Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Jerusalem, Day One

Back to the trip. After the journey with Natan's parents to Masada, Natan and I prepared to strike out on our own for a couple of days in Jerusalem. We planned to spend two days in Jerusalem, then meet up with Natan's brother Daniel and spend a day in Haifa. Following this we would make our way back through Tel Aviv and end up back at the kibbutz. While the previous excursions were day trips, this would be more or less backpacking. Prior to leaving Natan found a hotel in downtown Jerusalem, the Lev Yerushalayim. We ended up with a great deal on the room - $96 a night, as it was the off-season and my American passport exempted us from the value-added tax. Seriously, I've paid the same for hotels in Mountain Iron, MN! Above is a view from the hotel room.

We also planned to take the bus from Ofakim, which David referred to as the "Religious Bus." Neither of us understood the implication until the next morning. Julia dropped Natan and I off in Ofakim early in the morning so that we could catch the bus for Jerusalem. We stood at the bus stop for what seemed an eternity. I've never been well-suited for waiting, and with each passing minute and each passing bus I felt my anxiety rising. I was certain we had missed the 402, and we were s.o.l. if we ended up stranded in Ofakim. Just before I gave up all hope the 402 appeared, about fifteen minutes late. Natan and I boarded the bus, and Natan paid for us both while I started making my way through the bus to find a seat. I saw a group of open seats in the back and went toward them, at which point an Israeli woman wearing a shawl and long dress started forcefully speaking at me in Hebrew. I shook my head that I didn't understand and received more Hebrew in response. Not knowing what the hell was going on I turned to Natan in a panic, who listened to the woman and informed me that I was not allowed to sit in the back and that I must find a seat in the front. It was at this point that I realized that the bus was segregated: men in front, women in back. I also came to the realization that everyone was Orthodox except for Natan and me. Thus I learned the meaning of "The Religious Bus" - the men and women are separated because apparently the tenets of Orthodox Judaism bans contact between the sexes and mandates "modesty" in female appearance. Natan later spoke with the bus driver and learned that these buses were very controversial since these are in fact public buses, and it led to a long conversation about the influence the religious have in Israel. I personally found myself surprisingly angry. I've never reacted well to any form of orthodoxy, regardless of the persuasion, and I fumed over this situation for the rest of the two hour bus trip.The unpleasant taste from the bus quickly dissipated as we walked the streets of Jerusalem. It was slightly brisk, meaning I put on a hooded sweatshirt and the residents wore heavy winter jackets. I'll admit that I had no idea of what to expect. I'd heard of the Old City and I knew that it was the location of the Knesset but I was clueless beyond this. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised to see all the signs of a "modern" city as we walked to our hotel. The above picture is of a municipal building near our hotel. If you look closely, you can see two Orthodox men in front of the building. Jerusalem had a high concentration of Orthodox residents, much greater than anywhere else I had been in Israel. We did become slightly disoriented due to a quirk of our map. The street signs in Jerusalem were printed in Hebrew and English and our map was also in English. However, the English translations on the map were phoenetical translations, not literal. For example, Jaffa Street (which we were walking on) was written as "Yafo" on our map. This would be helpful if I were asking directions, but not for trying to match up a street sign to the map. Once the map situation was resolved we found our hotel and dropped off our packs. It was getting late in the afternoon but we had time to quickly visit the Old City before the sun set. I was surprised to discover that our hotel was about a half mile from the Old City - I'm still amazed at the deal we got. This is a photograph of the Jaffa Gate as we approach the Old City Walls. To the right is the minaret of the Tower of David which we would visit the next day. It was growing late in the afternoon, and most shops were closing for the day. Natan and I made our way through the narrow streets, dodging the occasional car. How narrow, you might ask. Pretty narrow. Here's a picture from the Armenian Quarter. As it turns out, this was one of the wider streets. Here's a picture of a street in the Jewish Quarter.The truly amazing part of the Old City is that it is a living museum in every sense. People still are living there. While the streets are crammed with tourists during the day, in the evening families return to their apartments and houses. We had timed it perfectly to witness this transition. We wandered the streets for about an hour, thoroughly lost. Our map, which had been of some use outside the Old City Walls, was virtually indecipherable in its depiction of the cramped winding streets. We inadvertently wandered into the Muslim Quarter trying to make our way to the Western Wall. I determined this when I noticed the street signs were written in Arabic instead of Hebrew - a whole new set of squiggles for me to not understand. Fortunately the signs retained the English translations, so it was not too difficult to make our way back. After turning around we came upon a military security checkpoint, a common sight in Israel. I stupidly thought for a moment that we had accidentally crossed into Jordan until my brain kicked in. The soldier at the security gate started to check my backpack he asked me where I was from. Upon hearing that I was an American he promptly handed my bag back, and when I went to hand him my passport he actually said "It's OK, you're American. Go on through." I truly do believe that nowhere else in the world are Americans treated as well as Israel. They frickin' love us there. And here I was all prepared to act like a Canadian.
We came through the checkpoint and suddenly everything opened up. I was momentarily uncertain as to where I was. It took a second for it all to come together. I looked to my right and there were throngs of people standing at the base of the Western Wall. Natan and I didn't stay very long, and I didn't come any closer to the Wall than from where this picture was taken. The area in front of the Wall is also segregated, men having the left three-quarters and women to the right. It was unsettling. Perhaps it had something to do with my previous experience on the bus, but I found myself very uncomfortable standing here. I could see the minarets of the Al-Aqsa Mosque as well as glimpses of the Dome of the Rock. While it was undoubtedly an inspiring sight, it also left me with a real sadness. As an American my mind returned to that bright sunny day six and a half years ago. I've always found it difficult to appreciate the good that can come from religion when compared to the seemingly unending violence that stems from the disagreements of the various faiths. And here I was, standing at perhaps the best example of intractable differences in the world.

My introspection quickly faded as we walked out the Dung Gate and tried to make our way back to the hotel. The skies had turned quite gray and it felt like it might rain at any minute. As we walked down a steep street that quickly turned out to be impassible to foot traffic, I took this picture of the city of Jerusalem outside the walls. Tomorrow would be another day.


Blogger over my head said...

Cool! I love all your links, I feel so knowledgable after reading your posts.
I think I would be nervous visiting over there. I would like to go one day and see all the sights though. My church does a trip there every year or so to see biblical sights.

8:48 AM  
Blogger wallrock said...

Thanks AL - I'm giving Wikipedia a work-out. I had been very nervous going over there, in part because people kept telling me I was going to get blown up. But in actuality I never felt uncomfortable or unsafe at any time. I always joke that I was never in any danger in Israel, though I can't say the same for when I was in Detroit!

9:52 AM  

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