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It's a long climb, to get to the bottom of things

Losing my Religion.

ISRAEL | Wednesday, 11 November 2009 | Views [607]

Trying to keep up with you...but I don't know if I can do it! (thought I would stick with REM since it is working for me :)

We snuck into Jerusalem under the cover of the night. Strike driving from Tel Aviv left us all a bit tired, but caffeinated around the edges. Our hotel was in East Jerusalem, a modern wealthy suburban affair with just enough of historical rehabilitation to make it suitable for dignitaries and kings. Hilary Clinton was tucked into expertly woven sheets just across the street!
I woke up as early as my body would allow- 7am, in order to get as much sightseeing in as possible before our 11am work call. No shining star pointing my way, I followed the brown tourist signs until the old city crested in panoramic splendor only a hillside away.
The walls surrounding the city make an interesting obstacle for navigation. I know what I want is directly on the other side. The sandy beige stones pile farther and farther into the clouds until nothing exists beyond their resolute barrier- this is the end of the world and the wall is the only safety keeping me from falling into oblivion.
Inside, Jerusalem is a shape shifting labyrinth beguiling the bumbling tourist with narrow streets and haunting quarters. My first attempt to enter the city was manipulated by an expert con-artist determined to make his living on the dazed hordes of pilgrims that swarm the city each day. I was following a bevy of nuns, seemed like a pretty safe sign that I was on the right path. Neil waited at the point the gate narrowed and said that I could not pass that way, but should follow the wall around the side to the open entrance. Hmmmm. Sucker! Then he wanted to show me all the sights inside- King David's tomb, the room of the Last Supper, the church built where Mary was born... all I wanted was to wander at my own pace and get a bearing of the city. It took me about 20 minutes of firmly saying I was not interested in a guide and that he was upsetting me to shake him off. The ease with which he crossed hospitality (and a genuine desire to make sure that I understood the importance of every little stone) - with the slick and calloused demand for services paid left me shaking my head about the many faces of solicitation.
On my own again at last, it took me about half an hour to find the rest of the old city tangled in the walls dividing the hillside. I ended up coming in to the backside of the Jewish Quarter in the Cardo- a wide and crisp shopping Mecca with everything from fine Israeli wines to anciently mysterious Judaica. The markets of the Jewish Quarter are fine lines of logical stores designed to put the traveler at ease. Walking into the stores felt almost as though a friend had invited me in to see if I wanted any items she decided to give away.
From here I descended into the glittering chaos of the Arabic markets. The molten center of the city is a maze of market stalls squeezing the herd two by two and oozing their swaying steps into a mindless dance of oblivion. The zombie stares of over stimulated tourists find every alley the same as the last, every road leading in a circle back around to the last until there are no mandates of direction- no North, no South, no East, no West, only Jerusalem. Perhaps it is the center of the very Earth!
Exhausted from trying to swim upstream, I found my way into the residential area of the Muslim Quarter. Here children ran free, dirty and unsupervised little scallions screaming with laughter and play. The women were buttoned up to their eyebrows in hijab, were mysterious and subdued. Even hidden in the swirling silk of my headscarf, I felt that the hair sweeping across my face was a scandalous amount of femininity to show!
By this point I had to run back through the city streets to get back to work on time. Jerusalem had swallowed me whole and spit out my bones, but would never allow me to leave. Ping-ponging between wall after wall after wall, no roads lead back home. Crows laughed with insidious caws as they flew past in the direction I needed to go- the far superior evolution has his day.
Salvation arose like the sun in the helpful directions of the shop keepers used to that bewildered wide eyed panic written on the faces of the lost. Every junction had another guide pointing in the same direction as the last. Free at last! Free at last! I found the magnificent beacon of the Jaffa gate and scurried on my way to work.
The theater was deep in the hills of East Jerusalem. The crew was a professional technical company that would accompany us for the rest of our tour through Haifa. They were the most amazing and efficient workers I have ever seen in all our countries of touring. More than just doing what you ask, they figure out how to read your mind and run your show so personally that Eddie, the head in charge, could easily have done any and all of our jobs as one by the time the first three performances were finished. They were warm and friendly, welcoming and willing to accomplish any task; a beautiful thing considering the severity of tour scheduling from that point on.
We finished load-in in record time and went out to the fancy dinner sponsored by our generous presenter. A celebration of Middle Eastern family, we noshed on hundreds of tiny little salads, hummus, pita, and kebobs of many colors. The wine freed our spirits and lightened our mood. Everyone we worked with on this tour- the presenter Yoel Peer, the technical advisor Modai, treated us as family. Perfection is touring Israel!

My second day in Jerusalem saw a more sure footed advanced tourist in navigation. My three hours of time were spent touring the Christian Quarter in honor of my Father's birthday. The Christian quarter has an overwhelmingly Greek/Armenian feel. I found the Church of the Holy Sepulcher pretty easily- just hitch on to any of the hundred tour groups heading through the city en masse, and you will be sure to find something.
Entering the church, I was greeted by five hanging vases reminding me of the Canopic jars of Egyptian embalming rituals. Thousands fall to their knees and start to kill the cold hard stone of Jesus’ Tomb as they beg for forgiveness of their sin. The weeping begins. When I ventured into the main atrium containing a large mausoleum with lines of hopeful Christians waiting to enter into a tiny chamber where Jesus entered into heaven, I started to feel vaguely uncomfortable even for someone raised Catholic. The amount of ceremony involved in the entire process is incredible.
The Church is representing the most Holy ground for all Christian denominations in the world. People have been making pilgrimages to see this lonely lot of dirt for centuries! So after much fighting and Crusade after Crusade of bloodshed, the Church has been split into sections controlled by different denominations. The Greek Orthodox- robed men with staggering beard and severe angular faces glare in disapproval at my femininity. They seem to have the controlling interest in the mausoleum and I am scolded for stepping one foot in the wrong direction while taking a picture of the inside. They are the great disciplinarians, the cow herders moving the tourists through at an unsympathetic pace.
The Armenians control the entry vestibule- Saints Saints Saints for sale, the tributes to all of those who have given their lives for Jesus remind us that no one really does it alone. Then there is the Catholic Chapel. Now this is the surprising point for me- the Catholic section is very simple, lacking the pompous circumstance of the other rooms. Wooden statues line the border of the ceiling and puritanical hard benches invite you to test the cushion of your butt as the service begins. The building is like a condominium of faith.
And somehow all of those very religious men add up to less impact than the mountains on the horizon in terms of spiritual realization for me. Wandering from room to room: Mary is chained in Crusader gold upon the wall, tiny rooms shoot off in every direction claiming that Jesus did something incredibly important in every inch of space, caverns of chapels descend into the center of the earth. Round and round and round she goes, what she believes, nobody knows! So much to see. Hard to take in everything.
It wasn’t until I found the little cove that holds the place where the cross was put into the ground that I had a moment of reflection. And even then it wasn’t about the altar of gold. What caught my attention was a bay of candles sitting quietly in a corner with carved stone and almost no precious metal whatsoever. The humble prayer of the lonely is what led me home.

The next day of wandering left so much to be discovered. 7am and taking to the empty streets- pouring rain would not stop me from seeing everything I could possibly fit in before the show! I started in the Jewish section- it feels the most like home. The metal detectors rival the airport security as I approach the Wailing Wall. The most holy site of the Jewish culture- the wall is the last section remaining of the Second Temple built in the era of King Herod the Great (built on the rubble of the first temple built by King Solomon. The wailing comes from the tradition of coming to the wall to mourn the destruction of the temple). The wall is believed to still hold the Divine Presence. There is a section reserved for men and a section reserved for women- the conservatives believe that only distraction comes from intermingling the sexes. So I find my way to the women’s section with my head wrapped in scarved modesty, blending in to those around me.
The difference between the locals and the tourist is immediately distinguishable. The tourists are all wearing pants. I had forgotten the strict rules of dress dictating covered head, skirt only. Lines of women press close to the stones, holding their umbrellas in one hand and a prayer book in the other. Young, old, pretty, homely- every walk of life and faction of woman is represented here. I stood back a bit, observing, but feeling much more drawn to the holiness of the site than that of the Church the day before. Even the girls giggling and texting in their pockets still seemed filled with belief in the site, only teenage nature taking them away from the serious task at hand.
Thousands of tiny scraps of paper fit into every crevice in the stone. Prayers pushed into the wall supposedly have a better chance of being answered in our gambling human minds. It was a deeply human moment, reaching out for reassurance in a world of change. Until the waves of clacking tourist cameras invaded the tranquility. It is in one of these chaotic dervishes that I muster the courage to snap a few shots.
I wrote my secret prayers on paper almost impulsively. Something about writing it down, making it a reality and then leaving it there for to G-d to deal with is very reassuring. We do our best in life. And sometimes it is time to just let it go and leave it behind. There is too much world to see to dwell on what is too big for us to hold.
My favorite oddity about the wall is that you may never turn your back on the Presence. Women scuffle step by step in a rewind procession of their entrance. Look over shoulder, scuffle scuffle. Look towards the wall, praying and bowing, scuffle scuffle. Until there is some imperceptible line on the floor telling you that you are far enough away to merit retiring from prayer. Never the graceful one, halfway through my scuffles my umbrella flew out of my hands and gusted up towards the entrance. In my flustered haste to catch it before it maimed someone or flew away, I turned to run uphill. What a terrible breach of etiquette. Sigh, I can try my best to blend in and be a well traveled observer of culture, but I am still the same no matter where in the world I roam.
Then I had to balance the trilogy of Jerusalem religions with a visit to the Muslim holy site, the Temple Mount. To the non-Muslim tourist, Temple Mount feels a bit like visiting ruins- especially on a dark and rainy day. The open plaza is speckled with tiny little buildings of marble and stone all decorated in beautiful mosaics. Glittering gold draws the eye to the massive Dome of the Rock. Inside, where only the imagination may wander without a membership card, are two religious sites battling it out. First, is the stone where Abraham was to have sacrificed Isaac and the place that Jews believe G-d gathered dust and formed Adam- site of the first and second destroyed temples (except for the remaining wailing wall). This is a Jewish jewel that they have not possessed for thousands of years, a sensitive point that leads to a tense and fragile peace after years of warring worlds. This is also the site where Mohammed birthed the Muslim ideology with his ascent into heaven. Closed, out in the rain without any connection to their idea of Allah, I did not need long to drink in the picture and move on.
At this point, I had time to burn, a first in Jerusalem. I decided to try to hit up the Stations of the Cross, seeing as how I lived them every Friday in school girl days. I got to about the third station before I got distracted and wandered out of the gates of the city and up onto Mount Olive. The mountain is clustered at the bottom with a few very differing Churches. The Church of all Nations, containing the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus surrendered to the Roman guards, was all pomp and circumstance. Built by donations from very wealthy nations, it holds state seals hidden in the gold-flecked murals and the steel carvings depicting the garden scene so intricately that they capture the eye for hours. Up the mountain is the Church of Mary Magdalene- four gold minarets rival the Temple Dome in architecture as they call out to tourists- THIS! This is an important site!!! Pulling my muscles up the hill to the crumbling centuries old Jewish cemetery, I caught my breath as I triumphed in gaining the best view of the Old City.
But my favorite part of Mount Olive was the Tomb of the Virgin Mary. A cave leading down into the nether regions of the underworld, a dark and mysterious rendezvous point for betrayals and secret confessions! The steel lanterns strung like twinkling stars along the path from room to room. A young but rugged Priest came to ask me if I was Russian. When I shyly said “no, I am American” he persisted, surely Check, or Romanian- where is my family from? I admitted to Poland and he immediately began to speak to me in polish. I suppose the head scarf nodded back to my ancestral roots enough to make me seem like a first generation export. It made me feel connected to my past, surrounded by such intriguing history.
At this point, darkness had fallen on the city, and I was one worn out girl! With my few remaining hours until our final show and strike-drive to Haifa, I decided to eat a nice meal in a restaurant of the Muslim Quarter. I sat by myself eating at a nice place where the staff was quite cordial. One boy made smoothies for everyone and gave me one, sitting at my table to exchange life’s pleasantries. I was relaxed and enjoying life, right up until the point where he asked to make out with me. Then I was bewildered and uncomfortable. As though a friendly conversation is invitation for brash machismo!I can't imagine what I said to open the conversation to that point! Fleeing the scene as quickly as I could manage without seeming too rude, I realized later that in my flustered state: I forgot to pay. Hee hee- what a crazy city of cultural chaos.
Ah, Jerusalem. Definitely a city of MEN taking what they want; and a city of God trying his best to get through to them despite their faults. This city makes me feel a bit sympathetic to the spirit of the world. I know how it feels. Good luck, Jerusalem, they are men of good hearts but human souls and failures; and thank you, Jerusalem, for trying to help me find my own little part or parcel of God. But for me, I will take to the mountains ahead instead of your Churches to feed my soul...

Tags: armenien, christian, emily predny, israel, jerusalem, jewish, muslim, predny, temple mount, tomb of jesus



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