Thursday, December 31, 2009

Once in a proverbial blue moon

Here in Israel we saw a partial lunar eclipse tonight!

Once in a blue moon, as the saying goes, there are two full moons in the same calendar month. That happens every two and a half years.
A blue moon on New Year's Eve is much rarer. It last happened in 1990.
But even more rare is the partial lunar eclipse that accompanies a blue moon, like tonight.

The moon was disappearing behind fast-blowing clouds. You had to be fast to snap a few shots.
It was a beautiful scene, a wondrous way to welcome a new civil year.
Happy new year to all the friends at SkyWatch and all the friends around the world.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Puffy pita

A good job to have in winter.

Hot pita falling from the conveyor belt at a bakery in Shuk Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem's huge open air market.

For a second the pitot are still puffed up with steam; then quickly they become flat and normal.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

X, O, and the K-word

The challenge of letter X comes around again today at ABC Wednesday meme.

Tic-tac-toe is not the only fun way to use X and O.

Remember the era when we still wrote letters on stationery--and signed them with XOXO under our signature?
OK, it's easy to imagine hugging arms looking like the O. That is a recent North American addition to XOXO.
But how did X come to stand for "kiss"?
Apparently this custom started in the early Christian era. To sign with "X" gave a document the validity of a sworn oath. The X was the first Greek letter of the Greek name Xristos (Jesus) and the X cross mark symbolized the cross.
Many people were illiterate until even as recently as 150 years ago. So signing X took the place of a full signature. To show the importance of the mark, people would kiss it, just like they reverently put their lips to a Bible or crucifix.
This practice led to the idea of X representing a kiss.
To Jews, however, X was an evil sign (as Leo Rosten recounts in The Joys of Yiddish) which represented the horrors of crucifixion [Jesus was not the only Jew crucified by the Romans, remember] as well as being the symbol of their Christian oppressors.
So when waves of Jews, many of them illiterate or writing only non-Latin alphabets, entered Ellis Island in New York, they refused to sign the immigration forms with the customary X.
Instead they drew a circle.
The Yiddish word for "circle" is kikel (pronounced ky-kel).
The American immigration inspectors started calling anyone who signed with an O a "kikel." Soon this was shortened to "kike."
Jewish-American merchants continued to sign with O instead of X for several decades, spreading the nickname kike wherever they went as a natural result.
At that time it was not a bad word. Only later did it develop into a racial slur.
Apropos, you might also enjoy (?) my previous X-letter post; it's about xenophobia. :-)

Monday, December 28, 2009


Don't worry, this is NOT Jerusalem.
(Click on the first photo to see what I mean.)
In TEL AVIV today it must have been 25 C / 77 F.
Hot and dry.
Winter is supposed to be rainy and cold, even in Tel Aviv.

If the "sun-worshipper" on the picnic table turned his head to the right (toward the Mediterranean), he saw the three Azrieli Towers.

To his left, these towering buildings.

Me? I could hardly wait to get back on the bus and get home to my beloved Jerusalem and the crisp fresh air of the Mountains of Judea (aka Jerusalem Hills).
It's a whole different world.
At That's My World Tuesday you can have a free trip in big and little cities all around the globe.
Support the blogger-tour guides with a visit.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


For Italians it's just not Christmas if you don't have a Pandoro.
Or so I learned as I ate my very first Pandoro last night.
It looks like a craggy mountain snow-capped with powdered sugar.
The cake is almost a foot high!
Blogger friends in Italy--can you tell us more about this tradition?

At my nun friends' dinner table sat nine people from seven different countries. Hermits, sisters, Jews, and one or two regular people. :-)
We had a fine time and ate and talked long into the night.
I went home with a doggie bag containing a big slice of the cake.

St. Stephen's Day and church

On the day after happy Christmas comes the sad story of Saint Stephen's Day.
Stephen was stoned to death in the year 34 or 35, probably just outside the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.

The Dominicans purchased the land in 1884, did excavations, and then built the new basilica of St. Stephen, Protomartyr.
In French its name is Saint Etienne.

I read here that "The original church was built by the Empress Eudocia at the end of the fifth century to house the relics of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the adjoining monastery complex was so large that by the beginning of the sixth century it housed close to 10,000 monks."
Well, there are Dominican monks there at the Priory today, but not ten thousand!

On an ancient column the freres inscribed the Roman numerals for 460, the year of the original Byzantine church over which the modern one was built and re-dedicated in 1900 (MCM).

Also home to the famed Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise, this is a beautiful and quiet place of prayer and of study.
(See an earlier post about their First Temple period burial complexes. )
UPDATE: I woke up this morning worrying. -- Surely there could not have been 10,000 monks living here, as in my quotation!
So further research revealed this:
"The walled monastic compound was the largest of all church structures in or around Jerusalem for over a century, larger even than the precincts of the Golgotha complex. Evagrius described the site as "a vast temenos [sacred enclosure], remarkable for its proportions and for its beauty." Cyril of Scythopolis referred to the compound as a "diocese" due to its size, and wrote that the grounds were large enough to house the 10,000 who gathered for a monastic revolt in 516 to protest the Emperor's opposition to the Council of Chalcedon."
This is from a remarkable project called
Another source explains that "10,000 seems to be a literary exaggeration. Based on the archaeological record, the entire population of monks in the Judean desert was estimated to be 3,000. . . . Many medieval pilgrims, impressed by the numerous caverns in the Kidron cliffs, claimed that the number of monks in the past was 10,000. . . ."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Reflecting on Christmas

Some Christmas reflections for James' "Weekend Reflections" meme

In my search for signs of Christmas in Jerusalem's Old City, I was lucky to find Santa, two trees, AND a reflection at one restaurant in the Christian Quarter.

The man, table, and interesting fake tree you saw in the glass door were actually across the street.

This truck of the Jerusalem Municipality came loaded with freshly-cut tree crowns.
(Remember the post on the distribution of free Christmas trees?)
In the front of the rearview mirror you see the Old City through the Jaffa Gate opening.
And here is the other direction: the other half of Jaffa Gate, which continues on as the City Wall that encircles the Old City.
See the happy people standing with their new trees?
Christmas blessings to you from the Holy City.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Pope is saved

Where are the Swiss Guard boys when you need them?!

(Photo by Pete Souza, July 10, 2009)
Some 15,000 visitors came to Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem last night and all went peacefully, thank God.
But not so at the Vatican!

(My photo from the Papal Mass in Jerusalem, May 2009)
At about 10 p.m. Rome time, as the procession of clergy was entering St. Peter's Basilica, an "unstable" woman jumped the barricade and rushed toward Pope Benedict.
Before being swarmed by plainclothes bodyguards (not the Swiss Guard), the Jerusalem Post says "She grabbed the pope's vestments as she was taken down, with Benedict seemingly falling on top of her."
Cardinal Roger Etchegaraywas also knocked down in the commotion and was taken to hospital with a broken leg.
Strange. As the live transmission of the Midnight Mass began, I remember praying over my computer, "Please Pope Baruch, don't fall. Don't let anyone attack you. Be safe!"
(It is the old Jewish Mother syndrome. We worry.)
Suddenly the Vaticano CTV webcast went blank and my heart skipped a beat.
But it soon resumed, showing the Pope already at the altar. I wondered why he looked sad. Sad on Christmas Eve?
Only two hours later, when the nice Mass was ended, did I hear about the incident on Israel radio news.
The woman in the red hooded sweatshirt can be seen as she was caught on this video.
Good for you, Your Holiness, for picking yourself up and continuing to lead your people in the praise of God. Sei gesund und stark, Pope Baruch.
Merry Christmas to you and all.
UPDATE: CNS (Catholic News Service blog) just published more details, including this shocking item:
"Vatican sources confirmed that the woman was the same person who attempted to rush the pope at Midnight Mass last year, but was tackled by guards before she could reach the pontiff."
CNS also posts a good amateur video of the woman filmed from right behind her.
You think she will try again next year?? Oi veh!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas greetings from the Holy Land


Sometimes I forget that Bethlehem is but six miles away as the crow flies, or tonight, as the "angels" fly, perhaps.
Bethlehem seems like a whole different world, far away . . . .
But may your world tonight be full of wonder and tidings of good cheer.
To Christians near and far -- a holy and peaceful Christmas Eve!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Santa Claus at the Jaffa Gate!

Early this morning I went to the Old City on a blogging mission: to cover the annual Christmas tree distribution to the Christian residents of Jerusalem.
And boy, did I luck out!!

Santa Claus himself was at the Jaffa Gate, ho-ho-hoing!

You remember from last Sunday's post. Jaffa Gate, built in 1538 by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It is the main entrance through the Old City wall.

But to see the plaza outside the gate full of Christmas trees was a first for me!
Look, even a white dove of peace flying above!

Apparently the Christians residing in Jerusalem (e.g. U.N. personnel, diplomatic corps, clergy, foreign correspondents, etc.) were supposed to show their ID card or passport to get a free tree.
A few did.

Santa passed out a few trees to those good folk.

But mostly it looked like a free-for-all with people grabbing trees each time another pickup truck of the Jerusalem Municipality drove up.
One hundred trees were supposed to be distributed between 9:00 and noon, but by ten o'clock they ran out of trees.
City Hall footed the bill, paying 70 shekels per tree to the Keren Kayemet/Jewish National Fund, which provided the trees.

Santa did a lot of posing with trees and with people as the cameras rolled and clicked.
He spread Christmas cheer and wishes for peace in flawless English.

See the strange "trunk"?
 That is because these are actually crowns from trees that needed thinning out at their top.
I read that some were Atlantic cypress, some pines.
More info at the KKL JNF website.
They all smelled so good.

People took their trees home however they could.
This woman just shouldered her tree and started walking.

Some piled them on the 3-wheeled pushcarts that porters use to transport goods along the narrow lanes of the Old City.
For these very religious Jewish boys, this was the closest they ever were to anything related to goyishe Christmas. They seemed in shock that this was happening.
I think in response to ultra-Orthodox grumbling, the Jerusalem Municipality told the Jerusalem Post:
"Just like the municipality pays for hundreds of menoras to go up all over the city during Hanukka, and just like we assist with preparations for Ramadan, we also distribute Christmas trees. There are people of faith from the world's three major religions living in the city, and we respect them all and want them to enjoy their respective holidays."

In the interviews Santa seemed exceptionally articulate and diplomatic.
I heard him speaking Arabic when he was not on camera.

He was a jolly good fellow.
Oh, and his name, Issa Anis Kassissieh.   Issa, is Arabic for Jesus.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

W is for WORM farm

ABC Wednesday's letter is W and what could be better than WORMS for today's post!

Actually my daughter is the one who took these photos and posted the information on her family's blog. I'm just borrowing it.
They live in Sydney, Australia.
It makes me so happy that their local council is setting up a 1-year program to see what it's like for families to do their own composting.
I wish our regional council in the Jerusalem Hills would do something good like that.

Naomi's family was selected for the worm farm program.
Several days ago they received the worms and the equipment.
My grandson Dean was enthusiastic about breaking up the coconut "brick" in a bucket of water.
That was the worms' food for the first few days, and now they have advanced to a diet of fruit and vegetable scraps from Naomi and Guy's kitchen.

Eyal chose to watch while his big brother and mother got their hands right in there and set up stacking plastic bins that will house the worms.
As I understand it, the "worm juice" (worm pee) improves the soil in the worm farm and turns it into good fertilizer that can then be added to the plants in the yard.
Have fun, kids! Good onya!

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Christmas tree that came out on top

The best--and almost only--place in Jerusalem to find Christmas decorations is inside the walled Old City.
Yesterday, for That's My World Tuesday, I walked all around the Christian Quarter in search of the red and green.

The inflated Santa Claus waved me into the arcade of the old Imperial Hotel.
I found it hilarious that a Christmas tree was standing atop the little-known column!

If you click to enlarge the photo you can see the inscription:

The Latin is a votive inscription to Marcus Maximus, a legate of the Tenth Legion, Fretensis.

Walk inside the gate under the sign "Hotel Imperial" to find the Santa.
The hotel is just inside the Jaffa Gate that we talked about in yesterday's post.
When foundations for the hotel were being dug in 1884-89 the column shaft was found, along with roof tiles stamped LEG X FR. The kiln where the Roman Xth Legion Frentensis soldiers made the ceramics can be seen in earlier posts, here and here.
We here in Israel remember this unit as the one which conquered the city and destroyed the Second Temple. They were garrisoned in the city until the late 3rd century.
I really wonder how the pagan conqueror Marcus Maximus would feel if he could see the Christian Christmas tree standing on top of his column which is now in the capital of a sovereign Jewish state.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More "improvements"

Like it's not enough that the Jerusalem Municipality has been tearing up our streets for years to build tracks for the light rail. Now they are tearing up Omar Ibn Khatib Square too!

This is what I found at noon today just inside the Jaffa Gate.
Jaffa Gate is, or was, a main entrance into the Old City for vehicles and people.

When I left the Old City at 4:00, the paving stones were already wrapped and strapped on pallets and being loaded onto a truck.

There goes the truck out of Jaffa Gate.
They plan to improve the square's infrastructure, add street furniture, etc., working 24 hours a day for the next 18 months. The Municipality's flyer on the project is here if you want details.
Hmm, maybe I should apply for work at the preliminary archaeological dig that will surely start soon . . . .

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Chanuka menorah with mouse

I never expected the flames of the Chanuka candles to be reflected in the wood of my old table. But it happened, and just in time for James' "Weedend Reflections" meme.

Even the mouse got into the light show, going from blue to green and red.

Today is the 8th (last) day of Chanuka.
Yesterday afternoon, just before sunset (the beginning of the Sabbath), the chanukiya full of candles was lit for the last time until next December.
To "publicize the miracle" the Chanuka lamp is placed in a window.
The ancient terrace wall seen from my back window is necessary because our village is built on the slopes (and the top) of a little mountain. I like to look at the stone wall and reflect on its history.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Bench form Chanuka lamp

Happy last day of Chanuka.
This unusual chanukiya in Hechal Shlomo museum shouted to me: "Take my picture for RuneE's 'Bench on Friday' meme!"

Apparently BENCH form Chanuka lamps have been made since the Middle Ages, in Europe and other places.
Not on the one shown above, but on some, the bench form provided a place for the Chanuka lights on the “seat” level, while the “arms” supported two candle-holders. One could be used as the shamash (servant), while both together functioned as candle-holders for the one or sometimes two Sabbaths of Chanuka week.
Sorry, but I don't have the provenance of this particular chanukiya.
Shabbat shalom & chag sameach.

The archetype SHADOW

A shadow attempts to kindle a shadow candle.

Then comes lightbearer in the shadowlands . . . and there is light.
Happy 7th day of Chanuka.
UPDATE: Toby alerted me to a meme called Shadow Shot Sunday down in Australia at "Hey Harriet" blog. Let's try it!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Disappearing in dust

Today was a blustery chilly day.
So much dirt was flying in the air, I had to squint to protect my eyes.

This was the "view," or lack of it, from our hillside in mid-afternoon.
As if part of the Jerusalem Hills had disappeared.

On a normal day in this season the view should be like this (shot from the same place). We can see down toward the valley and across to the next hill.
Check out some clear blue skies over at the nice weekly meme, SkyWatch Friday.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Floating in oil

Yet another batch of soofganiot frying in hot oil!
What would Chanuka be without them?
Today I caught sight of these jelly-donuts-in-progress as I walked down Jaffa Road, near the shuk/souk/market.
The smell of calories attracted my attention.

(Enlarge the photo to see the finished product on the left.)

Soofgania comes from the Hebrew word that means sponge, sfog, which comes from a similar Ancient Greek word.
And indeed this dough absorbs hot oil like a sponge, as do latkes (grated potato pancakes), that other traditional Chanuka treat.

The holiday was instituted not to celebrate the 165 BCE military victory of the Jews over the Seleucid Greeks (who defiled the Temple with pagan worship), but rather to celebrate the miracle of the olive OIL.
When the victorious Jews came to rededicate the Temple, they found only one small vial of still-pure oil (i.e. with the seal of the high priest intact). They needed to rekindle the menorah and keep it burning throughout the night every night; but to press, prepare, and consecrate a fresh supply of oil would have taken eight days.
The Talmud (in tractate Shabbat) says:
"What is Hanukah? The rabbis taught: . . . The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and acknowledgment (of God's wonders) were to be recited."
So that's why our "days of good cheer" are now filled with oily tasty soofganiot.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Various vending machines in Israel

V-Day at ABC Wednesday.

A vending machine for fresh flowers?!
Ben-Gurion International Airport has one in the arrivals hall. Honest!
Written above in Hebrew letters is "La bouquet."
Enlarge the photo to see prices in shekels.

Select the number of the bouquet you want, swipe your credit card, and the appropriate door will open.

A vending machine for holy books?!
I saw it with my own eyes at Jerusalem's big Central Bus Station.
Before you board your inter-city bus you can quickly equip yourself with a prayerbook or a part of the Talmud to study or pray from on the way.
And each book costs only 10 or 15 shekels, a fraction of the price of a bunch of flowers.
I learned about the organization dispensing the books in a Jerusalem Post article. Here is part of what it says:
"The vending machine is there because of Meoros HaDaf HaYomi, an organization dedicated to spreading the study of Judaism in general and Gemara in particular. HaDaf HaYomi has more than 500 classes around the country and publishes books, videos and audio clips on the Internet. . . .
Daf yomi means 'a page a day,' and refers to the practice of studying the entire 2,711-page Babylonian Talmud, one folio (double-sided page) at a time, in a cycle of seven and a half years, followed by many Jews around the world. Part of Meoros HaDaf HaYomi's mission is to involve more people in this enterprise."
Judaic studies and siddurim from a vending machine. . . . It makes me remember, with a smile, something from a college literature class: deus ex machina, literally, "God from the machine."