If Jesus returned today, he would find Jerusalem once again full of money changers and thieves.
Currently I’m typing this as a draft while stuck in a HUGE traffic jam trying to leave Israel and get back to Ramallah. Apparently there is a big soccer game between the Palestinian team and the Emirates, so all the roads and checkpoints are backed up. Funny to see some of the exact same problems here as in the states. Only difference being that there are soldiers with automatic weapons moderating the traffic through the checkpoints. It’s pretty ridiculous – they only have one gate open, the other one could let traffic flow a bit more but they won’t open it despite the miles long traffic jam..
Today in Jerusalem was incredible, and overwhelming. We visited the Wailing Wall (and toured all the ancient archaeology around it), the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – and that was just before lunch. After lunch with Amin Khalif, founder of the mixed Jewish/Arab Hand-in-Hand schools (shoutout Amit Gordon, son of the co-founder: Amin sends his best wishes), we climbed up the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem. I’ll put all the photos at the end. Afterwards we met with Jeff Halper, the leader of ICAHD (Israeli Commission Against Home Demolition). And now we’re here. Tonight we have dinner with a former Guilford student’s family – aka lots and lots of more delicious food. One of the best things I’ve had is the mint lemonade – just lemonade that is fresh made in a blender, with blended fresh mint leaves. Phenomenal! And so refreshing! I’m going to tell Sol to start incorporating this, it’ll take America by storm.
Meeting Amin and Jeff today was incredible, and politics are always a big issue here. But in Jerusalem I explored another aspect of this region that I wanted to get in touch with: spirituality.
An archway going into Via Dolorosa, the street where Jesus supposedly walked to his crucifixion. I first had this feeling that I was entering a sacred place here, and I was quite humbled. Jerusalem truly is an incredible city, a center for peoples of all faiths to come worship. It is no wonder that this city has been the center of so much conflict over the years – I have now felt the passion that people feel over the sacredness of this space. However, the Sacred for me manifests itself as peace. I could never bring myself to fight, to be aggressive in any sense in pursuit of the holy.
It is an incredible feeling, to be touched by God. I had truly never felt it before in my life. I will not claim I have found religion, or figured out spirituality, or to even know what defines God. I only know what I felt, and I know what my response was to people who I felt were violating the sacred space. Allow me to explain. I felt little at the Wailing Wall, for a couple reasons. First, Bar and Batmitzfahs are really like festivals, and people were acting as such. Every group had a video camera, and was occasionally breaking into song or posing for pictures. It just did not feel like a holy space to me, particularly since right next to the Wall people were selling (yes, making money) what looked like carpets and other things. I understand that it is a festive atmosphere, but I honestly understand very little about the Jewish faith tradition. Moving on, we went next to the Dome of the Rock, where only Muslims are allowed in. In order to gain entry you must recite a verse from the Qu’ran in Arabic. In fact the whole courtyard between both mosques was a temple, complete with fountains for ritual washings. I could not help but feel touched – for many practicioners of Islam, this is among the most sacred spaces in the entire world. Who am I to say that their faith is misplaced? If it is real to them, is it not reality?
Two members of our group did enter the Dome Moque, Zane and his son Nizar (Zane is a non-practicing Muslim, Nizar is trying to figure it all out, something like me). On their way out, we met them at an exit archway, where we had just not given some beggars money. I have no problem with people who need to beg for alms, but these women pretty clearly did this for a living. They had their children with them, and their children were learning the ways, how to have just the right persistence. As Zane came out, he gave money to one of the beggars and immediately all the others swarmed around him. Max, one of the most humble, pious folks I know, commented “they’re like pigeons.” The ironic thing is, security was shooing us away beacuse visiting for non-Muslims was coming to an end. However, they were letting the beggars stay, wearing head to toe burkas. As I was reflecting on how holy the space was, it was ironic that I was chased away, while these women were allowed to stay. Ironic because I was pursuing sacred values, while they were mooching off folks’ sacred values.
As we moved on, I was appalled by the marketplace. You have to be very careful of getting your pockets picked in the crowds and narrow spaces. There are money changers, and stands selling everything from jewelry to perfume to suitcases. Some stands have shirts that say “I love Israel” right next to shirts that say “Free Palestine.”
Would Jesus overturn their tables? I have to reflect on this question and how much I know of Jesus. Consider this part of the story. We moved on to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – the church built above the site where Jesus was crucified. I entered, took a couple pictures. I went upstairs, where there was a very ornate display. “How much for a candle?” I asked the priest over looking, who responded it was a donation. Nizar came over, and we asked what the display represented. “This is where Jesus was crucified. You know Jesus?” He asked us. We giggled a bit, but it really struck me. He was probably thinking, these tourists don’t know Jesus at all, not the way I do. Nizar asked me to take his picture, which I grudgingly did. Afterwards I set all my bags down. I lit a candle and kneeled at the altar. I prayed that I would be able to understand Jesus’ life. I prayed not to any idea of God, but simply as an appeal from the core of my own spirituality that I could live in a way that promoted the ideals that Jesus lived for, regardless of how he died or what he died for. I felt a stirring in my soul, that I can’t explain.
After this I couldn’t take any more pictures. I saw the people lining up to see what was ostensibly Jesus’ tomb before he ascended. I saw an Israeli policeman scanning the crowd for troublemakers. I saw priests absorbed in their own business, seemingly protecting it from these passerby, the more dangerous because they are ignorant of what is Faith to the priests.
Now, I’m not saying I know what religion or spirituality is. But one certainly cannot take a picture of it. One cannot buy or sell it, or peddle it on the streets. These are the things I thought of as I walked through th emarkets, and climbed up the Mount of Olives with the group. I met an Armenian potter, who sold only the beautiful pottery and ornaments that his family had made for generations, with beautiful inscriptions in Arabic, Hebrew or Armenian, or a combination. Or simply pictures. I thought of how he was at peace with himself, with what he did, with the many languages he spoke and translated for me.
At the top of the Mount of Olives, a young boy offered me an olive branch, a traditional symbol of peace. Not 10 seconds later he murmered, “give me something!” In an altogether evil way. Not born of necessity, but truly of greed. Is this what peace and spirituality represent to humans? Always seeking to capture these abstract values, when they cannot be captured. Seeking to profit off of others’ kindness, when you cannot ever truly profit at anothers’ expense.
I said “Inshallah” which means “God Willing” and gave the boy my only pocket change – three Israeli Shekels, the equivalent of about a buck. I felt sorry for the boy, and I felt that I am certainly not a perfect person and cannot judge him by any stretch. So since I took his olive branch, which anyone could pluck themselves, I gave change in the name of peace. Jerusalem was a crazy day today. Here is a gallery of some of the pictures I took – I took a ton. I guess I’m trying to capture the essence of the city, too. The dinner tonight was incredible, and I am exhausted and going to bed. For those of you who know some of the more personal details of the specific thing thats been going on on this trip – it’s pretty hard. I’ll tell you about it when we next meet. My spirits cannot be low, however, because if I lose a crutch, I lean inwards on my spirituality. Tomorrow a couple of us who want to will go to the mosque with Muhammed, who has been our guide in Ramallah. Friday is the Islamic holy day, equivalent to the Sabbath, and we will go to pray with the members of the mosque (although we are working tomorrow at the Quaker meeting house). For any who think it is wrong of me to explore various religions, I encourage you to read Life of Pi by Yann Martel and decide after that if it is wrong – because I will not argue with you on this subject (as I’ve almost had to with some people on this trip, one who I’ve been arguing with alot…) I am attending the mosque to explore the Islamic faith tradition, to learn, to experience, and to become closer with my spirituality. Perhaps I will find a definition of God, perhaps not. I have no mission but an open mind.
Inshallah, salaam olakum. Peace be upon you, god willing.