Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Jerusalem: From the Great Wall to the Wailing Wall
Part I - the Old City
The way up to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv is at least as interesting as the destinations. I pluralize destinations because there are several Jerusalems, and they connect antiquity to modernity with exasperatingly diverse linkage.
Early in the morning there was ground fog in the olive groves along the highway, bright lemony mimosa exploding through the mist as big hooded crows flapped in the air. Once out of the city and surroundings, ancient terraced hills rose gently from both shoulders and the highway at many points followed what was the pre-1967 border between Israel and Jordan. There were no roadside villages or businesses then, only gunfire and minefields.
Stone villages, both Israeli and Arab gave way to more prosperous towns with homes and villas all faced with Jerusalem rock, as dictated by heritage ordinances. The prosperous towns were both Arab and Israeli, close to one another but not mixed. One Arab neighborhood, which 25 years ago had only one restaurant, was rife with bistros and eateries, brilliant bougainvillea cascading over their railings. On Fridays and Saturdays when all the Jewish establishments are closed for the Sabbath, they are always full of Jews dining out. It appears that when prosperity is in the mix, Arabs and Jews get along just fine in Israel. I learned that, contrary to popular perception, only about 1 percent of the Arabs in Israel are struggling in refugee camps.
Up through the Mount of Olives you could feel the altitude rising and the humidity diminishing. It was green, green, green, with verdant forests of some of the 250 million trees planted in Israel since it became an independent Jewish state. So much has changed in this tiny vibrant country of only 7 million people. Israel is as small as Rhode Island, the smallest of the United States and its population is less than that of the city of New York.
Stopping at Hebrew University, you could see the Old City, within whose walls were ancient and revered churches, temples, mosques of all the world religions that originated in the Middle East.
It was a heart-stopping sight. The thing that amazed me the most, though, was how much less inspiring it was when I actually got there.
Oh, the architecture, the history, the labyrinth of tunnels, caves, marketplaces and the beauty of the religious artifacts and shrines are impressive. But there is a tension there that does not come from the tourists and pilgrims but from the operators and custodians of the various religious sites themselves. Emblematic of this is the gate of the Church of the Sepulchre where the various Christian factors are so competitive about whose province and property it is, that it is a Moslem who holds the key to keep the infighting under enough control to allow tourism and pilgrimages to come.
Elie, who has lived in Jerusalem since his family emigrated from Tunisia in 1949, said, "problems up to here," as he floated his open hand mid-forehead.
When the floor is mopped, a bench is placed between two competing Christian exhibits so the mop from one doesn't touch the floor of the other. The Copts and the Roman Catholics both say they have the only stone slab that covered the tomb of Jesus and call one another historical liars over it. You can really feel this, even though the pilgrims are so devout and the tourists more respectful than anywhere else I'd been.
I give you that faith is important to the lives of most people. And it seems indisputable that faith is most popularly served wrapped in ritual, artifact and places of worship, governed by hierarchies of clergy in service of various forms of deities. But how faith came to be competitive and combative is the scourge of mankind and it is worse today than ever. I am not denigrating faith. I have faith. I need faith. Faith has served me well. At this moment, on this journey, I am mid-air in one of the biggest leaps of faith I have ever made. But the structures of faith as they became political and competitive have ruined life on Earth and nowhere was it more palpable to me than in this holiest of holy places, the holy land of so many faiths.
I do not go within walls for faith, I go within myself.
I was no less put off when I came to the Jewish quarter and the West Wall, a.k.a. the Wailing Wall.
I'd forgotten that there was a separate and separated section for men and women. I grew up in a reform Judaism where women could be cantors and rabbis and hold offices in a synagogue's administration. But Jewish orthodoxy is segregated. The Wall was still holy to me in its age and purpose as the place of hope and prayer in the Promised Land for the survivors of a people who had been under siege for centuries-originally for not accepting a different version of God when Jesus, a Jew himself-was deified.
I put my hands upon the Western Wall and the tears welled up from the depth of my bones, my being and my heritage. Beyond what you can see, it goes 30 meters into the ground! I was raised to revere it and that is a part of me. But it was the contradiction as well that stayed with me and always will.
I was at my most comfortable simply admiring and experiencing the age and true beauty of the contents Old City. I walked the path over which Jesus pulled his cross, each place he fell marked and noted. The Tomb of Mary is lovely and tranquil and its mosaic ceiling is gorgeous. But as fortunate as I feel to have had the opportunity to go there in my lifetime, I was glad to get outside of the walls of Old Jerusalem. It's a miracle that the Old City still stands and much surveillance and technology is employed to keep it standing because it is under pressure from without as well as within (Bethlehem is all but closed right now). But, you know, I'm a Jew. I yearn for a bigger more encompassing miracle even as I become resigned that it's probably not going to happen in my lifetime.
ButI did like those bumper stickers and T-shirts that said "Don't worry America, Israel is behind you!"
More to follow. It was a long day.
Mainer, New Yawka, Beijinger, Californian, points between. News, views and ballyhoos that piqued my interest and caused me to sigh, cry, chuckle, groan or throw something.
Previous PostsHappy Mother's Day
Promised Pictures from the Promised Land I
Day 2 in Tel Aviv
Shabbat Shalom from Tel Aviv
Moving through heart and soul
From New York 2
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