Lake Kinneret. Our cruise is a pleasure cruise, a party cruise. Another “not in the brochure” plus. Margaret Morse Tours constantly surprises us. We have a dj, and the music is OUR MUSIC. It doesn’t take long before dancing feet are doing their thing. Well, honestly, a lot more women get up than men, but even Rob gets up to dance a few times with me.

Tour boat on the Sea of Galilee Tiberias

We also take the opportunity to take photographs as the sun is setting over this ancient city, and we pass public beaches and get a lovely overview of this place. We have to drive back to Hagoshrim and get ready for another day.

Tiberias at sunset

Tiberias at sunset

Tomorrow is always exciting.

Sea of Galilee at sunset

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