[Tour of Israel Part 4] Masada Without Incident

Friday, June 9 / יום שישי, 15 סיון

After a restless sleep, I was awake at 06:45. Just like six years ago, I had a restless night prior to Masada, but this will NOT have the same aftermath — there will NOT be a SPLAT! I donned my Taglit shirt and some shorts, and had breakfast downstairs. I was not thrilled with the cheese that I tried, and given last night, played it a little conservatively with my food choices. A long day is ahead, and I wrote this paragraph when I was in the airport, at 23:40. In other words, GIDDYUP!

We left Jerusalem, and headed south on Highway 90. This included a stint through the West Bank, and we talked about security and the narratives. Specifically, bringing the Jewish Biblical claim to Judea and Samaria into the picture, and suggesting that our settlements are NOT illegal.

We passed by the statue of a wolf, which was the symbol of the tribe of Benjamin. I had forgotten this fact! We also slowed the bus down in order to snap photos of the Sea Level sign, as Gili also pointed out the +150 and -150 rocks before and after: respectively 150 meters above and below sea level. As we drove, the rolling desert hills on the right and the Dead Sea on the left created an interesting contrast.



Mountain springs provide some water to the Dead Sea, as well as mudslides from the winter rains. Ahead, קיבוץ קליה (Kibbutz Kalia) was a cultivator of plants, allowing for some greenery among the sands. More was mentioned, but I wasn’t fully attentive. These hills were also the site of where Bedouins uncovered the Dead Sea Scrolls, near קומרן (Qumran). Caves hold many secrets and treasures!


One of the signs which we passed was קידרון (Qidron), which is a river/valley connecting to the eponymous “Hell Valley” in Jerusalem. I noticed other brown signs with squiggles, but took them for granted. The status of Palestinian refugees was also brought up, including the fact that offspring of Palestinian refugees are still considered refugees, whereas refugees of any other country do not pass refugee status to their offspring. In Gili’s eyes, this is a way for the international community to demonize Israel. He then stowed the mic for a little while until we got closer to מצדה (Masada). The route also passed עין גדי (Ein Gedi).

Once we reached מצדה, we drove to the visitor center (which is on the east side of the mountain) and inside, there was a model of the fortress: after all, the word מצדה literally means fortress! It was sunny and HOT, so Gili recommended that we take at least 2 water bottles up to the top, with reassurance that there were a few water refill stations up there. After we filled our tanks and emptied our bladders, we all took the cable car to the top. It was just a little bit easier than hiking! (The Snake Path was closed due to the heat, and to get to the Roman Ramp would have involved more driving.)

The last stand of the Jewish resistance against the Romans in the first century took place here. Our tour was different from six years ago, which was a nice change of pace! We hid out under “umbrellas” and in some of the ruins to obtain shade. Under the “umbrella,” we learnt about Herod’s desire to build a “winter palace” here. The original fresco walls were still evident, though plaster was occasionally used for restorative purposes.


Exiting the palace, we went through a long corridor quickly, which was used as a storehouse (though there is no roof! Did there used to be in the storehouse?) These storehouses also held well-preserved foods, so there could have been a huge stockpile of rations during the siege of Masada. Our next source of shade was the bath house, which had obvious Roman influences. Near it, there was also a מקבה, to show a little bit of both cultures. The bath house was like a modern spa, but all bathers entered fully nude.


The story continued with the Roman army camps that besieged the mountain after 70 CE. We can still see the remains or outlines of the camps from the top of the mountain. Pushing on, we saw another מקבה while waiting for the water fountain and the bathrooms. We hid out in the shade provided by the rocks, and as we continued, I urged people to watch their steps just as they were beseeching me.

The siege pitted 967 Jews against 20,000 Romans, which likely would mean a swift end. The fort was hard to reach! The Romans built the siege ramp on the est side of the mountain. As the Jews realized the hopelessness of the situation, they decided to commit mass suicide at each other’s hands rather than being captured.


We passed the synagogue and then entered the second quarters for attack (the first one was being set up for a בר מצווה (bar mitzvah), where we learnt more about the lots and the systematic suicide. Thus Rome would not be able to take the final glory. When I was on מצדה six years ago, this was the end of the story. But, Gili said that there was more to it! This sounds interesting, so the story presses on.

One of the finds in the archaeological dig was a fragment of the Book of Ezekiel. The specific fragment was a telling one: the Prophecy of the Dry Bones! It was a metaphor for the later revival of the Jewish people, and the return to our homeland! This was a coda to the story that I did NOT expect, and it’s good to keep us guessing!

Though there was more that we could have seen atop the mountain, there’s too little time, and the heat was also somewhat sapping. We took the cable car back down the mountain, and ended up in the gift shop. I got a bottle of Dead Sea body lotion, intended for Casey, and then hydrated and peed. It took a while for זכריה to arrive, but he did, and we all boarded the bus to head to the Ein Gedi Spa, which led to the beach of the Dead Sea.

A fast drive found us at the resort. We all received coupons for lunch, and a towel. After changing in the locker room, we took a shuttle on a setup like at the old Nebraska State Fair to reach the shore of the Dead Sea. The sand was HOT, and I didn’t have water shoes (i.e. Crocs), since I didn’t pack them. To avoid the foot burn, I “sacrificed” my socks! Several years ago, the shuttle was not required, but the sea is sinking each year!

Off to the water! After hopping in the sand and stepping on the hot saltbar (like a sandbar but with salt, duh!) I reached the warm water, which cooled after a few steps as I got further from the shore. It was fun to go deeper, and indeed I floated on my back or by my torso! Liz was the photo taker, and the floating photos are still to appear. I also dug out a few salt crystals for Dina and me as souvenirs.

Wow, the showers to wash off the salt were hot! After enjoying the floating, I continued to the south part of the beach to mud up! We made funny faces and statue poses, and the mud evidently is a great skin exfoliant. Lots of photos followed, and we washed off before too long. The Feldmans and I waited at the shuttle cabana, and per the request of Ken, I flailed my towel wildly at them as the shuttle neared. It was held up by Gili, who wanted to make sure that all of us got on the shuttle!


Back to the spa. After re-clothing, we found the restaurant outside the main entrance and down a ramp. It was cafeteria style, and the food wasn’t exciting: chicken, Israeli salad, fries, and a pear. It is what it is, and there’s no grousing with a free lunch! Though it took a while to return to the bus, we were all on and moving back to Jerusalem at 15:15.

The recession of the Dead Sea is a snake eating its tail. The Sea of Galilee, Kibbutz Ein Gedi, and evaporation pools are all culprits for the receding waters. It is a complicated balance between the ecosystem, politics, and geography as to why the status quo of the shrinking Dead Sea is maintained. As we drove, I tried, but failed, to get רדיו לב המדינה (Radio Lev Hamedina) to come in on my phone. Some photos entered the phone as well, and it stayed alive until we got back to the hotel. The photos were nothing to write home about, in my opinion, though.

We had about an hour upon return to the דן פנורמה (Dan Panorama). I took a shower and equipped a white button-down and khaki pants. Ah, refreshed and restored! In the meantime, I made a small dent in the deficit of my journal. The time 17:50 came quickly, and we boarded the bus to go to נחלאות (Nach’la’ot) for our שבת davening.

At the bus stop, we ascended a hill and entered the Swidler (?) residence. There was a strong smell like cheese in the house, and the hosts were very hospitable. No food was served, however that didn’t affect anything. We had a קבלת שבת (Kabbalat Shabbat) service with a few bits of psalms and some ניגונים (niggunim / wordless melodies), but it definitely wasn’t the full service. I would have liked the full Carlebach service, but what we did had plenty of merit. The guitars were out, and there was a high Spirit-To-Words ratio. We then lit candles.

The head of the household talked about the idea of taking versus receiving. Each week, we can receive the שבת,  but cannot take it. Taking is obtaining without request; receiving is obtaining with request. I find this distinction fascinating! We had did a quick ערבית (evening service) which just had part of the שמע (Deut. 6:4-9), the עמידה (Amidah), and אדון עולם (Adon Olam). Short and sweet, but our שבת celebration is just getting started! We left the house and continued on foot.

I gave the greeting שבת שלום (Shabbat Shalom) to any stranger that we passed by, and some reciprocated! We heard the siren which indicates that there are 18 minutes before candle-lighting time. Our walk was very leisurely, as we had nearly an hour before we had to be at the house for dinner. Going up an alley, we found the synagogue קול זמרה (I think that’s what it was named), which doubled as a bomb shelter! On top of this synagogue was a garden where we sat and discussed what שבת means to each of us. It was different for everyone, but nevertheless that made it meaningful.

Our walk to dinner was tortuous, probably because we were ahead of schedule! We eventually reached the house of Michelle and Nati Cohen, just after 20:00. They were happy to see our group, as we entered the dining area consisting of three tables in a $\Pi$ shape. Outside of the house, an open-air porch contained a couch where one of the kids was resting. We started with the usual introductions, and then sang שלום עליכם, אשת חיל, וקידוש (Shalom Aleichem, Eishet Chayil, and Kiddush). There was a booklet for “Shabbat of a Lifetime” that we used.

Dinner was great! We started with homemade חלה (challah), as well as a manner of Build-Your-Own-Salad. Then came a fish course (i.e. salmon), and then came matzo ball soup. Later, both chicken and brisket made their ways to my plate and stomach. So much food! As I ate, I engaged in random conversations with people around me, including Nati and his son, regarding math. I enjoyed the time!

There were a few דרשות (mini-sermons), but the day blended together, especially since I took no notes during שבת itself. The ice breaking and conversation related to our favorite things about the Israel trip so far. The accounts started out pretty undetailed, but got longer as we went around the table. Some of us drew on past experiences to elucidate. My testimony talked about my experience in speaking Hebrew, and what it meant to me. All the professors stood up when speaking, and a few stories like Nanci’s brought the house down.

Well, then we had dessert too! The pareve chocolate cake was great, and then there was an earth-shaking bentching session. We did the full ברכת המזון (Grace after Meals), including a bunch of blessings preceding כל המסובין כאן (all who are seated here). Spirited singing is always a good thing, and afterwards, we helped clean up. It was nearly midnight when we finished!

Walking back, we took Agrippas Street. A few cars drove, and water ran from the shuttered market. Yes, everything was closed! Our walk took us past the 24/6 that I took a picture of six years ago. We stopped at King George V Street to allow some of the stragglers to catch up. Ari was hyper at this time, probably from being overtired. At King George V, a right turn eventually led to קרן היסוד, and we got back to the hotel at 24:30. Now toward sleep…



(Dirty?) Thirty: 9 days

Nebraska Regional: 43 days

Semester Kickoff: 74 days

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