Thirty years ago I mounted a bicycle in London and took off for the English coast. Enjoying the ride so much I decided to continue, crossing the Channel, sailing through the length of France, crossing the Pyrenees( mistaking them for clouds upon first sight) in what felt like a snow storm and then riding along the spine of Spain. After reaching the Mediterranean I found some friends and together we travelled into Morocco whence we decided to bike the entire coast of North Africa. Two months later I arrived in Egypt alone and thought I would make an attempt to cross the Sinai Desert to reach Israel. Sixty miles from the Suez Canal I broke three spokes and almost abandoned the idea when no replacements could be found. But then a simple village repairman came up with a brilliant solution. Newly outfitted, I crossed the Sinai Desert on spokes cut from three coat hangers!! Along the way I was aided by Bedouins – they gave me shelter, water and food – sort of like that guy in The English Patient. After that I rode through the Gaza Strip and into Israel, arriving in Jerusalem in mid-winter.
I still have the bike and the wheel to prove it!
Many other bike adventures such as this followed in the 80s ( Munich to Warsaw; Seattle to San Francisco, riding the Aegean Coast)- but for many years thereafter I gave up the idea of bike touring. It just seemed too hard.
But last summer I saw the Ben Stiller version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty where Mr.Stiller takes a bicycle ride around parts of the Ring Road in Iceland. Not able to get that image out of my head, I committed to reinvigorate my cycling career and this month completed a ten day bike tour of Iceland. I had forgotten of course about intense saddle burn, fingers so numb that you are not sure they are still attached to your hands, 12% grade “hills” and 40 mph headwinds. But for all that, it was one of the most satisfying adventures I have undertaken in years.
I grew up in a fiercely Zionist home in Melbourne, Australia. At the elementary Jewish day school I attended, we sang both God Save the Queen AND the Hatikvah at Assembly each morning; Israel’s Independence Day was celebrated with far more gusto than Australia Day and we lived the events of the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War as if we were sitting on the front lines.
So you would think that when, 30 years ago, I reached Israel after a difficult four month bicycle journey across Europe and North Africa, I would be emotionally charged and full of anticipation. But that was not so. I had already visited Israel five years earlier, hitch hiking around the country as a nineteen-year-old and had had a pretty disappointing experience. I actually thought of Israel only as a pit stop, a chance to briefly regain some weight – (having lost 25 lbs,) restock and prepare for the onward trek to India.
Why India? Because I was desperately seeking life direction – spiritual, geographic and professional – and I thought I might find it among the ashrams and holy sites of the sub-continent. I mean, if it worked for the Beatles, why not for me?
Of course I had no idea what I wanted, but I certainly knew what I did NOT want – life as another Melbourne lawyer. Although I loved Melbourne and Australia (and still do) – and had enjoyed the study of law, I could not see my future in a Melbourne office. Something was pulling me onward – and that something seemed to be burning a hole right through the center of my soul.
Then,three weeks into my stay, I met a friend of my younger brother and he immediately recommended a program for others who were going through a similar transition. It was in a town (more of a village at the time) named Tzfat in the far north of the country. I remembered Tzfat from my earlier visit as one of the few places with which I had deeply connected. High in the mountains of the Galilee, my memory painted it swathed in fog and clouds, its cobblestone streets and ancient stone buildings peeking out from the mists like castles in a fairy tale.
The program’s name was Livnot u’lehibanot ( To Build and Be Built). It was three months long with the days divided into morning work details focused on rebuilding the ruins of the Old City and the afternoons committed to deep study of Jewish history, texts and philosophy. It was an opportunity to investigate the power and strength of Jewish identity. It seemed to fit just right.
Those three months were exhausting but extremely uplifting. I sweated through everything – the learning and the work and the kitchen duty and the hiking – emerging at the end of it strong,full of vigor and with my weight regained.
Then, on the last night of the program, its founder, Cleveland-born Aharon Botzer, who had arrived in Tzfat ten years earlier, buying a ruin in the Old City and rebuilding it with his own hands, asked me to join him on the roof of his home. From there we could look out at the Meron Mountain range, silhouetted by the corona of a dying sun which, in the fading light, seemed so close it was as if I could touch the hilltops with my fingers. The beacons of the towns of the Lower Galilee, sixty miles distant, lay blinking before us the warm May wind felt like the first brush of summer on my skin.
We stared in silence at this captivating scene and then he raised his hand and placed it on my shoulder :
” Look at this, Avi ” he said, sweeping his free arm across the horizon, ” Look hard……… this is your land.”
At that moment, all my breath seemed to escape my lungs. It was as if someone had parted a curtain and revealed a vivid panorama, bursting with color and humming with activity, the characters drawn in exquisite detail, depicting the life I could or would be living . It seemed as though, in his voice, I could hear the words of my own dead grandfather, who had arrived in Israel sixty years before me at exactly the same age. And beyond him generations of my ancestors, all beseeching me to look and listen.
” Yes,” I said to myself, tears beginning to well in my eyes, “I think I might have come home. ”
But my situation was now complicated. Although India was off the agenda, the shadow of America loomed. For you see on the program I had met a woman to whom I had become deeply attached and we wanted to be together. But she lived in Los Angeles and was still finishing College. I had already pledged to travel to the States, a country which I had never visited before and which I had actually sought to avoid, to see her.
I was deeply torn. I felt that if I left Israel now I might never return, trapped by the opportunities and a lifestyle that awaited me in the U.S.
Long discussions followed with Aharon and a number of my teachers. I took off for three days down the mountain to Wadi Amud -a deep valley below Tzfat where generations of mystics had periodically visited in times of sorrow or confusion – to camp, to meditate and to contemplate my future. I wrote long letters there to my family and my friends seeking advice. And for the first time in many years, I prayed.
But there was no answer. Finally, one of my teachers, recognizing my deep distress, recommended that I speak to a Tzfat mekubal – a spiritual adviser , a man who had powers of insight and understanding unlike others and who might offer me something I could not obtain from ordinary meditation or prayer.
Skeptical, but by this stage open to anything, I went to visit the mekubal in his modest home in the Old City. He listened patiently as I explained in English my dilemma. He said nothing, but went to his bookshelf to retrieve a volume with a weathered binding. He opened it before me and I noticed it was the Book of Isaiah. His index finger came to rest on a passage:
” Read it,” he said.” From here to here.”
In scratchy Hebrew, I did so and then looked up at him nervously:
” What does it mean?”
He looked into my eyes with an expression of deep tenderness, laid his hand upon mine and said:
” Go to America. But you will return to us.”
And that was all he said as he led me to the door and ushered me from his home.
I raced back to Livnot and ran immediately into the library, desperate to understand the Mekubal’s message. I found Isaiah with an English translation and I opened to the passage. And I gulped hard as I read these words:
” G’d will guide you always, sate your soul in times of drought and strengthen your bones and you will be like a well watered garden and a spring whose water never fails. Age-old ruins shall be rebuilt through you. You will erect generations-old foundations, and they will call you, repairer of the breach, restorer of the paths of habitation.”
It is a passage, I later discovered, read every year on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
Some of the extraordinary things I experienced in the years immediately following these events I will share in another post in a few weeks time when I return to Israel.
But for now, the last photo included here, will give you a hint of what was to come.
There is no way of telling the direction life will sometimes lead us. At the age of 25, in July, 1984, I landed in Los Angeles uncertain of my course in life, uncertain of my professional direction, uncertain of my source of income. But very certain of at least one thing: I had to get back to Israel. I had undergone a transformation during my months there and I was going to let nothing stop me from continuing my spiritual and geographical journey.
Over the next two years in Los Angeles, through sheer chance, I would find exciting work, develop important connections in the entertainment industry and discover a community of like minded young people who shared a passion for Jewish life and for Israel. Despite my furious denials, Los Angeles began to look like a very interesting and exciting place to be – full of unexpected surprises.
But niggling at me, a constant itch, was the urge to go back to Israel. I could not get the town of Tzfat – its florid sunsets, its weathered stone buildings and its stately, if tumbledown magnificence, out of my mind. A constant pounding in my conscience drummed out a steady tattoo – return, return, return.
However the drive to return weighed heavily on my relationship with my girlfriend Lisa and very soon my unhappiness with being anchored to L.A., weakened us. It was, after all, my dream to return, not hers. We parted at the end of 1985 and I was alone.
In the summer of 1986, after working and saving for two years, I had enough money for the trip and then some. After a brief visit to Jerusalem I took the first bus I could find to Tzfat and as it meandered through the green hills of the Galilee, the outlines of Tzfat finally came into view, strung like a necklace of pearls around the throat of its mountain. I then felt a knot of emotion rise within me and with my teeth clenched, pledged: “this is my home, this is where I belong, and now I am now going to make it permanent.”
I reunited with Aharon and his family and immediately told him that my ambition was to buy a ruin in the Old City and rebuild it much the way he had done. He was happy to help and said there are plenty of ruins, but not all of them could be purchased. He suggested that I go out to look.
As I walked the alley close to the Livnot campus I noticed a tall building set back from the street. I climbed a wall to see how to obtain access and saw a passageway which led from a doorway into a huge courtyard, surrounded by one very large and then several smaller buildings. I clambered down from the wall, returned to the alley and found the door, which was locked from the inside. Somehow I was able to maneuver the lock through a crack in the door jamb and found a way to push the heavy iron barrier open.
I passed through the short tunneled corridor and into the open air of the courtyard. Here was a scene of devastation. Garbage had piled up to seven feet from the floor of the courtyard making movement difficult. The main house was crumbling, covered in years of grime and dirt and thieves had pilfered stones from its facade. The smaller buildings, with their magnificent Ottoman domed roofs, looked as though they were about to collapse, their ceilings sagging. I shook my head at the terrible neglect into which this once obviously sumptuous home had fallen.
Leaving the courtyard, I climbed the stone steps which lead to the main house and noticed some inscriptions and carvings above the windows to which I paid little attention. The main house – really a few rooms of pitted stone walls presented three tall Turkish windows on its western facade and a low lying attic above, all of which provided an expansive view of the Meron Mountains to the West and then further south to the Lower Galilee.
As I stepped through the house I was visited by a deep sense of familiarity – the kind of feeling you get when you have touched or smelled something from your past, the texture rubbing off on your fingers and the aroma dancing in your nostrils, igniting a fire whose flame licks at your memory but whose source remains frustratingly elusive.
I went to the large Turkish windows and gazed upon a landscape of exquisite beauty, reaching 50 miles distant to Mt. Tabor – where Deborah’s troops had defeated the Canaanites during the time of the Judges and beyond that to Mt. Gilboa, where King Saul and his sons had fallen against the Philistines. I touched the stone walls and felt the throb of their history. I should not have been surprised. The house shared walls with two of the most famous synagogues in Israel: the Joseph Karo Synagogue – where the Jewish mystic had written most of his famous work on Jewish jurisprudence – as well as the Abuhav Synagogue, a resplendent Sephardi structure which had survived successive wars, conquests and earthquakes.
I knew then. This was it – this where I would stake my claim.
I returned that afternoon to visit Aharon and told him of my discovery.
He shook his head. ” Avi, you picked the one house that everyone in this city wants but nobody can get. It is owned by dozens of people and they live all over the world. Better look for some place else.”
His assessment was confirmed by some of the shop keepers I met on the street.
” Young man,” one old timer warned me, “don’t think you can just come here and take whatever you want. There are interests here you don’t want to tangle with. Save your money for something in America.”
Dejected, I walked back along the alley, now realizing how naive and silly my ambition really was. Who was I, an interloper, a mere traveler passing through, to be able to expect to purchase a property in such a revered and sacred place?
As I walked, I met a neighbor, a Canadian named Peter Kersen, for whom I had worked two years earlier when I had participated in the Livnot program. He greeted me warmly and invited me to join him for a cup of tea. We sat in his kitchen whose window looked directly out at the facade of the house, 200 feet away. He lit a cigarette and asked me why I looked so downcast. I explained my interest in the house and the seeming impossibility of acquiring it.
He blew smoke in the air, gazed at the facade and then back at me:
“Aren’t you that crazy kid who rode a bicycle across Africa?
” Yes,” I said,
” Seems that would’ve taken a lot of inner strength?”
” Well, sure, it wasn’t easy.”
He leaned back in his chair, looking beyond me. ” I suppose you know the old Zionist saying – ” if you will it, it is no dream?”
I nodded, recognizing from my youth the adage ascribed to Theodor Herzl, but dismissing it now as little more than a cliche.
“Will power, my friend, will power. Listen, do you think just anybody could come along here and buy a house like that on this street? ” He then leaned forward and looked at me intently:
” That house has been waiting 40 years for someone just like you to come along. Forty years! Look! ” he said, pointing firmly at the sad, broken facade, ” Can’t you SEE, its waiting,? Don’t be foolish, don’t be afraid. You can buy that house. ”
Sometimes simple words spoken emphatically in encouragement can sweep away doubts and uncertainties which might otherwise clog our determination. And so it was for me. Peter equipped me with everything I needed to pursue my strange idea.
I spent the next month researching the title of the house in order to discover some of its owners. Because the house was nearly 600- years- old, its title was vested in the old Ottoman land grant system of Tabu, a freehold – meaning you could own it free and clear of the government – but extraordinarily complex because when a man died and left no will, his property under Tabu passed to his next of kin and if they left no will, to their next of kin. With huge families in Tzfat this could result in a very broad pyramid of ownership with most heirs, now spread around the world, not even aware that they owned any property at all.
But my research finally brought me to a name, a woman in Migdal, a town several miles south of Tzfat. Through various contacts I was able to obtain her phone number and then to call her. When I told her what I wanted, the line went silent and I feared she had hung up.
Finally, she returned to the line, her voice now a little shaken.
” You are the first one in many years to contact me about that house. You should come to visit.”
I traveled by bus to Migdal and found the woman’s home . Her name was Rivka and in her late 50s. She spoke perfect English. She and her husband greeted me warmly and had even prepared a light meal for me.
As we sat and ate she asked me about my background and my life and I told her of my passion to rebuild a ruin in the Old City of Tzfat.
Then she said to me evenly, ” This house is quite ancient, but do you know, Mr. Davis, its more recent history?
“No,” I said, ” I do not.”
“Well, then, let me tell you. Forty years ago, a mother and her five-year- old daughter, together with several other relatives were returning to Tzfat in a taxi from a wedding in Akko. It was during the time of the Arab disturbances and the roads were very dangerous. Half way along the journey the taxi was stopped. A group of Arab gunmen in kaffirs approached the driver’s window and an argument began. The cab driver reached for a pistol but before he could raise it one of the Arabs fired his gun. The driver slumped forward. Then there was mayhem as the other Arabs, perhaps worried they could be identified as eye witnesses, proceeded to shoot into the cab, murdering the passengers. The mother was the last to be shot and as a final means of protecting her child, fell upon the girl, effectively hiding her from from the killers. Later, the rescuers found her, deep in shock and soaked in blood, beneath her mother’s body. She was the only one to survive.”
Rivka looked down at her plate and then up at me, a deep, mortal sadness in her eyes.
“Mr. Davis………. I am that girl.”
I held my breath in complete silence. I didn’t know what to say or where to look. The grief was still so strikingly etched on her face that no words of comfort would have been adequate.
” I am sorry,” I finally mumbled.
“Mr. Davis – Avi, if I may – that old house in Tzfat that my mother and father once occupied and in which they raised my seven brothers and sisters – we never went back. My father had no capacity to raise eight children on his own – he was overwhelmed and we were soon sent out to live with relatives all over the country. ”
” The family….?”
” The family was separated. We saw each other now and then but it was never the same. My father fell into a deep depression and died soon after, a broken man. The ruin you see is in truth the ruin of my own family. I waited years for someone to help repair what had been broken, but no one came. Now it is enough. You are young and I can see the fire in your eyes. And I like you – Avi, I like you. I will sell you my share in this house and I will help you with the others. ”
I was astonished and a little taken aback but I thanked her profusely as I prepared to leave.
At the door, she stopped me:
” Promise me, though,” she said holding my arm and trembling slightly, ” that you will repair this house and restore it the way it once was and fill it with laughter and love. This will be the greatest honor to the memory of my dear, beautiful mother who died so young and so senselessly. ”
” Repair,” ” restore” – those words again. Words lifted by the wind, carried across continents, swept along on the currents of oceans and breaking now like a wave on the cusp of my future.
” I promise I will,” I said as I hugged her, tears on both our cheeks.
Then I left, hoping, but not really sure, that I was equal to the task.
TO BE CONTINUED……….