Israel Chapt 1

Email to friends. 09/19/2008

Hi, everyone.
So, there it is: Israel, story and pictures. Hold your breath, this is a long email.
You can go directly to the pics if you want, although you might miss some explanations.
Here is how it started: after accepting the double position of Production designer and Art director for a new CG movie that will be produced between Tel-Aviv, LA and Vancouver BC, I had to jump on a plane and am in Israel for a couple of weeks. The producers will probably need me to go back a couple of times, but for now, I'm just getting a taste of what is there first.
I soon remembered that sharing a plane with crying babies is usually not a good start for a traveling experience. I was pretty tired when I got to Tel-Aviv.
The management crew set me up in a small apartment in the heart of the city. A very gypsy kind of feeling, lots of bars, markets and a mix of tourists and alternative lifestyle. The beach is about 10 minutes away walking, at the end of the street, so, that was my first destination. It feels a little bit like Santa Monica. Kind of.
The editor on our movie lives right next door. We got along very well right away.
A taxi picks us up every morning with a couple of other guys to take us to work in the north-eastern part of  Tel-Aviv. From our workplace, we can see about a mile away the city of Qalqilya, the spear head of the West bank on the other side of a massive concrete wall (see the pictures) that the Israelis built over the past 6 years to separate the west bank from Israel and keep the Palestinian suicide bombers from coming in. It is hard for a foreigner to understand exactly all the complexity of the Israeli/Palestinian situation.
But it is interesting to be there as an observer, to get the different points of views, and also try to understand the culture and mentality.
What I noticed right away is the way people are interacting with strangers like me, particularly in a work environment. It seems you are not measured first by how professional you are or the experience you have, but rather by how friendly you behave toward people you don't know and how you adapt to become "part of the family". In that regard, it seems pretty close to the behaviors you can find in the South of France, Italy, Spain and North Africa; in other words, the Mediterranean culture. Lots of passion, intensity and emotion, that can sometimes get in the way of organization or everyday planning.
To illustrate this, a simple story comes to my mind: 5 days ago, as the taxi was taking us to work, the driver and one of us got into a pretty agitated conversation about the Bible (a subject matter they loove to argue about). Of course, the conversation got quite inflamed and I just kept my position as a simple observer. As we were entering the freeway for a 45 minute ride in heavy traffic, a blinking noise from the dashboard stops cold the passionate exchange. Noticing the inquisitive "what's going on?" on our faces, the driver goes: "Ah, that's ok, no problem: the car is telling me I don't have gasoline any more. But don't worry: I think we will make it to work..."
Well, after a couple of other blazing arguments, I have to admit we actually did make it.
Overall, the work environment is very friendly, and people have been great hosts. Of course, you have to be careful with what you say and who you say it to.
The studio is very young and they have no experience in feature film whatsoever, so, it has been a little challenging to help without hurting feelings or stepping on anyone's toes. But clear hierarchy has eventually been established by the producers, and I don't need to worry about that anymore.
The realization of how passions are close to the skin here also helped me understanding at least part of the situation in Jerusalem that I visited 2 days ago. As much as I enjoyed the sight of the city, I have to say there was something awkward about being there, especially during the Ramadan, when Muslims were going to visit the mosque and Dome of the Rock, and all the streets around the area were closed and filled with police and military in heavy gear.
To replace things in context, the Dome of the Rock shelters the rock on which, according to Jews and Christians, Abraham brought his son to make a divine sacrifice, before the Almighty sent an angel and stopped him; and according to Muslims, it is simply the place from where Mohamed ascended into the Heavens.
Although the story of the violent interaction between Christian, Jew and Muslim extremists is of course way more complex than this, a symbolic core element of it lies right there, on that rock, between bomb threats, high barb wire fences and automatic weapons.
Entering the old city, you could feel the tension in the air, and the 3 distinct markets (Jew, Christian and Muslim) were regularly patrolled by the military.
At the end of the day, I left this city with only questions in mind:
Why is it that, out of all the cities on the planet, the one that should be the most peaceful, loving and tolerant one because it gathers the three major religions of the world, is actually one of the most violent ones?
Is it just me, or isn't it written in those sacred books -from all sides- the words Love, Tolerance, Sharing, Respect for Life?
Isn't the first of the 10 Commandments: "You shall not kill"?
Food for thoughts.
The other disapointment about Jerusalem was that none of the important locations related to Jesus Christ and his life had been left intact.
All of them without exception have been covered throughout history with buildings from Crusaders to Muslims alike, being destroyed and rebuilt over time.
So, it makes it a little difficult to recognize any site for sure.
Nonetheless, Jerusalem is still a beautiful city well worth seeing.
My next stop was the highlight of this leg of the trip: Masada.
For those of you who are not familiar with the story of Masada (or Massada), it was a fortress built by King Herod (the guy who -when his priests warned him of the birth of the Messiah- got all new born babies killed in Judea, to make sure the Messiah wouldn't be a threat. The interesting part here is that, even if you don't believe Jesus existed, the killing of these babies is actually a well documented event).
The fortress was built around Herod's palace, and the engineering in it was really remarkable.
But what made Masada famous long after Herod had left, was the story of the Jewish Zealots' Great Revolt in 73 AD, and how it ended. After all Zealot uprising in ancient Israel had been crushed by Romans, about 1000 men and women found refuge in the fortress. When the Romans came to take it, they had to hold siege for 3 years. Eventually, when all hope of escape was gone, the Zealots -rather than accepting to be captured and held into slavery- agreed to elect 10 of their men to kill each and everyone of them, until only one man remained and gave himself death. To make their point even clearer, they left their food and water provisions intact, showing the Roman army they still had more than enough to hold the siege for a long time.
After the Romans left, Masada was forgotten for 1200 years (during which time it was strongly damaged by an earthquake in 700 AD), until tribes started to use it as a refuge again. Eventually, in the 1950s, it became symbol of Jewish Heroism and an international effort was raised to restore it.
Beyond the very unique story of this site, what strikes you first when you approach Masada is its absolutely monumental size, that can be attributed, of course, mainly to the mountain setting. It feels like the fortress was raised directly out of the mountain. From Herod's palace to the elaborate systems of water citerns inside the flancs of the mountain, only being there in person can testify of the massive and mind boggling effort.
So powerful and inspiring. This is one place I will never forget.
On the way back to Tel-Aviv, I had a little time to kick back and relax in the Dead Sea. So, what you've heard is true: you float like a piece of foam on the surface, and  it is actually pretty hard to swim properly. But it's fun!
I am back to work for now.
Here's the link to the pictures:

Tomorrow, I'm going to Ceasarea, Haifa, and a couple of other places to check out Roman and Cruisaders ruins.
Should be cool.
Prepare for the second chapter.