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Monday, June 2, 2008

Jerusalem, Part I

I'm going to return to Israel today and write about our first foray into Jerusalem.  Eliza, C and myself took a bus into Jerusalem on Sunday, the day after Rafi's Bar Mitzvah.  As we waited for the 418 bus, C asked a passing woman if the 418 took us into Jerusalem.  I'd told him that David instructed me to take choose the 417 over the 418 for some reason.

The woman smiled, pointed to me and said, "She'd have to sit in the back."  Then I remembered--David had mentioned the 418 bus had separate seating.  Orthodox Jews often separate men from women--if you read my post about the Bar Mitzvah you know I didn't get to see Meredith's son get Bar Mitzvahed because we sat with the women behind a partition.  But I didn't realize that separate seating meant I'd sit at the back of the bus with my squirmy, noisy toddler while C napped up front.  As we walked up the hill towards the 417 stop, C said, "Who are you, Rosa Parks?"

Traffic heading into Jerusalem is dreadful and it seemed like it took forever to get into the city that means so much to three of the world's biggest religions.  As we drove through the streets, I thought the city looked crowded, hilly and very ugly.  Hoardes of people dressed in dark clothes stood at bus stops.  The driver let us off on a busy street that didn't look much different from a city anywhere (except for the Arabic and Hebrew writing) and told us to grab another bus into the old city.  We managed to flag down a taxi and he dropped us off at the Damascus Gate.  David had told me to avoid the Arab and Christian quarters within the walls of the Old City section of Jerusalem, declaring them unsafe.  Now here C and I were, hauling our child down a series of steps when we realized we were in the wrong place.  We followed the walls of the Old City to another gate, also within the Arab Quarter.  

I was so frightened, I didn't even realize the street felt wonderfully quiet and lovely.  C asked an Arab man for directions and I yelled at him, convinced it was foolish to ask for directions in an unsafe neighborhood.  As we walked, it soon became clear that the biggest group of people in this area were tourists and that we were fine.  The streets were the width of a sidewalk broken into a series of steps.  Walking through the Old City is like walking up an endless staircase.  There areas that are flat and don't involve steps are rare.  As we neared the Jewish quarter and the alleyways became more crowded.   The Old City is not where you want to be if you've got a small child and a stroller.  

Eliza fell asleep as we passed through the security gate to the large plaza that surrounds the Wailing Wall.  Much of the Old City is covered; it's hard to describe what I mean by this.  The streets are covered or so narrow, I felt like I was inside an indoor flea market.  When we came out to the wailing wall, the shock of the sun caused me to shade my eyes.  I took in what was left of the great temple Herod built more than 2,000 years ago.  A giant wall comprised of sand colored rock climbed towards the sky.  I stood with Eliza while C donned a cardboard yamulke from a small box at the entrance of the men's side.  People young and old passed into the prayer areas while a speaker blasted the Muslim call to prayer.  The wailing wall lines a small hill or temple mount as it's called that now houses a mosque known as the Dome of the Rock.  The golden dome gleamed so brightly in the sun, it hurt to look at it.  I've heard that the air feels remarkably different up on that hill that overlooks the Old City.  According to the guidebook, there was only one way for a non-Muslim to get up to the Dome of the Rock.  We never found that way.

Having successfully found one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world, we followed a crappy map in the guidebook to the Jaffa Gate and the tower of David museum.  At this museum, we saw ruins, models and a film that told the story of Jerusalem's 5,000 volatile years.  The top of the highest tower offered a spectacular panoramic view of the Old City.

Knocking two main sites off our list, we tried to find the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  This church houses chapels for four nationalities in the Christain faith; Greek Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholics), Armenian and Copt (Egyptian).  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher's big claim to fame is that it's believed to be the site of Jesus' execution.  Three stations on the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus was said to make through Jerusalem on the way towards his death, are marked within the church.  Inside the church, you could climb a set of deep steps and be on the hill known as Golgotha, the place of the skull, supposedly the ground where his cross was raised.  

Unfortunately, we couldn't find the church.  Armed with a paper map from the tourist's office, we repeatedly found that streets the map noted didn't exist.  Windy steps and alleyways hinted of places that might lead to the church, but these streets felt ominously empty.  Because the skyline is not visible throughout much of the Old City, we couldn't even look for the dome of the church.  After literally dragging the stroller and Eliza for hours, we finally gave up and decided the church perhaps didn't exist.  Ending up at the wailing wall again, with the Muslim call to prayer reverberating through the streets, we worked our way back to the Damascus gate to seek out Ben Yehuda street, a place the book noted as good for dining.

All we found were various hot dog, falafel and other fast food choices.  We sat at an outdoor table and watched Eliza eat an enormous hot dog while C ordered a falafel.  I felt exhausted, defeated and virtually unimpressed with Jerusalem.  I'd so wanted to fall in love with this holy place.  While I found it interesting and vaguely fascinating, it also felt a little too foreign to me.  The Hebrew and Arabic lettering, the lack of bathrooms, the dearth of healthy eating choices all felt overwhelmingly intimidating.  I wanted to be a happy traveler, traipsing around a strange city with my daughter at my side.  Instead, I wanted to cry and thump my shoes together in a desperate attempt to  go home.

The day ended dreadfully with a too-long walk to the bus station.  Once there, it became very difficult to find out exactly where we could get on a bus to Ramat Bet Shemesh.  An indoor board listed buses and gates but we only saw the words Ramat Bet Shemesh in passing, while the board changed over after several buses departed.  C asked the person who sold us our tickets and she said vaguely "Outside."  Once outside the station, dozens of different kiosks listed bus numbers but we didn't see "417" anywhere.  Heading back in for a third time, passing through the metal detectors and over to the elevator, we literally ran into the caterer from Rafi's Bar Mitzvah.  He was on his way back to from the barbecue Meredith and David hosted for Rafi's school friends.  The caterer remembered us, the proud parents of the energetic-two-year-old whose main goal in life appeared to be toppling the tray of treats he'd carefully laid out.  He was kind, gracious and took us outside to physically point us to where we had to go.  It turned out the 417 bus left from a different street entirely and the kiosk wasn't marked.  We would have never found this bus had we not run into the caterer.  

On the bus, C and I sat separately, not because we had to, the bus was simply too crowded.  C was relieved by this turn of events.  He'd put up with my grumpy, nasty, "I hate this place" all day.  He was done with me and I was done with Israel.  I handed Eliza to him and sat back, hoping the trip home wouldn't feel as long as the trip into the city.  Eliza chattered happily on the seat behind me and eventually came up to sit with me.  She pointed to the woman seated beside me who was reading and highlighting a book written in Hebrew.  "Mama, is that your friend?" she asked,  "Is that girl your friend?" 

The woman, a black woman I would guess to be in her mid-forties, smiled and responded positively to my noisy and all-too-active daughter.  She spoke perfect English and I found myself seriously wondering who she was and what was she doing in this place.  She asked Eliza her name, Eliza told her and then asked the woman's name.

"This is a tough one," the woman said.  "LeGott."  

After a few attempts, Eliza only seemed capable of saying "Gott."  The woman smiled and got off.

"Where's Gott going?"  Eliza asked.  "She going to see her Mama?"

I explained to Eliza that LeGott had to get off the bus, that this dark street in the middle of who knows where, must be where she lives.  But of course I have no idea.

To this day, whenever Eliza sees a bus she asks about Gott and then says "She went to see her Mama!"

I think we would still be wandering around that bus station in Jerusalem had we not run into Meredith's caterer.  Meredith loved this story and told me that there's always stories like this when people visit Jerusalem.  That it's the kind of city that elicits events that seem to be orchestrated by a higher power.

I suppose that's one way to look at it but since I am a bit of a non-believer, I just see it as damn lucky.  

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