Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ashkelon - Ancestors and ancient history.

There is always so much more that we don't know, than what we think we know, and even more than we actually know.  This is a story about my own unknown past, and a past that we will never truly understand.

My dear Mom, what a wonderful person, and what a wonderful mom.  She always gives, and I will never be able to give back as much as I'd like to, and not just cause she gave me life.  She gives me so much more.  Well we all lost some family last year.  My Grandparents Anne and Moshe Shapiro passed within 41 days of each other in the sad and beautiful way people who love each other go.  I miss them often, and know they are at peace and that their love blesses us all who know it.  With their passing last year I realized what a profoundly lucky guy I am in having my parents so strong and near.  Seeing both of my parents lose their parents made me realize how hard it will be for me to say goodbye to them when that time comes.  It is a marker of life, and a transition that changes a person's position and role whether they are ready or not.

I didn't know enough about my Grandparents, and I won't be able to ask them any more.  However, I am lucky enough to have parents and aunts and uncles who I can ask as many questions to as they will put up with.  And I am glad I can because the story of my family is as interesting as any story I have ever heard, and is uniquely mine!  Before my Grandpa followed my Grandma to the ever after, he moved to Portland for a few weeks.  I got to see him often in those weeks and asked him all about his parents, and his past.  And amazingly enough, much of his life took place here, in Israel.

Moshe was born in the USA, as was his sister Ruth.  Their parents however were born in the 'old world' of the diaspora, and moved to The States where they met as so many hopeful immagrants have over the last few centuries.  My Great Grandfather was from Odessa, Ukrain, and my Great Grandmother was from Prussia (the area of modern Germany that was once part of Poland, and before that, a contested region as there has ever been).  They met in the states, married, had two kids and moved to Palestine.

Palestine - that is a name that harbors as many misconceptions and historical myth as any in history, but put simply, it is this area, Israel, between times when it was known as Israel.  Now the name Palestine is confusing because it was created by people who didn't live here (maybe) or by a historical reference that is not really pronounceable, or a few other myths, legends, invaders, pilgrims, etc...  Confusing, yes, a name, definitely, and an idea then as now, without doubt.  My Great Grandparents moved here to do what so many have done over the ages; to create a land in the form of an idea.

They came here with their kids to help tame the land.  Back in the early parts of the 20th century Palestine was a swampy mess.  It had been a war torn land for so long, that the spirograph of civilization's history here is too confusing to comprehend.  So let me over simplify by saying there have been many amazing civilizations here, and as many destructions and genocides to match.  But 80 or so years ago, you could make a life here, and take part in the hope of creating a new land to match the dream of what Israel is in the hearts of her people.

Three years ago my Mom and her brothers' Joel and Mark all traveled to Israel with my Grandpa Moshe.  It was a trip through the family history for all of them, Moshe the most, but also for the siblings.  In fact the whole of my Mom's brothers and sisters, lived in Israel when they were kids with my Grandparents.  So in 2008 (?) the four of them came back to traverse this memory and discover the places they had connections to as a way of discovering themselves.  They lived in Haifa that year, but it was not the first time my Grandpa lived there, but that story comes later.

My Grandpa lived in Jerusalem when he was young - literally 1 block from where I am sitting, and living right now.  I kid you not.  I just turned my head and looked out the window as I type and I can see the third floor apartment where he and Ruth, and their parents lived decades ago.... (chills).  But they made their home in another city, called Ashkelon, and that is where this story takes us now.

My Mom has been carrying the burden of her parents passing heavily these past few months, and I know she has been seeking ways to help make this difficult transition.  One way to find peace for her, and for my Grandparents was our mission this day - to go to Ashkelon and see my Great Grandparent's graves, the house they built, and maybe get a taste of the life they lived here years ago.

So Mom, Rick, Rayna and I got in the rental car and headed West, down out of the mountains, out towards Tel Aviv and the sea, and then South, to a point that is just North of Gaza strip, to an ancient and modern city called Ashkelon.

As we came in towards the city we diverted to the North, not taking the standard route towards the city center.  We curled around and came in above the city on a long curving road with big meadows on each side.  In the distance on our left sat a copse of trees, and it was there, in a small cemetery our goal lay.  It was harder to get there than to see it but eventually we made it on a dirt road with no signs.  I didn't feel like I was trespassing on this unmarked sea of wheat to this island of trees rising above, but I also didn't feel like I belonged there.  That all changed over the course of the next hour.

I parked the car in the only place I could, just off the road, and as the engine died the peace of this place flowed over us all.  It was quiet in a windy way.  The waving of the grass, the wind in the branches, and an endless time of sun worn stone, graves covered in the dust of Israel, the grit of a dry land, the accumulated leaves and petals of the old, gnarled vegetation.  Time here was thick upon the air, and sweet.  Honey colored sun, warm eternal winds across our faces, and far away the city across the fields all around.

Mom knew where to find my Great Grandparents.  Their graves tucked away and in with the others, surrounded by wild growing plants in the tan dry earth.  Simple and stone.  Israeli graves are marked by stone rectangles that look like tombs above ground with angled horizontal headstones marking the lives of the deceased.

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It took me some time to feel my place here.

Eventually I began to feel my connection.  My family, lives that I'll  never know, but that created the history of which I am a part.  Who were these people?  I never met them, I'll never know them... but slowly I began to feel, this is my history, these are my ancestors, this is my land.  These are my graves.

My Mom knelt down, a hand on each grave laying side by side in timeless rest.  She laid a part of her peace to rest, and spread the peace to my Grandparents so that they may all lie together in peace.  Parents, children, grand children, and me.. great grandchildren.. and that day, Rayna and I together the loose ends of history waving in the wind of chance, to be tied together, to run our course, but now another link back illuminated i my living memory.  I may never know them but I know now a new part of myself.
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We took our time and when we were all ready, we drove on into the modern city of Ashkelon.  We stopped by the house my Great Grandparent's built.  It is a charming area like Alameda in the Bay Area where Rick's Parent's live.  Residential and sweet.  Small curving streets, parks nearby and the smell of the sea.  From there we decided to explore the history of this place farther back.... waaaaaaay back into the times of ancient history where stood the Ancient city of Ashkelon.

The ancient city was walled by a giant triangular wall (imagine a wall that is much larger at the base, so wide in fact it looks like a triangle in section) that arced around the city, ending at the sea enclosing a port.  The walls have spanned eons and at different times had additional walls on top, but all of these have fallen over the ages and mostly only the ancient fortifications remain.  Included in this wall, and marking the entry to the park contained within, one passes through the OLDEST ARCH IN THE WORLD

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or perhaps the oldest arched city gate in the world.  It is unclear, but what is clear is that you walk through this ancient city gate, which is a badass arch that still stands to this day.  It is OLD and made of mud bricks.  Ashkelon is so old it is the oldest port city in Israel, it is where the term "shekel" comes from (a unit of weight that is now the monetary denomination in Israel) and is where Scallions are from!  Who knew this rather unfamiliar place is so important in history and in our modern vocabulary!  We also found some flowers.

Finding grace in Ashkelon

Beauty in beauty Life never knew such yellow What a wonderful moment

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So we explored.  It is a large area, 150 acres, enclosed by these giant walls, and within are ruins of this once thriving metropolis.  All over there are ancient columns being used as parking lot barriers, tie-beams for newer walls, and as junk just laying on the ground and on the beach!!!! It's CRAZY!  Here are huge marble columns from antiquity just laying about... if I can figure how to get one off the beach and onto a boat you'll see it eventually in my house.

So we came home after an amazing day and at hummus basar.  Basically bowls of hummus with things like seasoned ground meat, or caramalized onions in the middle on top of the hummus.  It is GOOD.

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