The Holy Land
As I waddled awkwardly into the Dead Sea, I was reminded of how strange this place really is. As soon as I fell into the water, I floated right to the top, like a log, at the same time becoming painfully aware of each scrape on my body as the salt began to eat away, down to the tiniest hangnail. It is the strangest feeling, to be completely buoyant – you feel strangely insignificant, like if the sea felt so inclined it could spit you right out onto the sand. Helplessness is a common feeling in this country; from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to this sweltering desert, there are times when I have felt so confused – and so smothered by the question ”why,” which nobody seems to like very much. Anyhow, I suppose I should start from the beginning.
My dad and I arrived in Tel Aviv on Monday afternoon, woozy from air travel, but anxious to get started. Our guide, Chaim (pronounced like Khayem), met us at the airport and suggested we explore Tel Aviv for a short time while we waited for our third party to arrive on a different plane. So we threw, or rather lugged, our baggage into the van and headed off.
Chaim is quite a strange fellow. He is probably fast approaching 70, a tall, gangly fellow with shorts that are only slightly too short, and a little clip-on nametag/tour guide license. Born in Manchester, but raised in Israel, he fluently speaks a multitude of languages, of which I have heard English, Hebrew, Arabic, French and German. (We’ve had an interesting time practicing my Arabic together.) He knows quite a lot about everything – probably knows more about U.S. history than I do. His resourcefulness has been a gift, but by Day 3 of Chaim, we are just about ready for Guide #2. Chaim’s funny disability is his inability to walk and talk at the same time. I am always afraid to ask a question because I know it will mean stopping for at least 5 minutes while he slowly answers. Perhaps the most comical anecdote I can give is when he pulled the car over to the side of the road in the middle of a bustling main street to fully commit his energy to telling us a joke. I would tell you the joke, only I can’t remember it.
Back to Israel. Israel is a beautiful country. Even Tel Aviv, which is more of a regular city, still has a lot of charm. Our first stop was Jaffa, which is a restored area of town designed to resemble the time of the Crusaders, now inhabited by artists. To live in Jaffa, you have to go through a selection process in which a committee decides whether or not your “artist-enough” to be permitted residence in the old stone beachfront. Isn’t if funny that someone can tell you whether or not you are an artist, whether or not your own expression of creativity can be considered “art”?
Driving into Jerusalem that evening, I awoke to what seemed to me to be hundreds of white, cubical structures painted onto hillsides. Jerusalem is the quaintest of cities; its modernity is captured pleasantly by its ancient breath, and you are constantly reminded that your footsteps are far from the first that have walked this ground. The Mt. Zion hotel is seated daintily on a hillside, looking out onto hillsides and religious structures, literally fit for a King.
We had a lot to see in the Old City, but Chaim decided to first show us some of the newest developments in Jerusalem, including what I will refer to as the Separation Wall. This wall was built by the Israeli government to separate Jerusalem from the West Bank, or more accurately, the Israelis from the Palestinians.
The wall’s destination however, is completely arbitrary. It weaves its way through homes and businesses, separating long-time neighbors, friends, and even family members with 30-foot pillars of cold, hard stone. Along the wall, players have graffitied impassioned messages upon the wall such as “Friends should not be divided; enemies should” and “Scotland for a free Palestine.” As Chaim is explaining the history of the wall, we see a shop owner walk past us and into his quiet and run-down grocery store next to where our van has parked. Chaim tells us he knows this shopkeeper, and that before the wall was built, he had a thriving business that served a relatively large radius. Now, this clientele has been halved, at least, and business has obviously dropped off significantly. Not only has this wall devastated the economy of those living on the West Bank side, but it has created a multitude of other problems for these people, problems like lack of healthcare, education, trash pick-up services, among other things. Not to mention the psychological damages it must do to revoke all rights and privileges from someone completely arbitrarily. Even more eye-opening is how many people are unaware of the existence, location, or damages wrought by this wall: most Israelis have never even seen it up close. And few Americans could tell you where a wall existed, if they could identify one at all.
The wall is just a symbol of the deep and destructive consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are walls and obstacles everywhere you look. An American-Jew named Moscovitz, buys up properties in the Arab districts of Jerusalem and build residencies for Jewish people, not to foster tolerance, but rather as political show of claiming one’s right to this land. On another day, Muslim terrorists target Jewish city centers or modes of public transportation as a way to express their anger at the situation. Neither is right. Both have acted wrongly in the past. Both believe they are entitled to this Holy Land. But who knows the answer? Certainly not me.
The next wall we faced was the Waling Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Slightly less controversial, but not much. The Old City is beautiful, with is piles of old stones, and narrow alleyways with shopkeepers selling everything you can possibly imagine – from underwear to cinnamon. We learned about the architecture of the city, its inhabitants, and its conflicts. When we finally came upon the Wailing Wall, it was much different and much smaller than I had imagined. About to skip merrily to the center of the wall, I was quickly ushered onto the women’s side, which was only about 1/5 of the actual wall. The men got the other 4/5. In spite of having limited space, women crowded against the surface of the wall, writing their messages to divinity, and slipping them in the wall’s cracks, perhaps to be absorbed and swallowed by the great feat of an ancient King. Bookshelves lined the fence dividing the women from the men, stocked with copies of the Bible and the Koran for all to read and pray. I peeked through the fence onto the men’s side to see what I could possibly be missing out on. Orthodox men with black top hats and sweltering black suits stepped lightly around, some prayed on the wall while others looked on.
After the Wailing Wall we walked down the Via Dolorosa, the narrow city streets through which Jesus walked, bearing a cross and an imminent death. The walk ends at the Church of the Sepulcher, which is Jesus’ supposed place of burial and crucifixion. It was then explained to me, as I watched group after group kneel upon Christ’s tomb, kiss it, rub their clothes on it, and pray upon it, that historians really do not know where Christ was buried nor where he was crucified. Yet, this church and its tomb stand anyway. Furthermore, the Church is divided into several different pieces of ownership; different sects of Christianity all lay claim to this church as their own. There have been numerous violent outbreaks inside the very walls of this church.
As I watched the multitudes of people wander in to touch the tomb of Jesus Christ, I found myself dearly wishing to know what they were feeling. Even though I know that historically Christ was not buried in this tomb, they are just as certain as I that He lays beneath their kneeling bodies. People come from all over the world to see this church; they save penny by penny for years and years to see this place, to feel this place.
If only I could understand ?Why?
On the way home from the Old City, Chaim drove us through a religious quarter of Jerusalem, which was home to a community of Orthodox Jews. In Jerusalem, you see them walking around everywhere, with their top hats and sharp dress, but their degree of zealousness differs for the most part. In this community, however, they are as serious as it gets. In this sect of Judaism, men and women do not go to work; rather, they rely on charitable donations to survive. These pious men spend their days praying and studying the Torah, while their wives tend to the children. Women who are married must shave their heads and wear a cloth wrapped around their bare head. Oh, but once in a while when they are out in public they are allowed to wear wigs. Apparently, a woman’s hair is what cradles her beauty, so when she is married, she no longer needs to look beautiful, god forbid another man look at her.
?Why? ?Why? ?Why?
Women engage in a silent competition to see who can have the most children. If a wife is doubtful that she can handle more children, the husband will consult the rabbi to see if he says she can have any more. They of course are strictly kosher, which is another strange tradition I have yet to understand. Keeping kosher means not mixing dairy and meat; kosher meat consists of animals with split hooves, and I believe there are a few other requirements. I have asked more than 5 people on this trip
Why do meat and dairy need to be separated? Why do animals need to have the split hooves? The answer I got 5 times was because the Torah says so.
I’m learning a lot about faith on this trip. You don’t question it.
Oh by the way, did I mention that these Orthodox men are the #1 biggest consumer of prostitution services. But don’t worry, the rabbi says it’s ok because it is not considered adultery: the prostitutes are not married.
For all the hell we give parts of the Arab world for how they treat women, and rightly so, these men are just as bad.
I will note, however, that this community is very small and its regiment unique to itself. Like any other religion, there are fanatics and fundamentalists that engage in behavior difficult to understand and impossible to agree with. These are one such example.
As we stood looking out on a beautiful of Jerusalem the next morning, I was disappointed it would be my last. This city, for all its “whys” had so much charm. And anyway, I love the word Why? I want to know how people work and how the world works, and why is the straight path to truth, or at least one version of truth. Maybe you don’t question religion. But the discussions that I find when I do are worth it.
From Jerusalem, we began our journey through the West Bank and the
It’s hot. We stopped at the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, where the prophets of the Old Testament lived and toiled under the sun, recording the Words.
We then made our way to Masada, which was a refuge, a place of escape, for King Herod, whose paranoia fueled his fear of attack by any of his many enemies. The palace is built on top of a huge plateau in the middle of the desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. There is a special way of getting to the top that is only evident to those who have climbed it before. On this mountaintop, was the first creation of an aqueduct and water storage system; for somewhere in the middle of the desert where water was nonexistent, this was quite an achievement. King Herod, however, never had reason to flee to this desert hideaway. Years after his death it was inhabited by almost 1000 Jews, who lived there peacefully until the Romans conquered the land. When the Romans arrived, however, did not know how to get to the top, and proceeded to build a huge ramp. This ramp took three years – three years in which the Jews were basically trapped upon this mountaintop with no way to escape or successfully fight off the Romans. As the story goes, when the Romans were finally finished building the ramp and the Jews knew there was no escape, they committed mass suicide, choosing death rather than eternal slavery to the Romans. Aside from one man’s account who never saw the battle, there is no evidence that this suicide actually occurred. First of all, no bodies have ever been found that suggest massive numbers of death. Secondly, to kill oneself in Judaism is a sin, one that people as religious as these most likely would not have considered. Whichever story is true, it was certainly a fascinating palace in the most terrifying of deserts; definitely worth the trek.
Now we are finding solace in the air conditioning of our Dead Sea hotel room. Floating in the Dead Sea was a fascinating must, but now that the excitement is over it is time to be out of the sun. The water in the Dead Sea is warm, like a Jacuzzi, and the beach is covered in balls of salt crystals (don’t worry mom we brought you some with your Dead Sea sand!). The swim was truly bizarre. When you’re in the water, your limbs immediately float to the top, even as you awkwardly flail to keep them down. Watching somebody try to stand in the water is quite a sight, as you really have to struggle to keep your body vertical underneath the water. Interesting, though, the Dead Sea is almost like a medical haven. People with skin diseases like eczema and cirrhosis come to the Dead Sea to cure their ailments. Apparently the combination of minerals in the water, and spending time in the area itself, has proven to be a quick cure for these skin conditions. As a result, people have “treatments” all throughout the day — we saw people floating at 6 in the morning, before the sun was rising. Unfortunately, the standard treatment period is 3 weeks, which would be quite boring. The Dead Sea is like Las Vegas without restaurants, casinos, or swimming pools.
Tomorrow is on to the Jordanian border and new adventures.