After days of bright sunshine and clear blue skies, I awoke this morning to grey outside my window and dark heavy clouds. It rained, on and off, while we were in the bus heading off with only about half of our group on another optional tour, but the sun appeared before we reached Ein Karem, where John the Baptist was born. The statue in front of the Church of the Visitation of pregnant Mary meeting pregnant Elizabeth (St. John's mother) is graceful and strikingly apt. Zvi told us the story of Jesus and John rejoicing at meeting each other while they were still in their mothers' wombs, a very sweet thing to imagine. While standing in the courtyard listening to these histories we could also hear lovely singing behind us, in a little outdoor chapel where a service was being sung. This church, high on a hill overlooking a green, peaceful valley, has several small chapels, many of which we explored. The whole of this church compound is very beautiful.
Midday became sunny and pleasant. We ate lunch at the Mar Elias monastery (built in the 6th century AD); the piped in chanting was glorious! I could have stayed there, just listening, for hours. (I guess I should have thought to see if they had a recording to buy.) After lunch we travelled on to Herodian, a fortified palace built by Herod on top of the highest hill in the area. Here the wind was fierce, truly ferocious, and, a little unluckily for us, rain started to pelt down. "It's a miracle!" said Zvi. Here they never get rain in April, so we were in the middle of a miracle as we made our ascent in the sideways rain to see Herod's tomb. No one was blown off the side of the mountain but it wasn't the most pleasant climb in the wind and the driving rain. But we were still able to see a bit across the countryside even through the clouds; the land stretched out all around this place and was easily visible in every direction far below. It was understandable why Herod had his palace built here, on the top of an almost untouchable site; it would certainly have been defendable.
After getting back to the hotel, drying off, cleaning up, and meeting again with our whole group, that night Zvi took us all to dinner to make up for our having spent several days in a beeping bus, so we all feasted together. I was happy because I really wanted to spend my birthday evening with our whole lovely group, all of us together. Had I been at home, now that our children have all fledged, we'd usually disappear to New York City for my birthday, which always falls during the schools' April break giving us a whole week off from teaching. Since I really need to see green at this time of year (and where I live in Maine is still typically three weeks budding time behind, a very late arriving springtime) we'll go to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens to see and inhale the cherry blossoms and maybe lilacs and whatever else is blooming, we'll meet up with a friend I met on another trip; we'll eat at our favorite vegan restaurants, and go to discounted Broadway shows and sometimes the New York City Ballet. And just walk and walk for miles through the city streets and parks, enjoying the relative or real warmth and excitement of one of the world's great cities. But here in Jerusalem, another world-class city, it was even better. At dinner people wished me a happy birthday, and afterwards we went for dessert at an ice cream shop on the Jerusalem Railway Station mall. I was surprised to find they even had several vegan choices. Chocolate Sorbet and the Coconut were the two flavors I chose; they were truly delicious, the first vegan ice creams (that I hadn't made myself) I had eaten in a very long time. As we were standing around outside in the mall all enjoying our cups or cones, Paul, one of the kindest members of our group, used his spoon as a baton and began singing "Happy Birthday" to me. Everyone joined in. This was a very special impromptu concert. And then Karin presented me with a bag full of presents, fruits she had liberated from the hotel's breakfast that morning. Good times!
But then Zvi disappeared; no one knew where he had gone. Was the evening over already? Suddenly he came hurrying back with two large containers: he had cakes for me and for another woman in our group whose birthday had been earlier in the month. And there were sparklers on top, an Israeli tradition for celebrating birthdays! Zvi lit the sparklers, and again everyone sang Happy Birthday, this time to both of us. What a wonderful celebration! The cake was fantastic, one of the best cakes I've ever eaten, a no-flour, vegan, very dense deep dark chocolate, perfectly and undeniably delicious. Everyone ate (with plastic spoons freed from the nearby ice cream shop) right out of the containers, joyfully sharing. I felt honored, delighted, and (perhaps projecting again) a little bit loved. Spendng our days together had joined us into one of those rare groups in which most of whose members actually care for each other. This was a very happy birthday indeed.
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