Wednesday I went to Caesarea, a beautiful seaside town of fourth century Roman ruins.
On my flight to Israel, I met a fellow oleh chadash (new immigrant) named Ari. We’ve become fast friends and recently he made the wise observation that I’ve spent almost all of my time in Tel Aviv and that we should go explore other parts of the country. Since he has a British accent and all things sound wiser that way, I obliged him.
I could spend this blog telling you about the amazing Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman ruins. Or the crystal blue sea. Or the snorkeling Ari and I did.
Instead, I’d like to tell you about our cab driver, Akiva. Before I get to that, look at the cool pictures below of our trip!
When Ari and I got off the train, we had trouble finding the right bus. Caesarea is the opposite of Tel Aviv- it is completely in the middle of nowhere, so it is hard to get around.
Instead of waiting for buses, I ran and hailed a cab dropping someone off and we got in.
The driver’s name was Akiva. Akiva is a Persian Kurdish Jew. He speaks some Farsi and fluent Kurdish. His mom made such good Kurdish food that he said he’d pay $500 just to taste her food again (she passed away at 82).
Before dropping us off at Caesarea, Akiva tells us he can show us the graves of ancient rabbis if we call him for a ride back.
After a day of fun and exploring and a little bit of sunburn, I called Akiva.
Twenty minutes later, Akiva comes walking down the street and tells us to follow him. He said the guards wouldn’t let him bring in his car.
We walk 10 minutes down the road and he motions for us to literally climb with him down a cliff. We make our way down and there is the grave of Rabbi Abahu, one of the Amoraim (great scholars of old- and by old I mean 1700 years old). Rabbi Abahu was actually from 3rd century Caesarea- something people who deny Jewish history in this land would be wise to remember. Our cab driver was not bullshitting us- there’s an actual sign and little books of Psalms that you’re supposed to recite. We leave stones on the grave in the rabbi’s memory.
It’s customary to pray for something when visiting the grave of a great rabbi. I prayed for our driver Akiva, my friend Ari, for me, for the Jewish people, for the whole region, for the victims of the war in Syria, and for the soul of the rabbi himself. I’ve never prayed at the grave of a rabbi- it was quite a moving experience, especially with the beautiful sea breeze and sound of the waves crashing behind us. Could Rabbi Abahu have ever imagined that his people would return to their homeland 2,000 years after the Romans brutally forced them into exile? I wonder if he prayed that one day his descendants (us) would visit his tomb.
Akiva walked us back up the cliff (it’s worth pointing out that Akiva is probably 70 years old and there’s no cab meter running- this is just out of the generosity of his heart). Then he walked us to another site- an ancient synagogue mosaic. You could even see some Hebrew writing among the tiles. According to (our) Akiva, the famed Rabbi Akiva (1st century C.E.) was buried there as well after he was mercilessly tortured by Roman soldiers.
First off, I’ve never felt more connected to the land of Israel. Not just because of the stunning scenery that constantly keeps me in awe that I actually live here. But also because my ancestors walked this land. They defended our faith and kept our culture alive so that I can reap the benefits today and pass on that tradition to future generations.
Akiva, our wonderful cab driver, is the epitome of the best of Israeli society. After spending a good 20-30 minutes with us exploring these historic sites, he asks us to follow him again. This time, we headed towards the car. It was another 15 minutes down the road.
This 70-year-old man took an hour out of his day in pummeling heat to show us our heritage. Not because he had to, just because he is kind and he is proud of his people. There is a depth of generosity here- true, unrewarded, and authentic- towards strangers that I have never seen in any other place in the world.
Perhaps that is because we’re not strangers. Akiva, Ari, and I- as different as we might be- our stories are intertwined. We are not strangers. We’re more like long lost family getting reacquainted after a long and painful absence.
There is nothing sweeter in the world than for three Jews to dance on Roman ruins.