Saturday, November 24, 2018


“Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Masada, Dead Sea, and Petra in 10 Days”

Please note: this is a description not of a theatrical production but of my recent trip to the Middle East, where I participated in an international theatre conference.

As you may have noticed, Theatre’s Leiter Side has not been active for the past two weeks. That’s because I was abroad, attending the aforesaid conference at Tel Aviv University and touring Israel and Jordan with my wife, Marcia. The conference, where I was an invited speaker, was called “Creation, Preservation, and Transformation of Theatre Traditions: East and West,” and was organized by Prof. Zvika Serper, Dean, Faculty of the Arts, Tel Aviv University, who is a renowned expert in traditional Japanese theatre performance.

The conferees totaled nearly three dozen, among them scholars and practitioners from the U.S. (me), Germany, Poland, China, Japan, Israel, France, Greece, and Great Britain. It was held on the attractive campus of Tel Aviv University from November 18-21, 2018. Its contents can be gleaned from the program, posted above. My own talk was titled “Yakusha or Haiyū: Kabuki Actors at the Crossroads, 1952-1965,” although the inclusive years were accidentally left off the program version of the title. I will return, briefly, to the conference below but my main focus is on describing some of the experiences my wife and I enjoyed during our brief travels in Israel and Jordan.

We departed on Delta from JFK on Monday, November 12, at 11:35 PM and arrived late in the afternoon in Tel Aviv, on November 13, where it already was dark, despite the summery weather. The 10-and-a-half-hour flight was followed by a cab ride to the Agripas Boutique Hotel in Jerusalem, about an hour away. The cabbie, a middle-aged Arab, was very kind even though he had trouble finding the entrance to the hotel and even got out in traffic on a busy street to run around desperately asking for directions.

The Agripas, recommended by a friend of Marcia’s Orthodox cousin, is a small hotel centrally located in a shabby but interesting old neighborhood. It's within walking distance of the Old City, and, even closer, the delightful Machane Yehuda bazaar or shuk shopping area, consisting of dozens of outdoor and indoor stalls, bars, and eating establishments.

We spent three days in Jerusalem, two of them in the city itself and one on a day tour to Masada and the Dead Sea. Jerusalem's Old City is a fascinating warren of tiny shops and is where both the Wailing or Western Wall is located, as is the Via Dolorosa, the path taken by Jesus on his way to the cross. 

We wandered for nearly seven hours there, much of it spent while Marcia shopped for gifts and I stood around, waiting and people watching. Each shopkeeper is a master salesman; once he’s caught your attention he’s extremely difficult to wave off politely. If you buy something, he (or his son, who usually speaks better English) practically mesmerizes you until you buy something else.

We ate falafel near the shuk, and also shared a malawach, an incredibly delicious Yemenite dish, made of an assortment of ingredients stuffed, falafel-like, into a bread fried right before your eyes. This was in a miniature eating stall next to a place where Marcia bought some jewelry. The young guys behind the counter loved flipping the fried bread in the air. I recorded this just when the bread went flying out of control and hit a post before sliding to the floor, giving everyone a good laugh. We returned to the shuk several times, occasionally sampling the pastries and halvah on display. 
Shopping in the Machane Yehuda shuk.
Israel, especially Jerusalem, closely observes the Sabbath, so nearly everything shuts down, including the shuk. This was slightly problematic on Friday night but easier to deal with on Saturday, when we moved to Tel Aviv.
On the Jaffa Street tram to Yad Vashem.
On another day, we took the tram that runs down Jaffa Street to its end, where, after a 10- or 15-minute walk, you can visit the remarkable Holocaust museum called Yad Vashem, where Ivanka and Jared showed up several months earlier. There is far more here than you can absorb in a few hours but you're made speechless by the films, photos, artifacts, and descriptions that document the history of European anti-Semitism, the rise of the Nazis, the concentration camps, the extermination of the Jews, and the end of World War II. At one point, Marcia was overwhelmed by emotion.
Yad Vashem. No photos are allowed inside.
I had a bit of a scare when I discovered my backpack was missing. I remembered having taken it off at one point when entering the visitors’ center but when I went back and inquired, they hadn’t found it. I didn’t fret too much as nothing in it was of great importance but I was nonetheless relieved on our way out when, after asking again, I was able to retrieve it from the lost and found. 
Waiting for cable car at Masada.

The day we toured to Masada and the Dead Sea was especially memorable, our tour bus picking us up at 8:30 AM, and getting us to Masada around noon. We didn’t climb the old Snake Path built into the side of the mountain, which is for adventurous, younger folk, but were guided to the cable car that takes you directly to the ruins of the ancient fortress. There, in 73 CE, a few hundred Jews fought the Roman legions. When unable to resist the power of the Romans, who built a giant ramp up a slope leading to the top, they killed themselves rather than become slaves.

Masada is a symbol of Jewish bravery and fortitude but some hold that these Jews, extremists known as the Zealots, might have done better to die fighting than to kill one another. The ruins and the view are spectacular, but not quite so remarkable architecturally, at least from what the ruins disclose, as Machu Pichu. 

From Masada, where we spent around two hours, we hurried on to the Dead Sea. The view from the bus for most of the trip into the Judean Desert was bleakly beautiful, with non-ending vistas of sand-colored hills, mountains, dunes, and plateaus. Barely a bush or tree breaks the visual impression. Some places are reminiscent of the Grand Canyon and other spacious, similarly austerely majestic locales, like Monument Valley. 

Seeing Masada in the distance makes you wonder how, so many hundreds of years ago, a community of wandering Jews managed not only to find it in the vast desert wasteland but to live on it in comparative comfort because of the facilities it contained for storing rain water and provisions. It had been built by King Herod in the first century BC, and its history can be found on Wikipedia and many other sites. I look forward to seeing the four-part, 1981 TV movie, Masada, about the battle between the Jews and Romans. In the film, Peter O’Toole plays the Roman commander.
Bathers at the Dead Sea.
We next visited the Dead Sea, actually a lake, and the lowest place on earth, hundreds of feet below sea level. People come from all over the world to float in the world’s saltiest water and to coat themselves in the mud where there should be sand. The mud is considered to have restorative powers for skin and muscular disorders, and many swear to have been cured by it.
Navigating the muddy ground at the Dead Sea.
We had brought bathing suits but declined to put them on, the weather being overcast and not especially warm. Still, Marcia pulled up her trousers and waded in, covering her legs in mud. She claimed days later that the skin on her legs was still remarkably smooth. I found the experience rather seedy; the place is not especially well-maintained, you have to hold on to ropes and railings not to slip on the greasy mud covering the ground from the water up to the elevated area where the shops and food stalls are, and the melting pot of people from all over the world is about as motley as you’ll ever see anywhere. The changing rooms and toilets look just as overused as you might imagine. Still, there’s an earthy feeling of common humanity here among these hundreds of international travelers.
Marcia at the Dead Sea.
The cab driver who drove us to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem was a bit of a sharper and, when we chose to pay him in dollars, instead of shekels, cheated us by giving us less for our dollars than the exchange rate warranted. Later, another cabby, an Uber driver, boldly asked for a tip, and I was so groggy after a long day that I gave him 50 shekels instead of the 15 he probably suggested as appropriate. Marcia was furious at my dumb move.

She, too, would have her money problems, including an experience at a mall where, seeking to exchange dollars for shekels, she put her Visa debit card in an ATM machine, watched a digital circle go round and round and round as it processed the request, and then saw the card swallowed by the machine, leaving her with few resources. I was at my conference, so an Israeli woman, who turned out to have a son living in Tenafly, NJ, not far from my son, spent an hour with her trying to help. She even offered to lend Marcia some money or drive her back to the Tel Aviv University dorms we were staying at, not very far away. Marcia refused, of course, and walked back on her own. Speaking of money, I should note she had problems nearly to the end in discerning the value of certain shekel coins. 
Marcia at the Tel Aviv University dormitory/guesthouse complex.
Interestingly, the hacking cough she’s had for at least 13 years vanished, and she also had more energy for walking than I’ve seen from her in ages. I wonder when the cough will return, if ever. On the other hand, her hearing seemed to be getting worse. 
Dorm complex at TAU. 
We occupied a spartan room with kitchenette, on the seventh floor of the university’s impressive dormitory and guest house complex, about 15 minutes by foot from the campus itself. It contains shops, restaurants, and a supermarket. Our room had a sizable balcony and an outstanding view of Tel Aviv, all the way to the Mediterranean, clearly visible in the distance. The weather, except for some rain on our final day, was perfect, in the mid-70s, with cool, balmy breezes in the evening.

Our first day in Tel Aviv was the Sabbath. Most of Tel Aviv, regardless of its hip modernity, was closed (including public transportation). When Uber was taking too long to find a driver, I used an app I’d downloaded for the Gett service. Within a few minutes we were off to the port city of Jaffa (a.k.a. Yafo). It’s contiguous to the newer city of Tel Aviv and one goes from the upscale beach area of that city directly into the shabbier, much older, and more raffish Jaffa the way one crosses from Brooklyn into Queens, without the separation of water one has when crossing between Manhattan and the other NYC boroughs. A possible analogy would be like walking down Broadway from 125th Street in Harlem to the Upper West Side, or like doing the same on the East Side down Fifth Avenue. 
On the Jaffa port promenade.

A street staircase in Old Jaffa.
The famous Jaffa flea market was closed for the Sabbath but the port area was bustling with people walking along the promenade abutting the Mediterranean, with lots of people eating al fresco in restaurants built into the crumbling, old, seaside storage buildings. A long line waited for admission to a restaurant called The Old Man and the Sea.
Small flea market on sabbath in Jaffa.
Flea market and lighthouse, Jaffa promenade.
There was, surprisingly, a small flea market going strong, as well, and Marcia spent some shekels there as we poked around, finding ourselves at one point taking some steps off the promenade into an old building that led to the charming premodern section of Jaffa. A few shops were open and the walls along the narrow lanes were lined with framed pictures celebrating a week of art by well-known illustrators. 
Sunset in Jaffa.
We killed some time afterward by sitting on the steps leading to the water, watching the sun slide into the Mediterranean, and then went to a seafood restaurant for a delicious meal, salmon steak for Marcia, and skewered shrimps for me. 
Sam resting on Jaffa promenade.

Backstreet in old Jaffa.

Building in old Jaffa.

Street in old Jaffa.
While I was at the conference, Marcia occupied herself by visiting nearby museums and exploring the neighborhood. I’d taught her how to use Google Maps, so she was able to navigate rather easily through the unfamiliar streets. The university is the heart of a rich cultural community, so museums abound. On the conference’s second day, we’d arranged for a professional tour guide named Neta and her husband, Nir, to shepherd Marcia around. Neta, recommended by my friend Mimi Turque Marre, took Marcia to a famous factory where bullets had been secretly manufactured, and to a nature preserve. They also visited the home of an elderly couple for an authentic Israeli lunch.
Marcia at bullet factory.

Marcia and Neta.

Marcia and Neta.
Neta and Marcia.
I no longer enjoy theatre conferences as I once did although I always like to meet the many fascinating people who take part. The participants at this one included Professors David Wiles, Shen Liang (Daniel), Peter W. Marx, Fiona MacIntosh, Yamanaka Reiko, Kodama Ryuichi, Olga Levitan, Tian Mansha, Nakao Kaoru, Irit Averbuch, Sharon Aronson-Lehavi, Yair Lipshitz, Platon Mavromoustakos, Evelyne Ertel, Nurit Yaari, Zvika Serper, Jeanette Malkin, Ruth Kanner, Yokoyama Taro, Sofie Taubert, Gad Kaynar, and Daphna Ben-Shaul.

I won't single any of them out but the papers and presentations varied, as they always do, from excellent to interesting to boring. Sometimes I was bored because the non-native speakers had heavy accents, sometimes it was because the presenters were monotonous and uninspiring, sometimes it was because of my hearing problems, and sometimes it was because the papers were pretentious or arcane. Combine this with jet lag and you have a dangerous cocktail, one that forces you to sit at the back of the room where your napping eyes are not so conspicuous. 
Dr. Iga Rutkowska on TAU campus.
I was very happy to reunite with Dr. Iga Rutkowska, a young kabuki specialist from Poland. She’s a pretty woman in her mid-30s with whom I’ve become good friends. I ran into her for the first time in 2011, by a remarkable coincidence, when I was in Japan, shopping with Prof. Hibino Kei in a bookstore specializing in theatre. Seeing another Caucasian, and one speaking fluent Japanese, in the same store inevitably led to a conversation. 
Iga and Sam, with a copy of his last book.
Anyway, when she learned my name, she was very happily surprised because she’d been following my writing for years, and was familiar with one of my essays in particular. It deals with village kabuki, which happens to be the subject of the PhD she was then working on. The fact that the two of us came together like this in such an out of the way shop on a Tokyo backstreet was extraordinary, just as was our meeting again, a week or so later, at the Kabuki-za, where she was now accompanied by her boyfriend, whom she later married.

We spent a lot of time at the conference with each other. I was happy to see that hers was one of the more compelling presentations at the conference. I may even attend a conference next year in Warsaw, even though these conferences no longer hold great interest for me. Now, deep into my retirement, my chief reason for going to conferences is no longer mainly academic; instead, it's to take advantage of the chance to go sightseeing in a place I've never visited.

The conference arranged two restaurant dinners but I went to only one. For the first, we went by bus to a section of Tel Aviv not far from the beach. The weather was so pleasant I managed to forget my black, Members Only windbreaker, leaving it behind at the restaurant. On the other dinner night, I was so sleepy that I left the conference early so I could nap and spend the evening with Marcia. We ate at a burger place within the dorm compound and then took a nice walk to a small mall, where there were restaurants and shops, most of them closed for the day.

We were sitting there on a bench, having ice cream cones, when I spotted a professor from the conference and began to realize we’d coincidentally arrived at the very place where the evening’s dinner, which I’d declined, was about to commence. Sure enough, at that moment, my friend, Prof. Serper, the conference organizer, came into view. We’d already eaten so, when he asked us to join, we politely declined.

The day after the conference ended, the attendees were taken on a bus tour of Jerusalem. Marcia and I had already done Jerusalem so we didn’t go. In fact, we’d arranged our schedule to see Jerusalem first because I’d been under the impression that we’d be taken by the conference organizers to see an ancient Roman theatre. So, again, we were the outsiders. Marcia’s always wanted to see the pyramids but a trip to Egypt would have been problematic. Instead, we opted for another place on her bucket list, Petra, in Jordan, an ancient city where a people called the Nabateans carved remarkable temples and mausoleums right out of the mountain rock. 
Crossing the border into Jordan.
This involved a very long day, beginning at 1:30 AM, when we took a cab to the Grand Beach Hotel to await a 3:45 AM bus that would drive to Eilat, at the southern tip of Israel. Once there, we left the bus to cross over the border into Jordan, where we switched to a bus led by a wise-cracking Arab guide. For nearly two hours, as the sun beat down as we were rather amateurishly herded about, with little knowledge of what was going on, in order to fulfill the the passport and security process required to get visas for Jordan. 
Waiting to be processed at the Jordan border.
Then came a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Petra, past endless stretches of arid Jordanian land and mountains, spotted with crumbling little shantytown villages, occasional herds of goats or sheep, and traffic made up mainly of oil tankers and long-haul trucks. Jordan, by the way, has less water resources than any other country in the world.

We stopped for snacks and souvenir hunting at a mountaintop shop with a remarkable view necessitating photos. I’d been having bowel issues for the past week or so; sure enough, I needed a toilet now and those in this establishment, although outwardly suitable at first glance, were quickly revealed to be in less than premier condition. Many stalls had missing or broken doors and God only knows when the plumbing last flushed the toilet contents down the mountainside. I chose a reasonably clean-looking stall, made my contribution, and left it there on top of whoever had deposited his before me. Fortunately, there was toilet paper available, not a universal commodity in roadside stops in this part of the globe.

At ancient Roman theatre.
Finally, around noon, we arrived at Petra, adjacent to a scruffy town whose precipitous streets and alleys make San Francisco’s slopes look amateurish. We got to spend three hours or so in Petra, instructed by our guide along the way, as we descended a narrow path with hundreds of other tourists, ending at the site of a Roman theatre that seated 4,000 in its day. We had to walk to one side or the other of the path because carriages pulled by sadly maltreated horses galloping at a brisk pace came hurtling in each direction carrying passengers who chose this method of transportation over the use of their lower appendages. The center of the path was, naturally, spotted with reminders of I’d been doing so much of recently.
Marcia and Sam at Petra.
Along the way there were boys and young men peddling trinkets, bracelets, rings, and the like. We’d been told to avoid these “naughty boys,” as the guide described them, because showing any interest would be inviting unceasing pestering. When Marcia, at one point, chose to ignore the advice and engaged in discourse with one such benighted Arabian knight, I had to forcefully pull her away. Another youth noted my Tel Aviv baseball cap and said it wasn’t a great idea to be wearing such a crown in Jordan, with which Israel has a strained relationship. That didn’t prevent him from offering me five bucks for it. (It cost about $15.)

Waiting for our bus.
We were left alone eventually, being told to meet at a restaurant called the Sand Stone at 4:00. The shlep back took Marcia and me around an hour. It was more arduous than the initial journey because it was on an upward incline. We arrived on time and had a nothing-special buffet in a seedy restaurant whose ceiling was draped in hanging fabric like a Bedouin tent. 
Sand Stone Restaurant.
Then came a rather confused session as people who had booked their tour by credit card had to wait for someone to finalize the payment process on handheld machines, followed by an even more feverish procedure as our guide arranged for different groups to board their respective buses. All this in the midst of a milling crowd on an overflowing sidewalk outside the restaurant, as buses and cars vied for space in the narrow street, horns honked, and drivers got out of their cars to berate whoever was blocking their way.

Finally, hoping against hope that we’d boarded the right bus, we headed back to the Israel-Jordan border, sleeping fitfully (it was already dark), going again through passport procedures, and finding our Israeli driver on the other side. At one point, I spotted the WC facilities but by the time I was on Israeli soil and chose to return and use them, I was told they were now off limits and to go off to a stand of palm trees and do my business there. I did so, hoping no one from the border patrol would spot me in the dark delivering a memento of my visit. Safely drained, I returned to the bus and, sometime after midnight, we were back at the Grand Beach Hotel, where I called an Uber to take us to our dorm.

On our last day in Tel Aviv, we taxied to Jaffa again, this time to troll the old flea market, which is an atmospheric collection of old shops selling antiques and junk, as well as modern furniture and clothing in boutique environments. 
Jaffa flea market.

Jaffa flea market.
At one point, after another falafel, I began to feel the need to make additional deposits. I asked an old shopkeeper in a kippah where there might be a public bathroom but he had no English. Another ancient merchant also didn’t understand, even when I volunteered something in pidgen Yiddish, “Ich vill gain pishen,” but not knowing what to offer for the other bodily function (Ich vill machen dreck?). My Yiddish-speaking friend Diane Cypkin says an elegant way to request the latter is: "Ikh vil hobn dem mogen." And, since Hebrew, not Yiddish, is the official language in Israel, it's likely even that wouldn't penetrate. 
Full of falafel.
As we continued to amble, my intestines began to bubble. I knew evil lurked in the farts of men. Just then, we came across what seemed the cave-like opening of an old building that opened onto a shopping area under construction. It was being converted into upscale shops and restaurants, with signs leading to the men’s and women’s rooms. Thus, before splattering myself and the Jaffa flea market (which already has that splattered look) I found myself seated on a modern throne, with sufficient paper for a monarch. and successfully marked my territory. 
Jaffa flea market.

Ice cream shop in Jaffa.
We decided to walk back to Tel Aviv. As we came into the newer city, we strolled onto the beautiful promenade that runs alongside the beach area, and Marcia, raising her trousers again, waded into the Mediterranean, as the sun sank slowly in the West.

We’d had some rain earlier but it was now gloriously clear. We went a bit past the Royal Beach Hotel, where my friend Mimi recently stayed, used another fancy hotel’s bathroom, and then stopped in front of a restaurant called Hamburg, where we called an Uber to take us to the dorm.
Tel Aviv beach.
We were told by a conference organizer that a taxi would pick us up to take us to the Ben Gurion International Airport at 8:30 PM so we’d be on time for our 11:35 flight. Lots of security and stuff to go through, of course. The taxi never came so I again called an Uber, who took about 10 minutes to arrive. The delay cost us about a half hour, which was a bit unnerving at first because of the huge lines waiting to check in and the extremely slow boarding procedure. We got to the plane as it was making its final boarding announcements, saying shalom to Israel before our long flight home.

Lots more happened, of course, this being just the gist, but we had a grand time, bickered less than usual, saw some great sights, met some wonderful people, learned some fascinating things, and ate some very tasty food. We may never return but we’ll also never forget.