In the mid-1970s, my family and I were members of Kibbutz Kfar Giladi in the Upper Galilee. During the time I worked in the kibbutz guest house, every day I walked past an old stone building on my way to the hotel. From its appearance, it had been one of the first constructed after the kibbutz’s founding in 1916. Beside the fact that it was used at that time as a maintenance shop, it was unremarkable.
Thirty years later, during a visit back to the kibbutz, we learned it was remarkable. That building housed an underground slik, or weapons cache, with a hidden entrance.
The weapons were hidden from the Turkish, and later British, rulers, both of whom severely restricted the kinds and numbers of rifles, pistols and other military hardware that Jewish residents of pre-Israel Palestine were permitted to possess.
Kfar Giladi’s slik is the subject (“Keeping the Secret”) of one of the 84 mini-chapters in “Unexpected Israel,” which presents some of the little-known, often quirky aspects of life in the Jewish state. Ruth Corman, a photographer and frequent visitor to Israel, accompanies her stories with her photos. Some of the stories are as good as the photos.
For example, “The Temple Mount Sifting Project” resulted from the illegal digging under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City by Muslim authorities — the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosques are built on that site. The Wakf, the Islamic religious trust that administers the area, has built two underground mosques and discarded the earth that was excavated into a dump in the Kidron Valley, which separates the Old City from the Mount of Olives. Many Israelis see this activity as another effort by the Palestinians to get rid of any ancient Jewish relics concealed in the dirt, thus helping to erase the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, which many Arabs deny.
Israeli archeologist Gabriel Barkay has organized a project to sift the earth by hand in order to discover any artifacts that may be hidden in the dirt. To date, Corman reports, more than 100,000 volunteers from all over the world have participated, and many pieces have been unearthed, including more than 6,000 coins from every period dating back to the 4th century BCE.
Not far from the Temple Mount, in Jewish Jerusalem, nothing better represents the city and its way of life than Mahane Yehuda market, which the author discusses in a chapter under that name. The market used to be open to the elements, making it very wet, cold and slippery during winter rains. It has since been covered by a translucent roof but the market apparently is still characterized by the highest quality fruit, vegetables and other items — as evidenced by the beautiful, extra-large strawberries and bags of enticing dried vegetables and herbs displayed in the two photos accompanying the chapter. As in similar venues, the prices are cheap and the atmosphere is both competitive and charming.
Ride the main road west from Jerusalem and soon you’ll find yourself in Tel Aviv. Take a few steps on any Tel Aviv beach and you’re liable to hear a strange “bong, bong” sound being made by grown men slamming little, rubber balls with small wooden rackets. As they say at baseball games, “Beware of batted balls.” It’s Matkot, that peculiar game with which many Israelis pass the time. The game is noncompetitive, explains Corman, at least in the sense that no points are counted, and it has no rules — except to keep the ball in the air traveling at dizzying speeds between the rackets as long as possible.
The author even discovered a Matkot “museum,” an apartment dedicated by two aficionados to that strange Israeli game.
In “The White City: Tel Aviv,” she discusses that city’s 4,000 apartment buildings constructed in the unique Bauhaus-style. Many were built in the 1930s by refugee architects, Corman notes, when the Nazis closed downthe art school of that name, accusing it of being a center of “communist intellectualism.”
The white, concrete, box-like buildings were cheap to construct — and functional. “Buildings were constructed on ‘pilotis’ or stilts, leaving the ground floor free, to allow sea breezes to reach as far inland as possible and also to provide a ‘green’ area for residents,” Corman writes.
UNESCO in 2003 named the “White City” of Tel Aviv a World Heritage Site.
If you are in need of inspiration, read “A Happy Ending: Rescue in the Skies,” the last chapter in the book. It will demonstrate that there are some pretty wonderful people in the world, and perhaps counter the depression caused by the ugly narcissism displayed by someone who would be president of the United States. n
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.