“In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy … ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.”
In Jerusalem, by Mahmoud Darwish
I arrived in the Holy Land after my three day stop in Geneva, passing through Istanbul and forgoing another night’s sleep. Upon entering Turkey, I realized I was in another world, one where religious affiliation is worn on the surface and the languages leave me in a daze. That is, except for Russian, which I found to be prevalent everywhere during this trip. Given that I am preparing for a trip there in just a few weeks, I was thrilled when a man approached me and asked a question in Russian while I was waiting in line for my flight to Tel Aviv. I answered him with a big American smile on my face… in Spanish. Really, brain?
In somewhat of a sleepless blur, I made it from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a sheyrut (a van for door-to-door travel). My “twin” and I giddily greeted each other and picked up immediately from where we left off (which was New York City about a year ago), talking about our lives, our dreams, our loves, and coffee. Our oh-so-desperate need for coffee. After fueling up with caffeine and snacks, we set off to explore, and I learned as much in five days as I would have in a semester-long college course.
Jerusalem has a gravitational pull. I had the distinct feeling I was at the center of the world, the navel of the universe. So much has generated there and emanated outward, changing our history and our humanity forever. Paradoxically, it also has a vacuum effect, pulling you in. In some places during my travels, I’ve been able to skate through unnoticed by the city or its residents (Geneva being the most recent example). But Israel is more like that friendly maternal neighbor who notices that you’re alone for a holiday dinner and drags you over to eat with her family (or rather, to force-feed you because you’re looking far too skinny lately). You are pushed into the rhythms and movements of the city whether you like it or not.
Sundown on Friday marks the start of Shabbat for observing Jews. During the afternoon leading up to this momentous hour, twin and I walked all over the old city. I had previously imagined Israel in distinct compartments, separated by dotted lines on a map: west and east; Palestine and non-Palestine; Christian, Muslim, Jewish, secular. But my experience proved otherwise. The Via Dolorosa snakes through the Muslim Quarter. The Dome of the Rock looms over the Wailing Wall. My best friend was almost run over by a Heredi man on a bicycle, a Palestinian girl on training wheels, and a (presumably) secular man on a segue all in the same afternoon. Vendors sell menorahs next to Virgin Marys next to keffiyehs. One culture can not be carved away from the others and still remain intact.
That afternoon, as we were making our way through the Muslim Quarter, we found ourselves stuck behind a group of Spanish or Italian Christian pilgrims on the Via Dolorosa (complete with large wooden cross). We paused to watch as they began singing hymns in Latin. Like clockwork, the late afternoon Muslim call to prayer from a nearby minaret broke through their songs. Hearing Arabic, layered on Latin, monitored carefully by Israeli soldiers wielding large guns shortly before the Shabbat horn was a lot to process. My head was spinning, as if I were at a dangerously high altitude. I didn’t know if I should feel nervous or spiritually inspired. We ducked into a nearby hospice and climbed up to the rooftop as the calls to prayer echoed throughout the city. The view was calming, and my stomach started grumbling with the smells of dinner wafting from kitchens all across the quarter.
After a rest, we cut through the crowds on our way to the Western Wall to watch the pre-Shabbat activities. The streets were full of Jewish families dressed to the nines, toting suitcases along to the Wall and then to Shabbat dinners at loved ones’ houses. The Wall was buzzing. The prayers were more fervent than usual, accompanied by singing and dancing within the sectioned-off prayer areas closest to the wall. We witnessed a comically belligerent argument between two conservative Jewish men with curly white beards. I only wish I spoke Hebrew so I could have deciphered what was happening. The Shabbat horn called out once the sun had set and the observers scattered to get to their festive dinners, and I found myself in awe once again of sitting squarely in the middle of the third-most holy site in Islam (Dome of the Rock), the Wailing Wall, and the Mount of Olives.
For the next twenty-something hours, finding open stores would be challenging. Shabbat is a day of rest and celebration, which requires that observers not work (or sell, buy, cook, tear, write, ignite, or extinguish, among other things). We were stuck eating leftover pita bread and dried apricots we had purchased from the shuk a few days before.