The Old City of Jerusalem: My first full day in Israel

January 10th, 2012

I woke up in the hotel in Abu Ghosh to a room that was pitch black.  I’m not afraid of the dark, but when I wake up in the morning I like to know what time it is and I didn’t know how to find my watch right away.  When I found it I saw that it was 4 AM.  6 hours of sleep isn’t too bad after all that travel and for trying to get adjusted to a different time.  I rolled over and tried to get back to sleep in my hotel room.

The other problem with the room is that it was freezing.  I was layered up and under the blankets, but it was still freezing cold.  Mark and I finally figured out how to turn on the heat a couple days later.

After failing at falling back to sleep for a good while, I decided to go to the bathroom.  The problem with going to the bathroom in a pitch black room is obviously getting there and of course turning the light on in the bathroom.  My first shot at getting over there I tiptoed over to the bathroom, walked in and tried to turn off the light.  For some reason I couldn’t find it on the wall just inside the bathroom, so I tried near the mirror to no avail.  I went back over by my bed, grabbed a flashlight, and tried again, but the problem turned out that the flashlight batteries were dead.

At this point I gave up and just flipped one of the two light switches I found outside of the bathroom which turned out to be the room one, turned it back off quickly and turned on the other light which was the bathroom light.  This, my friends is how you can turn a trip to the bathroom into a twenty-minute ordeal.

I went back to bed following my bathroom “adventure” and tried once again to fall back to sleep.  Mark got up to go use the bathroom and I let him know which light switch was which since it was still pitch black and he let out a little chuckle.

A little after Mark got out of the bathroom I heard a low drone of something in a language I couldn’t understand.  I turned to Mark and asked if he knew what the sound was as I tried to open the curtain.  It became clear to me that the sound could only be one thing, the Muslim call to prayer.

Looking out the window after opening the curtain revealed the hills of the town we were staying in outside of Jerusalem.  It was still dark out, but all the lights outside on houses were on.  Houses all tucked into the hills made for a beautiful view.  We are in Israel I thought.  It still seemed very unreal to me.

After looking out the window for a little bit, I fumbled through my backpack for my iPod and turned on the Fratelli’s (I’ve been listening to them a ton lately).  I listened to a couple songs in bed before I decided it would be a good time to shower.  I figured I could be one of the first ones to breakfast since it started at 6:30 AM at the hotel.

Along with a change of clothes, I went to the bathroom.  I put the bathmat down and the rubber non-slip thing down inside the shower.  I went to turn the shower on and notice it was a handheld one, but there was nothing to hold it in place.  It certainly made showering a challenge until I could figure out how I wanted to do it.  I finished my nice hot shower, changed, and started walking towards breakfast.  I noticed the beautiful sunrise over the nearby hills and walked towards a side of the hotel with a better view.  My detour gave me a ton of great pictures.

I was surprised when I got to breakfast at 6:35 AM that I wasn’t the only one there.  I guess a lot of others hadn’t adjusted well yet either.  I sat down to a breakfast of a couple different kinds of bread, some eggs, and orange and gazed out into the hills.

After breakfast, I went to my room, grabbed my hat and got freaked out by a loud noise that sounded like a cat.  After walking around for a little bit, I noticed two cats sitting on a windowsill, meowing.  I took some pictures of them for my mom, because she loves cats.

After all of this we headed to the bus to start exploring.  We headed towards Jerusalem and stopped just before the old city of Jerusalem.  Here, we said a prayer of Challah and wine (grape juice since it was the morning) as we gazed off to the old city of Jerusalem.

From our spot, we could see the old city walls and the Dome of the Rock.  The view was absolutely incredible!  After a couple minutes of the necessary photos and chitchatting, we got back onto the bus.

On the bus, Nadav pointed out to us a wall and referred to it as a “baby wall”.  The baby wall he was referring to was only 500 years old.  It was at this point I thought to myself, I guess America doesn’t really have much history, huh?

We got off the bus, walked through a gate allowing us into the old city where we looked onto a part of the West Wall that isn’t where people pray.  Nearby were some of the remains of the oldest parts of the city that was there at the time of the Second Temple.  Roads from the Old City could be seen from where we were as well as what was left of several ancient mikvehs.

For those non-Jews out there, a mikveh is a ritual bath used to spiritually cleanse oneself.  Today they are used in some orthodox communities following the end of a woman’s cycle and after childbirth, by men looking to achieve ritual purity, for utensils that are used for food, and as part of the conversion to Judaism.  In Eastern Europe back in the “old country” it wasn’t uncommon for a mikveh to be next to a bakery so that a people wouldn’t be able to tell whether you were going to the bakery or the mikveh.

There was a large pile of Jerusalem stone that had been thrown off the wall by the Romans.  This to me is where the Diaspora truly began.  What’s the Diaspora you ask?  The Diaspora refers to the scattering of Jews outside of what is now the land of Israel.  Colonies of Jews were forced out of what is today the land of Israel by the Babylonians and later the Romans.

The long-term impact of the Diaspora led to Jews being all over Europe.  The establishment of the state of Israel in some ways was supposed to signal the end of the Diaspora, but many of us live in places other than Israel.  The second largest settlement of Jews in the world live not in Israel, but in New York City.   For those of you who went to high school with me, Atlanta as a city has the 17th largest population of Jews in the world.

The actual Kotel (the Western Wall) to me was a strange experience.  First, men and women are separated into different sections.  Women have a very tiny sliver of the wall that they can pray at. Before we were allowed to just start walking towards the wall, Nadav let the girls know that they would probably need to force their way to the wall to actually be able to touch it.

Beyond this, I haven’t been to synagogue in a while.  If I’m not mistaken, I haven’t been to a prayer service at a synagogue since my youth group advisor left Temple Sinai.  I was staring at the wall that my whole religion prays in the direction of and I didn’t know how to feel.  On the path to the men’s section there was a giant basket filled with kippah’s (yarmulkes).  I was happy to see them since I forgot to bring one with me from the states.  To the left of them was a shelf filled with every Jewish prayer book I’ve pretty much ever seen.

After putting on a kippah and continuing on, there was a small stand with a man helping people wrap tefillin.  Tefillin are boxes containing prayers that are connected to your forehead and your wrist with leather straps.  Tefillin are wrapped to remind us that g-d helped us to escape Egypt.  They include scrolls containing a few major Hebrew prayers.  Up to this point, I had never wrapped tefillin.  In Atlanta, we have a set that I think belonged to my great-grandfather. 

After helping the group all wrap tefillin, he took a picture of the group of us.  He pointed at the wall and said, “That over there is g-d’s Facebook wall.”  I would be lying if I said I wasn’t at least somewhat annoyed by this.

 

With tefillin stil wrapped, I walked to the wall to insert my prayer.  I looked to both of my sides and saw men both reading the Torah.  To my right was a man with a desk who was dovening while to my left there was a man with his eyes closed.  I touched the wall with my eyes shut.

I put my prayer into the wall and thought about all that was 2011 and what will be the future and I thought about my prayer.  It wasn’t particularly long.  I asked g-d for challenges in the future and for success when facing them.  I don’t know what else I could possible want.

 

After closing my eyes again and touching the wall, I finally walked away.  I started to unwrap the tefillin, passed it to the man who had helped us wrap them and went to look for someone to talk to.

I had one question to ask of whomever I could find.  I wanted to know why someone would ever want to destroy this place, why would anyone want to destroy this place?  They gave me an answer that makes me sad, “They don’t want to destroy it, they want to destroy us.”

Following the wall, it was time for lunch.  We walked up a hill over by a small group of stores in the Jewish quarter and broke into small groups.  I went off with Emily and Hillary.  We all wanted to have falafel, because what else do a bunch of young Jews want to do in Israel?

The first falafel shop we found was called Bravo and had a giant picture of Johnny Bravo on the sign and on their menu.  The place was small and no tables on the inside.  I did something I rarely do and had my falafel made with everything on it.  I don’t think I’ve made such a great food decision in life when compared to this.  Everything was fresh from the salad, to the falafel balls, to the humus.

From outside where we were eating, we could see children walking by with backpacks on from school heading home for a quick bite to eat for lunch.  We also saw some tourists around.

 

 

Following lunch, Nadav pointed out a huge synagogue in the Jewish quarter.  This synagogue to me was a symbol of Judaism.  Like the religion, the synagogue had been beaten, but the community rose and has rebuilt it time and time again.

Strangely enough, there was a minaret in the Jewish section.  Legend has it that there was a Jewish man in the section of town that was treated poorly for so long by Arabs that he decided to convert and become a Muslim.  After converting, the Jews of the area started to treat him badly.  To combat this, his mother built the minaret in the Jewish part of the city.  It’s funny, because I feel like whether that legend is true or not, my mother would probably do the same thing.

Around the corner was a view of some of the remains of the Old City from the 1st Temple Era.  When Israel took the Old City in the late 60s, there weren’t settlements in the area, so it was easy to go through and excavate this area, which is when they found these remains.  Only a small portion of them remain to be viewed while other parts were built over.

Following this, we visit the supposed spot of King David’s burial.  The place where King David is supposedly buried is directly below where Jesus’s last supper occurred.  For a long time, Jews made pilgrimages to this site and prayed by David’s tomb since they couldn’t go in the gates of the nearby old city.  Outside of David’s tomb is a statue of him.  Since it is against Jewish law to have a statue (it is a form of idol worshipping to many religious Jews, they now have a camera on the statue.  Religious Jews in the past and even with the camera up have a tendency to sabotage the statue.  The most common way of doing so was to cut off his nose.

While waiting outside of the tomb, I saw yet another cat.  At this point I was starting to get the picture.  Not a single squirrel in site, but there are cats EVERYWHERE.  I have pictures of these cats and you probably see a picture on my Facebook of a cat sitting on my lap.

Just after this, an Israeli who we didn’t know asked to speak to the group briefly.  He told us the story of his mother walking across Europe from the Ukraine to settle in Israel, because it was even a country.  “My mother could not take Delta Airlines here,” he said, “but I’m glad your group can.  Welcome home,” he finished before walking away.

Welcome home is probably one of the most powerful statements made by anyone during the trip and he wasn’t the only one to say it.  The more I heard people say it, the more I considered a question that Nadav asked us to consider about the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim.  Where we visitors or returning home?

 

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