Yad La-Shiryon is Israel’s main tank museum. Although the Musée des Blindés in France, with over 800 tanks, is the largest tank museum in the world, Yad La-Shiryon’s smaller collection of 160 tanks still ranks among the largest tank museums in the world. This is because no other tank museum has even half the number of tanks as France has.
Yad La-Shiryon means “hand” or “monument” of armor. It is also known as the Armored Corps Memorial Site and Museum, and is located in Latrun, which is a hill in the Ayalon valley between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. After the British Mandate of Palestine ended in 1948, this area fell under Jordanian rule. However, Israel took control of this strategic location during the Six Day War of 1967. Going back to ancient times, the Ayalon Valley is mentioned in the Bible in Joshua chapter 10 as the location of a battle between Moses’ successor, Joshua, and several local kings. According to this chapter, after Joshua prayed, God stopped the sun in the sky so that Joshua had enough time to win the battle.
During the British Mandate of Palestine, after WWI, the British built a police station on Latrun, because it provided a clear view of the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In 1982, Israel decided to convert the former police station into a museum dedicated to its fallen armored forces. Today, you can watch a movie about the history of tank warfare in Israel inside of the museum. Apparently, there is also a small synagogue and library in the building, but I did not notice either of these when I was there.
The primary attraction at Yad La-Shiryon is its 160 military tanks. These include all of the different types that Israel has used throughout the years (such as the Merkava) as well as tanks from other parts of the world, such as Britain, Russia, and the United States. However, the tanks that I found the most interesting were the two Nazi Panzers. Israel owning Nazi tanks is interesting enough, but how they obtained them was what made them fascinating. Initially, the Russian Red Army captured them from Germany during WWII. Afterwards, Russia sold them to Syria. Israel then captured them from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967. Clearly, the tanks passed through a lot of completely different hands.
All of the tanks at Yad La-Shiryon are parked just outside of the former British police station. Each tank has a sign next to it, written in both Hebrew and English, describing its history. The best part about the tank exhibit is that visitors are allowed to climb on top of the tanks. Yad La-Shiryon is definitely worth a visit for military history fans. In 2019, it was announced that another museum will be built on Latrun as well, so perhaps there will be even more history to see there soon. This museum will be dedicated to all of the Jewish soldiers who fought under the Allied forces during WWII, as well as those who worked in the underground against the Nazis.
Slightly south of Jerusalem is Bethlehem (which means “house of bread” in Hebrew), a small town that became famous for being the birthplace of Jesus as well as King David. However, if you visit Bethlehem today, it is difficult to picture it as the small Jewish town it once was. It is now a somewhat touristy area with a population that has slowly changed from predominantly Christian to Muslim in the last fifty years. It is located in a Section A area of the West Bank, meaning that it is under Palestinian control, and that Israeli citizens are not permitted to enter there. Section B areas of the West Bank have joint-Palestinian and Israeli control, and Section C is where the disputed Israeli settlements are. In order to enter or exit a Section A area, people need to go through checkpoints. However, this is mostly inconvenient for the people who live within the country. The Bethlehem checkpoint is generally not a problem for tourists.
Most tourists who visit Bethlehem go to see the oldest church in the world that is still in use today, the Church of the Nativity. This Church encompasses a small cave that, since the second century A.D., tradition claims was Jesus’ birthplace. The original church was built in 339 A.D. by Constantine the Great’s mother, Helena. However, most of the current church’s structure is from the sixth century A.D., and was built by the Byzantine King, Justinian I. Throughout the centuries, the Church has experienced both damage and restoration. The Church’s most recent drama occurred in 2002 during the Second Intifada, when the Israeli government laid siege on 200 Palestinians who fled into the Church. When UNESCO made the Church of the Nativity a World Heritage Site in 2012, they also placed its status as “Endangered.” However, restoration began after that, and in 2019, this status was removed.
When you enter the Church, you must duck your head, because the doorway is shorter than most doorways. The reason for this is probably to make sure that visitors show respect while entering the sacred space. Because the Church is extremely old, inside is not a showy place with gaudy architecture and decorations. Instead, it is a simple, stone structure with high columns and a high ceiling. To enter the cave, you must descend into a separate part of the Church, away from the main sanctuary. According to my father, when he visited the church in the 1970s, the cave area had a doll in it that was supposed to represent baby Jesus. However, when I visited in 2010, I did not see that. Three groups currently oversee the Church: the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Armenian Church.
Right outside of Bethlehem is a spot that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all consider important. It is the alleged tomb of Rachel, the favorite wife of Jacob from the Bible (Genesis 35:19-20). However, like most Biblical sites in Israel, many theories exist as to whether this or other nearby sites are the actual place where Rachel was buried. Unfortunately, I never had a chance to visit Rachel’s tomb.
Bethlehem has never been known for having much there, but it is certainly worth visiting if you are interested in seeing the oldest church in the world that is still in use today. It may not be the most beautiful church in the world, but the ancient stone structure and scent of frankincense flowing through the air provide an experience rarely encountered in the Western world.
Sources and Further Reading
“Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1433/ (accessed November 30, 2019).
“The Site of the Birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem (Palestine) Removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, July 2, 2109. http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1995/ (accessed November 30, 2019).
In the United States, Christmas has become a very commercialized holiday. Sometimes, as early as September, you can already find Christmas-related items at the store. Amidst these Christmas items are often a few items related to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah, because it has the guttural “H” sound). However, Hanukkah is actually considered a minor Jewish holiday. The most important Jewish holidays are the ones found in the Bible, especially Leviticus 23, whereas, the story of Hanukkah occurred after the Old Testament had already been completed. There isn’t a Hanukkah museum, but I had the privilege of experiencing Hanukkah at its birthplace, Jerusalem.
The reason for Hanukkah’s popularity in the United States is that it falls around the time of Christmas. It became a way for the Jewish community to not feel completely left out around Christmastime. However, unlike Christmas, it never falls on the exact same day each year, because it follows the Jewish calendar, which is lunar, not the Gregorian calendar, which is solar. It still falls around December, though, because the Jewish calendar has a leap month every few years, which helps keep the months on a similar timeline. (The Muslim calendar, on the other hand, is lunar, but doesn’t have leap days or months, so its holidays can occur at any time of year.)
Whereas most of Israel shuts down during the major Jewish holidays found in Leviticus 23, life typically continues as normal during Hanukkah. On the first night of Hanukkah, I went to the Western (or Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem. This was a retaining wall surrounding the Second Temple and was built by King Herod the Great in the first century B.C. It is the only structure remaining that had a connection with the Jewish Temple, which the Romans completely destroyed in A.D. 70. The reason why I went to the Western Wall at night is because Jewish holidays begin at sundown. This is because the creation narrative found in Genesis 1 repeatedly says, “And there was evening and there was morning the first day,” “second day,” etc. for each of the six days of creation, implying that the day began in the evening.
While at the Western Wall (which is considered the holiest site in Judaism, due to its proximity to where the Temple once stood), the chief rabbi of Jerusalem lit the first candle of a giant menorah (the Hebrew word for “lamp”). Afterwards, people danced in the street, and one group even projected a slideshow of images related to the Hanukkah story, with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtrack playing in the background! I was especially pleased to see that the surrounding bakeries were all selling sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) as well.
The reason for lighting the menorah and eating sufganiyot is connected. The story of Hanukkah comes from the first and second books of Maccabees, which are two books found in the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is Jewish writings that date to after the timespan of the Old Testament, but before the Roman occupation of Israel. Some of it is history, and some of it is not. Judaism never recognized the Apocrypha as divine canon, although the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches did and added it to their Bibles (the Protestants later removed it from theirs).
The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees describe how the Seleucid Empire, a remnant of Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire, tried to Hellenize Israel and make the inhabitants worship their gods. In order to do this, the Greeks, under the leadership of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, desecrated the Jewish temple and sacrificed a pig within it. However, a group of Jews under the leadership of a man named Judah Maccabee (Maccabee was his nickname and means “hammer” in Hebrew), fought and overcame the Greeks. After that, Israel remained independent for a brief period of time, until the Romans arrived.
After Judah’s victory, the Jews tried to rededicate the Temple. The Hebrew word for “dedication” is “Hanukkah,” so the holiday is also known as the Feast of Dedication. (The New Testament even references it in John 10:22.) The rest of the Hanukkah story actually comes from later tradition. According to the story, the people were upset when they realized that the 7-branched menorah (or lamp) that was supposed to always continue burning in the Temple, was no longer lit. They tried to find some oil to relight it, but only found enough oil that would last for one day. However, the light ended up lasting for 8 days, just long enough for them to replenish their supply. That is why a menorah is lit on Hanukkah each year, and why the holiday lasts for 8 days. Additionally, that is also why a Hanukkah menorah (also called a Hanukkiah) has 9 branches instead of 7 branches, like what would have been found in the Temple. Each of the 8 branches represents one of the 8 days of Hanukkah, while the extra middle branch is used to light each of the other 8 branches. For each night of Hanukkah, a new candle is lit, until all are completed on the 8th day.
Finally, the reason why sufganiyot (doughnuts) are eaten on Hanukkah, is because they are an oily food, so are a way to remember the miracle of the oil. Israel’s sufganiyot are much more delicious than the ones in the United States. This may partially be because Israel has a wider variety of flavors than just the traditional jelly-filled ones. For example, there were some donuts that were topped with pistachio, halva, and even sweet popcorn. Fried potato pancakes are also a popular Hanukkah dish, because they are oily.
Many people know about Samaritans from the New Testament parable of the “Good Samaritan,” which Jesus told in Luke 10:25-37. According to that parable, Samaritans and Jews in the 1st Century A.D. hated each other. In case you’re wondering if Samaritans still exist, I can assure you that they do, because I had the privilege of meeting one in 2010 at the Samaritan Museum on Mount Gerizim, which is just north of Jerusalem. He happened to be the brother of the Samaritan high priest, and is usually the person who speaks to visitors at the Museum.
There are currently only about 800 Samaritans left in the world, with half of them living on Mount Gerizim, and the other half living in Holon, near Tel Aviv. Over the centuries, a large portion of their population became Christian, and later, Muslim. In fact, it is believed that the people living right below Mount Gerizim in the town of Nablus (Shechem), who now identify as both Palestinian Arab and Muslim, were once Samaritans. Today, the Samaritans living in Holon are required to join the Israeli Army, however, since Mount Gerizim’s Samaritans are duo-Israeli/Palestinian citizens, they are not required to join. Mount Gerizim is located in the West Bank, which is a contested area of Israel, because it used to belong to Jordan until Israel took it during the Six Day War in 1967. West Bank means that the area is on the “west bank” of the Jordan River.
While at the Samaritan Museum, the brother of the Samaritan high priest provided a lot of information about the Samaritans and what makes them unique. First of all, the Samaritans originated as a people starting in about the 8th century B.C., when the Assyrian Empire was at its height. Several Assyrian kings, especially Sargon II, would swap the captured inhabitants of one area with the captured inhabitants of another area, in order to make it more difficult for their newly-conquered subjects to rebel against them. For example, when the Assyrian Empire conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was also known as Samaria (the name of its capital), they deported a large number of its inhabitants to the northern regions of their Empire, never to be seen again. This is where the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel” originates. The Assyrians, then, took other conquered peoples and brought them into Northern Israel/Samaria. The Israelites living there eventually mixed with these other peoples, and this fusion became the Samaritan people.
While on Mount Gerizim, I learned that Samaritans believe that they are descended from the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Levi. The first two listed are among the ten tribes deported by the Assyrians. Jews believe that they are descended from the tribes of Judah (where the word “Jew” comes from), Benjamin, and Levi. These tribes lived in the Southern Kingdom of Israel, so were never deported by the Assyrians. Most of the tribes of Ancient Israel had their own allotment of land, however, the tribe of Levi became the priests, so they were scattered throughout all of Israel and never allotted their own land. That means that both the Jewish and Samaritan claim of having Levite lineage is possible. Researchers have actually administered DNA testing on Jews claiming priestly lineage (people with the last name of Cohen qualify, since that is the Hebrew word for “priest”), and concluded that a Jew claiming priestly descent from Europe and another from Northern Africa actually have a unique chromosome (Y-Chromosomal Aaron) not found in any other population group in the world. When the test extended to Samaritans claiming priestly descent, the chromosome was not exactly the same, but extremely close.
What makes the Samaritan religion different from Judaism is that, wherever a Jewish Bible reads “Jerusalem,” a Samaritan Bible says “Mount Gerizim.” Mount Gerizim is referenced in the Jewish Bible, but does not have the importance that the Samaritans give to it. At the end of Deuteronomy, it says that after the people of Israel left Egypt, they eventually went with Moses to the top of Mount Ebal, where they read the curses that God would place upon them if they disobeyed him. Then, they went to nearby Mount Gerizim, and read the blessings that God would place on them if they obeyed. Perhaps this, and the fact that Mount Gerizim was located in Samaria while Jerusalem was not, attributed to why it is now revered by the Samaritans. The New Testament potentially references the importance of Mount Gerizim to the Samaritans as well. In John 4, a Samaritan woman told Jesus that her ancestors had been worshipping on “this mountain” (the mountain was not specified, but was probably Mt. Gerizim). Not far from the Museum is the remains of a Samaritan Temple, but a Jewish king destroyed it in the 1st Century B.C. A Byzantine church was later built over it, so most of the visible remains come from that latter period.
There are a few other interesting comparisons between the Samaritans and the Jews. For example, on Mount Gerizim, I saw an outdoor, circular area, where the Samaritans still sacrifice a lamb on Passover each year. Visitors are actually welcome to watch. Jews no longer literally sacrifice a lamb on Passover, but they do put a lamb bone on their Passover table to remember the ancient practice. Similarly, like the Jews, the Samaritans follow Deuteronomy 6:9’s injunction of placing God’s commandments on their doorposts. However, whereas Jews follow it by placing a tiny scroll (mezuzah) containing Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 inside a little box adhered to their doorposts, Samaritans carve out a Bible verse of their choosing above their doorways.
Thankfully, Samaritans and Jews do not hate each other as they once did. They are now accepted as Israeli citizens, even if they live in the West Bank. Additionally, another interesting development in the Samaritan community has to do with marriage. Samaritans are only permitted to marry within their community, however, since their numbers are dwindling, there is now a new rule. If a Jewish woman is willing to convert to the Samaritan version of Judaism, then a Samaritan man can marry her. It does not apply to Jewish men though.
Shen, Peidong, Tal Lavi, Toomas Kivisild, Vivian Chou, Deniz Sengun, Dov Gefel, Issac Shpirer, et al. “Reconstruction of Patrilineages and Matrilineages of Samaritans and Other Israeli Populations from Y-Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Variation.” Human Mutation 24, no. 3 (September 2004): 248–60. https://doi.org/10.1002/humu.20077.