We started the day off right, by heading down to a bakery below Jessa and Rodolfo\’s building and snatched up some delicious pastries and debated on whether to indulge in a container of Hamantaschen chocolate cookies. Ultimately, we decided against it (I cannot fathom why!) and ate on the way to the train stop so we could meet up with our new companions for Bethlehem day.
This will be a Little More “Rustic” than You’re Used to: Traveling to Bethlehem
Our agenda for the day was to go to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. Jessa also invited a couple that she met while working on the Magdala dig, Maria and Jesus (how adorable is that name combo!) who were from Madrid celebrating what seemed to be their honeymoon in the Holy Land (you know, working on an archaeological dig….how cool is that!). Unfortunately, Maria and Jesus did not speak very much English (although scores more English than I can speak Spanish…I am pathetically monolingual), but luckily Evan can speak an ok amount of Spanish (that he learned from high school and his El Paso-Raised mother) and Jessa is pretty much fluent in Spanish (given that she married an Ecuadorian-Spaniard). So, while I couldn\’t communicate much with our new travel companions, I had two translators who helped me out a great deal.
Onward to Bethlehem. Now, it is important to note that Bethlehem is not within walking distance to Jerusalem (they are two different cities) and Jessa and Rodolfo do not own a car. We also do not have the luxury of having a private tour bus that so many pilgrim groups have to go to these places. That being said, we had to rely on public transportation. Another thing to note is that Bethlehem is in Palestine, not Israel (per se….it’s a very complex and sad political drama that contributes to a lot of the social unrest in the area.) That meant we needed our passports to get there and more importantly to get back to Jerusalem.
Being from America, I know a little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (although I am by no means a scholar on the matter) and I know which side America is on politically. However, there is this very strong imagery of conflict and terrorism in this part of the world (I mean Syria, which was very close to where we were in the Galilee is having loads of turmoil right now and Rodolfo was adamant about not being on the Lebanese border, because border violence is a real threat). I wasn\’t completely cognizant of the fact that Bethlehem was actually in Palestinian territory and that being there would open up a whole new perspective not only about the place where Jesus was born, but also the larger political environment at play.
We got on the bus, and Maria immediately became nervous. Apparently the last time they had been to Bethlehem, they were chauffeured by a nun in her private car. This was just a little more “rustic” than they were used to and she made several comments about how her mother would be worried that they would be doing this and how dangerous this part of the world is viewed. Palestine’s reputation precedes it…even in Spain. I didn\’t feel particularly uncomfortable. I don’t mind public transportation anyways and I know that our guide is basically an expert in the field. So being on the “rustic” bus wasn\’t a huge deal for me. We arrived in Bethlehem, got off the bus and started walking down the narrow, shop-lined street which was very similar to the old city, but they were all Muslims (no Jews) and some people were actually trying to drive full on four-door sedans down the people-infested street. As we approached the church, the large central town-square outside was starting (or maybe it was ending) to gather a large group of Palestinians waving small Palestinian flags. There was a camera set up and it looked like there was about to be a protest of some sort. “Great”, I thought to myself. “I’m going to end up on the news in the background of this protest and my mother will worry sick when she sees me. That’s just what I need.” We didn\’t stick around to see what the commotion was about and bee lined straight for the Church of the Nativity.
The Funnel of People: The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
|The Church of the Nativity|
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the oldest church that has continuously remained a church. While every other church building was conquered, destroyed, burned down, or converted into a mosque or a government building, the Church of the Nativity alone has been spared. Apparently, when the Muslims came to destroy everything Christian, they came across the Church of the Nativity and noticed a mosaic that looked like the Persian Royal family, so they left it alone. This was, of course, a mosaic of the Wise Men from the East.
|The Door to the Church of the Nativity|
The first thing that you notice when you enter the Church of the Nativity is how small the door is. It\’s really small. So small that you have to (me included at only 5\’3\”) bend at the waist to get in. The reason for this is very practical. The door used to be huge. However, people would come with chariots and steal tiles from the mosaics. This did not sit well with the monks, so they made the door smaller. However, the door was still large enough so that people with horses could saunter in. These horses left \”souvenirs\” all over the church floor. This did not sit well with the monks, so they made the door even smaller. Now you literally have to bend to even get in the church. They now say that the door itself forces you to humble yourself to be in the holy space, so that\’s kind of cool.
The church is expansive and, in my opinion, overly decorated. This church is mostly an Orthodox church and the decorations reflect that fact. There are lots of lanterns and the walls are covered in pictures. It kind of reminded me of what I imagine a religious pawn shop or a stereotypical pious grandmother\’s home. Mismatched frames. Dusty icons. I did like that there were Christmas ornaments hanging from the lanterns. It\’s always Christmas in Bethlehem.
The main attraction, of course, is in the crypt, where Jesus is believed to have been born in a cave. The church is built above the cave, like so many churches in Israel, which makes the basements in these places much more interesting than the actual church part itself. If I am getting this story straight, Jesus was said to be born in a stable where the animals were kept because there was no room for them at the inn. I got that. Jessa (or was it someone else?) explained that in this time a lot of people were cave dwellers and that routinely the people would sleep in a line in the front of the cave, while their animals would be behind them further in. Therefore, there was no room at the front of the cave, so Jesus and Mary had to be further back. I have no idea the accuracy of this and it\’s not something that you really think about when you think of a stable. It was probably a lot more crowded and cramped than I originally thought it might be and there may not have been nearly as much privacy as I would have thought, being in a barn and all.
|This somewhat blurry picture is all I could get of Jesus\’ birthplace|
Anyways, we, along with about a thousand other people, made our way like cattle down a funnel of steps into a small door, leading to a room where Jesus was born. It seemed like we were in the group of people forever, packed in like sardines trying to get closer to the small opening at the bottom. I got separated from my companions, but the force of the people was engulfing. I would just have to see them on the other side. When I finally got into the room, I was surprised to find it bigger than I expected. On the right, what looked almost like a fireplace with a star on the floor instead of logs and a fire, pilgrims knelt down two by two to venerate the sacred place. You can only really venerate it for about 2 seconds before you have to get up, move on and make room for the thousands of pilgrims behind you. If you need encouraging there is a monk or a priest there to sternly remind you to get up and move on. You can stay in the back section (which is just a room with a nice people watching vantage point) and pray. I did my best to shoot a picture, but the time limit was too small and my skill set too weak to have it come out any good. The Catholic section of the church is the Grotto of the Manger, which has a marble version of a feeding trough that represents the manger in which Jesus was laid.
Bees: Cross of Mary\’s Fingers in the Column at the Church of the Nativity
The only other interesting parts about the Church of Nativity are the old mosaic floors from centuries ago that you can see through windows in the floor and a particular column.
|The cross in the column|
|My fingers fit!|
While we were there, I believe they were actually renovating the inside of the church, so most of the columns were completely covered in wooden planks. However, one column has a cross made up of 5 circular indentations (like a-fingered cross bowling ball). Apparently, there is a legend (according to Jessa, but I couldn\’t seem to find this verified online, so hopefully I get this correct) that during one of the many times the church was almost taken over by some hostile group of invaders, the monks were quite literally praying for a miracle and bracing for their inevitable destruction. All of a sudden an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared and stuck her fingers in one of the church columns. When she did that, a swarm of bees flew out from the spot and attacked the invaders and saving, once again, the Church of the Nativity. I have no idea how accurate the story is, but the cross that was perfectly made by Mary\’s fingers are still seared into the column.
We Live Nowhere Near El Paso: Lunch in Bethlehem
For lunch we went to a restaurant that boasts Palestinian beer. It\’s hard to come across beer apparently in the Holy Land because the Kosher and Halal rules are strict enough to prohibit a lot of alcohol in much of Israel. However, this particular restaurant is in Bethlehem (Palestine) and I guess immune from the rules, probably because it\’s probably a Christian restaurant. At any rate, if you want to try Palestinian beer, this is the place to try it.
Also on the menu this afternoon is hummus, pita, hot hummus (which is like hummus only hot and made slightly differently), Mousabaha (chickpeas in Tahini Sauce), baba ganoush (I think) and some other dip that I wrote down in my notes as Mataude, but cannot find on the world wide web anywhere and could very easily be something else entirely.. It\’s very hard to know all the different dips they have because there seems to be a lot of them here and they are all distinct, yet oddly similar. Oh, the men also had the beer (seeing as that was one of the whole reasons we even went here).
One of the most amazing things about this trip has been sharing meals with others. Not only has the food been divine, but the entire atmosphere and comradery of it all was sheer joyfulness. It was also awesome that while we were there, our group of traveling companions were always in a sort of flux. In the beginning it was with Nathan and Amelia, sometimes it was just Jessa and Rodolfo, but here in Bethlehem, we got to spend time with and get to know Maria and Jesus from Madrid.
I was at the most disadvantaged in this respect as I don\’t speak a lick of Spanish (or any other language for that matter) and our companions were less comfortable with English. Thankfully Jessa is fluent in both and Evan can get by, so they could help translate a bit. We sat down for a fabulous meal of bread and dips and got to know each other. The first thing we learned is that Maria and Jesus met on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje that Maria had been inspired to go on by reading a book about it that her parents had. On this trip she met Jesus who turned out to be the author of the book! How cool is that! Now, they are married. What a way to meet! Jessa made them tell this story in English both so I could understand, but mostly to have them practice their English. The second thing we learned is that they love American culture and want to go to NYC. They love burgers and American movies and Jesus keeps up with all the American sports teams. When we told them we live in Texas (a place that may be just as famous as America in it\’s own right), they\’re eyes lit up. \”You live near El Paso! Like in the movies!\”. We were a bit surprised. I didn\’t know people even knew about El Paso outside the U.S. I can understand San Antonio (the Alamo) or Dallas (the TV Show) or Houston (IT\’s Huge). I could even understand Austin (especially if you like Music, but I would put Austin lower on the scale except that it is the Capital), but El Paso? Apparently, El Paso is a big deal in westerns and really solidifies the Texas culture to those abroad. We had to explain that we live about as far away form El Paso as they lived to France because Texas is huge and our portion of it doesn\’t look so much like the old-timey westerns. The third thing we learned was that in Spain, they have this magical, all-in-one cooking machine basically that can do anything. I guess it\’s like our version of the Kitchen-Aid mixer, but it sounded like it could do a bunch of stuff like make bread and blend things up as well.
Evan then recounted the story of how we met in Spanish for them so he could practice his Spanish and even Jessa learned some things about us she didn\’t even previously know.
Jessa Yells at a Tour Guide: Church of St. Catherine
|The Church of St. Catherine|
Connected to the Church of the Nativity is the Church of St. Catherine. I didn\’t actually know it was a different church at the time actually, but this is the Catholic Church (the Church of the Nativity is very heavily Orthodox and, obviously, every denomination needs their own unique place of worship). This is actually the parish for Catholics who routinely live in Bethlehem and it is also the place where the worldwide Christmas Eve mass from Bethlehem is celebrated.
In this church is also home to a complex set of caves that once served as a monastery. Particularly, the cave where St. Jerome spent a good chunk of his life translating the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin is found in this place below the church.
As we were on our way out, we stopped in the Narthex area of the church (so not really in the Church itself, but in the lobby-area) and huddled around Jessa as she told us an amusing story about how during one Christmas Eve mass being preformed by the Pope a helium balloon (I want to say it was in the shape of a cow) had gotten stuck up in the rafters of the church earlier and used this particular moment to grace the congregation with it\’s entertaining, yet completely profane presence. The Pope couldn\’t see it (as it was floating over his head) and as you can imagine, like a classic sitcom, hilarity ensues.
As Jessa is telling the story, a tour guide (probably Russian) brings her large (20 people maybe) tour group up to a sculpture encased in the wall of St. George (the patron saint of Palestine), presumably to impart her knowledge about the history of St. George to the group of unsuspecting tourists. But apparently, this small group of 20-somethings next to them were just being way too loud, talking about Christmas Eve balloons and other such nonsense. Therefore, the tour guide turns to Jessa (the object of the intolerable noise) and tells (or yells, rather) her that she has a tour group there and that she doesn\’t want to yell over Jessa\’s irksome story.
That struck a nerve with our fearless leader. When you are only in Israel for a week and you encounter tourists / tour groups / pilgrims, it doesn\’t bother you so much, because you are doing the exact same thing as they are in a way. We are a little united on some front. However, when you live there and you have to deal with these people every time you venture into any place of worship, it gets old very quickly. Suddenly, the tours become dreadfully annoying and downright rude. The idea that those in a large tourist group have more of a right to a religious space is downright insulting when you live there and are always venturing out on your own or with a small group such as ours. Jessa wheeled around with a look that suggested she was not going to take it this time. This was one time too many.
|Stained Glass @ St. Catherine\’s|
\”Are you serious?!\” she yelled, \”This is everyone\’s space! We have just as much a right to be here talking as you do! Let\’s Go!\” Jessa turned to us suggesting that this last bit was directed at us and that our time here was done.
I was taken aback as I\’m not used to confrontational situations and I immediately noticed that the tour guide was also taken aback. I\’m sure, 99% of the time she has told somebody this, they just quietly and embarrassedly shut up, but this was that 1% the tour guide couldn\’t have possibly predicted. She stammered a retraction \”You don\’t have to leave, just be more quiet.\” quietly, but at that point it was too late, we were out the door with Jessa fuming in irritation and her entourage awkwardly following after her.
The most ironic part about this scene, however, was what else was going on in Bethlehem at that precise moment. All Muslims have to pray at specified times during the day and here, where there are so many Muslims, each mosque announces the Call to Prayer with a hymn over a loud speaker that exudes Middle Eastern music and tonality. Because there are so many mosques in the area and each call to prayer happens at slightly different moments, the end result is a cacophony of music and words blaring atop the nearby mosques. You can\’t ignore it. It is supposed to reach all ears in the city, so that the Muslims can stop their day, turn to Mecca and participate with the world in their daily prayers. It\’s a very interesting experience and one that I wish I could capture justly, but it\’s difficult when you are constantly moving like we seemed to be. There is nothing in the United States that even remotely resembles this, either, making it all the more foreign to me. If someone tried to do this, they would get arrested for disturbing the peace.
Interestingly enough, I don\’t remember ever seeing Muslims stop everything they were doing to actually do their prayers. Jessa said they probably have a time limit (i.e. until the next call to prayer) to complete their task. Christians and Jews just ignore it, because it is as commonplace as the freeway noise or rickets chirping at night. Even as a non-Muslim, I started to really appreciate the Call to Prayer. The entire city resonates with this music and you cannot help but remember God as a result. For anyone who needs to be reminded to pray daily (or 5 times daily), you can definitely use the Muslim Call to Prayer for your own faith tradition and be reminded of the ever-presence of whatever God you believe in. I suppose some people would get annoyed with it, but to me, in the albeit short time we were in Israel, I found that the Call to Prayer was comforting. Granted, I couldn\’t understand a word of it as it was all in Arabic, but it served as a constant reminder nonetheless. No matter what is going on in the hum-drum or chaos of everyday life, God is still with us. Always. Without fail. In fact, his presence is blasted from the loudspeakers every couple of hours.
Needless to say, it probably didn\’t make much of a difference if Jessa was talking or not. The tour guide would still have to yell over the Muslim Call to Prayer.
|\”We are hoping that: if you enter here as a tourist, you would exit a pilgrim.
If you enter here as a pilgrim, you would exit as a holier one.\”
Eat the Rock….Or Don\’t, It\’s Entirely Up to You: The Milk Grotto
It was time to get away from the crowds. So, we headed to another holy location that relatively few people know or care about: The Milk Grotto.
|The Milk Grotto|
|The Rocks at the Milk Grotto|
There is a tradition that when the Holy Family was fleeing to Egypt, they stopped in a cave so Mary could breastfeed Jesus (a boy\’s gotta eat). Apparently, a drop of Mary\’s breast milk fell to the ground and instantly, the rocks turned to white and became soft (almost chalky). Tradition also states that if you eat the rock and have a devotion to Our Lady, the milk powder will increase their fertility. Interestingly, this is a devotion that Christians and Muslims both share, so pilgrims of both types are said to frequent this chapel. The grotto itself is a cave that has been fashioned into a simple chapel that mostly still looks like a cave.
It is a lot smaller and a lot less crowded than the Church of the Nativity, in my opinion, for obvious reasons. A lot of Christians, who would be interested in the Church of the Nativity don\’t really recognize Mary as particularly important and thus wouldn\’t go out of their way to see a Marian shrine, and many tourists probably don\’t even know that this place exists. I hadn\’t. This gave a much welcome atmosphere to the entire place.
Here is the Spiritual Connection I\’ve Been Looking For: The Chapel Connected to the Milk Grotto
When we were finished in the Milk Grotto, we took a connecting tunnel to a new Marian chapel that was built in 2007. In the tunnel, there is a section that has a window looking into an adoration chapel where the Body of Christ is exposed. We knelt in front of the window, peering into the small chapel with chairs on either side facing one another. A lone nun was sitting peacefully. Very soon after we arrived, another nun appeared, and then another. Soon the whole chapel was filled with nuns. When everyone had found their seats they began their prayers. They chanted together with such unison in sing-songy tones. We could hear them through the glass. I felt like we got our own private display of worship and some insight to how the religious spend their days. It was most literally looking into their worship and joining them, just for a moment, a brief moment. Our paths crossed with the paths of the nuns and we were united in our one prayer.
|The Chapel @ The Milk Grotto|
The chapel itself was bright, beautiful, quiet and empty. It was one of the newest churches we had been to on our journey and the place was just filled with the kind of serenity that you simply cannot get at the more crowded holy places, such as the Holy Sepulcher. There was also something distinctly feminine about the architecture and the space that really gave a sense of the essence of Mary and why her veneration is so pervading across so many Christians. I couldn\’t help but be spiritually touched by such a lovely display of worship and ultimately peace.
|The Ceiling lined with Stained Glass at the Chapel @ The Milk Grotto|
We walked outside and briefly stared out over the city, a cemetery, who knows. The view was not important at the moment. What was important was the way we felt: peaceful, grounded, rich, loved. I talked with Evan a bit about the chapel and devotion to Mary in general. Evan was born and raised staunchly Lutheran and only recently became Catholic and even more recently started to delve into the world of Marian devotion (which is pretty much a foreign concept in the Lutheran faith). This made his perspective about the whole experience most interesting to me. In true Evan form, his face did not show any particular expression and he looked at me with the kind of nonchalance that only Evan is capable of, and said \”I definitely feel more connected to Mary now than I ever have before.\” I silently agreed and we basked in the moment of complete connection, if only for a millisecond.
Awkwardly Stalking Monks: The Miracle Babies
As we were about to leave, Jessa checked to see if the monk was in a small room at the entrance (he wasn\’t when we first got there). Alas, the door was locked. Bummer. We turned away dejected and began traveling to our next destination, when lo and behold directly in front of us a monk came walking directly towards us, back from lunch probably and seemingly ready to resume his post in the small room at the entrance of the Milk Grotto.
This put us in a slightly awkward place. We wanted to go and talk to him, but we didn\’t know him personally. We wanted to go into his little locked room, but we didn\’t want to appear overly anxious about it. So what do you do when you\’re awkwardly standing in front of someone (where they can obviously see you), but the appropriate time hasn\’t come to commit to going up towards the locked room (he needs to still get there first)? The answer, for us at least, was to stand around awkwardly and wait for him to pass and then follow him into his little locked room. It was probably the most awkward stalking of all time. Imagine 5 people (3 Americans and 2 Spaniards) that all of a sudden stop walking, stand awkwardly and embarrassedly around while waiting for someone to pass and then follow right behind the person they were so interested in meeting. It was not our finest social moment, and while we didn\’t do anything bad, it probably wasn\’t our most graceful social moment.
When we thought an appropriate amount of time had passed (so the monk could actually get into the room), we walked back into the Milk Grotto entrance and entered the now open door to our right. The whole reason we were here, was to see the thousands of pictures and letters of \”miracle babies\” that people send in, contributing the birth or the health of the baby to the powder of the Milk Grotto. This monk receives thousands of these and they are all over the walls and in these big binders. Stories about infertility finally being miraculously answered in all kinds of languages. It was really touching to see all the babies, all the letters, all the lives that have been affected, all the people with the devotion, all the cultures and countries these stories came from. They are the miracle babies and whether or not you believe it is the milk powder, per se, it\’s inspiring to see such a multitude of gratefulness exploding off of thousands of pages stuffed into binders being cared for by an unassuming monk.
He Gets To Eat Dinner with the Pope: Jack\’s Workshop and Shop in Bethlehem
|Sculpting the Olive Wood|
A huge benefit of having a personal contact in the Holy Land is that, when it came to shopping, Jessa and Rodolfo brought us to places where they actually knew the shopkeepers and could basically verify that they wouldn\’t rip you off (a common occurrence in Israel….or any tourist place, really). The one thing I wanted more than anything else to bring back to the US was a Manger Scene from Bethlehem. Jessa led us to a workshop area where you could actually see men taking olive wood and using jigsaws to carve out the products sold in the shop. You could see the care each man took in making the donkey sculpture smooth or the ornament carefully intricate. It\’s always cool to see how things are made before you see the finished product. Like a pre-prepared tour, we continued on in the workshop until it turned miraculously into the shop. Jack\’s shop. I made a beeline for the manger sets while Evan got distracted by a number of ornaments on the other side of the store. I explained emphatically to Jack that I simply must have a manger set and he seemed very keen on helping me find the perfect one. After I finally convinced Evan to come over to the other side of the shop, we were able to pick out a manger set that had very contemporary figurines that were just shapes (no faces or really any detail) and a hollowed out, very natural looking olive wood trunk (branch?) that served as the stable. It is absolutely perfect!
After that order of business was finished we were able to purchase Christmas ornaments for our family members and chat with Jack about his shop, olive wood and the Pope\’s upcoming trip to the Holy Land. I learned 2 things. First, I learned that olive wood is actually very sustainable. It\’s very hard to kill an olive tree, first of all, and they have a tendency to grow and grow and grow indefinitely. However, when they grow too much, they stop producing olives well (too much other stuff in the way), so they have to prune the trees in order to have it continually bearing fruit. This creates a huge amount of excess wood lying around that is eventually made into these souvenirs. It\’s cool to know that they don\’t have to kill trees to get all the wood for their shop (like the lumber mills have to do, I assume). Way to be green, Palestine!
The second thing I learned while getting to know Jack was that the Pope was coming to Bethlehem in the next couple of months or so. Apparently, Pope Francis wanted to have dinner with some Native Christians in Bethlehem while he was in town and Jack\’s family got selected among the community to enjoy the honor. Jack was beaming with happiness as he told us and we were all very excited for him. How many people do you know that have personally dined with the Pope? It\’s the real-life opportunity everyone always speculates about….\”if you could have dinner with 5 people, dead or alive\” scenarios. How awesome is that!
The Password is \”Monastery\”: Walking Through Bethlehem
Bethlehem is an interesting place. It has a huge pilgrimage draw because of the Nativity, but because it is in Palestine, there aren\’t a whole lot of non-Palestinians walking about. Jessa explained that a huge proportion of the people who go to visit the Church of the Nativity are basically taken by a bus, dropped off in front of the church and are whisked directly out when they are done. There is this pervading idea that Palestine is extremely dangerous to everyone else. That these people are terrorists and that political turmoil is likely to break out at any moment. People are scared to go in and explore, like they might in other cities. Most people don\’t stick around to go souvenir shopping. Most people don\’t walk around Bethlehem.
We are not most people.
|With images like this, no wonder people don\’t want to stick around.|
I had no idea where we were supposed to be going. All I knew is that it was going to be a long walk. We walked down the streets, changing directions arbitrarily. There was discussion about getting a cab, because Maria felt sick (They apparently were at a cookout and ate boar the night before, and I\’m not sure I would trust this part of the world with the proper cooking of non-Kosher, non-Halal boar meat…..I wonder where they got it?), however, that idea never came to fruition. We did stop for chocolate truffles at a little bakery, though which at least gave us something sweet to snack on while we trekked along. I also picked up a rock from the side of the road so that I could bring it back to the Schoenstatt movement of Austin who are in the process of building a Marian Shrine named \”Bethlehem, Cradle of Sanctity\”. This will be incorporated in the foundation of the shrine so that it will be literally founded on the rock of Bethlehem.
After what seemed like forever, Jessa stopped and turned to us.
\”Ok, we are getting close to the wall. They\’re going to start yelling at us. Let me take care of it and follow my lead.\” she prepped us.
That was ominous. I looked up and ahead of us is the wall. The giant wall that Israel built to keep Palestine out. A hug concrete wall that literally imprisons the people in Bethlehem within their borders. This extremely controversial wall that I didn\’t even know existed until I saw it for myself.
We were walking right towards it.
We were on the road where cars were stopped waiting to pass through the heavily guarded gate. It is a military zone. The Israelis checking each and every car like an international border. If it was an international border, it wouldn\’t be odd….but it\’s not. It is a border between two people within the same country where only one group has full-rights (Israelis). All the Palestinians are literally trapped and need special visas to get to cities within their own country.
We continued walking.
As predicted the guards started shouting at us in Arabic (or Hebrew….maybe even English…it was all indiscernible). The guards with intimidating M-16\’s frantically directed us to go the opposite direction. It was probably the most uncertain I felt during our entire trip.
We continued walking.
Finally, Jessa yelled back at the guard who was yelling at us like we were prisoners who wanted to escape, \”MONASTERY! MONASTERY!\”.
This must have been the magic word because as soon as he understood what she was saying he backed off, gave us a wave of the hand and immediately became bored with the group of 5 20-something foreigners. I was impressed. It was very reassuring to know that amidst all the chaos and political drama, that the monastery is still a recognized place of safe haven. It reminded me of playing Romancing the Stone in elementary school where you would run desperately for the hula hoop jail on the enemy\’s side to retrieve a friend (or a valuable player as the case may be). Once you successfully reached the hula hoop, the enemy could not touch you. You were safe, for the time being. You were granted asylum. Thy might groan at you being there, yes, but they cannot do anything to you. We were headed to a sacred place that no one dares violates.
I think that this sort of thing doesn\’t hold as much weight in American culture right now. We are insanely secularized and while there is a general guideline when it comes to respecting religion, it doesn\’t have the same impact. In this area of the world religion is important. Super important. It is being displayed everywhere you turn. The minarets on the mosques blare it out over the loudspeakers, the droves of Christians relentlessly and unceasingly enter every major church under the sun and the Jews wear the appropriate garb of their particular sect of Judaism. It is so elevated here. It\’s so heated. It doesn\’t matter that everyone has a different religion, each person has a religion that is fiercely believed in and fiercely fought for. In a way, while no one can agree on the appropriate religion to practice, one thing is for sure, the faith-level is all extremely high here. You live and die for your religion, something you don\’t see in America nearly to the same degree. In that sense, there almost emerges a mutual respect….or forced tolerance. \”Let the Catholics go to their precious monastery, what do I care\”
The Golden Rule Knows No Walls and No Races: The Separation Wall in Bethlehem
|Graffiti on the Separation Wall|
If the wailing wall makes you feel the plight of the Jews, the separation wall between Israel and Palestine really makes you feel the plight of the Palestinians. This huge cement wall is barricading Bethlehem \”for safety\” and \”to keep the terrorists out\” (to my understanding), but it serves mainly as a control mechanism for Israel to use on the Palestinians and in essence control them by denying them access to much of the good land and to Jerusalem, which is one . I do not pretend to know much about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only that it exists and is incredibly sad. The entire situation is heartbreaking, socially unjust and painfully evident when you witness the wall.
|Christmas is imprisoned inside the wall.|
We walked along the wall on the side of Bethlehem, the side of the Palestinians. The wall seemed to go on forever. It is covered in political graffiti that expresses the pain of the Palestinians and the frustration that they have towards the political situation. For Americans, this is a political struggle between tow groups of people on the other side of the world and we can 1)stay out of it and 2) make sweeping philosophical claims and opinions based on conflict theory. The wall, however, is not theoretical. It\’s very, very physical. It physically cuts the Palestinians off from resources. It physically imprisons the Palestinians in the confines of their town. It physically provides a space of artistic self-expression which is mostly sad and angry. It is physically a barrier to peace. It is physically a wall to any kind of hope. This is the reality of the people living here, and while I can leave (whip out my passport and head on back to America), these people cannot. They cannot even go to major cities within their own country. They don\’t even have the right to the medical care, or the educational system, or the infrastructure, or the agricultural resources that are concentrated in Israel, because when the wall was created, the Israelis got the cream of the crop, while Palestine was relegated to what was leftover, what was desolate, which has basically turned Bethlehem into a ghetto of sorts. A ghetto where many tourists enter to see the birthplace of Christ, the birthplace of the hope of salvation for the world and then turn directly back around to the \”safety\” of Jerusalem, never stopping to witness the degradation of the city that they faithfully sing about every December.
|Inspiring Artwork next to a story (on the right)|
There are also these plaques with stories on it: Stories about people in Palestine who died because they couldn\’t get the medical attention they needed because they were not allowed to go to Jerusalem, stories about children who would never be allowed to leave the confines of the walls, stories about people who want to be in the military who can never serve, people who want to have higher education, but will never be afforded the opportunity, stories about people praying unceasingly for peace and never hearing an answer to their prayers. As you walk along the wall, you may stop to read a few, but they continue on over and over: the voices of the Palestinians, the voices of fear, the voices of anger, the voices of sadness, the voices of frustration, the voices of confusion, the voices of heartbreak, the voices of hopelessness explode from the wall symbolizing the sum of the conflict. I have no idea how many stories we passed, let alone how many stories there are.
|Trying to pry the wall open|
The graffiti was pervasive. It covered the entire bottom portion of the wall. It looks as though the concrete was flooded with these emotions and the graffiti marks how much these emotions had risen, like a dark line on a wall that was damaged by water. The artwork was altogether simple and complex, detailed in come parts and remarkably simple in others. There were pictures that expressed deep and profound truths and there were words that were directly profane. There were quotes about love and peace and God right next to images of war and abuse and expletives. Some of the wall was remarkably artistic, while other sections were simple statements about injustice. It\’s like the Berlin Wall, I imagine, where people express their opinions, disdain and overall anger in a way that others can witness and be privy to the experience and mind of the artist, if only for a brief moment while walking towards a monastery.
The Woman and The Snake: The Bethlehem Wall Icon
After what seemed like forever walking along the separation, we came to the monastery and interestingly enough to the end of the wall. I was surprised that there was an end to the wall actually, like it should be in a never ending circle, but they haven\’t gotten that far yet, I guess. I\’m not sure if the monastery was even open when we got there because we didn\’t even attempt to go in. The real reason for our journey was not the monastery itself, but an icon on the wall that was done by Jessa\’s icon teacher.
|The Icon on the Wall|
The icon is of Our Lady of Refuge and is created with the colors and details of any icon you can get in Israel. She is depicted with her arm in a position that looks are though she is sheltering someone under her clock (the people of Bethlehem or all of Palestine). Underneath her is a depiction of a doorway where you can see Jerusalem in the background. There is a key next to the archway presumably to represent that the key to peace is the openness between Israel and Palestine.
It\’s moving to see religion mixed with politics in such a way. I feel like here, when politics and religion mix, it has a very negative connotation (I\’m looking at you, religious right). This is different. It\’s an expression about social injustice and how Our Lady watches over everyone, even these people, even those \”unchosen by God\” (as the Jews believe). This painting stands directly in front of the monastery. Apparently there is a lot of controversy about where the wall is going to continue on. The monastery serves the people of Bethlehem (that\’s it\’s entire ministry). Israel is threatening to build the wall so that the monastery is on the Israeli side, which would completely destroy their ministry. It would be devastating to the Christians in Bethlehem to have this happen. They haven\’t seemed to decide yet, as the wall remains distinctly unfinished.
As we admired the work of the iconographer and took in the gravity of the situation in Bethlehem, Jessa mentioned how in Revelations the woman is giving birth, but directly below her is a serpent, ready to devour her offspring. It is said that when the iconographer finished his work, he took a step back and realized that it portrayed the same image. There is a very large snake that had been graffitied on the wall prior to the installation of the icon, with a gaping mouth ready to devour the offspring. It\’s eerily symbolic to the current situation.
This is How Prison Must Feel: Walking Back to Israel
Our time in Bethlehem was over. We were now going to walk back to Israel, through the pedestrian part of the separation wall. The only way I can describe this experience is, this is how prison must feel. The entrance into the wall is made up of concrete blocks and those fluorescent lights that makes your skin look sickly. You pass by Israeli guards who look at you like you could be a criminal. You have to show them your passport, your Israel travel visa card. You have to take off your shoes, take out all you personal belongings to go through multiple security checkpoints. There are a couple of those revolving doors that can only go one way. You have to traverse all of this in single fashion, hoping that your travel companions behind you don\’t get detained, leaving you stranded. It\’s very regulated. It\’s very militaristic feeling. It\’s very ugly. It\’s like an airport, but colder and harsher. It was unnerving for me, and I don’t look Middle Eastern and had all the proper American documentation I needed. Some people have to do this every day to get to work, for example, but what\’s worse is that some people in Bethlehem can never go through the exit because they don\’t have the proper permits needed.
At last we were outside Bethlehem and on the bus headed back to Jerusalem. The bus ride was mostly quiet and somber. After that, no one felt much like talking.
Putting the Wailing in \”Wailing Wall\”: The Wailing Wall Part II
At some point throughout the day we started talking about our quest for visiting the sites of the mysteries of the rosary and we started hashing out what we had done and what we would do.
\”What about the presentation of Jesus in the temple or the finding of Jesus in the temple\”, I asked, thinking it was overlooked.
\”We\’ve already done that….well basically\” Jessa responded. \”When they say the temple, they mean THE temple. THE temple whose only remnant is the Wailing Wall.\”
\”Oh, I didn\’t realize that.\” I said, disappointedly (I had always just thought it was just a temple, not THE temple). \”Can we go back? Last time I was there I didn\’t even think about meditating on those parts of the rosary and now I feel like I\’m missing something.\”
\”Not a problem\” Jessa replied cheerfully.
We said goodbye to our new Spanish friends, met up with Rodolfo and made our way for another quick stop at the Wailing Wall so I could actually think about the temple mysteries. This time Rodolfo was with us, so Evan got to have a buddy go with him into the foreign territory of the Jews. We agreed on a meet-back location and split up to our appropriate sides.
The Wailing Wall
The women\’s side is always crowded, but this time, my focus was pulled to a particular group of people, not the devote Jews with their faces buried in the Torah, swaying back and forth, reciting Hebrew prayers. Instead, I noticed a different group of people: The Nigerian (Note: They might not have been Nigerian, they may have been from another African nation, but I know that Nigeria has this practice, so I\’m going to assume they were Nigerian) Christians.
The Nigerian policy started out with the Muslims. About half of Nigerians are Muslims and are therefore required to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least one time in their lives. The Nigerian government, realizing that many Muslims would not be able to afford to go to Mecca on their own, took to subsidizing these international trips. When you do this for one group, it\’s hard to not do it for all groups. he Christians (making up almost the entire other half of the population) demanded that if the Muslims got subsidies to go to Mecca, they should get subsidies to go to Jerusalem. Thus an industry was born. You can tell who these particular tourists are because they are all wearing the same African-style clothing made from the same fabric that has a bright and intense pattern interspersed with the face of whichever politician gave the funds for this particular trip. They are not the most flattering of outfits (who wants to wear someone else\’s face all over your clothing?) but if it gets you a cheaper (free?) trip, I wouldn\’t complain.
|Prayers left at the Wailing Wall|
There was a whole group of them at the wall while we were there. These Christians weren\’t just at the wall praying quietly with a hand on the stone either. They were crying. They were wailing. They were practically falling over with sheer emotion. Now maybe Jews do this as well, but when I was there, I didn\’t see that. Most of the Jews I saw were quietly praying, rhythmically chanting and swaying back and forth with a much more reserved amount of emotional expression. I found this to be a very odd display of passion. These weren\’t Jews, these were Christians. Why were they in tears over the Wailing Wall? It made little sense to me.
I mentioned my musing to Jessa and how I found it odd that the wailing was coming almost exclusively from the ?Nigerian Christians. She replied that many Fundamentalist Christians tend to be very Zionist and really sympathize with the plight of the Jews. They are passionate about the Zionist movement and the state of Israel. She recounted a story she had from when her mother came to visit. Her mother is a Fundamentalist Protestant and when Jessa had to slip away for a while, she asked her mother where she wanted to hang out for a while Jessa finished up some work she had to do. Instead of saying The Holy Sepulcher, for example (which is probably the place I would want to be left at as it\’s big and overwhelming and sort of the crux of Christian Holy Places), Jessa\’s mom wanted to be left at the Wailing Wall for an hour or so. Who knew that Fundamentalist Protestants felt so connected to their Jewish brothers and sisters that they become so moved by the Wailing Wall that they literally wail themselves?
Joyful Mystery 4 & 5: Presentation of our Lord and Finding Jesus in the Temple
Joyful Mystery 4 & 5: Presentation of our Lord and Finding Jesus in the Temple
Too Sweet For Me: Semolina Cake and Baklava
|Baklava: Why does it look hairy? Source|
As we made our way through the Old City, the stores were starting to close up. We needed to go home, but not without getting something sweet to eat along the way. We walked up to a still open bakery, a Muslim bakery, not a Jewish one. Jessa and Rodolfo told us to try the Semolina cake as it is a delicacy and Evan was itching to get some baklava (of which they had plenty).
|Semolina Cake Source|
The semolina cake kind of tasted like tiny beads that are being held together by honey (or just sugar…who knows). The consistency is very grainy (from the semolina flour), but very rich and delightful. Evan\’s baklava just tasted purely like honey. It was very sweet. It was too sweet for me. Not bad, but I couldn\’t eat a whole lot of either dessert. Jessa also picked up some bread for tomorrow\’s breakfast while we were there and we continued on our way.
Always Go for the Whole: The Best Falafel in Israel (and thus the world)
Jessa and Rodolfo found the best Falafel wraps in the world almost as soon as they moved in. They had just gotten to their new home when they needed to eat. Hey, there\’s a falafel place right downstairs, lets\’ go there. It\’ll be quick and easy. Little did they know that they had stumbled upon the best falafel in Israel, and probably the entire world.
Nathan and Amelia accused Jessa and Rodolfo of exposing them so early to this falafel that all other places seemed sub-par. Meanwhile, Evan and I were eating happily at all the falafel places that are so much better than what we are used to. When our hosts asked us if we wanted to try the best falafel in the world, we didn\’t hesitate at all to say of course.
We walked into the small and unassuming restaurant, more like a permanent food trailer as there didn\’t seem to be any sitting inside. Oddly, the lights were out, but the owners assured us that they were still open and that something had happened with the power for the lights but the falafel was still available.
I got a half falafel sandwich because I wasn\’t sure how hungry I was, and I immediately regretted this decision as soon as I took my first bite. Oh. My. Gosh. It was delicious. Super delicious. The bread was soft and full. The falafel was perfectly seasoned and had the perfect crispy outer shell with the hot center melting in your mouth. The fries they put in the pita added a special something and it really was a treat. My half was gone too fast. I spent a while lamenting my lack of judgment when Rodolfo told me to get another. Should I really get another half? Rodolfo asked me when I was going to get to eat the best falafel in the world again? I went and got my second half and it was glorious. My advice is: always go for the whole. When the best falafel is on the line…..always go for the whole.
Next Up: Mount of Olives