Touching down at the airport in Tel Aviv was routine; the airport was much like any other. Once I was through customs I quickly found the taxi vans. The vans are configured so that there is a row of single seats on one side, double seats across the aisle from them and a bench seat for four at the back. I made myself comfortable in a single seat and prepared to wait. (The vans do not leave the airport until they are full.)
Only two women and a gentleman had preceded me, so there were lots of seats to fill. Slowly but surely women filled the seats. Then at last, a Jewish man with a large black hat atop his hair curled into long locks and dressed in a black suit appeared to fill the last seat; it was between two women on the bench seat. The gentleman asked me very politely if I would move so that he would not have to sit between two ladies, I obliged. I am not in Canada. Faith and religion are readily apparent in daily life here.
In Israel I seem to float between the ordinary and extraordinary; which is more important to pay attention to?
View of Mr. Gerizim from Nabulus (biblical town of Sychem) in the West Bank.
As we drove towards Jerusalem we passed one clump of rather unattractive concrete apartment block after another, ”block” being a precise description. Incredibly the road signs read: Maccabean tombs and Tomb of Samuel the prophet. When we started to climb a hill I knew we were approaching Jerusalem. “Let us go up to Zion!” I was both exhausted and thrilled.
We arrived early in the morning and there were multitudes of children dressed in school uniforms and Jewish business men (identified by their dress) and women pushing baby strollers all in a hurry to get where they needed to be. The driver’s style was such that we frequently stopped suddenly within an inch or so of other vehicles immediately in front of us and once attempted a u-turn in the middle of a narrow street – this was aborted half-way through.
As mentioned in my first post, a portion of my first day was spent exploring the Old City with course participants. A couple of us split off from the main group for a bit and wandered at random. Two Jewish men were chatting and leaning against the corner walls of a quiet intersection; they stopped us and said we “had to” go up the smaller street as it was the prettiest street in Jerusalem. Conversation ensued. Moses was an American, his friend, Abraham, was from Toronto. The opening topic was hockey but they quickly steered the conversation to politics. According to Moses, Harper is loved by the people of Israel but Obama is despised as it is believed he will “sell out to the Arabs if re-elected.” On my first day in Israel I spoke with both Moses and Abraham! Their prophesy to me: religion and politics are closely related here.
Tom and I did explore the small street and it was pretty. There was a lemon tree planted in the centre of the street which was open to the sky, and the homes were obviously new with decorative planters in front of them. This street bore no resemblance whatsoever to the residential ones that I have seen in some areas of the Muslim quarter which are grungy and dark.
We rejoined our group for lunch at the Armenian Tavern, an elaborately decorated restaurant built in what was once a well. Most of ordered the starter platter so that we could try a variety of foods – all of them were quite yummy though the sausage was a bit too rich for me due to its high fat concentration.
Armenian Tavern in the Old City
The course ended at the college a week ago and since then I have spent a fair amount of time doing ordinary things such as shopping for groceries and buying kitchen utensils and equipment so that I can cook. Shopping trips are best done here Sunday – Thursdays, as most Muslim shopkeepers are closed on Fridays and all the Jewish ones are shut tight during Shabbat.
The streets are filled with people in all kinds of different costumes and various kinds of headgear. There are numerous styles of headdress for both Jewish and Muslim men, and several different ways that women cover their head with scarves. To buy groceries I go to various vendors selling specific types of goods. The spice stores are beautiful with spices piled high in trays, sometimes in elaborate shapes. Most stores are small and extremely narrow. Aisles are miniscule and require careful maneuvering to avoid knocking items off the shelves with your bags.
I am cooking mostly vegetarian meals but the other day went to a butcher hoping to get some ground beef or ground lamb. To enter the store I squeezed between several carcasses hanging at the front of the store (lambs?) and an upright freezer containing various patties and things I didn’t recognize. There were several men behind the counters cutting meat, grinding meat and mixing ground meat with herbs to form patties which they then wrapped in strips of fat. Towards the back of the store were open boxes of fresh fish.
My lunch at the tavern
I asked for ground lamb, and one of the men grabbed a chunk of meat and asked if it was ok; I nodded yes thinking he was going to grind part of it….eventually I ended up with nice lamb chops… Without thinking I backed up from the counter to pay and of course banged into a hanging carcass.
Yesterday (Friday afternoon) I went through the security scanner and had my bag inspected, so that I could pray at the Western Wall (it is sometimes called the wailing wall due to the grief caused by the destruction of the temple on two occasions) and watch people gather for Shabbat. I prayed with my forehead and a hand resting on the wall, adding my praise and petitions to the millions of prayers uttered there over the years. It felt right to be there along with the other ordinary people pleading for their needs and the needs of others. The Spirit draws us all to this most holy site, despite its destruction and its locus in the midst of strife
Hundreds gathered in the plaza and at the wall as the sun dropped lower in the sky. By the time the sun had started to set there was a sea of black on the men’s side of the wall, punctuated with the odd patch of colour, indicating people who were not as orthodox, or from a different cultural background. The exception was one corner populated by young soldiers in uniform with their machine guns slung over their shoulders.
Preparing for Shabbat at the Western Wall
Entering the men's area of the Western Wall just prior to the start of Shabbat
In the centre of the men’s area I heard a young rabbi(?) exhort a group of men to sing from the heart and to make this a Shabbat to remember. As Shabbat started they sang with enthusiasm, but it was the soldiers tremendous joy and total sense of celebration that caught my eye. There were well over 50 young troops. They formed a circle, with a few non-military men and children in their midst – a young boy was passed over the wall from the women’s side to join them and they all sang and danced with abandon. There were young men not in military uniform, (I assume doing some other form of national service), who were leading the worship. These leaders were doing amazing moves as part of the dancing – walking on their hands, jumping from a one-handed hand stand to their feet while small circles of soldiers danced around them, all within the larger circle of soldiers.
I wanted to be part of the dancing, to worship and to praise God with my whole being.
The women’s side of the wall was very quiet while the men’s side pulsated with energy. Apparently it would be offensive to the orthodox men to see women dancing and singing on the other side of the wall.
As I left the wall to share the Shabbat meal with my Canadian friends here, the Muslim call to worship began and I listened to the sound of a voice singing in Arabic. I have come to appreciate having this call punctuate my day.
Walking from the Western Wall last night towards the Jaffa gate was like being a salmon trying to swim upstream. I was walking, dodging, through hundreds of people rushing down to the wall. There were young men, groups of friends, young couples, and families dressed in their best –the men in black accompanied by their wives in gorgeous outfits, many of them pushing strollers over the cobblestone steps.
The sacred and the ordinary. A view of the Dome of the Rock.
Once I exited the Old City I continued to be passed by groups of people hurrying to the Western Wall. I was surprised to overhear a young woman say “Shalom Shabbat” to someone on her cell phone– obviously not a particularly observant gal. A more conservative Jewish individual would not carry a cell phone, let alone talk on it during Shabbat.
I had a wonderful Shabbat with my friends. On the surface it was a feast of good home cooked food served in a cramped apartment. But it was holy time. Their prayers were part of a ritual that is integral to their lives and in part defines who they are.
During one of the course lectures, the speaker remarked that for Muslims, “religion is what you do.” It is so easy here to recognize people who have made a commitment to their faith. It is evident in their clothing, when they work and don’t work, and by where they are going.”Rush hour” (people walking at full speed as opposed to cars parked on a freeway) occurs five times a day when the call to worship sounds from the Mosques, and also on Friday for Shabbat.
I ponder how the ladies of St. George’s and I, all good Christian women, had no qualms about shopping at Ikea after church last Sunday afternoon, on our holy day.
Living at St. George’s means it is easy for me to worship daily at the cathedral. I try to attend at least one service a day and am more intentional about taking time for prayer and meditation here. The liturgy here is traditional which has meant an adjustment on my part, but each service has been very meaningful.
My faith and that of others does shape my life here. I wonder if that will be the case when I return home?