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Monday, October 10, 2011

Three days in Jerusalem

Written on the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv:

I continue to be fascinated by the variety of people I encounter. Across the aisle from me are two young women in short sleeveless dresses, with multiple ear and nose piercings and Birkenstocks. Both have ipods, and both are reading prayer books.


The Abraham hostel is a friendly place. They have about 200 beds, some in dorms, some private rooms. I am tempted to take the private, but it’s about 60 per night, the dorm about 20. Go Eco is paying for one night, the day of my orientation, which is nice . It’s included in my $300 fee. My board at the gallery is also included, but I am responsible for my own meals,a difference from my VFP projects, where food is included and the volunteers cook together. I am hoping for lots of fruit, have already seen beautiful tiny cantelopes and giant ones too, in the market. But no figs, wonder if they are out of season. And will produce be as available in Umm el Fahem?


My roomates at the hostel were an interesting group. Two were from the US. One was here with a church related group that supports Jews in Israel. She was working as a cook, has been here for some weeks. The other was a devout Jew from Wiconsin. She was praying when I arrived, and prayed a good deal of the time.

She said she hadn’t been raised in that tradition, but I didn’t know if she meant Orthodox, or Jewish. Her answer, when I asked, wasn’t clear. She said she hadn’t been raised in a Bible tradition. The third woman lived in Poland, but was from South Africa. She works as housekeeper for the South African consul in Warsaw, but has spent several years in Israel also working at the consulate in Tel Aviv.

The Wisconsin woman was going to the synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur, and invited the others to join her. I’m sure I would have been welcome too. All three dressed entirely in white, heads veiled, and headed out. The South African woman was very excited, almost literally jumping up and down in joy at the prospect of going to synagogue. She looked elegant in white lace and a cloche like hat. All three were friendly and interesting, and I enjoying getting to know them all a bit. I never got any of their names, nor they mine, and when I headed out this morning they were all still asleep.

Now, for a recap – My first afternoon, early evening actually, after a brief intro to Jerusalem and to Yom Kippur by one of the hostel staff, I headed out to the Wailing, aka Western, Wall. It’s supposedly especially impressive on Yom Kippur, when people from all over the world come. Marc, a Canadian man who had been at the staff intro to the city and the holiday, came with me. We had no trouble finding it within the warrens and back alleys of the old city. Just followed the crowds.

First impression on entering thru the Jaffa Gate: row upon row of tourist shops, offering items from the tacky to the religious, some fitting both categories. No surprise, really. First thing I noticed was belly dancing outfits, hung against the ancient walls. There were leather pillows and brass coffee makers and T shirts with funny Jerusalem sayings. And purveyers of old coins, pottery, and other antiques intermixed with falafel stands and small grocery stores.

We went thru security and came out upon the Wall. People praying, naturally, and leaning on each other’s backs to write messages and prayers to stick inside the crevices. We started down the path to the wall together, but I then realized that men went to one side, women to the other.

Marc continued to the left,, and I went to the right. He made his way up to the wall itself, left a message. I was content just to stand back further and observe.

On the way out, it was much more crowded with folks heading in, even though it was close to midnight, and those of us exiting really had to elbow our way through the narrow streets. Various times, people behind us pushed past us, even though we were doing our best to make our way out. I told them to relax, we were all going the same place. They said, laughing, we’re Israeli, we push!

I guess they were right. Next day, Sofia, my orientation guide, warned me to expect people to push their way past me onto the bus because Israelis are very rude and don’t wait in lines well.

Sofia, who was very helpful and delightful, gave me an excellent orientation to the country yesterday. She, a young woman with dreadlocks, is actually from Argentina, has been here seven years. Her sister emigrated first, then her parents, who had retired, and then she. Sofia is trained as a ceramicist, now works for the travel organization affiliated with the hostel and with GoEco, and was interested in the gallery where I am headed, with which she was not familiar. We talked about the concept of organizing day trips to Umm el Fahem. Hostel travelers are an adventurous bunch, many go to places in the West Bank, and could be interested.


Best thing about the hostel is its lounge, a large space with a bar at one end, kitchen at the other, where lots of people prepare meals. It is also the breakfast room, where they serve a buffet consisting of corn flakes, granola, cucumbers, tomatoes, cottage cheese, cream cheese, butter, jam, and rye bread. Something for everyone. And tea and instant coffee, so I stick with the tea.

There are 4 long tables seating 10 or a dozen each. The rest of the room is filled with bean bag chairs, leather hassocks, small tables, hammock chairs, and some other comfy chairs. It is a fine place to hang out, which lots of people do, many like me with their laptops. There is also a pool table. At one point on Yom Kippur a guy with a yarmulke is playing pool. So many intricacies of Israeli culture I don’t understand. Do non observers sometimes wear yarmulkes? Or it is ok to play pool on Yom Kippur? Or is it even a yarmulke? Some of the skullcaps worn by Muslims don’t look all that different.

On Friday morning Marc, I, a couple of others from the hostel joined the free tour offered by the Andemann tour company.

The tour was excellent. They run several other tours, one to climb the Mount of Olives, one focusing on the Holy Land aspects, for which they do charge. This one was tips only, and I imagine they do okay because most everyone did tip.

I had now been to the Western Wall twice. Once near midnight, when in was extremely crowded but not overwhelmingly so. On the tour, we also went to the wall, and it was busy but much less crowded. I did go up to the wall and put my hand on it, it felt like the right thing to do, but didn’t have the urge to leave a message.

The women ranged from young adults to older ones, some dressed modernly, some dressed traditionally. There were mothers with babies in strollers, quite a few of them. There was one woman with a prayer book in one hand and a cell phone in the other. The thing that had me truly puzzled was the (woman?) – I assume so because it was the women’s side of the wall, who looked exactly like Michael Jackson, no joke, dressed in a navy military like oufit with epaulets. (not Israeli military, Michael Jackson military) Who can I ask to explain this?

I noticed quite a lot of people backing up from the wall as they left. I guessed it was out of respect, to not turn their backs to it. Dvir, our guide, corroborated what I’d guessed. Interestingly, though, he said it was a new tradition, that about five years ago you would not have seen anyone doing this.

Saturday, Yom Kippur, I spent the morning with Sofia, doing the orientation. I had taken to her immediately, and hope I can follow up with her about the possibility of organizing visits to the gallery and town here.

That afternoon, I set out on a long walk, first through a very orthodox area, where the women and men walk on different sides of the street.(although I didn’t observe it.)I saw a number of men, quite a few children, very few women out walking.

Finally, I came to the Muslim area of the city, having walked through many streets, including some highways, with no cars at all, because of the holiday. People were standing in, and walking down the middle of, the streets, which was kind of appealing. There were small groups of children on various corners, sitting or playing together, in at least one case in front of a synagogue. I could hear the prayers from within. It brought back memories of my hanging out with friends outside the synagogue also on Yom Kippur, when I had gone with my grandfather. It was quite acceptable for the children to come and go during the long service.

I knew the Orthodox didn’t like photographs, or at least not on Yom Kippur, but I confess that I did take several of groups of little boys, since there weren’t any adults around and it didn’t seem that the children were bothered by the camera.

Finally I arrived at the Damascus Gate to the old city, which was quite different from the Jaffa Gate, where I’d entered the other times. Much more commercial. It was bustling, compared to the almost eerie quiet of the other parts of the city on this Yom Kippur day. Outside the gate were merchants selling produce, toys, shoes, luggage, Tupperware, and more.

Inside the old city was also crowded, there within the Muslim section.I did eventually cross into the Christian section, and I believe into the Jewish section, based only on the language of the signs and the merchandise. It was after sunset at that point, the holiday was over, so perhaps the Jewish merchants had just opened up. I really couldn't tell when I crossed from one section to another.

On the Via Dolorosa, you can walk the actual Stations of the Cross, which are marked. On our tour the day before, we'd come across a dozen or so large crosses. Dvir explained that some people walked the stations carrying them, and then at the end of the day workers had to bring them all back to the first station. This day, I did come upon a group carrying a cross(three or four of them, and others walking along.) They were chanting as they passed, I wish I knew what. Between the folks praying at the Wailing Wall, the Christian chanters carrying the Cross, and the sound of the Muslim prayers penetrating the streets, it's quite an intense experience.


And then there's the shops.I entered several, but the whole commercial come-on got quickly tiresome. It was impossible to look at any item without getting the hard sell, couched as a soft-sell. Come take a look, see if you like anything, no need to buy, would you like a cup of coffee, a cup of mint tea? Etc, etc. Speaking of come-ons, I actually did get propositioned. Perhaps not entirely unexpected, but surprising in the way this enterprising merchant presented it. First he noticed me looking at his white parrot, invited me in to his grocery store, where I really did look around to see it there was anything I needed. Then posed with me and the parrot, had a friend (cousin, son?) take our picture. That done, he said, just one little question. And the question, asked totally nonchantly, was – would you like to make sex with me? I left pretty quickly.

Eventually I made my way back to the hostel, having had a schwarma (lamb) sandwich in pita bread in the market. Spent the rest of the evening relaxing, reading, and writing in one of the hammock chairs in the delightful hostel lounge.

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