Israel Vacation Day 3: Adventures in Galilee (Magdala, Nazareth, Cana and Jish)

*Disclaimer: I am only recording what I remember seeing / hearing and that may not be 100% accurate. I\’ve done my best, but if I\’m wrong about some of the details, I am truly sorry.*
I awoke suddenly from a knock at the door. It took me a couple seconds to orient myself. I made it to Israel. I am in a convent. Someone’s knocking at the door. I should probably get that. I stumble out of bed, completely unaware of what is going on. I open the door and I see Jessa fully dressed and ready.
“It’s 8:30” she says.
All of a sudden, I’m awake.
“Oh my goodness! We are so sorry! We must have just slept through the alarm.” I stammer to Jessa “Evan get up! We have to go now!” I snap at my sleeping husband, causing him to stir awake. I tell Jessa we will be right down and continue to apologize. I am thankful though, that if we had to sleep in one day, at least it wasn’t yesterday and miss our early morning flight.
Five minutes later we head downstairs to breakfast, lovingly provided by the nuns who probably hate us. It’s pretty simple, some toast, butter, plain cereal, a slice of cheese. By the time we made it down, our companions were basically finished eating. We got our food and listened to Rodolfo telling some entertaining story about a mishap that had happened to him probably. He’s a great storyteller.
After we were finished eating Jessa gave us a quick rundown of the rest of our day. We were going to travel all around the Galilee, where Jesus did much of his ministry. Thankfully, the weather was much nicer than last night. We were off.
There\’s a camel! Yeah, He\’s the Lawnmower: Magdala Archaeological Dig
That\’s a first century mosaic floor. You can still see the designs!

Coming from America (where there isn\’t a whole lot of ancient history) it\’s surprising to see so much archaeology all over a country. When I think of \”being an archaeologist\” I have generally thought of it as a dying art. I mean, haven\’t we already dug everything up? It is probably because we don\’t have massive ancient, culturally significant stuff buried underneath us in America, so it doesn\’t come up as often, but in Israel, the entire country is full of these places and archaeological excavation is still very much alive and well here. The first place that Jessa and Rodolfo brought us was one particular archaeological dig that they are very close with personally, because they actually work on it. It\’s the ancient city of Magdala.

Now what is very interesting about this place is that, while they knew a city called Magdala was somewhere along the Galilee, because Mary Magdalene was from there. They also knew it was a big city, a rich city, but they couldn\’t find it. Weird, huh? Well, apparently a couple things happened in this town. First, the Romans came and \”evacuated\” everyone. Well, the Jews knew this was going to happen and they started disassembling their synagogue and other parts of their town in preparation (using roofs as protection and such and to as not have the Romans desecrate their holy space). So, when they found all the stones and everything, they were actually piled neatly in the middle of the outline of the synagogue.  The next thing that happened was a mudslide. The mountain next to the town had a major mudslide that just completely covered the then abandoned town and, like Pompeii, really preserved everything there.

Here\’s the synagogue

So, when a hotel decided to build on the spot, they found out that this ancient city was underground and the archaeological dig began (and continues). The first thing we saw was the synagogue. It\’s interesting how archaeological work in Israel is politically. Obviously, there are a ton of archaeological sites and possibilities in the area, but there are only so many resources to excavate them. However, whenever something of particular Jewish significance (like the synagogue) turns up, that archaeological dig becomes a higher priority than say, the byzantine church right next door that has been being excavated for 70 years or something. Therefore, even though this archaeological site is pretty new, it is much more excavated than the other, much older site.

The Mysterious Stone of Magdala. Can you spot the menorah?

They also found a very interesting stone with a lot of artwork carved into it. They actually have no idea what it was used for, so it is under review currently (technically we saw a replica). One of the most interesting things about this stone is that there is depiction of the Menorah, but unlike a lot of menorah depictions, the base of this menorah is triangular instead of rounded. This suggests that whoever carved this picture might have actually seen the original menorah because it is closer to the actual original menorah.

An ancient and still functioning private mitzvah in the rich part of town

Those three rooms were probably the foundation of a multigenerational house.

Then we walked over to the town area. It was split up into two areas (like most towns) the rich and the rest. We looked at the rich houses first. They know they were rich because some of them had tiled flooring and each of the 3 houses had a private mitzvah built in (a room for a ritual bath that women have to do once a month to be spiritually clean after menses). These mitzvahs basically work the same way they did 2,000 years ago (talk about good plumbing!) Then we meandered to the poorer section of town. It reminded me of the book Roxaboxen, where the children built pretend towns out of rock outlines to show where there houses are.

It was about this time that we noticed a camel grazing on the grass. Jessa explained nonchalantly \”oh, that\’s the lawnmower\” as if that is completely natural and commonplace to use camels in such a way.
The Lawnmower.

It was worth it just to see Evan do the moonwalk: The Church of Jesus\’ Public Ministry in Magdala

**Before I go on, I don\’t actually know the name of this church. The above is just a general description**
Like every holy Christian site, there is a church that commemorates whatever event happened there. Unfortunately, there was no church commemorating all of Jesus\’ public ministry in the Galilee and all the miracles he did walking around. The church at Magdala is the answer to that need. At first, Jessa and Rodolfo wanted us to go in the basement area, which was down a bit of an incline and was horribly muddy from the rain the night before. So by the time we got down there, we had mud all over our shoes. Luckily, there was a grate in the cement and we tried to get the mud off as much as possible before entering the church (Evan moonwalked the mud off). Oh no, the door was locked. It looks like that effort was all for naught. We would have to go through the front door. Jessa urged us to \”not look at the church and beeline to the catacombs area\”. (I don\’t really remember the reason why we were supposed to see the catacombs first, FYI). It reminded me of Easter. We would always go to sunrise mass in the morning, but the Easter bunny would hide eggs in the middle of the night and we were always instructed to not \”see\” the eggs we passed while on our way out the door.
Jesus probably touched some of these stones.

We beeline for the catacombs and few come across a room, a plain room at that, made of stone with an altar in the center. Nothing much to see. What\’s cool about this room though is that 1) it\’s specifically designed to be Ecumenical. Most of the main churches in the Holy Land are Catholic or some combination of Catholic and Orthodox religions. I imagine, for Protestants, it might be overwhelming to go to all of these Holy sites and have them look and feel so Catholic and Orthodox (which from my experiences I markedly different that the sparse decoration often found in, say, the Lutheran churches I\’ve been to). This area is cool because it doesn\’t have all that stuff. It\’s just an altar with a bunch of stones. The stones brings us to point 2) all of the stones in the room were stones found in the archaeological dig (the walls of the buildings mainly). Because Jesus most definitely came here and maybe even performed miracles here (it is thought that raising the High Priest\’s daughter from the dead may very well have happened here (and there is a chapel in the church to commemorate that event). That means any of these stones may well have been touched or walked on by Jesus himself. That\’s kind of cool. It\’s a place for everywhere that has probably very literally been touched by Jesus himself.

The Church in Magdala or Jesus\’ Public Ministry
Each of the disciples are holding a representation of how they would die. Judas has some silver.

We continued on to the main church section, which is actually still under construction. This was actually one of the most contemplative places because it isn\’t really open yet as a church, so we were the only people in there (we cannot say that about almost anywhere else). The church itself is cool. They had found a 1st century boat in the area and decided to use it as the model for the altar to this church because Jesus often performed much of his ministry preaching from a boat. It is directly in front of a window looking out to the Sea of Galilee, so it actually looks like the boat is floating on the sea. The walls are lined with icons of the 12 disciples depicted as the age they would have looked during Jesus\’ ministry (not as old men). Judas Iscariot is depicted as well, but he has no halo, he\’s looking down and his name is the only one not in gold (brown).

The workers were still working on the Narthex area when we got there. In the middle of that area is a circle of pillars, each with a name of a woman in the bible. There is one pillar that says Other Women and one which was intentionally left blank, representing all unnamed women who were instrumental in keeping Christianity alive over the centuries. The dome above is painted with an excerpt of Our Lady of Guadalupe (a shoutout maybe to the Mexican head of the archaeological dig perhaps?).
It took a while, but I think I see it now.
I like the fact that the columns of the women are here to commemorate the woman\’s role in faith. Oftentimes it is the women who carry the spirituality from generation to generation and that effort is being recognized. This is just the first of many experiences in the Holy Land that really challenges the common notion that because the Catholic Churc
h is patriarchal, that it is inherently oppressive to women. I would argue that women are honored greatly within the church and this was just one way that it was explicitly recognized. The next location we went to reaffirmed that while women can\’t be priests for example, they have always been incredibly important to the Church.
The Museum\’s Closed. The Museum\’s Always Closed: The Church of The Annunciation in Nazareth
Next stop was Jesus\’ hometown, Nazareth. This was the one place Jessa felt uneasy about pickpockets. It’s mainly a Muslim / Christian town and is home to the largest church in the Holy Land (which I really find hard to believe, as I would think the Holy Sepulchre would be bigger, but I guess not): The Church of the Annunciation, which is the church built right on top of Mary\’s childhood home.
This is the American version of Our Lady.

The first thing you notice are the hundreds of depictions of Mary from pretty much every single country in the World. Catholicism is a universal religion and actually seeing all the different devotions to Our Lady, really makes you think about and appreciate the worldwide devotion. There is also so much variety. The Taiwan Mary looks Taiwanese, for example, and it is that way for each country that contributed its own version. Like most churches in the area, it seems, there are two areas, the catacomb area and then the main church. Here, the lower church actually has a look in to what is revered as the actual room Gabriel appeared to Mary at the Annunciation. This part of the church, frankly, is not as pretty. It is made to look kind of like a cave and be much more earthly. The upper part of the church, however, is grandiose, bright and decorated. This was designed to represent the two natures of Christ, the very human version below that is born of a Virgin, and the very divine nature of Jesus, whose mother is the Queen of Heaven herself.

The lower church where Gabriel appeared to Mary Source

Now many places in the Holy Land are kind of guesstimates. They know that things happened, but they aren\’t 100% sure where exactly it was. Remember, Jesus was a pretty obscure guy in his time and while some disciples followed him around and knew through generations of traditions what happened where, some of those exact details have been lost over time. So many times when you go to a church in the Holy Land, you take it with a grain of salt that while the church is commemorating whatever event, it may have actually happened somewhere else, because we don\’t remember. Therefore, traditions arise and even if it was not the actual place it becomes the actual place for the pilgrims.

The Upper Church is much more grandiose

This is not one of those places. They know exactly where Mary\’s house was because of the excessive amount of graffiti praising her all over the walls. Unfortunately, this area is within the archaeological site below / next to the church and is part of a museum that according to Jessa is \”always closed\”. She has literally never seen it open an thinks it must be a private tour group privilege or something. I think that the graffiti really speaks a lot about Mary\’s place in the church. I feel that Mary\’s presence in Christianity is very controversial, particularly between Catholics and Protestants. Protestants do not nearly have the devotion to Mary that Catholics do, and this seems to create tension in the group. Living in a mainly Protestant country, I think we American Catholics tend to diminish the Marian devotion, which is why when something like Schoenstatt comes in, it is seen as strange and cultish.

The archaeological museum that apparently is always closed Source
But what is remarkable about this place and that gives me faith and assurance of Mary\’s status in Catholicism is the fact that she was revered from the very beginning, with all this graffiti all over the walls. In fact, there were a lot of people who worshipped her in the beginning and the teachings about Mary that were eventually put into church dogma were extrapolated from what people were already doing. It wasn\’t like the church leaders sat around and imposed such a devotion. The devotion was there from the very beginning and the founders simply defined it. I think it\’s important to realize that the Christian church was built from the ground up, not from the top down. So, it shouldn\’t be at all unusual to have a devotion to Mary as a Christian since that has been the case since Christians have existed. It should be unusual not to have that devotion because it has been subtracted somewhere along the way for some inexplicable reason.
This also brings us to a little \”game\” we made up.

I didn\’t actually think about it until we were on Mount Tabor, but I realized that we were hitting a lot of places highlighted in the Mysteries of the Rosary. Rosary Bingo was born and our goal became to black it out. I present to you the First Joyful Mystery: The Annunciation of the Lord to Mary.

I\’m Totally in Your Selfie: St. Joseph\’s Chapel
It is probably no surprise to you that right next to the Church of the Annunciation is a chapel devoted to Mary\’s right hand man, Joseph. Evan and I have grown particularly fond of St. Joseph recently, so we were happy that there was a place to honor him specifically. It is said to be on top of Joseph\’s workshop.
I love me some St. Joseph!

When we were in the Holy Land, we came across a lot of tourists. It’s important to keep in mind that while these places are churches, the actual spiritual fulfillment we got from most of these places weren’t nearly to the level one might think when they were on a pilgrimage. We spent time praying in most places, but a lot of our time was spent walking, taking pictures, looking at cool pieces of artwork and maneuvering around the 1,000 other tourists doing the same thing. I imagine it would be very hard to have really profound spiritual moments when you have so little time, so much to see, and there are so many people. Early on, I realized that I had to get myself in a “museum” mindset rather than a sit-for-hours-and-contemplate-the-meaning-of-life mindset in order to get through it all. I can contemplate faith in America. Because I engrained that in my head early on, I didn’t really get annoyed or angry with other tourists, after all, we are all here doing the same thing.  However, some were more “amusing” than others. None was perhaps more entertaining than the tourist in St. Joseph’s Chapel.
The chapel of St. Joseph sans any personal items left by tourists.

When we walked in the grotto-esque area, the first thing I noticed was that someone had put a purse / other personal items on the steps of the altar. I was taken aback because I would never think to a) put my stuff down and then go off and do whatever it is I wanted to do in such a tourist-filled (and probably very prone to pickpocketing) location and b) decide that the steps of the altar of a church would be an appropriate location to put such items. Granted, it wasn’t on the altar table, but it was still right up there, as if they were trying to make believe their purse was a bouquet of flowers put there for a wedding celebration or something. I looked around for the culprit and there in the middle of the small room was a woman from some African nation taking selfies with her iPad. Why would someone put their stuff on the altar that you presumably want to take a picture of? Why not put your stuff on the floor so you get a good picture of the place you want to remember without your stuff in the way? What made the situation more awkward were the iPad selfies. The room isn’t very big, so our group was milling around behind the woman (who isn’t even taking a picture of the altar at this point) and we could clearly see ourselves in the background of the large iPad picture screen. When the lady finally left, after I don’t know how many selfies, I got a good picture of the altar, but I can’t help but think what we must have looked like photobombing her selfies while trying to look away and not be seen.

Across the Street from Taj Gold: Falafel in Nazareth
At this point we were getting a bit hungry, so we walked down the street to a falafel shop across from a jewelry store called Taj Gold. It was the first time that Evan and I had eaten falafel, that according to our travel mates, this was the second best falafel in Israel (which basically means the world, because really where could you get better?). It was delicious, particularly the pita bread. I learned a couple of things eating falafel in Israel that I think I\’ll share. First, that tahini is to Israel as ketchup is to America. It is the condiment on all the tables for everything. It\’s made of sesame seeds so it is parve (neither meat nor dairy) so it can be used on anything and is therefore safe in both kosher and halal. That makes it the perfect condiment. It is everywhere. Second, nearly every time you get falafel wraps (or sandwiches?) they put the French fries in it (on top of?) the pita wrap as opposed to on the side. Nothing like a falafel French fry pita wrap to curb your hunger.
Our trip to Nazareth happened on a Friday which is the Muslim day for weddings (like our Saturday). I must admit, after being conditioned that this area of the world is dangerous and filled with people who are just waiting to bomb each other, I jumped almost every time I heard the fireworks go off. They are just fireworks celebrating weddings. Besides no one else is really reacting. Maybe all this hatred you hear about in this is an over exaggeration? Then you realize that right in front of the Church of the Annunciation is this outdoor mosque area with a pretty anti-Christian sign.

This is literally right in front of the Basilica. Source
Renovating Our Vows in Italian: The Cana Catholic Wedding Church
The altar of the Wedding Church in Cana. Notice the pitchers. 

When we were on the way to the Galilee, Jessa asked both Evan and I what we wanted to do the most on our trip. My number one thing was to renew our wedding vows in Cana, the site of Jesus\’ first miracle at the Wedding at Cana. So, I was pretty excited about this destination. We walked into the church at the very end of some wedding ceremony (this church probably does the most wedding ceremonies of anywhere in the world I would guess). A very excited older woman in a wedding gown was extremely happy after what looked like her wedding. I think she spoke Spanish, but I have no idea what she was saying as she ran towards me and gave me a giant hug and kiss on the cheek as if I was a special wedding guest that she had not seen in a long time and missed dearly. I was a bit taken aback by the situation, but it also gave me an unimaginable sense of joy. The love that radiated from the bride spilled over to everyone present, even though we were strangers and spoke different languages, the language of love and joy were clearly communicated. It was inspiring and invigorating all at the same time. If this place can foster such joy, love and community, I definitely picked the right place to be.

This is what the water would have been in that Jesus changed into wine.
We should have done a banana for scale, but it\’s probably like a 2 foot diameter
The servants would have taken the wine out of the basin with pitchers to serve the guests.

Now, there are so many pros to travelling in a small group that far outweigh going in a large group, but this was one area where we were at a disadvantage. In order to have your wedding vows renewed by a priest, you have to have a priest with you. This is where we had to get creative and basically attach ourselves to a much larger group with a priest in tow. We had to be flexible. Jessa asked the nun who worked at the church what groups were scheduled for that day. There was a Polish group coming in a bit, so we thought maybe we could piggy back off of them. Polish isn\’t ideal, but beggars can\’t be choosers. In the meantime, we went off to one of the shops that had beautiful but ridiculously priced icons to pass the time. When we got back, we realized there was a Canadian ceremony going on that was in English no less, but we got there towards the end and missed half of it. I was ready to count it, but Jessa suggested we could wait until the Polish group got there so we could participate in the entire thing. We waited around for a bit when another tour group came in, with a priest. Only these tourists weren\’t Polish, they were Italian. Thank goodness. Italian is much easier to understand than Polish for monolingual English speakers. I can at least pick out the word \”amour\” in the homily. Thankfully Rodolfo can get by in Italian and was able to ask the priest if we could tag along on their ceremony. But before he could be official, he had to make sure we were legit.

\”Are you married?\”
\”Yes\” Showing my wedding ring excitedly.
\”Are you Catholic?\”
\”Yes\” we nodded with enthusiasm
\”Are you married Catholic?\”
\”Yes\” Rodolfo confirmed that we were understanding the Italian.
We passed the test. The priest asked everyone how long we had been married. Evan and I, having only been married a year, were the newest of the couples and got some applause by some very supportive Italian women. So there we were saying \”Si levolio\” (at least that\’s what I heard and repeated which honestly could be totally gibberish for all I know) to one another and remembering our wedding day last January. How lucky are we? We\’ve only been married a year and can already come here and celebrate this amazing sacrament a second time in a \”renovation of vows\” as Rodolfo referred to it.
Does this make us newly-newlyweds?
After the ceremony we went to the shop across the street and had some wine. It would not be wedding in Cana without some wine, right? We had a sample first and then picked up a couple of bottles. Maybe we will have some on one of our future anniversaries!

Luminous Mystery 2: The Wedding at Cana

Mount Condom and the Shooting Range: Mountain Overlooking Tiberius
After our incredibly busy day traveling to Nazareth and Cana, we needed to take a breath, preferably with a great view. Jessa thought of the perfect place. There was a mountain that she had hiked up at some point that had a great view of Tiberius. She thought for sure we could go up in the car. Well, that proved to be a bit difficult, as there was a lot of mud on the main road. Seeing as we didn\’t really want to get stuck, we went to the left, on a less \”roadlike\” pathway. I wonder where it leads to. We continued to go up the mountain until it started getting a little sketchy. Like a barbed wire fence and a sign saying something about caution of firearms. Uh Oh. What did we come across? A shooting range apparently. Alright let\’s go a little farther back down and enjoy the view from a nice little lookout on the side on the mountain. We got out of the car and took in the beautiful view. Apparently, we are not the only people that often enjoy that spot. There were a significant amount of used condoms on the ground. Gross. We counted 10. Rodolfo was convinced the guy was a stud for a while, but Jessa assured him that these \”souvenirs\” probably belonged to multiple people. In truth, there is not a whole lot one can do on the Sabbath, so I guess it makes sense, but do you really have to leave them on the ground? No one wants to see that.
Seeing Life Spring from Death: The Dilapidated Mosque
Imagine this in the middle of a strip mall.

The sun was beginning to set, meaning the Sabbath was about to start. We started seeing Jews walk to where they would celebrate with friends and family. Things started shutting down. The city was going into its weekly hibernation. Jessa wanted to show us one thing that you would be hard pressed to find in the states. An abandoned, dilapidated mosque…in the middle of a mall. The juxtaposition of the mosque in the courtyard of a brand new mall around it was striking. A place like this would be a protected site in America, but here it is just another building, another piece of history and by the looks of it, not a particularly important piece of history. Though the walls were boarded up, you could see grass and flowers sprouting from the cracks in the stone. Even in this ancient environment, there is still life growing. Even in the abandoned and neglected death of the building sprouts forth new life, new growth. From the tragedy of the past, we have hope in the future and not even stone can stop the plants from being born through its vulnerabilities.

I Feel So Lied To: The Sea of Galilee
Because the Sabbath was upon us, we had to make a decision. If we wanted dinner, we would have to leave Tiberius, because nothing would be open. Instead we would have to travel to a mainly Muslim/Christian town that don’t observe the rules of the Jewish Sabbath. On our way out of town, we stopped on the side of the road and looked out to the Galilee with the sun slowly going to sleep. Jessa read us the story of Jesus calming of the storm and we stayed there silent for a while. Looking out over the sea (or lake really, you can totally sea the other side and though it\’s big, it\’s not that big), it\’s hard to believe that this is Israel.

I wouldn\’t call this a desert…mari

Virtually all of the media depicting Israel or biblical times show Jesus walking around in the desert. Mary lived in a cave in the desert. The miracles were performed in the sand. It\’s always the desert. The landscape is always sand. It is always brown. The truth of the Galilee could not be further from that depiction. It looks more like what I imagine Italy to look like: Rolling hills, green grass, vineyards and orchards for all sorts of produce. This is clearly not the desert. This is much closer to paradise. I feel so lied to about the landscape, I can\’t get over it. I never wanted to come here because I thought it would be ugly and dusty, but what I found, on the contrary, was an amazing spectacle of life and beauty. I can understand why Jesus came here. In the spring, there may be no more perfect place.

That Bush is in Lebanon: Driving to Jish
You have to be very strategic during the Sabbath as a Christian in Israel, I imagine. While you yourself, might not need to adhere to the strict guidelines of abstaining from work like your Jewish neighbors, the sheer inability to go about your normal life in a mainly Jewish city forces a semi-Sabbath. Yes, Jessa and Rodolfo can cook at home on Saturday, but really, there is not a whole lot else they can do. Nothing is open. There is nowhere you can really go. There is nothing in the outside world you can really do. The city sleeps. I wonder how that feels: to live in a city that actually sleeps and therefore forces you to take a step back every week and just be with your family, for there is nothing else you can really do. I think I would like to try that. Needless to say, we had to get out of Tiberius. We packed in the SUV and started our long trek to a non-Jewish town, Jish, which was certain to have food.
Earlier in the day, Jessa had commented how Jish was relatively close to Lebanon and the last time she brought friends up there, they would make jokes about what they could see across the border. “Those sheep are in Lebanon!” they squealed excitedly and so on and so forth. It’s like going to another country, without actually going to another country. In reality, Jish is well within Israel’s border and the proximity may have been overstated, claimed Rodolfo, perhaps in an effort to relieve any fears we may have about going close to the border.
We had been traveling on the highway for quite a while at this point to our destination when Jessa started second-guessing herself. “We’ve been driving a while, why aren’t we there yet?” she asked tentatively as she pulled out an old-school paper map. As a side note, it is interesting to note that neither Jessa nor Rodolfo have a cell phone of any kind, let alone a smartphone that has maps. I, on the other hand, probably haven’t had to read paper map since I was in middle school / high school as I’ve often had access to a GPS system or at the very least written directions from point A to point B. Even in Israel, Evan and I had access to the internet and maps (which may not always have been 100% accurate, but could generally be accurate enough to get us where we needed to go). It’s incredible how much our technology changes our reality so quickly. In a way, I’ve become dependent on such technology and though I know I would be able to read a regular map of a country, I’m sure I would be frustrated by the inefficiency of it all. I’m sure some people are rolling their eyes right now in judgment at my overdramatic nature, but this is really no different than the advent of electricity or any other technological introduction. When was the last time you lit a candelabra at night for light or salted your meat to keep it preserved without the use of a refrigerator?
Anyways, the point of the story was that we, in fact, missed our turn and were headed….straight for Lebanon. We were literally on the road next to it, meaning “that bush [on the side of the road] is in Lebanon.”  There were 3 distinct reactions to this: Evan, Nathan, Amelia and I continued joking about almost crossing the border and didn’t seem really that phased by it, Jessa was frustrated that we had been going the wrong way and was frantically trying to redirect us and Rodolfo got strangely passionate about our need to return to the highway and away from the border. The issue being that while Israel is relatively safe, there is still violence on the borders. In fact, while we were there, there were some attacks on the border of Israel and Syria. This was the first, and probably only time, our hosts seemed a bit nervous about our safety. I’m sure they were being overly cautious because we were guests and they felt responsible for our safety, but they were nonetheless concerned. We were allowed to be in Israel (our visitor visa cards stated), but we weren’t allowed to be in Lebanon. There is still violence in this part of the world and though the busyness of Jerusalem might make you forget it, it is still present and should be respected and watched out for.  But at the same time: “There’s no better place to die than in the Holy Land.”
Not Sure If There’s a Funeral or Not: The Maronite Church in Jish
A long time ago, before his untimely death, I remember watching an episode of The Crocodile Hunter where Steve Erwin was on an elephant when he suddenly jumped off to pick up an extremely poisonous snake he saw on the ground. It’s a wonder he didn’t die much sooner. That stuck with me because, to this day, is one of the more impulsive detours I’ve ever witnessed someone do. The detour to the Maronite church was reminiscent of this.
The exterior of the Maronite church in Jish Source

The pre-renovated interior of the Maronite church in Jish Source

Nathan and Amelia actually go to the Maronite church in Austin as their home parish, so for them spotting a Maronite church in Jish was a little slice of home.  By the time we arrived in Jish it was already dark (I have literally no sense of time at this point because, honestly, my body is all whacked up from the jet-lag and time changes), but it looked like the church was still open and low and behold there were people coming out of what looked like the basement of the church. Someone suspected it might be a funeral, why else would people be here so late on a Friday night? However, the clothing for some of the patrons looked far too casual for a funeral. We speculated for a bit and then decided we would go inside the church building, which was miraculously still open.

It was actually in the process of being renovated. There was scaffolding with workers painting and drilling. Some of the artwork was visible, but the altar area was covered up. Our travel companions were happy they happened upon a church that reflected their particular brand of Catholicism. To me, it was just another church, of which we would see many through our journeys in the Holy Land.
The Salt Incident: Dinner in Jish
The restaurant we pulled up to reminded me a lot of the kind of restaurants you see in Northern Maine. I guess it’s more of a café type area. There are very few decorations. The entire place is white, the general atmosphere is no frills and simply a place to get something to eat. In Austin, you would probably refer to it as a hole in the wall place, but in Maine (and I imagine in Jish) it IS the restaurant. There aren’t a whole lot of other options. There are no fancy 4 star restaurants with beautiful ambiance, just tables and chairs and food. Really, really good food.
I think that I would do well in Israel in terms of the food. The basis of their meals is bread and basically a variety of sauces/condiments (hummus counts as a sauce, right?). That is totally my jam. I also hate pig (ham, sausage, bacon, pork) of which there is none in this area. The only thing I can’t really get behind, which is scandalous to say in Israel especially by a girl who was born in Maine, is seafood. I just don’t like it. I don’t really like it at all. Seeing as it was Friday during lent, my options were fish (which I was not fond of) or vegetarian. Thankfully eating vegetarian in this part of the world is extremely easy. There was enough pita and hummus, tahini, fried cauliflower, baba ganoush, etc. to keep me more than satisfied. Evan had the St. Peter’s fish, you know the type of fish that St. Peter would have actually caught in the Sea of Galilee. No big deal.
Fish in Jish

I truly think that there may be no greater joy in life than having a meal with friends. There are no agendas, no external motivations, and no distractions of work or technology at this dinner, just a group of friends who are truly appreciative of the company. It is pure joy, actually. Unadulterated joy that flows from our stories, conversations and ultimately our relationships. It has an energy. It has a life of its own. There is not one place I would rather be at this moment, and no one else I would rather share my journey with than this place and these people. In all senses of the word, it is perfection.

One story in particular that was recounted was when Jessa was at Magdala and the air sirens went off. She was, for all practical purposes, alone pretty close to the Syrian border with a family (of multiple generations) of Protestant women. As they ran to the church to find shelter (they learned later this was a drill) one of the women yelled out repeatedly “Strength and Fortitude! Strength and Fortitude!” (A far more….appropriate response to fear than Rodolfo’s “Holy Shit!” response he claims to have in dire circumstances). As Jessa was telling the tale, she accidently knocked over the salt shaker on the table. Without skipping a beat or even making it seem out of the ordinary, she participated in the superstitious act of throwing a pinch of the spilled salt over her shoulder, right into Rodolfo’s eye. I’m not sure if this is an American only thing and Rodolfo had never encountered the practice, or if he hadn’t noticed that Jessa spilled the salt, but from his perspective we are all eating, having a nice conversation and all of a sudden his wife pelts him with salt. “What the [bleep]?!” he yells out in clear confusion. We proceeded to laugh. A lot. Like I cried and couldn’t breathe for a bit there. I probably haven’t laughed that much in years. At that moment Nathan came back from the bathroom, wondering why all his friends had turned into hyenas.
After dinner we traveled back to the convent. It was late probably further cementing the nuns distaste for us. By this time, we were pretty much spent, ready to spend another action-packed day in the Galilee. I wish I could say I slept like a baby, but I was still suffering the effects of the long flight, so I woke up a couple times in the middle of the night. Soon enough, though, our time-confused sleep schedule would get the hang of it.
Next Up: Adventures in the Galilee, Part II (Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum, Mount Tabor, Caesera, Jaffa)

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