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November 28, 2014 | 6th Kislev 5775

Syzygy

Galilee Diary #541, July 6, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place, what is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him?
         -Psalms 8:4-5

On June 15th, the full moon of mid-Sivan, a full eclipse of the moon was visible in our part of the world. I read about it in the morning paper and made a mental note of it, but of course promptly forgot all about it. However, as it happened, I was scheduled to spend that evening accompanying a group of HUC students from the US on a tour of the old city of Acco with Abdu Matta, a tour guide and story teller who lives there. It was a perfectly clear night, and as we set off on our walk, we could already make out the shadow of the earth beginning to fall on the face of the moon. As the moon rose higher and the shadow darkened, we kept encountering it every few minutes, as our route through the alleyways of the city would bring us out into plazas or even as we passed gaps between buildings. By the time we concluded our tour the eclipse was complete, a faint orange disk glowing in the sky. Abdu is full of local lore and knowledge and has great comic timing, but even he had trouble keeping up with the cosmic competition.

Interestingly, while the moon is central to the Jewish calendar, and the rhythm of Rosh Chodesh and the holidays keeps one aware of the phases of the moon, our tradition does not make much of eclipses. There is no special blessing to be recited upon seeing one. Along our tour Abdu stopped a couple of young men emerging from a mosque, who told us that in Islam (where the moon is even more central than in Judaism), it is customary to gather and recite special prayers on the occasion of an eclipse. (By the way, since this is a leap year in the Jewish calendar, Ramadan will be moving up one month, and will coincide with Av from this year until the next leap year in 2014, when it will move up to Tamuz. The Muslims live by the moon alone; we take the sun into account as well.)

Walking around Acco at night (by the light of the shrinking moon) arouses ambivalent feelings in me. On the one hand, the old city (like Jaffa or Jerusalem - or any old city built of stone in pre-modern times) is charming and romantic, filled with graceful stone arches and domes, minarets and church towers, the sea wall and the shuk. The narrow passageways convey intimacy and mystery, the weathered stone and iron and wood give you the feeling that you're walking through history - which you are, as you listen to Abdu's tales of the nobility of Sheikh Dhar el Omar and the cruelty of Jazzar Pasha, and you stop outside the synagogue of Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto. On the other hand, one person's romance is another's squalor. The advantage of a night tour is that the dim light helps cover the poverty and dirt, the roaches and the rats, the crumbling infrastructure and dismal quality of life of the residents of the old city. Acco has great potential as a tourist destination, and recent years have seen significant development - new museums and hotels, a new youth hostel under construction, new lighting and parking, etc. The dilemma is, how best to use that potential to improve the lives of the residents without forcing them out and without destroying the charm of the "oldness" that characterizes the city. We have seen graceful old neighborhoods in other cities give way to high-end luxury developments that pretend to "preserve" the old but actually do so taxidermically at best, kitschily at worst. So far that hasn't started in Acco. I wonder if there is some kind of middle way, that would allow modernization along with strengthening the social and economic fabric of the local community, without eclipsing the historic and esthetic values of the old city itself. I suspect we have something to learn from Europe in this regard; I hope we figure it out before it's too late.

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