Classic Sites To See - Again
Tue, 10/27/2009
Special To The Jewish Week
A tourist’s first visit to Israel typically has a predictable itinerary: the Western Wall, Masada, Tel Aviv. Return visitors are often keen to experience different sites, ones they missed the first time. But in the last five years, a wide range of attractions all over Israel have undergone such extensive renovation or expansion that they are worth a repeat visit. In Jerusalem, for example — a city known for melding the new from the old — several museums have reopened since 2004 with state-of-the-art exhibits. The phenomenon is the result of a number of factors coming together in the 1990s and early 2000s: a robust economy; a rising demand for Israeli culture; international interest in strengthening Jerusalem; increased interest in experiential educational opportunities for Israeli schoolchildren as well as for participants of Taglit-Birthright and Masa; the desire of conflicting ideological groups to build museums representing their viewpoints; and a general trend in the Western world of museum-building. The Jewish Week surveyed local tour guides to find out which Jerusalem tourist attractions are most worthy of a second look. We identified four sites of which it can be said, “If you haven’t seen it in the last five years, you haven’t seen it at all.” Older than the Old City, the City of David, where King David established his capital city, is located just south of the Dung Gate in east Jerusalem. The site was opened to the public only as recently as 1986, but the last three years have seen an exponential increase in archeological finds and restorations, a state-of-the-art visitors’ center, and a complete revamping of the visitor experience. Two different tour guides, using the same words, each told The Jewish Week that the City of David “changes all the time” and that “every week they find something new.” Spokesperson Shahar Shilo said that those who last visited more than three years ago would today experience a completely different tour, one which now includes the palace of Judean kings, the pilgrims’ route to the Temple Mount, Canaanite and Herodian canals, a Canaanite fortress, other newly-excavated sites, and a 3-D audio-visual presentation (conducted in English two to four times per day). The only similarity to the old tour is the option of walking through Hezekiah’s eighth-century BCE water tunnels. The tour takes two hours; allow an extra hour and bring a flashlight if opting for the water tunnel tour. Flashlights may be purchased on the site for $1 each. (www.cityofdavid.org.il) Those who last visited Yad Vashem before 2004 may recall a small, dark maze of posters and artifacts. In contrast, the $40 million, interdisciplinary Holocaust History Museum is four times the size of the building it replaced, spanning 14,500 square feet. The prism-shaped building cuts through the Mountain of Remembrance, cantilevering dramatically at each end, with a narrow 200-meter skylight allowing in daylight. One enters the building to a video installation called Living Landscapes, showing rare footage of Jewish life in Europe in the 1930’s. Visitors are then guided from gallery to gallery in a zigzag motion, experiencing on a physical level the “turning points” of the Holocaust and the buffeting of victims from country to country and camp to camp. The museum presents general Holocaust history in vaguely chronological order, but the focus of the exhibits is on the personal stories of individual Jewish victims; the museum includes 100 video screens showing survivor testimony and short films, as well as 1,500 other items including diaries, letters, maps, photographs, 280 art works, and artifacts. The visit culminates in the Hall of Names, an almost dizzying dome showing 600 photographs of victims reflected in a dark pool of water. Thankfully, one exits to a calming, panoramic view of Jerusalem. Children under 10 may not enter the museum. Audio guides are available in English, as are daily guided tours at 11 a.m. No pre-registration is required. (www.yadvashem.org) Originally a library and archive more than a tourist site, the Herzl Museum was closed from 1995-2005 due to deterioration. Its new facility, located at the foot of Mount Herzl, provides an inspiring, experiential one-hour introduction to the life of Theodor Herzl, considered the founding father of modern Zionism. The goal of the presentation, said spokesman Motti Friedman, is to show visitors, especially young people, that “Herzl isn’t just the name of a major street in Jerusalem. He was a person who accomplished incredible things.” “The hope,” he said, “is that after the presentation visitors will want more education about Herzl, and that they’ll see Zionism as an ongoing need and be inspired to help create a model society.” The museum attracts 80 thousand visitors per year, one-third of whom are from abroad. The audio-visual tour has four rooms. The first represents Vienna, where Herzl grew up and developed his ideology. The second is a moving recreation of the First Zionist Congress; here, visitors come to understand Herzl’s personal development as a statesman and the politics of early Zionism. The third stop shows the furniture and personal affects from Herzl’s study, and the fourth focuses on his enduring legacy in the State of Israel. The narrative is couched in the framework of a secondary story of an actor who is studying Herzl’s life and character in order to play him in a stage production. This conceit gets tiring after a while, but overall the presentation is deeply moving. The Herzl Museum also offers tours of Mount Herzl, which includes Israel’s main military cemetery and Herzl’s tomb. Starting in December, English audio guides will allow visitors to take self-guided tours of the mountain. All museum visits must be pre-arranged. Groups may request a workshop or Q&A with museum staff after their tour, to fill in topics touched upon in the audio-visual presentation. The museum tour, mountain walk, and workshop take a total of three to four hours. (www.herzl.org) Like the Herzl Museum, the Menachem Begin Heritage Center was previously nothing more than an archive and library. Five years ago the museum created a state-of-the-art, 200,000-square-foot facility offering an 85-minute audio-visual tour about the life of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The presentation includes an excellent English audio guide and, through the lens of Begin’s career, a solid overview of the history of Zionism and of the State of Israel. It provides a clear impression of Begin as a complicated man whose strong ideals often conflicted with each other. The center is a popular stop for American Jews visiting Israel for the second or third time, said spokesperson Moshe Fuchsman. “Whether they agree with Begin’s politics or not,” he said, “American Jews identify with him because he was the first prime minister who identified primarily as a Jew. Not a warrior, not a socialist, a Jew. American Jews are among our more religious visitors, and Begin closed El Al on Shabbat. They love him.” Unfortunately, in the interest of time, the tour glosses over important events with the assumption that visitors already know their significance: speeches by Zev Jabotinsky, the shelling of the Altalena, the dismantling of Yamit, and the Elon Moreh controversy. The good news is that the center’s library is open to visitors without pre-arrangement, so one may talk with librarians about filling in any informational holes. The Jewish Week suggests that visitors also pre-arrange a tour of the archeological site behind the center, which shows an excavated Jewish burial site from the First Temple period, and set aside time to try the center’s kosher-dairy restaurant, Terasa. (www.herzl.org).