Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Shalom and Shana Tova from Israel. Exploring Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, a harrowing experience, the West Bank and Bethlehem and Shalom Jerusalem

At the Mount of Olives overlooking the holy city of Jerusalem. The view is amazing.

Shalom my friends!
Shalom is the word Israelis use to greet each other here. These days, though they are also saying Shana Tova because it is Rosh Hashanah (New Year) tomorrow. The Arabs on the other hand usually say Salam Alekam to greet each other and they are celebrating Ramadan. During the time the sun is out, practising Muslims may not eat, drink, smoke or have sex.  I have made a couple of Arab friends at a little shop selling water in Jaffa Gate and caught one of them smoking.  He shamefully admitted his Mother would not be happy.
Well this is our 4th day in Jerusalem and time to write my blog about our time here before we move on to Nazareth in Galilee tomorrow for the second stage of our trip to Israel.  Tourism is hard work in the heat and it has been hot.  To get to know Jerusalem, frankly you have to be fit because it’s all about walking and walking and walking on old stone streets and up and down old stone steps and getting lost in the process.  We take our map with us every day but I must admit neither of us are good map readers.  So you end up asking people the way and getting lost.  Young children try to show you the way for a few coins.  Everyone in fact wants your business, just as they did in India and they do in Turkey and many other tourist spots of the world.   There are many tourists here but not as many as the local businesses would like because of fear of coming here or that’s what one shop dealer told me.  Eladio and I stick out like sore thumbs and we are approached all the time by shop dealers and taxi drivers mostly.  They all try to rip us off.  We haggle but I’m sure they still make a profit.  I was told yesterday after haggling over the price of a necklace for Olivia: “you are nice but you are hard”.  Also I seem to have made a huge hit with the local men as they are always telling Eladio what a lucky man he is.  I’m not sure if it is a compliment or a way of enticing us to buy from them.  Whatever the case I do feel flattered at my age.  Today I asked one of my admirers what the reason was and his said it was because of the way I looked and smiled and the jewellery I wore, that I looked like I was “someone”. 
The old city is divided into 4 quarters, the Armeninan, the Jewish, the Arab and the Christian.  There are some 2.000 Armenians, 4.000 Jews, 2.000 Christians and 27.000 Arabs, according to our guide on the Free Tour we took on Sunday.  I like the story of how the Armenians came to live here.  As a nation they were apparently one of the first to embrace Christianity. When the Crusaders who came here and killed off all the local women, wanted to stay, they realised they needed women and thus they imported them from Armenia or so the story goes.  I have always heard from my Father that the Armenians are the cleverest people in the world and wonder whilst I am here if that is true.  My only reference point is Calouste Gulbenkian, the famous philanthropist who is of Armenian origin and was certainly clever so maybe my Father’s theory is correct.  In the Armenian Quarter we patronised the well known Armenian Tavern for dinner last night.  The place is really quaint and beautiful but the food was not as good as we expected.

A nice little restaurant in the old city in the Armenian Quarter
Everywhere we go you see a melting pot of these people going about their business and you also see many people dressed in military clothes.  On the first day in Jaffa Gate (one of the 7 or 8 gates of the walled city) I asked a man what a big group of soldiers was doing and he answered: “This is Israel”. The Orthodox Jews stick out amongst all the rest for their way of dressing, hair style and head gear.  They are like a clan and look more different than anyone else. Also I have noticed they never look you in the eye.

Soldiers are a part of life in Israel
Everything is sold in the markets in all 4 quarters, but nothing really different from other markets I have seen in Morocco, India, Greece, Turkey or even Spain.  The only difference is in some of the local souvenirs or objects such as Fatima’s hand or the Jewish Haunnukah candlestick which you can normally only get here.  You will see amazing bread, local pastries (my favourite baklava), jewellery, pomegranate juice stalls and all this on most of the streets of the Old City including the Via Dolorosa (the 8 stations of the Cross) with people from all walks of life bustling past.  I bought a David’s Cross to wear round my neck but soon realised that it was not a good idea to wear a Jewish symbol as it would call unnecessary attention.

The pomegranates in the market stalls add so much colour.  The juice is a little acid.
You could spend weeks and still not see everything that is to be seen in the Old City and I am sure we have only seen a small part.  We were not able to visit the Muslim sites such as the most famous symbol of Jerusalem, the Omar Mosque with the golden dome, because of Ramadan.  We saw it from a distance of course from the Mount of Olives which has the best views of the city.

Eladio and I at the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem.
As there was so much to see we decided to do a guided tour on the first day to get acquainted with the place.  So, after the service at the Scottish Presbyterian Church where we are staying, which I aborted because it was so dismal and empty, we walked through the Gardens of Jerusalem to Jaffa Gate and joined an international group of tourists who came from places like Peru, Colombia and Nigeria to go on the New Jerusalem Free Tour.  Regarding nationalities of tourists in Israel, my experience is that the majority come from Russia and Latin America and North America. 

The very nice but very empty Scottish church on Sunday.
The walking tour took us around the 4 quarters and through the suqs (markets), onto the rooftops of the walls, to the Western Wall (Wailing wall) where we had been already and ended, for us, at the the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christ was supposedly buried and resurrected.  This place is probably the holiest site for Christians in the world and it was a humbling experience to be there.  On the topic of Christianity, there is a clear domination in all the holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem of the Orthodox religion. 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
At one point I sat next to two Russian Orthodox nuns who were chanting prayers in Church Slavonic and they looked just like my Russian Orthodox aunts, Olga and Darya who I imagine would have loved to visit the site.  They never managed to come here but one person in my family did and that was my Grandfather, John Lloyd,  my Father’s Father who was an Anglican vicar who later became a canon.  He came here in the 30’s many years ago on a pilgrimage. In a way I am following in his footsteps but not for the same reasons as my objectives here are more cultural or are they?  I have mixed feelings visiting all these holy places, the Christian ones of course.  But then again I was was baptised in the Russian Orthodox church (in Paris for the records), brought up at a Catholic school, and studied Religion A level as well as doing Theology subsidiary at Nottingham University.  So there is a lot of religious heritage in me, not to mention the fact that both my grandfathers were priests and that I even married one!  Therefore I could not help but light candles at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for my darling Mother, golden brother George and my dearest Aunt Masha as well as shed a tear for them whilst doing so.  Does that mean I believe?  Well I don’t know.

Lighting candles in the Holy Sepulchre Church for my Mother, George and Aunty Masha
From the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we went in search of the famous Via Dolorosa (after some food at the Samara café in Jaffa Gate), or the Stations of the Cross as they are known in English.  The  Way of Sorrows as it is sometimes also called has 14 stations which represent  Jesus’ last moments on earth, from being condemned to death, carrying the cross and being crucified to dying and being buried.

Station number 5 of the Via Dolorosa where Simon of Cyrene carried the cross for Christ.
On Monday we took a rest from visiting the old city and went to visit the Yad Vashem (a memorial and a name from a quote from Isaiah), the official Israeli museum dedicated to the memory of the Jews who died in the Holocaust in the Second World War.  This is a subject very close to my heart mostly because of my upbringing and Yad Vashem was a must on our agenda here in Jerusalem.  I had been warned it would be harrowing and it was certainly so.  The museum is beautiful, composed of various buildings in a big park and takes you from the uprising of the Nazi party to the persecution of Jews, to their being confined in ghettos, to being taken to the death camps, how 6 million were killed and so few survived.  There are many real life testimonies of survivors on videos and their stories are incredible.

The Yad Vashem museum of the Holocaust in Jerusalem.  A harrowing place.
 I took in as much as I could but I broke down when I saw a glass case full of shoes of dead people and when I entered the Hall of Names; the name of each and every one of the six milliion people who perished at the hands of the Nazis!  All I can say after visiting Yad Vashem is that I hope the world will never forget this awful episode of our recent history.  It worries me that very soon there will be no more witnesses as this happened over 60 years ago and there are fewer and fewer of the survivors who can bear living witness to the Holocaust.  I know one survivor, Magda, my dear friend Sandra’s mother.  Magda, a Hungarian Jew, was hidden by a gentile family during the war in Budapest as a young girl.  Magda is my friend on Facebook and she wrote me a message the other day wishing me a good trip to Israel.  When I cried in the Hall of Names I cried also for the people Magda lost in the war and for how she must have suffered.

The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, includes all the names of the 6 million Jews who perished during the Holocaust
After leaving Yad Vashem we needed to go somewhere more uplifting, so decided on visiting Bethlehem, another must on our agenda.  After all it is where everything began.  When we cannot walk to places we take taxis and you have to haggle the price.  It was difficult to get one to Bethlehem as we learned that it is in the West Bank, part of Palestine.  On the way we asked to stop at Rachel’s Tomb (the Mother of Benjamin and wife of Jacob) from advice in the guide book.  Again we did not know this was in the West Bank right by the horrific wall which divides the communities.  The tomb was nothing special but its location an eye opener for us.  Even our Jordanian taxi driver was amazed.  As we left the building where the tomb is housed with its typical separate entrances for men and for women, we stopped a Jewish man to ask him about the area.  He explained rather angrily that the area had been taken by the Arabs and we got talking.  When we left we stretched out our arms to shake his hand.  He willingly shook Eladio’s but smiled at me and made me understand he could not touch me because I was a woman.  It was not a good feeling for someone like me who is an advocate of equality between women and men.

Our encounter with a Jewish man at the wall in the West Bank, the man who wouldn't shake my hand because I am a woman.
Bethlehem was nothing like the image you conjure up in your mind when you sing Christmas carols.  It is dirty, untidy, dusty and there has probably been no street planning since Jesus was born.  But of course it is extremely interesting to visit the Church of the Nativity and see the spot where Jesus was born.  You go through the door of humility called so because it is low and you have to bend your body to go through.  I think the original enrtrance was actualy for animals, but even so. The church has 3 parts, one run by the Armenian Orthodox, one run by the Green Orthodox and one run by the Catholics.  Underneath the church is the crypt which is run by the three churches and it is here you can touch and photograph both the star that represents where Jesus was born and the manger where he laid.  The star has 14 points to symbolise the 14 Stations of the Cross.  Unfortunately Eladio was not very well and we had to come back to the Guest House in a rush, much to the disappointment of the “free” guide provided by our Jordanian taxi driver, who wanted to take us to some special souvenir shop.  We are quite seasoned travellers however and have a smell for when the guides and taxi drivers are in cahoots with local business so probably wouldn’t have gone with him anyhow.

The place where Jesus was born in Bethlehem has a symbol of a 14 pointed star, a symbol of the 14 stations of the cross.
Today, our last day in Jerusalem, we visited the Mount of Olives, so famous in the bible and where you get the best views of the city.  From here we drove down towards Gethsemane.  Here we visited the Russian Mary Magdalene Church with its beautiful golden onion domes and I once again lit candles for my Mother, my brother George and my Aunty Masha.  As we left there was a group of Russians with the Patriarche of Germany and Switzerland.

The beautiful Russian Orthodox church, St. Mary Magdalene in Gethsamene
From the Russian church we walked to the actual Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus Christ spent the last night of his life before being arrested.  It’s a moving place.  We also visited Mary’s Grotto opposite where apparently the Virgin Mary’s tomb is. Jerusalem is rife with places which have become shrines because of their association with Jesus Christ and not always for important reasons. Further up the road from the Russian Church we could have visited another shrine or church famous for Christ having cried there but the road was far too steep and the sun too strong that we decided not to go.

In the Garden of Gethsemane with Eladio (sorry the photo won't rotate here!)
From Gethsemane we returned to the Old City, this time entering at the Damascus Gate, one of the busiest.  Here we sat and drank a cup of tea and I tried the pomegranate juice which seems so popular here. It is sweet but slightly acid and I don’t think I’ll be drinking it again. From here we walked to Zion’s Gate to visit the City of David where you can visit David’s Tomb, the place where most Christians think that the Last Supper took place as well as the Dormition Abbey dedicated to the Virgin Mary’s transit into heaven.

Where the Last Super took place. In the City of David in the old city of Jerusalem
So much culture and religion made us hungry today and just as we were on our way to Jaffa Gate or somewhere we could find a bite, a taxi driver stopped and offered to take us to a nice Israeli restaurant.  Our mistake was not to agree a price.  He turned out to be a Russian Jew and told me there were a million Russians in Israel! He was not a nice character and demanded quite a lot of money.  Eladio handed him a big enough note and said he would pay no more, threatening to call the police. It was a tense and tough moment until he drove away in a rage.  We were so worried we decided not to go to the restaurant he recommended in case he came back.  Instead we found a jewel of a place called Joy in Emek Rafaim Street in the German Colony near our Guest House which served great Kosher food including gazpacho (nothing like ours of course) and something wonderful called Moroccan cigars which are a sort of mini spring roll filled with lamb.
Our time in Jerusalem ended this evening with a wonderful walk around the so-called “golden walls”.  They are actually made of white stone (lime stone) as are all the buildings in Jerusalem and surroundings.  It’s funny and rather nice not to see the proverbial red brick. It’s sad to leave somewhere so special and to think you may never come again.  On the other hand if I think positively I should realise just how lucky and privileged I have been to come to the holy city of Jerusalem, so disputed by all religions and where so many people would love to come and can’t.  Goodbye Jerusalem, Shalom. You see shalom also means goodbye.  The irony of it is that shalom actually means peace.  So yes, I wish peace to Jerusalem.
Shalom my friends from Jerusalem.

No comments: