The Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea scrolls

The Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea scrolls

Since I arrived, I’d been hearing about the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, home of the fabled Dead Sea scrolls. While I wasn’t sure exactly what the scrolls were, I knew the story about a Bedouin shepherd boy stumbling across the treasure trove of history in some desert caves. So, I knew this museum had to go on my Israel bucket list, and Sergey and I arranged a sherut trip to visit it.

Now, I’ve been in some pretty huge museums before—the Met, the Louvre, the Prado—places where you can easily spend an entire day walking through galleries and still see only a fraction of the collection. While surely smaller than those museums in square footage, the Israel Museum was still giant in scope, covering not only the history of humanity in its archaeological section, but also artwork ranging from the Renaissance to contemporary times with a surprisingly substantial impressionist exhibit, and of course, being the Israel Museum, a series of galleries displaying aspects of Jewish culture, including reconstructed synagogues from around the world.

Suffice it to say, Sergey and I felt like we had run a six-hour marathon running from the Paleolithic to the present by the time we finished!

Making new friends

Making new friends

From the blur of fertility figurines, sarcophagi, and pottery, stone, and glass vessels, we drew two conclusions:

  1. Humanity has progressed incredibly fast over the last 200 years compared to the rest of our history, when it took thousands of years for simple advancements in technology, like the transition from stone to metal tools.
  2. Popular souvenir motifs in the Middle East, like the eye beads and pomegranate sculptures you can find in many bazaars and stores here, have not changed for the past few millennia. (One of my favorites from the glass gallery where we saw these popular decorations were small date-shaped glass vials.)

Next up was the Shrine of the Book, the amphora-shaped building that houses the display of some of the Dead Sea scrolls. Here I learned that current theory holds that the scribes of the scrolls belonged to the Essene sect, which had left Jerusalem and moved near the Dead Sea, where they established a sort of farming commune and bathed a lot (one of their tenets was ritual immersion). Moving to the Dead Sea to farm today would be a fool’s errand, unless you had a sort of crop that enjoyed growing in rocks and thrived on saltwater, but at that time, the climate of the Negev Desert was wetter. Seeing the delicate parchment, torn and tattered samples of the collection of almost a thousand such scrolls, made me marvel at how long they have lasted. For adherents of the Hebrew Bible, it must have been an extraordinary find to discover such ancient versions of the chapters still read today. And the scrolls had to survive not only the caves for thousands of years, but also the greed of discoverers—we read a story of a man who smuggled several scrolls to the US and tried to sell them…by posting an ad in the newspaper. They were returned to Israel, thankfully.

Sort sort of cute demons

Sort sort of cute demons

Finally, we raced through the art galleries, past Monets and odd contemporary installations, and soon we were on the highway back to Haifa, mulling over the past hundred millennia.

Sluggish ekphrasis

Recently, Sergey and I visited the Tikotin Museum, which is quite possibly the only Japanese art museum in Israel. We were practically the only visitors and enjoyed having the place to ourselves, from Zen ink paintings to netsuke to imaginative woodblock prints.

Speaking of Zen ink painting, the concept is to not plan out the painting–to let it come naturally, to accomplish it with just a few quick strokes of the brush. In high school painting class, we were supposed to make this kind of painting. Just a brush, ink, and a single paper board–no sketching. I recall I was dissatisfied with my first painting of birds lined up on a branch and did a second one as well, defeating the Zen point. Oh well.

In any event, the Zen paintings at the museum ranged from scribbles and blobs to fully formed scenes involved cheerful little gods and skinny monks. But one struck my fancy (hehe, fancy) in particular, and it inspired the following ekphrastic poem.

Slug fan


A gray slug pulls its sticky trail

across the undulating folds:

an ink painting on paper fan.


What fingers waved this fan?


Did a courtesan twirl it

to cool her swan neck,

painted white to the nape?


Or a Zen monk under the red sun

oxygenating his contemplation

of the non-essence (the nonsense)

that flows through the universe?


Or a ruddy, readied warrior

bristling with weapons like a sea urchin

prepared to impale whatever soggy ghosts

emerge from the lace-winged waves?


Or a virtuous woman

idling upon her coastal balcony

and swatting the mosquitoes from the air

as she waits patiently for her warrior to return?


What floating world

was stirred by the delicate indelicacy

of a slug-painted fan?

Day 4: Mosques galore

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Dome of the Blue Mosque, which earns its moniker from the blue tones of its interior decor.

While mosques only require a single minaret from which the muezzin can voice the call to prayer, to show off his wealth and power, the sponsoring sultan of the Blue Mosque—Sultan Ahmet, who gave his name to both the mosque and the district—built six.

We visited Istanbul in “low season” for tourism, the time when the government implements its renovations and restorations of the various historical sights before the influx of visitors begins again with the return of warm weather. Indeed, nearly everywhere we went, we found huge tarps wrapped around walls and covering entire buildings, printed with explanations of the history of the place underneath and the plans for its restoration. The Spice Market from afar looked like an enormous tent, thanks to its veiling tarp. Hagia Sofia featured massive scaffolding inside, and the Blue Mosque featured a mere 5.5 minarets. The remaining 0.5 was undergoing reconstruction.

One minaret, two minaret...scaffolded sixth minaret is outside the frame.

Minaret #6 is currently in hiding.

The Blue Mosque might be the most renowned, but I have to be a mosque snob and say that of the three we entered, it was actually the least impressive. That should give you an idea of just how many gorgeous mosques populate Turkey, thanks to the sultans’ combined religiosity and profligacy!

Inside the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.

Inside the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. Note the giant chandeliers.

Our next mosque was the truly magnificent Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. The architect Mimar Sinan made massive and heavy structures appear buoyant and graceful. Like the heavenly ambience created by the stained glass windows and elaborate décor of Gothic cathedrals in Europe, it was clear that the beauty of these mosques was designed to lift the spirits of worshippers to paradisiacal heights.

Mosques were usually surrounded by other establishments like bazaars and kitchens. We had lunch in a restaurant housed in the mosque’s former soup kitchen. When we walked from the stone-paved courtyard into a lofty chamber filled with untenanted tables draped in crisp white linen, we saw that we were the only customers. While I appreciate the quietness of an empty restaurant, at a fancier establishment like this, I prefer having at least a few other customers to distract the flock of attentive waiters from my plebeian etiquette.

“They’re giving us water for free!” I whispered to Sergey and Jasmine after the waiters had filled our glasses before we ordered. “Drink a lot!”

Our experience at this restaurant demonstrated the heights of excellence that a meatball can attain. In Turkey, “koftecisi” or meatballs are oblong patties of ground meat mixed with spices and herbs, then grilled.

We ordered meatball soup followed by meatball dishes. The meatball soup was a creamy blend of lentils, vegetables, and bits of meatball—just what we needed to warm us up after being buffeted by the damp wind. Then came our main course: Sergey got tender cutlets, and Jasmine and I shared…kebab sushi. The filling was made with meat and finely chopped pistachio, which had apparently been formed into a roll, then wrapped with a pastry. This roll is then sliced and the slices are grilled. The end result was delectable!

Alas, our little glasses of apple tea were soon finished and the meatballs gone; we had to exit our culinary cocoon. Yet, the restaurant was not the only gem around the mosque. We found some artisans making their goods–engraved platters and other metal trinkets. Their workshop also functioned as their shop, and after watching them demonstrate their craft, we bought several dishes engraved with gleaming floral patterns.

Artisan drilling through layers of colored metal to make an etched platter,

Artisan drilling through layers of colored metal to make an etched platter.

Gettin’ hitched, part 4

So, after the flurry of preparations, we headed to the Chicago area–first Sergey, to meet his friend Vadim, and then my parents and me.  Our goal upon arriving in Skokie was to get the marriage license ASAP.  We found the county clerk’s office, an expansive building housing courtrooms and various offices, and after returning our electronics (apparently prohibited) to the van and de-belting for the metal detector, we went inside.  We found our room and joined the line of couples waiting for licenses.  Finally, it was our turn.  The lady behind the counter did not seem to find her job romantic at all as she embarked on a long list of questions apparently designed to determine our capacity for trivia questions, like “Where was your mother born?” and “What is your social security number?”  I guess we passed the test, because we got the license, woohoo!  License to wed!

License to wed!

License to wed!

Soon after that, my parents left, and Sergey and Vadim went to a baseball game to marvel at its slow complexity (they managed to withstand one hour of three), and I waited in the hotel for Dianne to arrive.  Actually, I fell asleep long before she came and accidentally locked her out of the room, but don’t worry, we eventually had our reunion, and then the next day were joined first by Faye and Milly, and then by Addie and Safiyyah (Sadia came a bit later).  And thus began our Mount Holyoke reunion.  Seven sisters, three days, one Windy City.

So what makes it onto the travel itinerary for these womyn?  Let me tell you: a museum honoring social welfare activism (Jane Addams Hull House), a giant ferris wheel–and then fireworks, the Art Institute, an outdoor opera concert, a glass balcony hanging over the city, and more.  As for the tastebud tour of Chicagoan cuisine, our first day together, we indulged in deep dish pizza.  I think I know why this style is mostly constrained to Chicago; Faye gave it the review, “I feel like there is a giant cheese ball sitting in my stomach.”  Vadim, on the other hand, started with cheesecake and moved on to the pizza.  Well, some friends enjoyed the cheese ball effect, but perhaps it is no coincidence that we lunched at a vegan café the next day.

I must say, it’s pretty nifty to have friends who delight in both the swing ride at Navy Pier and in analyzing historical museum displays, who make a surprising beeline for the paperweight collection at the Art Institute and appreciate the tale of Salome as told through the music of Strauss.  I guess that’s why these ladies are my friends and have been for five years.

Reflections: our group visits Cloud Gate, better known as the Bean, in Millennium Park.

Reflections: our group visits Cloud Gate, better known as the Bean, in Millennium Park.

Speaking of the Art Institute, I was disappointed to leave its glowing galleries after only several hours.  Before departing, Sergey and I visited the special exhibit on Magritte together.  Surrealist paintings watched us from the black walls with disconnected body parts juxtaposed with strange objects and nonsensical labels.  Sergey found it all quite disturbing and concluded of Magritte, “This guy was sick.”  Then, I gave Sergey a desperate whirlwind tour, whisking him through all the Impressionist (“It’s nice but blurry”) and Renaissance galleries at a near jog.  Then it was time for us to leave our friends to revel at the artistic treasures as we boarded the train back to Skokie.  There was, apparently, a wedding to prepare for…

So shiny

We’re on the roof of a building in the Abdullah Pasha compound in ‘Akká.  It’s 7:00 PM and the sun is setting over the Mediterranean, painting sky and sea.  Viewed through the chain link fence bordering the roof, it becomes a gleaming mosaic.   A mosaic in a Mosaic land.  If I had brought my camera, I would have indulged in some shutterbugging, but I try to take “photos with my brain” instead.  Although I could really use a better memory card.

At least someone remembered their camera!

At least someone remembered their camera!

So we’re on the roof for our weekly reflection program, a change of habitat from our usual multipurpose room.  The group is singing the song we always sing, “Unite the hearts,” when the call to prayer rings out from the nearby mosque.  I find myself wishing church bells would start tolling and the worshippers at a synagogue would start harmonizing in an interfaith mashup.

The previous week, a member of the Universal House of Justice talked with our group about the spiritual prerequisites for success.  I had the (nerve-wracking) honor of introducing him (I cut the word “prerequisite” out of my intro after its multiple R’s proved hostile to my pronunciation) and sitting beside him for the duration.  The scent of his attar of rose permeated the air.

I made a card to thank him for joining us.  It was the first time I’ve painted in quite a while, and losing myself in the watercolors for a few hours reminded me why I love making art.  The line written in the lower left corner comes from the 28 December 2010 message of the UHJ to the Continental Board of Counsellors, which discusses upholding Bahá’í values and nurturing good habits of thought:

May every one of them [youth] come to know the bounties of a life adorned with purity and learn to draw on the powers that flow through pure channels.


I can’t help but notice a resemblance to an earlier painting…

Watercolor - Forest Meditation

Five years have elapsed, and my muse remains the same.


I have a new abode.  The daily commute got to me, so I checked out some open flats, chose one, moved, and now live under ten minutes away from my office.  In fact, the view kitchen/dining room looks onto the lower levels of the International Teaching Center.

I like my new little nest.  When I first stepped in to assess it, I felt like I was in a well-loved space.  Maybe it was the combination of houseplants and the framed illustrations, done by one of my new flatmates, that fill a bookshelf.

There are things about living in the stratosphere that I will miss…


The incredible panorama from my previous flat.

But I have a new view.

Foreground: roof of next door apartment building Middleground: High rise Background: Mediterranean and infinity

Foreground: roof of next door apartment building
Middleground: High rise
Background: Mediterranean and infinity

Ever the obsessive planner, after I found out I had a week to move out of my old flat and into my new place, one thought consumed me:

I have two big suitcases.  My new apartment is not on a street but rather on a staircase.  And the flat itself happens to be on the top floor of a building that has no elevator.  How am I going to get my things up there?

This question made me realize I need to befriend more muscular young men.  Eventually, utilizing all my networking powers, I assembled a move crew.

My visions of struggling to heave my suitcases upstairs until I was bathed in sweat and tears proved false.  It took only one trip to get my possessions from the car to the flat.

After I thanked my helpers with some ice cream, I noticed how, er, well-loved my new room was.  Besides the dust of many weeks, there were some odder substances, like the sticky, honey-like drips that ran down the wall behind one shelf.  Based on cleaning the room and purging her kitchen cupboard, I pretty much know everything about the previous inhabitant, from hair color to cooking habits.

When I first started dusting the wardrobe shelves, I noticed a shard of glass buried a corner, then spots of blood on my rag.

Five minutes of cleaning, and already injured?  I hadn’t even felt any pain.  After washing and bandaging my cut finger, I got back to work.  I figured it might be wise to dust the top of the wardrobe, and to my horror discovered a decade’s worth of dust up there, soft and thick like gray velvet.  From desk to bookshelf I climbed until I had enough altitude to reach the entire filthy surface.

Oh, did I mention my second injury?  I had the ceiling fan on, mostly because I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off, and was kindly reminded of its presence by a smack on the back of my head.

Don’t worry, my skull is intact.  After this interaction with the fan, I took a moment to thank God that despite my utter lack of common sense, despite my tendency to zone out and step out in front of oncoming traffic, to leave ovens on until they nearly melt,  to use deadly cleaning chemicals and home pesticides without any protection–to do countless foolish things–He’s kept me alive for twenty-two years without so much as a broken bone.


At long last, I have my new room clean and in order.  We’ll see how long the “in order” part lasts, but for now…

In my bedroom, I found a masterpiece of folk art already installed on the wall. Let me describe it: in the background, a sunset glows above green hills and a blue lake. If that was all, it would not be so remarkable, but in the foreground, an admixture of mysterious symbols float ominously, stacked on top of each other: a burning candle, a red plant, a blue amorphous streak, and a green face. The face bothers me a lot, as well as the blue streaky thing that looks to me like a headless woman bending over. But the face. Depending on whether you view the jaw as extending beneath the hills, this person either has the features of Gumby (explains the green skin) or a lantern jaw that makes Jay Leno look weak-chinned.

But until I can find enough acrylics to paint over this canvas, it shall remain, silently watching my doorway, waiting for the arrival of some connoisseur of clumsy symbolist art.