For me, one of the most purely fun parts of the trip was spending time in the old city. As I mentioned before, I really like New York City – the hurried crowds, the varied sites, the great smells. The old city of Jerusalem has a lot of that but in a much more compact area.
We first entered the walls of the old city through the Damascus Gate. This was kind of a thrill for me because, a few years ago, I had read a sort of crazy but challenging novel called “Damascus Gate” by Robert Stone. The novel deals with the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and is pretty sympathetic to the Palestinian side. It involves an American who ends up thrust into the middle of things over there during a volatile period and then he discovers a plot to blow up the Temple Mount. Now that I have been there, I would like to go back and read this book again but, as I said, it is a pretty challenging read … perhaps the most challenging thing I’ve ever read since attempting to take on Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” my senior year in high school. (I think I was attracted to that book only because of the name … oh, and because it’s fun to say “Dostoyevsky” and look condescendingly at people and say “I’ve been reading a bit of Dostoyevsky recently.” Fact is, I didn’t understand a word of it. I did slightly better with Damascus Gate but would probably do better now that I have visited Israel.)
You have to walk down a whole bunch of steps to enter through the Damascus Gate which, interestingly, has a “Moneychanging” store right next to it. (Think about that, will ya?) Once inside, it is like you’re in a different world, a world of tunnels and mazes. There are some seaport and market areas of New York that are a bit like this but generally they are pretty scary places that tourists are best to avoid. We had to watch for pickpockets when we were in this area of Jerusalem (no different than you would in a busy place here in the states) but really I felt very safe. The evening we walked into the old city, a lot of the storefronts were closed and shuttered. We gained a whole different perspective, though, when we walked through during the day when they were open.
Much of the main road once you enter through the Damascus Gate is the Via Dolorosa (aka Way of the Cross, Street of Sorrows, Street of Suffering). This path winds through the old city from a gate Jesus would have entered after leaving the Praetorium at Caiaphas’ house and then it ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the places that is regarded as perhaps being where Jesus was crucified. The current Via Dolorosa is many feet above where it would have been In Jesus’ time. Fourteen stations along the way denote specific events as Jesus would have traveled this path. We saw groups of people carrying crosses along the path and stopping to pray at each station. Even though the location of many of these places is probably not accurate, veneration is of our Savior and the specific vents, not the physical locations.
Today, at virtually any time of day, the streets seemed to be full of boys and young men, ages maybe four on up through their teens and early 20s. It seemed like they never go to school and usually they were just running around in groups of various ages. You very rarely saw girls on the street. More often, you would see them peering out from doors and windows. I remember once how we watched and waved at two beautiful young girls, probably both five or younger, watching us from behind a barred and ivy-covered upstairs window. Palestinian girls just don’t seem to get out of the house much.
There was a little bit of everything available in the small shops lining the streets. A lot of areas were obviously oriented toward tourists. T-Shirts with sayings like “Shabbat Happens,” “Jerusalem … Just Do It,” and “Don’t Worry, Be Jewish” were plentiful. Various types of souvenirs – postcards, placemats, carvings from olive wood, pottery, glassware – these things were everywhere. Delis and markets selling fruits and vegetables, large bins of different breads and pretzels (often even placed down in the dust at street level), hardware stores and other places where the locals would buy their various needs. The meat market featured a wide variety of freshly butchered animals, displayed perhaps a bit too openly for some American stomachs. And all in the midst of such history. The ancient streets and buildings provided a very eastern feel.
The shopkeepers would work hard to pull you in. For the most part, they were very friendly. Of course there was one young man who was a bit over-the-top-anxious in his desire to sell one of our Lisa’s a stuffed camel one afternoon. In the U.S., I think that shoppers would be running to get restraining orders if they were pursued that vigorously over an $8 stuffed camel.
Our last afternoon in Israel, I was walking through the Old City on my own, looking for souvenirs. One of the common pleas from the shopkeepers was to come in and they would fix you a cup of Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is made from very finely ground coffee that is combined with sugar and then boiled and re-boiled a couple of times. The coffee grounds are strained out before serving. It has a sharp espresso-like taste but then the sugar adds a strange sweetness. I tend to be a bit of a coffee snob and, while Turkish coffee maybe doesn’t hit my tastebuds exactly square-on, I think I could get used to it.
Anyway, I did go into one shop to look for some small souvenirs (which I bought and, because of my resistance to haggling, paid way too much for … but that is okay!) and I did succumb to accepting his offer for a cup of coffee. Now, all of the shopkeepers try to also lure you into the shop next door which they tell you is owned by their brother, uncle, or cousin. It was odd when there was absolutely no family resemblance as in a very Arab-looking man named Ahib introducing you to his blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned “brother” named Jan-Henrik. (Okay, I may be exaggerating a tiny bit.)
After I accepted this shopkeeper’s offer of coffee, he said that he had to go to the store to the right of his to get the coffee but I was shown a place to sit outside and talk with his brother who owned the store to the left of his. Now, honestly and embarrassedly, I do not know “what” these guys were. I am assuming they were Palestinian Muslims but, really, I don’t know. We chatted a bit and it was soon obvious to me first of all that I was way way WAY over my head in terms of any discussion of politics with Jan-Henrik (just kidding – that wasn’t really his name) and, furthermore, I was really wondering if I was getting scammed somehow as the result of talking to these guys. I doubted they had any reason to lock me up in a dark closet and feed me mice for the rest of my life but, still, my suspicious American mind couldn’t help but wonder what was really going on. The coffee took forever to be brewed and brought to me. I learned that the brother has spent some time in the US in the past and hopes to go back someday. Shopkeeper #1, after a few visits telling me the coffee was “almost finished,” finally brought me a cup of coffee. It was served as they always do – in a small handle-less “shot glass” sort of cup. He handed it to me and I honestly think the man must have had asbestos fingertips. I am normally pretty tolerant of touching hot things but this cup felt like the very fires of Hades and it was now in my fingers! There was no table to sit it on so I sat there and quickly alternated the cup between the fingertips of my two hands. It did not cool off. I finally decided that I had to drink it because that way I could share some of the heat with my mouth and that may make the outside of the cup cooler. That theory was flawed. At this point, my fingerprints on both hands had been permanently erased (makes it handy if I ever enter the Witness Protection Program) and I no longer had any tastebuds (which really isn’t very handy for anything though it could be helpful when eating Israeli food).
Eventually, I got the coffee down, thanked them, and excused myself – I needed to keep shopping a bit more. Actually, I am ashamed of myself by the way that I would not let myself relax and talk with these guys openly and unguardedly. They were not there to hurt or scam me in any way. Nothing funny showed up later on my credit card. I left with all of my belongings and, as I left, I was not pestered by all of the other shopkeepers who saw me talking to these two and now maybe saw me as an easy mark. These guys were there simply to talk and build a bridge. While I did not completely rebuff them, I also was not as nice as I should have been. If I am out sharing God’s story as I am supposed to, I will meet all types of people. I want them to be accepting of me and yet I couldn’t be accepting of these guys. There is truly something flawed in that which I need to work through.
It was pretty common in Israel to encounter people who either have spent substantial time in the United States or actually grew up here. I wish I knew all of their stories as to why they left the US to live in Israel. I mean, I may not be 100% pleased with everything in our country but, still, I recognize that it is the safest and most secure country to live in and that it also affords me the greatest luxury and niceties. I cannot imagine becoming an expat. Maybe I am not adventurous enough. Or maybe I just like the comforts of home.
When you approach the Western Wall in Jerusalem, you must go through a security check. The Jews are afraid that someone will try to damage the wall, one of their most holy spots. As I mentioned earlier, Jews pray at the wall because they are not allowed to worship on the Temple Mount. One could probably make the argument that the Jews’ inability to worship on the Temple Mount area, where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, is one of the key causes of the continuing conflict over there. Overall, I have to admit, I am pretty sympathetic to the Palestinians’ cause but yet I cannot get over the fact that the holy Temple Mount area cannot be shared. It makes no sense to me why others’ religions cannot be respected and a holy site like that cannot be shared.
In many respects, Jerusalem felt like a city on the edge. I am not quite sure what it is on the edge of though. Peace? Violence? Chaos? Craziness? Holiness? All of the above? Like Gershon told us, nothing quite makes sense in Israel and there’s no point in trying to make logic of it. While there, I sensed a city that is incomplete, that doesn’t know quite who or what it is. It is a city full of numerous cultures but yet, whereas the United States is a melting pot of cultures, cultures remain distinct in Israel, creating this edginess that is both exhilarating and incredibly sad because of the way in which it prevents the citizens from living full lives.