Saturday, January 3, 2015

Destination: Jerusalem






Noah and I in front of the Western Wall

We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport at midnight on a Thursday. Noah was awake in the sling as we made our way through the terminal with two suitcases, a backpack, purse, stroller, and car seat. We were tired. No, tired doesn’t describe it. We were surviving in a state between awake and asleep. Merely walking and talking at the same time exerted what was left of our energy reserves.

There is a policy in place in much of the Middle Eastern countries, all Arab, which says you are unwelcome if your passport bears a stamp from Israel. This is similar to the US not allowing Cuban stamps for American citizens. To get around this, one must fly first to Istanbul then to Tel Aviv. Once in Israel you are given a visa card instead of having a stamp in your passport. To begin our trip, our flight to Istanbul was canceled. We did not know this until we got up at four in the morning, had a friend drive us to the airport, and got in line to check in. We had to go back home and then return to the airport later that day. It was one of those days that make you question why you wanted to travel to begin with. What could be more important than snuggled up at home with a hot cup of coffee?

Noah, however, was having a great time. On our flight to Istanbul he refused to sleep but was entertained by a beautiful young Turkish flight attendant. (Upon happily bouncing into her arms, he stuck all of his fingers in her mouth. I was horrified. She laughed and took them out. Her lipstick never moved and I now regret not asking her what she was wearing.) She took him to serve drinks, tend to passengers, prepare meals, and even up to the cockpit to help fly the plane. He was up there with the pilots for at least 20 minutes. I think I starred at the wall while he was gone but I was so grateful for it.

We found the taxi line and started making our way to the cab indicated by a young female dispatcher. The taxi driver was an older gentleman, perhaps in his 70s, wearing a beanie just above his ears. He had reading glasses resting on his nose and a warm sweater buttoned up his chest. He reminded me of the main character in Up and I thought, should he be driving a car at night? He started grabbing our bags as he and the dispatcher exchanged heated words that turned out to be just a conversation. It reminded me of New York where people talk with animated hands and in a tone that sounds like they are yelling at you for offending them, but really they are saying, “Good morning. How are you?”

“Where you going?” asked the taxi driver in a thick Israeli accent. His tongue was used to speaking Hebrew. Gman showed him our friend’s address in Jerusalem. As we pulled out of the airport we realized our driver did not really speak English. He didn’t understand where we were going. “No problem, I call my wife. She e’speak English, and German, and Japanes√©.” He offered. “I call her.” She and he discussed (again sounding a bit heated, though just talking) and Google searched our destination as we drove along the highway generally towards the Holy City.

As we pulled into our friend’s neighborhood the driver commented as to what a nice neighborhood it was and our friend came out to meet us. We quietly made our way into his home and were passed out in the guest room within 10 minutes. And thus our journey in the Holy Land begins.

Street in Jerusalem


Street in Jerusalem

Our trip consisted of seven days in Israel (two days for travel). We visited friends in Jerusalem and stayed with them for three nights. Then we ventured up to the Sea of Galilee area, staying in Nazareth for two nights, and lastly to Caesarea for the day and Tel Aviv for one night. (*I’ll post our full itinerary in a separate posting with travel notes, in case you are interested. Each day of our trip will be a separate blog post as well.)

Western Wall, detail

The next morning we woke up somewhat refreshed. This was surprising because it was 6am and we only had four hours of sleep. It was uninterrupted sleep though and I have learned to accept this sort of blessing as it happens. Still, a strong cup of coffee and a shower were in order. I gathered my toiletries bag, clothes, and towel, and opened the door to walk down the hall. But before I could leave the room, I stopped in my tracks. Our two and a half year old hostess, who had been listening at our door, was caught off guard by my exit. My plans were temporarily changed as we greeted our friends, and their small children – a five-year-old, two and a half year old, and a four month old. Although Noah was four months old only what seems like yesterday, I was surprised at how tiny and precious our friends’ baby was. It’s hard for me to remember Noah that small and I tear up at that thought.

After breakfast we headed out for a day of touring the holy sites in the Old City. I was very excited to experience this part of our trip as soon as possible because it is the one I had been looking forward to for a long time – almost my whole life actually.

For me -and many before me - this wasn’t just a vacation, it was a religious pilgrimage. Since I was in high school studying the Bible I imagined events from long ago. I imagined Romans and Jews walking their cobbled stone streets and going into their beautifully painted houses, eating olives, drinking wine, and talking the latest gossip. I imagined Jesus hanging out with his friends and followers, walking on water, teaching on a hillside. Our pastor at the time took a few people on a Holy Land pilgrimage. He brought back many stories and an oil lamp for my mother. It became one of her most prized possessions and an object that spurred my curiosity. In college, my art history classes only fueled my fire (I feel this way about Greece and surrounding Islands as well).

It is difficult to verbalize why it felt important to travel to the Holy Land and why so many others felt compelled as well. Mark Twain described it in Innocents Abroad something like this: All our lives we are taught of God as something abstract. God is in the heavens and that is an abstract place up in the sky. God exists among us, again invisible and conceptual. We pray to something we cannot see. But the Holy Land is different. God walked there. God touched the land there. He touched people there (in the form of Jesus Christ for Christians). He was as real and physical as I am as I type this. To be in the presence of that realism, if only through yet another abstraction - the collective memory of our past – is what compels people to make the pilgrimage. The thought that God walked this street and now I walk this street somehow connects me with God in a physical way no matter if thousands of years of time are between the footsteps. I think Twain was making fun of his fellow travelers by saying this, but there is a lot of truth in his comments. We are all trying to grasp something that touches us spiritually and makes us feel alive. I’ve done it before in Sedona, Arizona remember?

Jerusalem was described in our tour book as homely looking. It said not to expect great architecture and beauty from a city with such a loaded spiritual significance. One does not equal the other. Additionally, Jerusalem has a famous history of being looked upon as hostile both from a tourist perspective and a political one. I found all of this to be true. But despite being able to cut the tension in the air with a knife, there was room for good times spent with friends and a few holy experiences thrown in.


Street in Jerusalem

Western Wall

Western Wall, view of the men's side

paper prayers in the Western Wall

Rain was forecasted that day, but instead we got partly cloudy and the prefect temperature for taking a walk – chilly in the shade, warm in the sun. We began our tour at Jaffa Gate walking into the Christian Quarter and down David Street. David Street is the main thoroughfare with shops crammed into every opening in the limestone buildings. Shop after shop after shop housed piles of Middle Eastern looking textiles, baskets of trinkets, oil lamps, and olive wood crucifixes. The walls were lined with souvenir t-shirts, tote bags, and jewelry. There were shops of blue and yellow Armenian pottery and ones with local paintings, prints, and photography. Even a shop with American college sports team shirts! The store was called Alabama and we regret not buying a souvenir there.

The roughly hewn limestone path beneath our feet was trodden smooth with time. Steps followed the curvature of the hill upon which they were laid. There were some stones arranged to create a ramp down the stairs. I imagined donkeys pulling carts up and down them hundreds or thousands of years ago.

When we turned a corner, the street became less dense and pristinely cleaned. We were in the Jewish Quarter now. The path opened up as we entered Hurva Square. Purple bougainvillea decorated the side of a building. Wooden tables and chairs filled the courtyard inviting us to stop here for a warm midmorning treat. The smell of challah baking and frankincense lingering filled my nostrils. The whole city smelled like frankincense. The clock ticked towards the babies’ need for nursing and naps. So we continued our journey.

Noah was taking it on all in from the sling on my hip. As usual, almost everyone who passed by smiled and cooed at him; he bounced with each greeting. The sinuous path we followed led us around and around, through narrow streets and wide ones. If I didn’t know we were covering such small square footage and accompanied by our local guide, I would have been concerned about getting lost.

Western Wall, women's side
view of Western Wall and Dome of the Rock

Finally we reached our first destination: The Western Wall. Behind it the Dome of the Rock glistened in the cloud filtered sun making the limestone-covered city beneath it dull and its gold more striking. In the distance we saw the rolling hills of Mount of Olives. We approached the Western Wall slowly but with purpose. It was our first holy site in our pilgrimage. Gman and I split up, as visiting the wall is segregated by gender (Noah was tended to by our generous friends).
washing station at the Western Wall, used by both sexes
Standing 20 feet in front, Ha-Kotel was overwhelming. The giant sized Herodian stones forming the base of the wall stack towards the heavens and provide a neutral canvas for reflection and prayer. Plastic chairs line up facing the wall, somewhat in rows. A woman in front of me sat in a chair rocking as she reads from her prayer book. Several others touched the wall with such reverence and power that I felt what could only be described as spiritual ecstasy emanating from the space. More women to my right came and went as they began and finished their daily prayers. It was obvious who came regularly and who was a tourist.

I hesitated moving closer as if the thick air prevented me from doing so. My body felt heavy, my feet like bricks. Sleep deprived and thoughtless I decided to give it a go and pray. Why not? As I prayed my cheeks became wet with tears. I wiped my eyes and looked around. The cracks in the wall were stuffed with paper. I remembered reading that people came here with their prayers written on bits of paper and stuff them in the wall. My eyes glanced up as I let my mind wander. I noticed a bush growing out of the side of the wall and a common house sparrow busily going about its business. It occurred to me that people of many religions have been bringing prayers to this hallowed place, Temple Mount, for thousands of years and the paper prayers are literally the mortar holding the wall together. I cried again.

Within arms length of the wall, one could see every crevice stuffed to maximum capacity with prayers. The women around me rocked in their chairs with one hand on their prayer book and another on the wall. Some touched their books to their forehead, others their forehead to the wall. The wall was worn and discolored from centuries of oily hands reaching for deliverance. I touch it and shiver. Tears are pouring from my eyes and I continue to shake. Perhaps it’s true that one can feel the presence of something divine in a place where so many pray and God is said to have walked.

It wasn’t until I walked away from the wall that I noticed that the Islamic Friday khutba being blasted in Arabic from loud speakers perched on the top of the wall and through the barbed wire.

I also notice I’m starving and Noah starts flapping his arms and legs as he sees me approaching. We take one look back and venture on to the next holy site on our list: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Church of the Holy Sepulchre interior

Unction Stone at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Christ's tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

One enters the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the side at the top of the nave. Immediately upon entering crowds stop and gather at the Stone of Unction, which is where, since Medieval times, Jesus Christ’s body is thought to have been prepared for burial after his crucifixion. A marble slab about six feet long is elevated about a foot off the ground and surrounded by a matching marble base. Opaque white glass jars hang above it, burning incense. They highly decorated with gold crosses. Behind this on the wall facing the entrance is a grand mosaic depicting the significance of the church – a crucified Christ being removed from the cross, placed on the Unction Stone, and then moved to the tomb.

I stopped here with Noah, still in his favorite spot on him hip, and let him touch everything. Babies love touching things. Despite my hopes for a spiritual experience, I am rather cynical and don’t truly believe that most of these sites are authentic. How could we possibly know Jesus was crucified just right over there in that exact spot? But I figure why not let him touch these supposed sacred places, maybe God will look favorably upon us and Noah will be overcome with sleep from 7pm – 7am until his 18th birthday. Kidding! Kind of…

Pilgrims prayed upon the stone slab. They fell on it and kissed it. They rubbed their clothes on it. One man brought bags of pashminas that he took out and one by one wiped over the stone. It looked worn away with time. Though not that much time. As I later read in the tour book, this stone dates from 1810.

After a few minutes we walked from the Unction Stone to the tomb. The church was dimly lit and filled with sooty sculptures, reliefs, and paintings. I could barely see them to determine dating or even subject matter (though that was easy enough to guess). Apparently the line to see the tomb in the church’s rotunda gets long quickly. We saw it was short and pounced at our good fortune. Everyone in line with us had American accents. We discussed where we were from and the weather in each location, commenting on how nice we have it here in Jerusalem during our pilgrimage. I got a strange notion that we were in line for a ride at Disney World. A more quiet eagerness filled my fellow visitors’ faces than it would at Disney, but too similar to not laugh to myself.

It was our turn to go inside. I was forced to crouch because of all the religious accouterment surrounding me. Inside the tomb, I barely began praying “Dear God,” when a monk yelled, “No stopping inside! NEXT.”

We decided to leave the church after this, feeling slighted and too hungry to see the many more sites and relics inside. Our friend/tour guide tried to reassure us by saying, “Don’t worry, after lunch we’ll go to the Garden Tomb where it is said Jesus was crucified and buried. The tomb is still a tomb, not turned into a church, and the garden has been re-created so you have a more peaceful feeling. It’s easier to imagine the events that occurred there. It’s my favorite place!” Didn’t we just go see where Christ was buried? A second site may indeed offer a more spiritual experience.
Garden Tomb grounds

Garden Tomb grounds

inside the Garden Tomb

wine press at the Garden Tomb

view at the Garden Tomb towards Golgotha

Lunch was too delicious not to mention. In the New City, just outside the Citadel, there is a promenade of newly built shops and restaurants. Its where locals would go more regularly than in the Old City to meet with friends for drinks, dinner or shopping. We had fresh carrot juice, smoked eggplant with fried halloumi cheese, and crunchy salads with pomegranates and feta. We had lots of fresh fruits and vegetables our whole time in Israel. We felt so healthy!

The Garden Tomb was as our friend promised. It felt like a much-needed break being separated from the hustle and bustle of the city. You could spend as much time as you wanted milling around, following a self-guided tour and asking questions to volunteers. It was created around an archaeological site that dates to the time of Jesus and could possibly be the garden of Joseph of Arimathea (who is said to have taken the body of Christ for burial). The garden being as it was, in a sense, allows visitors to imagine it 2,000 years ago. As the guiding pamphlet suggests, "We cannot be sure where the crucifixion took place, but the actual site is of less importance than the spiritual significance of what really happened."

Seeing these sites took up the greater part of our day and we retired just before sundown with our tired little traveler. This was Noah’s favorite part of the day. Our friends’ had a wireless keyboard that he went to town on. Our entire time there he wouldn’t take his eye off it. Their children entertained him while we enjoyed some well-earned homemade pizza and local wine. We all slept well that night, excited to see what another day in the Holy Land would bring. Next stop, Bethlehem.
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