Israel! I went to Israel.
After an arduous journey (two red eye flights, a nap in a park hobo-style in New York, a day in Frankfurt walking up and down the one hip street, and a mentally ill cab driver) we arrived in Jerusalem. Hallelujah. (Everyone claps when you land in Israel on El Al… back in the holy land!) We arrived on Friday… Shabbat. Jerusalem grinds to a halt. (At least in public. Challah and good times behind closed doors…) From sundown (…more like 4 pm) Friday to sundown Saturday, no restaurants, no shopping, no people. Mostly. Thankfully we had a reservation at an unholy restaurant that stayed open. Our first meal: we were introduced to gigantic Israeli portions and “really good” Israeli wine. (They’re still kinda figuring out that wine thing. The beer though, Dad’ll tell you, Gold Star is a fine He-brew.) We sort of wandered back home wishing there were people out and about and wondering if Jerusalem was really populated… 8 o’clock the next night, Yes! Streets and restaurants packed with people excitedly re-emerging from their day of rest. It seems somehow a little weird that in Jerusalem, this very old very holy place, regular life goes on. Like… people go to coffee shops and out to dinner and like… buy groceries at grocery stores…
We spent Saturday (and a good part of many other days) in the Old City. Old as in ancient, pre-Jesus, pre-Romans old. In the Old City: the place where Jesus died, the place where Mary’s parents died (did you know Mary’s mom’s name was Anne? Yes. And is there a rad little St. Anne altar that’s all gold and Russian Orthodox-y and rad? Yes. Did I light a candle? Yes. I have a gigantic soft spot for that over-the-top, gold plated icon stuff. Chapels full of lanterns and paintings and drippy candles, yes please.) Also the Temple Mount, which was magical and peaceful and maybe even a little other-worldly. You wait in a long line, squeeze through a well-trafficked metal detector, wind up a stairway above the Western Wall, and emerge in this quiet place, elevated and removed from the rest of the city. The golden dome sparkles at the center, and little shady patches of grass and stone ledges perfect for resting on surround it. Men and women are gathered in little rings of plastic chairs studying, ignoring the tourists milling around about them. As a non-religious chick, some of the religious sites felt a little uncomfortable, like I couldn’t understand the significance, like I was missing something that everyone else was getting. We all agreed that we’d expected to maybe feel a little glimmer of some kind of spirituality amongst the pilgrims, but it never really happened until we went to the temple mount. And still, it wasn’t so much a religious feeling as just a good feeling of history and permanence and calm sweetness.
And then there’s the secular (ish) Old City, which can be divided into tourist-land and legit-land. Both are tinged with the other; the touristy bits are full of trinket shops (but the trinket shops are run by real-live people, smoking cigarettes and yelling across the way at the other scarf-hawkers) and the more real-life bits have Lonely Planet-ers wandering around in them, pretending to blend in (aka, us.) My favorite parts of the old city were in the Arab quarter, where there were dimly light butcher shops with whole goats (fluffy tails included) hanging in the windows and stalls selling mounds of gummi candies and little electrical appliance shops and shops selling cheap kids’ toys and underwear. And masses of people; ladies in their headscarves and long colorful trench coats, old men with their cool little knitted caps clinging onto their skulls, kids running between everyone with melting popsicles.
One of my favorite bits of the trip was walking up Saladin street, just outside the old city and named after one of the Muslim dudes who took Jerusalem a long time ago (that is how history majors talk about history), a crazy busting street jam-packed full of people. Old ladies buying coffee makers, school kids getting lunchtime shawarmas, guys sipping their teensy but strong cups of coffee, sitting on teensy but must-be-strong little stools. And just people, tons of people running around and hurrying around and shopping and talking and yelling. Anne crack. My heart beats faster and I see a zillion photos to take and a trillion things to taste and a billion million people to look at. Thrill thrill thrilling.