Monday, February 09, 2009

Terra Sancta Travelogue, VI

Monday, January 26, our last day in Israel.

Usual breakfast and boarding time. We're grateful that the hotel is not over-crowded, thus making it possible for us to keep possession of our rooms until the late afternoon.

It would be an understatement to describe the first item on our itinerary as "emotionally challenging." It's Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. I'm not going to attempt to give anything resembling a comprehensive account of this experience, for a number of reasons. I had to make myself watch Schindler's List (though I'm glad I did) and Brenda is still trying to get me to see Life is Beautiful. The subject is way beyond depressing. If I had been visiting Jerusalem on my own, and not been effectively forced to visit this place, I might not have chosen to do so. If you are ever there on your own, don't make that mistake.

The place is a coherent work of art in itself, composed of several smaller works of art. The columns in the above installation are manifestly incomplete; they lead nowhere, cut off before maturity, thus representing the children whose lives were snuffed out by the Nazis, nearly erasing an entire generation and ending a centuries-old tradition of Jewish culture in Europe. 

Our next stop takes us back to the area of the old city--just outside the (northern) Damascus Gate. In the 19th century, the British General Charles Gordon came up with an alternative theory, contradicting St Helena, as to the actual location of Golgotha. He noticed a hill that still looked like a hill, with some caves that looked like eye sockets and--voila--the Place of  a Skull. Not only that, but there is a nearby tomb that, in fact, dates from the first century, and has demonstrably fourth century Christian symbolism painted on an interior wall. 

The "Garden Tomb," as it came to be known, is now owned and operated by a private British foundation. Our guide there is a retired British Methodist pastor. It is clear that this place, because it looks and feels plausibly "authentic," resonates with those who have the "historically accurate tourism" mindset (Holy-Land-as-Christian-theme-park) and are put off by shrines that are redolent of liturgical and sacramental spirituality that is foreign to them. Free church evangelicals and even some oldline Protestants find themselves much more naturally affected by the Garden Tomb than by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I certainly don't begrudge them that, but I am personally not much impressed.

Time-certain visits militate against efficient urban transit today. When we're back on the bus, we retrace most of our route from earlier in the day, through high-density but often slightly upscale residential neighborhoods in west Jerusalem, past former (and likely future) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's condo (there seem to be no free-standing houses in this part of town), and past the Knesset building, to a museum complex that houses both a magnificent outdoor scale model of Jerusalem as it was on the eve of its destruction by the Romans (what you see below is a view from the east, only with the Holy of Holies standing where the Dome of the Rock now is), as well as the original scrolls found at Qumran. 

While it would not have been logistically feasible, I actually wish we could have seen and studied this model before going up to the Mount of Olives. The amount of detail is incredible, and it is a great help in mentally consolidating all the territory we had covered the previous day.

All week long it has been a mystery as to whether we would get to go to Bethlehem. From the end of the British Mandate after WWII until the 1967 war, Bethlehem, along with east Jerusalem and all the other territory now referred to as the West Bank, was part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and Christian pilgrims had relatively easy access; indeed, the majority of the residents of the town were native Arab Christians. In that war, however, Israel conquered these territories (along with the Golan Heights, the Gaza strip, and the Sinai peninsula). Because the residents of the West Bank were not actually Jordanians, but Palestinians, Jordan, while officially indignant, seems to have been privately just as happy to have it off their hands. In the meantime, the more ardent of Israeli Zionists, seeing the territory as "Judea and Samaria," part of the ancient Jewish patrimony, began to establish settlements. At present, then, there are three categories of real estate in the West Bank: 'A' areas, populated entirely by Palestinians, and under the control of the Palestinian authority; 'B' areas that are populated entirely by Jewish settlers; and 'C' areas, i.e. everythere that is not either A or B. Israeli citizens are forbidden by Israeli law from entering 'A' areas. Palestinians are forbidden from entering 'B' areas. Anyone can live and work in 'C' areas. Got it?

Anyway...I tell you all this because Bethlehem (along with Bethany, Jericho, and other places that would be of interest to pilgrims both Christian and Jewish) is an 'A' area. Most of these arrangements have come about since the Intifada that began early in this decade. Before that, both Israelis and Palestinians were able to move around in the West Bank with what now seems like an remarkable degree of freedom. It was in everyone's best interest. Since the Intifada, however, the Israelis have understandably tightened security, resulting in the A-B-C system, and in the high walls shielding populated areas of Israel from potential threats. 

What this means is that the 'A' areas can be a little touchy from a security standpoint even for harmless tourists. However, since we are harmless tourists with money to spend, every effort is made to work things out. Yossi has been in touch with his on-the-ground sources all week and announced to us on Sunday that Bethlehem is a "Go." Unfortunately, it's no-go for him, since he's an Israeli citizen. This means that there needs to be an arrangement with someone on the inside, and a coordinated handoff at the checkpoint (literally a "hole in the wall"). After what appears to be a potential last minute glitch is resolved by cell phone, we get off the bus, show our passports to the guards, and walk through one of those intimidating vertical turnstiles. On the other side, we are met by an Arab Christian guide and a minibus for our tour of the "little town of Bethlehem", no longer in deep and dreamless sleep.

As it's already after 2 PM and we haven't eaten anything since breakfast, lunch is our first priority. The bus delivers us to a restaurant, which is next to a large gift and souveneir store, all owned by the same family, which is the same family that owns our bus and employs our guide! We're the only patrons in the rather large restaurant, and there's a long table all set up for us. They bring out a generous supply of pita bread and hummus and the veggies that usually accompany such things. After a while, most of us assume that's all there's going to be, and we chow down. Then they bring out some room-temperature falafel, which I personally welcome as at least it bears some resemblance to protein. And just as we're all well stuffed, out comes two kinds of shish kebab--chicken and ground lamb. I'm grateful for this, but now wish I hadn't eaten so much pita.

It's not hard to figure out that the restaurant and the tour are pretty much loss-leaders for this operation. Their bread and butter lie in the gift shop, so we're taken there before anywhere else. We all understand the dynamics and try to be accomodating. I would like to have purchased a fairly large olive wood nativity set (carved on site below the store) for my church, but the price tag is $17,000 (including shipping, and probably negotiable), and I left the church credit card at home (note to St Anne's vestry members: that was a joke). I do, however, manage to part with close to $100 buying gifts for family members. (We each had our own effective "personal shopper" encouraging us in our buying decisions. I was just wanting trinkets but it felt like an auto dealership!)

When we've re-boarded the minibus, it's off to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. 


Once again, there are Greek, Armenian, and Roman sections to this building, though no irascible young monks telling us where to go. Above you can see the plaza leading to the entrance. For some reason, the original (Byzantine? Crusader? I'm not sure) grand door has been reduced twice and now an average-size adult has to crouch to get through it. Something about humility, as I recall.

Below is the inner sanctum marking the spot of the actual Nativity. A few feet away is the site of the manger.


Our knowledgeable guide takes us down into the crypt of the Roman Catholic section and I am surpised and delighted to find there the tomb of St Jerome, the fifth century translator of the Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin--i.e. the inimitable Latin Vulgate, the Bible for the western church until the Reformation.

The photo below is in the main (Greek Orthodox) section. At certain spots there are intentional gaps in the (raised) current floor that allow one to see the original mosaic from the time of Helena, still in excellent condition.

On our way out of town we pull over for a look at the "Shepherd's Field" (see photo below). The hillsides have been terraced and planted since then, and there's a lot of urban construction that now occupies the view, but it's not too hard hard to imagine shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night in this place.

What you see below is the "inside" view of the wall as we proceed toward the checkpoint, where our familiar bus will meet us. Notice all the taxis. They are awaiting Palestinians who live in Bethlehem but commute to Jerusalem for work. There's no vehicular traffic allowed through the checkpoint. The graffiti tells the real tale: Both Israelis and Palestinians alike know that tourist dollars are their life's blood.


Between having to wait at the checkpoint for our regular bus to arrive, and dealing with very thick rush hour traffic, we arrived back at the hotel with only about 45 minues in which to shower (in ancticipation of not being able to do so for about the next 28 hours), pack, and check out. The bus then drove us to a restaurant on the west side of Jerusalem, in a very cosmopolitan neighborhood, where we were treated to a farewell dinner, consisting pretty much of exactly what we'd been served for our late lunch in Bethlehem! There are no complaints, though, as both the food and the fellowship are quite enjoyable.

Shortly after 7:30, we're back on the bus for the last time. It's only about a 35 minute drive to Ben Gurion Airport. Once again, we have to deal with the intimidating scrutiny of Israeli security officers. Even knowing that all you have to do is tell the truth, it can still be nerve-wracking. I've probably seen one too many movies and TC shows about the Mossad! They ask me the name of my parents--a pretty easy and innocent question!--and I actually have a long moment of hesitation before I can get the answer from my brain to my lips. God help me.

Our flight isn't until 1:00 AM, so we have a lot of time to kill. Fortunately, even after we clear security (why is it that the Israelis, who set the gold standard for air security, have found a way to not require passengers to remove their shoes, and our own TSA can't seem to do so?), there is plenty of room in which to roam and lounge and buy snacks. I'm amused to look at the departure board and see a direct flight to Warsaw listed. Somehow, it probably doesn't go to Indiana. 

On our flight is a group of about a hundred American Jewish teenagers returning from a pilgrimage. They are wired, and I am more grateful than ever for my chemical assistance in sleeping. We land back at JFK at 6 AM local time, which is 1 PM in Israel, and it's still dark. Talk about a long night! Fortunately for us three Hoosiers, our connecting flight (to Detroit, and then another one to South Bend) is not until 9, so there's plenty of time to find our way to where we need to be and get something to eat (pork sasuage!--I'm feely very pork-deprived). We touch down in South Bend on schedule at 1 PM, and I'm home by around 3:30. Believe it or not, I grab a shower and show up to celebrate 5:30 Mass for the Conversion of St Paul (delayed a day because nothing liturgical happens at St Anne's on Mondays--long story). 

I am very grateful for this trip. It refreshed me spiritually, intellectually, and, I think, pastorally. The plan, still quite tentative, is for the Diocese of Northern Indiana to sponsor a tour in about two years' time. It would be quite similar to what I've described in these postings, though possibly a day longer so as not to feel so rushed. It would be tailored to Anglicans, and Bishop Little, God willing, would be the lead "teaching guide" (a capacity in which your humble blogger might find himself assisting) even as we would also have a Jerusalem Tours guide for the local stuff. Stay tuned for the details!

2 comments:

keithtoepfer said...

Fr. Dan,

Were there any dogs accompanying any of the security forces at Ben Gurion Arpt?

Keith Toepfer

Dan Martins said...

No dogs at Ben Gurion. However, there were canines sniffing around in the baggage claim area at JFK.