Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Meron Festival

Egged, Israel's largest bus company, runs a continuous 200+ bus shuttle service on the Jerusalem-Meron route throughout the festival, in addition to increased service from many other cities. Car rental agencies are sold out. Every private tour bus company is booked. Everyone is going to Meron. I hook up with some friends get going.

Four busses at a time pull up to the Jerusalem departure point (Shmuel HaNavi St.) every 5 minutes. They all open their doors simultaneously, and the waiting crowd immediately begins pushing at every door to get on. The busses fill every seat, depart, and are replaced. During the 2.5 hour ride, we pass towns and cities aflame with yellow rays setting sun and, later, the celebratory bonfires that are lit all over the country on this day. The excitement mounts.

I arrived at about 10:00pm Monday night. Hundreds of people filled the walking paths of tiny Meron. People swarmed everywhere. There were the devout making a holy pilgrimage to the grave of a great ancient scholar. There were others just there for the party. Many came to pray. Many came to dance. At every available spot beside the paths and in the surrounding woods campers pitched their tents to spend the night. Free water bottles were distributed at the village entrance. All the homes in the town became virtually public property. Roads were closed to traffic to accommodate the throngs of revellers.

As I made my way through the crowd along the winding path towards the focal point, the tomb of the Rashbi, I passed people in hassidic garb, people in t-shirts and jeans or cargo pants, men in suits, women in dresses of all colors, boys with rainbow colored skullcaps, teens with the white skullcaps of the"na nachs", others wearing the pin of the "mishichists" in their jackets. Some stood in the road collecting charity, others set up shop on the side of the road selling various books, food, or souvenirs. The music became louder. Large tents offered free meals. I approached the entrance to the cave. Here, the crowds were denser than ever. Floodlights lit the myriad posters hung all about the cave entrance. I pushed in along with the crowd, towards the tiny spot where everyone hoped to reach: the exact spot where the Rashbi is buried. Now is when the claustrophobia can begin: There is no way out, but in. The crowd behind propels you forward, blocking off the entrance. There is no choice but to reach the exit on the other side

Just inside the building is a large open room, a kind of hallway. All men here, there is a separate entrance for women. I am carried with the crowd through that room and into the next, a high-ceilinged room with a balcony overlooking it from all sides. This room is filled with pulsating music and dancing. It is hot and crowded. Cold drinks are available along the wall from 2 free soda fountains, but the room is so packed with people they are difficult to reach. The band plays from the balcony above. Eventually, visitors push on the next room. It is a tiny hallway about 5 feet by 10 feet, and holds something like 70 people. Don't ask. But I really enjoyed it. Found a cute guy to follow and enjoyed being pressed tightly against him.

This hallway opens into a large room with low vaulted ceilings painted white. Normal regulations would probably limit occupancy to 200 people, but there must have been 1000 inside. We were packed in so close here I lifted my feet off the floor and was supported by the crowd. The airconditioning was blasting many times stronger than what you would usually need for a room this size, but with this many people we would all have suffocated without it. Literally. The building predates A/C, so the air was piped in by big silver pipes along the ceiling. So close, yet so far. The crowd pushed toward the goal, that corner of the room which is the site of the Rashbi's actual grave. All 1000 people tried to force their way to the corner. Once you got there, you had to fight again to leave. Bodies shoved up against bodies. All grinding and gyrating against one another in their quest for that elusive corner. Awesome. Did I hear someone say frottage?

After touching the corner wall, I hightailed it out of the cave. Outside, there were several large bonfires and a wide open space filled with thousands of people dancing. I hung out here for a while, then made my way to the pool. A little-known but most valuable amenity, a tiny 2 foot by 4 foot pool just big enough for one person to clean and cool off at a time sits just inside the cave builing. Many people are embarrased to enter the nude-only pool, so it creates a cozy enclave eerily apart from the masses outside.

Refreshed and feeling like a new man, I went to the food tents for a bite to eat. Stopped at another small, quiet cave on the way. After some more dancing, meeting people, eating, and another round at the "gravesite struggle" I walked to the busses and took one back to Jerusalem. Returned here at 8:30am after 14 hrs of crazy fun.

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