Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Hope of 2000 Years. In 2000 Words. (*gulp*)

And for my next magical trick, I will now write a blog post encompassing a week in the focal point of three of the world's major religions and maybe the most far-reaching international conflict since the cold war. Hang on to your hats, kids, this is going to be a long, rough ride.

Why is this state different from other states? Well, for a start, if you mention the name in a room almost anywhere in the world, you've got about a fifty percent chance of coming back half an hour later and finding people yelling at each other. I've been a lot of places, but I don't know another place I've seen that elicits such strong reactions from people who've never been. China makes some people uneasy. Russia brings up a lot of old ghost stories. Colombia, Syria, and Lebanon may or may not have made my parents nervous when I was inside them. Germany has baggage, Vietnam has baggage, Nicaragua has baggage, but this place can challenge them all. Yes folks, I've come, I've seen, and now I've got to write about (yipe) the Holy Land, the Promised Land, the Hope of 2000 Years: Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

So. Where to start. How about some ground rules?

Rule number one: no political comments on this post, please. I'm serious about this. There are loads, heaps, tons of places online where you can debate the policies of the Israeli state, Hamas, Fatah, and everyone else in this big fiasco. I will not allow this blog to be one of them. If you comment on this post, and the main point you make is political, I will delete it. I have a bachelors in politics and international studies. I have a few opinions on all these subjects myself, all of which have evolved since visiting here. I'd love to discuss them with you,  but not here. If you want to learn more from me, contact me directly. If you don't know how to do that, you'll find links to email me scattered around this blog-- if you feel passionate enough to ask me about my experience, you'll feel passionate enough to search for the link.

Rule number two: for the purposes of this post, I am going to take biblical/torah/koranic stories at face value. This doesn't mean I believe all three, it just means I don't feel like wasting time writing "alleged," "supposed," or "possibly the place where some people think that" a hundred times. Also, I realize some of these come into conflict, so if I mention for example, the place where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, there is no need to point out that according to Islam, he actually almost sacrificed Ishmael, not Isaac. I get it, but once again, this  isn't the place to debate these points.

Rule number three: most of you can skip this one, this is for legal purposes. Online blogs, including this one, are not reliable sources of fact. Even if the source can be legally traced to the real author (doubtful at best) the subject writing may very well be fictional. Photos posted online can be photoshopped. Legal proof of a person's entry into any state, Israel included, requires an immigration of that state stamp inside that person's passport. Keep that in mind when deciding whether to give me a visa to your country.

Now that that is out of the way, we can get to the fun part.

Let's go to Jerusalem. I'm walking down a street of beautifully preserved old city, inside the stone walls and stone streets, with my backpack. It's Friday, sunset, and I'm dodging Haisidic Jews scurrying to their shabbat services and homes, eyes to the uneven ground, tassles and locks swinging, wide-brimmed hats, and sometimes even huge fur hats never falling off their heads. Around the first corner, past my usual falafel stand (one falafel, six sheckels, a bargain here, more than three times the price of falafel in Syria), I hit the Muslim quarter. I didn't have to come here to hear the sunset call to prayer. A couple Korean tourists are squeezing past an Ethiopian tour group, making their way through the food stalls and past the electronics shop, all in the shadow of the houses that sometimes turn this street into a tunnel. I squeeze through, careful not to pivot and knock someone over with my bag. Souvenir merchants say hello. I say hello back without stopping and ignore the invitation to come inside for a "nice price." I smile and nod to a group of three soldiers, the one of the girls smiles and nods back. The guy and the other girl don't notice. Continuing, I hit a break in the stores to see a stone wall in the tunnel and a door with a sign. The walls are lined with people holding papers and singing in Spanish. Someone holds up a large wooden cross, and they make their way to follow him, past the Palestinian tourist shops, singing to Jerusalem not to cry. I bob and weave to get in front of them before they meet the other foot traffic, including a Palestinian teenager balancing a twin mattress on his head, trying to go the opposite direction.

I'm still running over some of the things I learned from the protesters in East Jerusalem who were released from jail that afternoon, and the Palestinian family that had been kicked out of their house and replaced. I was sort of sorry to leave the hostel since it had such interesting people, including a New Yorker, out of the country for the first time, who had come to help with a program in Gaza. But the dorms were way too cramped, and the price was too high. I still didn't get the logic behind giving a Korean-born American behind us a lower price for the same thing and then just saying "Japanese price" when asked. I was headed to a couchsurfing host anyway, so I should still meet more people.

I got a little lost after leaving the old city from Jaffa gate. I thought the shopping row, filled with North Face, Colombia Sportsware, Rolex, and other brand name stores would head closer to Zion Square, but it didn't. The Chanukah sale signs were still up in some of them. I stopped to ask someone how to get to the square, and he answered in perfect American English. Not learned American English, this was the real thing. I'm sure I would've seen this guy at a college football game back home. Walking down the street, I see and hear Americans everywhere. The old city amazed me for its diversity, but this place is where I've seen more Americans than anywhere since I've been home.

It's not the only thing familiar about this country. Like Australia or the United States, this is a country of immigrants. They come for different reasons than they do back home, but it results in a much more diverse country than I expected.

Having tourists come from all over the world helps the diversity bit. Because when you have the last Jewish temple's wall (Western/Wailing Wall), the tomb of Christ (Church of the Holy Sepulcher), and the place Mohammed ascended into heaven (Dome of the Rock) all five minutes' walk from each other, you are going to get a lot of attention. No matter which quarter you are in, you will pass row upon row of shops selling "Free Palestine" t-shirts, menorahs, and catholic crucifixes without any apparent contradiction.

That's just the old city of Jerusalem. In the last week, I've been staying with photography students in the new city, hanging out with a Math student and electronic music composer in Tel Aviv, eating poyke a stew made on a bonfire in Be'er Sheva, capital of the Negev desert, and then two more places that I just can't confine to a list.

The first was Bethlehem, Christmas Eve. Mary and Joseph found no room at the inn when they came on Christmas without any reservations. Figuring I'd learned from their example, I got a hostel bed in Jerusalem and caught the one-hour bus across the checkpoint, figuring I'd just visit for the festivities and go back sometime before dawn.

I mentioned the checkpoint? Bethlehem is in the West Bank. I got on the bus in the Jewish state of Israel, listening to the sunset call to prayer from the mosque. I got off the bus and felt like I'd stepped into a parallel universe. I was in the same country, but I was back in the Arab world. More, I was in Palestine. I walked down the dark streets with the same three word phrase running through my head like a broken record: "This is it."

The streets were quiet, I didn't see any signs, but I did see a lot of taxis headed one way. I followed them, and soon saw lights in the sky. I followed the light in the heavens to the place where Jesus was born. What I found was a massive square, packed with people, (mostly Arab men), watching a concert in, of all languages, Spanish.

I weaved through the crowd to the meeting spot we had chosen for the couchsurfing event I organized. I took care to pick a spot that wouldn't be blocked by the stage. What I failed to plan for was the Palestinian Authority security truck and six soldiers with automatic weapons that blocked it instead. Apparently these are things you need to take into consideration in the West Bank. I still managed to find a couple of the people I'd organized. The first, when he saw me gave a grin and a sarcastic "nice going, group leader." I probably deserved that, especially since we then got separated less than half an hour later figuring we'd find each other again without any trouble. We never did.

The music and dancers were all part of an event for Christmas that brought artists from all over the world in. There was a surreal moment when it sounded like a band of Scottish bagpipers were playing La Cucarracha, in Palestine, for Christmas. I guess the fact that all the performers after that were Spanish speakers was just a coincidence. Fun party though. I almost got into the packed midnight church service after, thanks to a British Muslim and a group of Polish nuns, but it fell apart thanks to a low cellphone battery. So I watched chunks from the press van, seeing clips of Mahmoud Abbas in attendance, among others.

The next day, Christmas day, was the start of a completely different experience. I was in the West Bank again, just a few miles away from Bethlehem, but to the people who lived in each place, each felt closer to Paris or Beijing than they did to each other.

Adin, a Rabbi who'd immigrated from Cleveland almost two years ago, picked me up in the southern end of Jerusalem and gave me a ride along the Israeli security wall to his family's home in the 25-year-old Israeli town of Efrat. He explained that the wall was put there to protect motorists from sniper attacks. I'm trying to decide which got my attention more, that explanation, or his wife Bracha's greeting when I entered their home: "Hello there! Welcome to the West Bank, you are now officially a settler! How does it feel?"

I'd come to experience Shabbat with an orthodox family. From sundown to sundown, I wore a kippah and prayed with the family, mostly observing the strict rules for the day of rest, including no active use of electricity (fire), no touching money, and, the killer for me, no writing.

According to Jewish law, being Jewish can only be inherited from a Jewish mother. My father is Jewish, and I've been to a few pesach seders, lit candles on a menorah for Channukah, and spun dreidels around as a kid. But according to orthodox Judaism, I am not Jewish. And this was my first time experiencing any kind of Jewish religious ceremony outside of the home.

After sunset, when the writing ban was lifted, I sat down and wrote about what had just happened for more than three hours. This post is far too long as it is. Here's the ridiculous summary: lots of prayer, lots of song, lots of food.

Oh man, the food.
“Yeah, you know thanksgiving?” I was told, “Well we basically have that two times a week.”
They're not kidding. The food there was wonderful, and it came in massive portions. I didn't dine with these people. I feasted with them. Being Jewish on my father's side has hardwired cravings for Challah bread and Matzo ball soup into my system. It's how I am. But I quickly realized that helping myself to second helpings of either was only going to make my life harder when the other courses started appearing. Fresh tart with leeks and sun-dried tomatoes. Chicken slow-cooked with sweet potatoes and figs. Salad using paper-thin slices of apple with dill dressing.

While we ate lunch at a neighbor's house, our host, David, asked me what my favorite part of Israel has been so far. I'd just put in my first mouthful of cholent, a special slow-cooked stew that I thought was just potatoes, beef, and barley from a crock pot, but clearly had half a dozen secret magic ingredients I wasn't going to learn without an apprenticeship somewhere. I pointed down to the rest of my helping with a fork,
“This is making a pretty good argument right now.”
“I wasn't fishing for compliments,” he laughed.
“I know.” I said. They didn't have to. Once again, this was feast prepared and kept warm without active use of electricity or fire. Impressed yet?

There were multiple services across the day at the synagogue. We walked into a room of men, with women behind curtains sections in the back, reading in Hebrew, some rocking back and forth, sometimes taking a few steps forward and back or bowing, first and the knees, then the waist. There was no obvious leader, everybody (but me) knew exactly what they should be reading an how to do it. All of it was half-sung. It sounded like an a cappella orchestra warming up. I did my best to follow along with a siddur that had both Hebrew and English translations, but not being able to read Hebrew, I was never totally sure where we were. But just observing the service was a thing in itself. Also the people doing it.

It wasn't until the third of these services that I noticed two of the guys were armed-- one with handgun in a hip holster, the other shoved down the back of his pants, gangster-style. One of the rules of the sabbath is that you live by the rules. You don't die by them. If you need to break them to save your life, you break them. Still a bit of a wake up call.

At one point I asked the kids if they had any non-Jewish friends. They thought and said no. One of them remembered one who wasn't born Jewish. That was it. They'd immigrated from Cleveland a year and a half ago. It's a different world from the one I grew up in.

All in all, it was an enjoyable and eye-opening experience. Even if I didn't always feel like I agreed with everyone around me, I felt that was just more Jewish tradition. I still remember being told at my one seder in a Hillel "If you put ten Jews in a room, you'll get eleven opinions." The family and everyone I met in the community were wonderful hosts to me and taught me a great deal about the orthodox Jewish way of life, and I'm very grateful for that.

Next up, before returning to Jordan (and actually seeing some of it this time) I think it's time to see life on the other side of that wall. I'm going to Ramallah.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Avoiding religious comment. Avoiding political comment. That leaves us:

    Falafel is only a good deal in Israel if you're vegetarian - the shawarmas and kormas are about the same price and very very good. It's not surprising to me that the shopping street you were on didn't go where you expected it to - that's pretty standard for Jerusalem, where no streets run in straight lines. It's like Boston on crack, where every road used to be a goat, sheep, or cow trail. Did you go up on the roofs? If you can get up there, you'll notice a) that everything's about the same height, so you get GREAT views, and b) that everyone seems to have a satellite dish in the Arab Quarter. Enjoy the rest of your visit. I know better by now than to tell you to go to any specific place, because you'll just tell me that you can't go everywhere people tell you to go, but Masada and Tel Aviv are both wonderful places for completely opposite reasons. Climb Masada (before daybreak) - it'll be worth it. It's also on the Dead Sea, so two birds, one stone.

  2. Don't feel like you have to be in any hurry to get back to me on this, but I'd like to chat with you about your experiences at some point.

    However, the most important part is: you visited my family! I want to hear how they're doing! Did you get any pictures of my cousins? (I'll understand if you didn't.) Also, I love how you are utterly baffled and amazed at things that I've lived my whole life with -- maybe not necessarily in that world, but on the fringes.

    Just one quick comment -- I'm not surprised the kids don't have any non-Jewish friends, but I doubt it's because they live in Israel, or even a settlement; I don't think they would have non-Jewish friends in America. Orthodox communities tend to be very tightly knit, and they would be going to religious day schools (more religious than mine) and Jewish summer camps. Not only do they probaby have no non-Jewish friends, they probably have no non-Orthodox friends -- like my cousins in America.

    Anyway, can't wait to hear more!

  3. Hola Joel!

    De que tiempo no?,estuve leyendo tu post, muy linda la experiencia que tuviste con esa familia judia, mno sabia que tu padre era judio, o seguramente lo habias mencionado y se me olvido...lamento que no seas considerado judio alla por el hecho de que tu mama no lo es, sin embargo, es algo bueno que hayas compartido algunas tradiciones y sobre todo, que hayas aprendido mas de la costumbres judias. Por lo vistyo pasaras el anio 2010 viajando, verdad? alegra poder saludarte y desearte todo lo mejor para este Anio Nuevo 2010!
    Saludos desde Spokane

  4. A dense and interesting post which I'll comment on later... Appreciated your groundrules. But for the immediate moment looked at your pictures and have a very trivial immediate comment. Couldn't help but notice the ubiquitous white resin chairs by the wailing wall. Remembered seeing them pictured in an obscure location in a National Geographic article in Afghanistan and also in Tibet. And of course there are some in our back yard thousands of miles from these places. Is there a country in the world you have visited that does not have these chairs? International plastic kudzu? puzzled and interested in the odd, anonymom.