Learning Something New

About ten years ago, I began to play with photography as something more than just taking snapshots to record events. I began to regard it as a hobby, a skill I wished to improve upon so that others would want to look at my photographs because they were pretty or thought provoking or interesting. Now, I want to be clear, I have not been working on this consistently over the last ten years, but I have, at least intermittently, worked at becoming a better photographer.

I am a much better photographer than I was. Family members and some friends tell me I’m a great photographer. I know better. I take a nice photo, but I’m not even among the top ranked of the amateurs I know (see Neil Schulman, for example, or Aaron Hockley). They are truly amazing photographers. I am at the point where I am willing to call myself a good, but not exceptional, photographer.

As with most photographers with cats, or frankly, people with cats, I take pictures on my cats. They tend to make interesting subjects, and, more relevantly, they’re around (by the way, that also explains why when, during rabbinical school, a class assignment was to work on our “free-form blessings,” I was chasing the cats around trying to get them to sit still for a misheberach–they prefer to be photographed than blessed).

In January, three new cats entered our lives. Two of them are mainly black with a little bit of white. For months, now, I’ve been frustrated by this. Do you know who first decided that black cats are bad luck? I am positive it was the first person who tried to take a portrait of one. Getting black features to appear against a black body is just not something that works well for a camera, whether film or digital.

Today, therefore, is a triumph for me. I finally managed to take some decent shots of the black and white cats. The first photo is of Rosie. The second photo is of her brother, Dancer.

I admit, I may have cheated just a bit in converting the pictures to black and white. And someday, I will succeed in getting a good color picture of the cats, without too much noise showing up in the fur. But for now, I’m feeling quite clever and pleased with myself. I am also very pleased with Rosie and Dancer, who were patient subjects. Nom Nom, who took off the instant I got the camera out, I’m somewhat less pleased by, but I’ll get his photo, too, one of these days.

The Cats of Israel

I suspect that many of you who read my blog know that I am fond of cats. The recent trip to Israel provided a great opportunity for cat watching–and photography. Throughout much of the Mediterranean, street cats are a constant presence, and part of the urban ecosystems. Israel is no exception, and I had some fun with the camera.

This cat and I made our acquaintance in Acre. A friendly sort, he enjoyed conversing and lounging. He was, however, very clear on one point. That was his tree.

Like many of the cats, he was fairly solitary, though there were a few other cats in the neighborhood.

In other places, there were groups of cats hanging out. In Capernum, for example, there was a group of three cats who were a posse. Making themselves at home, in around, under and on top of this bench, they napped and groomed, seeming to enjoy the heat of the day. It was quite warm that day, which made it perfect cat weather.

As with everything else in Jerusalem, the cats of Jerusalem are special. They clearly regard themselves as the guardians of the city, and take that responsibility quite seriously.

Admittedly, there are some who seem a bit more, ah, engaged in the whole watching over everything than others. Case in point: this feline somehow managed to find a soft couch to use as his base of operations. Most other cats in Jerusalem were out and about, whether supervising the Western Wall crowds, as these two kittens were, or stalking the wild discarded pizza, like this leopard-like fellow.

And then, there were the cats who simply sat and supervised, whether amid archaeological ruins or a wall in the old city.

Jerusalem

What can one say about Jerusalem. It is a city that seamlessly merges ancient and modern, building today from the same stone that the ancient Israelites used 3000 years ago. It is a city revered as holy by three faiths. It is a city which has inspired its own psychological disorder: Jerusalem Syndrome. And, it is a city of people trying to live their everyday lives.

Among the images of Jerusalem, these are the ones that predominate our imaginations: Yet, these images are only the smallest part of Jerusalem, or the Jerusalem experience.

The Done of the Rock, gleaming golden in the sun, the third holiest site in Islam, sits just above the Western Wall of the Ancient Temple. It is said that the rock at the base of the dome is the same rock upon which Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac. That rock is referred to as the Oompholos Mundi, the bellybutton of the world.

The Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, The Kotel, is all that remains (more or less) of the Second Temple. Jews have visited for centuries in an attempt to get closer to God, sticking notes into the cracks in the wall. Moving into the electronic age, you can now email your note and have it inserted. Yet pilgrims still come, and many Americans (and others) travel to Jerusalem each year to celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies at the wall (this was, in fact, the occasion for this trip to Israel: my cousin’s bat mitzvah).

The old city, however, is far more than just these holy sites. It also includes millenia of buildings, like the Domition Abbey.

No visit to the Old city of Jerusalem is complete without a trip through the markets. Crowded and bustling, the sellers are by turns friendly, cajoling, and insistent bargainers.

All of this is within the Old City. Without, there is another market, Machane Yehuda, where there are fruits, vegetable, and even kippot (yalmukes).

Yet none of this is my experience of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, for me, is a city a walk through. A modern-ish city of cafes and restaurants. A place which changes so fast that every time I visit (usually about 10 years apart), the routes I relied upon during my previous visit no longer exists, or no longer leads where it used to. It is a city in which I visit the Supersol each time, since I was 10 years old (it’s just a supermarket, but it one of my personal landmarks).

I’ve walk through the streets of Jerusalem in times of peace and times of trouble. There have been times when it was safe to take the bus, and times when no one took the bus for fear of bombs. I’ve walked these streets with family, with friends, with colleagues.

Jerusalem, despite all the change, is an eternal city. The more it changes, the more the heart of the city remains. It is a city which cannot be truly known, so much as encountered anew each day. It is a place which can spark the spirituality of our soul, or it can extinguish every spiritual impulse.

Jerusalem is a city which changes and endures. It challenges and soothes, but it is never boring.

Pretty Pictures from Israel

This post has nothing to do with Israel, except that the pictures were taken there. But they aren’t really Israel-specific. They are flowers and water, and things like that. You know, pretty pictures that happen to be taken in Israel.

And, in addition to the photos in the post, there are a bunch more in the gallery at the bottom.

Caesaria: Roman Port

As promised, I’m doing the Israel recap in chunks. Today: Caesaria. An ancient city built by Herod on the coast of Israel, dedicated to his patron, Caesar Augustus. Archaeologically developed over the last fifty years to reveal many of the original structures, it includes an ancient Roman theater (which many of us would call an amphitheater, but which our guide informed us was really a theater because it was only a semi-circle of seats, not a full circle). This stage and stone seats is still used for concerts today, and apparently holds about 4000 people.

If I’m recalling correctly, Caesaria was our first interaction with a large scale Roman ruin (though assuredly not our last). It provides an interesting view on how ruins in Israel develop, the layering of cultures on top of one another. In order to truly appreciate this, a (very) quick history lesson is probably useful.

The land which we now call Israel was inhabited and ruled by, in succession:

  • The Cannaanite (until roughly 1000 BC)
  • The Israelites (or Jews) (1000 BC – mid 500s BC)
  • The Babylonians
  • The Persians
  • The Greeks
  • The Jews (Hasmonian Dynasty–around 150 BC until a bit before the birth of Jesus)
  • Romans (63 BC – Mid 300s AD)
  • Byzantine Period (Mid 300s – Mid 600s
  • Muslim Rulers (650-ish until the Crusades ~1100)
  • Christian Crusaders (~1100 – ~1250)
  • The Mamluks (~1250 – ~1500)
  • The Ottoman Empire (1500  –  1917)
  • The British Mandate (1917 – 1948)
  • The State of Israel (1948 – Present)

Each of these cultures, (especially from the Romans forward) has their own distinctive architectural styles, but, for the most part, were building on top of the ruins or foundations of what came before. Thus we get walls such as this, in which a carved lintel from an earlier period is integrated into a later wall:

or this, where a wall is composed of various styles, clearly from different periods of construction:

I find the interaction of the various periods fascinating, not least because of the ways in which the different stone finishing techniques catch shadows and light differently.

As you may or may not know, my undergraduate degree is in Classics (Greek and Roman), and therefore I have a certain fondness for the relics and stories of those cultures. One carved stone element, in particular, caught my fancy in this regard: a carved head of a gorgon. If you recall the story, the gaze of the gorgon turns the object of the gaze to stone. However, here it is the head of the gorgon which has been turned to stone.

The layering of cultures is extensive: an ancient Roman city and port, but also the minaret from the 18th or 19th century (built upon a crusader ruin, which you can’t see in this photo:

In the interest of not writing a full travel log, and thoroughly boring you, I will append the rest of the photos as a gallery for browsing as suits your pleasure.

Caesaria, is a walk by the sea, through an ancient town. Like much of Israel, history is present in each step, and somehow feels more alive than in other places, as one sees the edifices of one culture re-purposed for the needs of another. The enduring message, for me, is that everything passes, and our great achievements are only the building blocks for those who come after.

Tropical Photos

For a variety of not very interesting reasons, I haven’t been blogging much recently, despite having some decent material. Some of that material is photographs I took recently on a family trip down to Little Cayman. Because you all wanted to see photos of my vacation, right? Just sit back, relax, I’ll get the slide projector and hold you hostage while I show you pictures of cousin Herman packing for the vacation.

Okay, not so much. They are wildlife photos, and I thought they might be of interest because I’ve been getting some very positive feedback on my nature photography. On the other hand, feel free to disregard if these photos aren’t your cup of tea.

Iguana

There are a lot of Iguanas on the island, and they all look deeply prehistoric.

In addition to the reptile life, there were birds: egrets, herons and frigate birds, in particular.

Blue Heron in flight

This is a Great Blue Heron, flying off with an eel in its beak.

The most popular reason for being on Little Cayman is the diving and snorkeling. Conc shells abound, and I found them an interesting object for photographic experiments.

As always, I did a little botanical photography (a long-winded way of saying I took pictures of plants). I really liked the geometrical nature of the agave..

Watching sunrise and sunset from a tropical island is an amazing experience. Trying to photograph it is more frustrating. Especially without a tripod. Nonetheless, I hope some of the tranquility and gentle breeziness comes through in this photo.

The frigate birds, circled and flew in large groups towards dusk, before settling into some trees for the night. These birds are distinctly reminiscent of a pterodactyl, in large part because of the their long wingspan (they have the highest wingspan to weight ratio of any bird).

The iguanas were not limited to the roadways: we also had one which hung out right by the condos. All of the island iguanas seem relatively accustomed to humans, and regard them as a sources of food.

If you look carefully, you can see that the iguana on the road and the condo iguana (whom we nicknamed Iggy), are slightly different species.

Finally, I thought I'd leave you with a photo of me: massacring a coconut.

Some Photos from my Walk to Work

Been pretty busy recently, but I walked to work today and took some photos along the way. I thought I’d share them.

gardentulip-bootstulips-hyacinthmagnoliatulipsAnyway, I hope to do more writing soon. But in the meantime, enjoy spring in Portland.