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Postcard from Jerusalem 

An emotional experience

For the Law will come forth from Zion,

And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

After a lifetime of reciting the traditional watchwords of the Jewish people, Next year in Jerusalem, I have finally arrived. This year. My wife Sue and I flew from New York to Tel Aviv last Tuesday, joined up with our tour group in Haifa, explored the north of Israel for two days from the Lebanese border to the Golan Heights and circled down to Jerusalem -- after a sunset boat ride and a twilight dinner on the Sea of Galilee -- late last Thursday evening.

From the second we touched down at ultramodern Ben Gurion International on our mighty El Al 747, my expectations of the Holy Land were confounded. I'd expected to see pious Jews kissing the ground joyously as they left the aircraft. But in 2007? You never tread on concrete or tarmac, let alone descend onto sacred soil. You walk through a tunnel to the Ben Gurion terminals, of course, high above ground, pulled with your rolling carry-on luggage by calorie-saving walkbelts to passport control and baggage claim.

My fellow passengers got it right. When they heard that first satisfying thump of the 747's landing gear on the runway, they burst into applause.

Quaintness and biblical flavor must be diligently sought out, we've found. Highways from Tel Aviv to Haifa, or from Jerusalem to Jericho, have that standard international feel you'll find on the autobahn, the Jersey Turnpike, or I-77.

Landscape is tremendously varied, with desert sands or tropical lushness only a minute fraction of what we've seen. The drive up the coast to Haifa reminded me more of Wyoming than the Sahara, and Haifa itself combines the heat and lush vegetation of Miami with the steepness and pastel dwellings of San Francisco.

There are wonders to behold. At the Lebanese border, we walked through winding caves and saw the grottoes carved out by the Mediterranean at Rosh Ha-Niqra. At Masada, we learned how the self-indulgence and wary cunning of King Herod resulted in a castle fortress that was an engineering marvel. And after climbing a tricky trail that discouraged the eldest in our group, we found picturesque waterfalls at Ein Gedi.

No, they're nothing like Yellowstone or Yosemite, but looking out over the Dead Sea -- where an afternoon temperature of 40°C or 104°F is considered a cool summer day -- these little cascades bring Paradise to the bathers who flock there.

We haven't heard a single gunshot during our first six days here, though we've seen plenty of rifles slung over the shoulders of on- and off-duty soldiers. Our guide Ronny explains that Israeli soldiers are responsible for their weapons 24-7.

Actually, the only uniformed men we've seen during our journey with rifles in their hands were at JFK Airport in Queens as we waited to get our luggage screened. That anomaly has held firm as we've moved around Israel and gathered the latest newsflashes in the war on terror. An attack on Gaza was far less newsy than events in London and Glasgow.

People aren't crossing streets, entering restaurants, or boarding buses with heightened or even visible trepidation. Jews, Muslims and Christians are nonchalantly living together, aggravating one another as citizens in a democracy are expected to do.

Yet if they're like Ronny, they're aware of the regional and global picture, sensitive to the criticisms Israel has roused in the international community, and dismissive toward simple answers to questions that intelligent, humane Israelis have debated and agonized over for 40 years. Answers are all the more elusive because of sharp philosophical divisions within Israel, the swift pace of societal change, a constant stream of misinformation and oversimplification (plus the occasional pinch of anti-Semitism) that estranges Israel from other nations, and the proclivity of Arabs/Palestinians to reject or ruin every opportunity for progress and peace.

Ronny repeats the Israeli mantra of frustration toward leaders of the Arab world: "They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

That syndrome doesn't stop at the peace table. It's evident in the landscape. Time after time, Ronny has pointed to where Israel ends and Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan begin. It's where agricultural cultivation or industrial development abruptly disappear.

On the ground, we haven't seen or heard a trace of Arab discontent within Israel. In the big cities we've seen -- Haifa and Jerusalem -- they work and live in harmony with Jews, sometimes each to their own neighborhood. Traveling along the spine of the valleys in Galilee, we've seen Arab and Jewish cities that look out at each other from opposite sides of the highway.

Aided by Ronny's exegesis, we could see definite differences in architectural style and land development. But it's obvious that these are Westernized cities -- no tents and no caravans anywhere.

We still haven't seen a tent in all our travels across Israel or down through the Judean Desert. Until our sixth day in Israel, we didn't even see a camel. Then as we rode through the West Bank toward Masada, we saw Bedouin sheds, flocks of goats, and finally a whole group of camels loping across the sand. One of the Bedouins at the side of the highway actually waved to our tour bus.

Just today, I learned there are two Dead Seas. You can cross the two on dry land, and the northern side has been channeled to save the southern side from drying up. Even on the northern side, the shoreline is receding at the alarming rate of three meters per year. All of Israel may need to be channeled -- from the Mediterranean -- to save the Dead Sea from death.

I've also discovered a new me that I'd never known. This stranger is a man who wept when he first touched the Western Wall of the Holy Temple, within a half hour of entering Jerusalem. It's an ostensible performing arts critic who began sobbing uncontrollably at the Sheraton Plaza Jerusalem while translating the passage from Genesis that Sue will be chanting at her Bat Mitzvah in October.

It's a man who all his life has sung the familiar Sabbath song about the word of Lord coming forth from Jerusalem as the Holy Ark opens in the synagogue. Hundreds of times, I've never had the slightest trouble getting those words out of my throat -- until yesterday. A rush of feeling overcame me at the instant I realized I'd be singing about Jerusalem in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Ezring, the leader of my Temple Israel congregation in Charlotte and the organizer of our trip, wasn't surprised in the least when I sat down and told him of my reaction to Jerusalem.

"It's an emotional experience," he said. That sums it up.

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