A closed Old City:  A failed visit of the Dome of the Rock and a hurried visit to Bethlehem instead.

For the Western Churches today is a quiet no-event day in the middle of the frenzy between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday.  Not so for the Eastern Churches (Copts, Armenians, Greek and Russian Orthodox) who are celebrating the Miracle of the Spontaneous Light originating in the tomb chamber of Christ within the Holy Sepulcher.  Entry to the Old City was only possible with permits.  Hundreds of people crowded outside the various gates hoping to get in eventually.   I gave up.

The afternoon was quiet all around.  Sabbath in Jerusalem means that no trams are going, there is hardly any traffic, stores are closed and people are walking around in festive mood and dress.  Aubrey and I had our share of violating the Sabbath last night…  We decided to take a new route back to the hotel from the Old City to make things more interesting.   All went well until we got lost in the maze of small streets in a neighborhood called Mea Shearim.  It was dark there, I hardly could read my map and the area, as one of the older Jerusalem neighborhoods, is pretty confusing.  Since Aubrey is a tall, big and darkly tanned man, I thought it would be less threatening if I as a woman with a map in hand would approach some people walking by to ask for directions.

The first young man reluctantly agreed to talk. He had speech impairments and his English was limited; we felt bad for approaching him.  The next few men simply kept walking as if I was not there.  At best they were waving their hands in refusal.  It finally dawned on me that these orthodox men would never talk to me, an unknown woman!  Of course; I knew that much, but had forgotten.  With Aubrey approaching the men, we had more luck but nobody knew where our hotel was or the street we were looking for.  Everywhere reminders were posted to behave in this neighborhood according to the Jewish law; especially women were urged to display modest dress – with my baggy pants and my scarf I never have a problem but I wanted a picture of the announcement.  I made sure that nobody was near and took a photo.  The flash went off and from way back in the distance we heard a scream.  A man was running towards us and for a moment I thought he would arrest me.  He just shouted at us in anger:  Shabbat, Shabbat!  I felt bad for having drawn attention to my camera.  We still were nowhere.

Finally, we saw a man in “normal clothes” – you have to imagine that everyone so far, and there were quite a few people on the road in the dark – had been wearing ultra-orthodox attire with side curls, large fur or black hats, woolen socks, long black or white silky coats.  We approached him and he finally had an inkling where we needed to go.  The whole time we had been within minutes of our destination yet as far as if on another planet…

Aubrey had to leave in the evening today and I was ready to do at least something else.  A new guest had arrived at the hotel and Eli, the manager, introduced me to him:  Wolfgang, a retired professor from Germany.  He was going to Bethlehem and I decided to join him.  I had forgotten how many people travel when they have one week in an entire country.  Professor Wolfgang, better referred to as Speed Demon, and I boarded a microbus which took us to the border between Israel and the Palestinian Territories around Bethlehem.  I remember the trip I took about 16 years ago – the taxi was stopped briefly at a check point and showed his license.  Today, this is a check point short only of the shooting devices at a border crossing between former East and West Berlin.  It is part of the “Wall”, the Israelis erected to control the influx of suicide bombers.  Speed Demon was rushing along, calling me to follow, but I had to take this in!  Narrow, single file metal walkways would end in one-way revolving doors, zigzagging to the next revolving door or police booth.  The whole walk took a good five minutes until I found myself on the other side.  There, the wall was full of graffiti which I had to photograph in the fast sinking sun.  Speed Demon was urging me to go on and to make a long story very short:  I lost him after he refused to take a taxi to the church which was (at least for me) too far on foot if I wanted to catch any daylight.  Just running alongside him for less than an hour had exhausted me.  I could not even stop and look at anything!

Bethlehem is the place venerated as the birth place of Jesus.  It has its peak not around Easter but Christmas.  Nonetheless, there was a candlelight  service going on in the new church.  The older part – in 2003 the scene of  nearly 200 terrorists holding nuns and priests hostage there – contains two shrines, one believed to be the manger, the other, the actual birth spot.  As dark as these shrines come, photography is difficult.

I caught my breath again, slowed down, looked around and ran into Speed Demon again, who by now also had reached our destination.  He was racing around with a nun who showed him the various sites and within minutes I had lost him again.  It was pointless.  But lo and behold, on the last bus back to Jerusalem from the checkpoint, Speed Demon and I united once again.  We decided to have a falafel and a cup of tea for dinner and chat.  That did not go too well either as our discussion deteriorated into a political argument in which Speed Demon and I severely differed.   It is interesting to me that when it comes to Palestine and Israel, discussions don’t seem to be rational, measured, based on facts, evaluations, analogies, or analysis.  They are almost always fueled by opinionated, high rising emotions.  Why is that?  He and I are not even personally involved.  If we can’t cool it, how could anyone, whose life is affected by this?

I find it particularly interesting that when I pose factual and historical questions to people like Prima Donna (you surely remember the notorious BW from Iraq) or the Speed Demon which they cannot answer, that the discussion takes a defensive turn in which all of a sudden I become the “bad guy”.  Speed Demon insisted that Israel had never been called Israel before.  Well, is it my fault that it had been the kingdom of Israel in the 10th Century BC?  He also insisted that there were no Jews living in Palestine at all:  Wrong, not many but definitely some, along with Christians.  Why do we need to even deny the facts to make the story fit our own agendas?   Perhaps, it’s time to pose the Maundy Thursday question:  Is it me? Is it perhaps my own stubbornness which perpetuates the problem as much as other things?  I know, I won’t solve this problem.  Just thinking out loud.

Good night.

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