Israel: Visiting Graves, and Digging Your Own

This is Israel: Yesterday I was on a “nature trail,” which, without doubt, is an Israeli euphemism for X-treme Sports. In Philadelphia, there was a nature trail that swept around a few meadows and groves of trees and dovetailed into a new housing development that had chopped away the rest of the forest. Here in the Golan, the phrase “nature trail” indicates a trail of barely-there rocks, the plurality of which are equal to or smaller than the width of your foot, jutting out of a cliff.

About an hour and a half in, without warning (and, certainly, without any semblance of sanity) the narrow trail of rocks which we’ve been precariously balancing ourselves upon gives out, replaced by a handful of metal rungs plopped into the side of the rock bed. Horizontal surfaces as we know them cease to exist, and there’s a 20-foot drop into a steam that’s 25 feet deep.

It’s extreme, alright. But it’s also that particularly Israeli brand of springing total insanity upon you without warning, a reminder that for every anxiety-filled border crossing there’s a mountain with a view that will knock the fear of God into you, and for every bomb around the corner, there’s also a tiny 3000-year-old synagogue with immaculate stone buttresses around the next corner.

This afternoon we visited Tsfat. It was supposed to be a 30-minute drive, but we kept passing graves. There’s a weird code to Israeli gravesites: many tzaddikim, or righteous people, are buried outside of cemeteries—in their own mini-graveyards, or in the middle of nature trails, or just on the side of the road. (One hopes that those ever-lovin’ nature trails were not the cause of most of these tzaddikim being buried there, but since the stories about tzaddikim always seem to involve granting miracles, impossible journeys, and staring death right in the face, you have to allow for the possibility that, sometimes, death will not just stare idly back at them.) Some of the graves have domes over them, which indicates their more-exalted-than-normal status. Others, for a similar reason, are painted a turquoise shade of sea blue. I don’t know if either or both of those things intimate something specific, or whether there’s a general hierarchy, but these are the things I’ve learned here in a very short time.

Posted on April 14, 2009

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