Sunday, March 31, 2013

Weeks 7-9: Walking All Over God's Green (or Brown) Israel!

(Chag Pesach Sameach, Happy Passover Holiday) חג פסח שמח
Happy Holy Week and Easter, y'all!

So it has been about 2 weeks since my last post. I am now on Spring (or Passover, or Pesach, or פסח) Break. I have 2 weeks off of class, and am really enjoying the break. Having to get up for Hebrew at 8:30 three days a week is not so fun.

Since I last updated this blog, I have had quite a few educational adventures. Last Thursday, March 14, I went with my Christianity and Judaism in Late Antiquity class on a field trip to the Old City. We first went to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is located above the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We took a side staircase up to the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and walked past the Coptic monastery, through two chapels, and into a gathering room. As we walked into the room, one of my friends and classmates whispered to me, "Look at the idols." He comes from a non-denominational church, and I from a Protestant (Presbyterian) background. It's true. The room was full of ornate decorations, from the chairs, to the prayer stations in front of each chair, to the throne and canopy that sat at the head of the room. The most obvious of "idols" were the many pictures around the room of anyone from Jesus, to Mary, to the Archbishop himself. In fact, in one of the enclaves of pictures, the Archbishop's picture was in the center with a picture of Christ to our left (his right in the picture). He talked to us about the beginning of the Coptic Church and its separation from the Western Church in the 4th century CE, which was basically what we had learned from our readings in class. It was very interesting to hear it from the mouth of a practicing believer today, though. All of us in the class come from the West, whether we are Jewish or Christian. I'm not sure if you've noticed, but the West doesn't talk about Eastern Christianity. Anything besides Protestants and Roman Catholic (with maybe a tad bit of Greek Orthodox) is off-limits. So even though most of us know at least a little something about Christian history, it is amazing to see how the religion developed in the East into something that is so different yet still similar to Western Christianity.

The Coptic Archbishop in the center with Jesus Christ on his righthand side

After the Coptic Church, we headed to the Syrian Church, which is also located in the Old City. We met with a priest of the church in another gathering room. This room also had many different embellished chairs. We later learned that the throne in the middle was for the Archbishop to sit in only during the ceremony establishing him as the Archbishop. For the remainder of the time, the throne remains empty to symbolize the presence of Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, or maybe even Elijah in meetings of the patriarchate. Only when the Archbishop dies is the chair used again in a practical manner. The Archbishop is buried in or with his chair. Then, a new chair is made specially for the new Archbishop. The priest told us about the origins of the Syrian Church and how it also developed from the split between the Eastern and Western churches in the 4th century CE. Both of these churches shed some light onto Christian traditions that I had never learned about or experienced before this time.

Our field trip ended at noon, but I wasn't in the mood to return to the Kfar quite yet. As I walked toward the gate, I ran into the pastor at the Church of the Redeemer whom I had met the Sunday before on my first visit to the church. Once we had finished chatting, my class was nowhere to be seen. I knew I was on my own and that I had some errands I needed to run in town before I went home so being alone was okay with me. I walked to Ben Yehuda, which is one of the main commercial streets in Jerusalem. I needed more Kleenex because my runny nose had depleted my supply and showed no signs of stopping any time soon (It still hasn't figured out how to turn itself off, unfortunately.).

About a month ago, Luis, who was one of the guides on my trip to Nicaragua last April messaged me on Facebook. He is Jewish and asked me to say a prayer for him at the Kotel and to send a Star of David necklace to him. I figured this would be the perfect opportunity for me to do this. I walked back to the Old City and bought the necklace. I had no schedule constraints so I decided to wander through the Old City as I made my way to the Kotel. I ended up getting lost (which is not difficult) and found myself in the Muslim Quarter. Whenever I had visited the Old City before, I had mainly been with Jews who were uncomfortable venturing into the Muslim Quarter. I had never been fully in the Muslim Quarter, nor did I know where Damascus Gate was (which is the entrance to the Old City that leads directly to the Muslim Quarter).

I wandered around in circles about three times in the Quarter where everything was in Arabic. I know absolutely no Arabic so it's almost like being in another foreign country. For the first time, I actually felt like a traveler, as opposed to a tourist. I was experiencing this place all on my own without having anyone else bias my perception of this place and the people. It was exhilarating. I was just exploring this new place with nowhere to be and nothing to do. I did a few random acts of kindness to people I saw who needed assistance. I joked with the salesmen who wanted me to stop in their stores. I chatted with some Arab children who wanted to practice their English.

However, it was not all fun and games. I'm not sure if I was actually in the Muslim Quarter when I saw a man dressed in a traditional Muslim robe. Literally every person he walked past heckled him in some way. I saw young shop owners spit in his face. I saw men walking by him touch his chest. I saw children chase after him just to bother him. At one point, he walked into a side shop and talked to the owner and some children who were there. I couldn't tell if he was joking with them or angrily complaining to them. The children started to follow him, and he quickly turned around as if to chase them so that they would leave him alone. Unfortunately, I believe I witnessed explicit racism and unjust treatment of an Arab Muslim by Jews in the Old City. Absolutely no one deserves to be treated this way. The only reason this man received this kind of attention was because of his dress that identified him as a Muslim. It is sickening to me how someone's attire can dictate the attention they receive.

Eventually, I found my way back to the Kotel, where I prayed for Luis and wrote my own prayers for my family and friends. My plan after that was to go back to Damascus Gate and take the light rail back to the Kfar. After getting turned around another three times, I finally found Damascus Gate again. I tried to find the light rail station that I knew was right near the gate. I turned right out of the gate and followed the light rail track. After walking for quite some time, I thought that maybe the track went into the nearby neighborhood like the stop at Jaffa Gate turned onto a different street (even though I should have remembered that Damascus Gate light rail stop is directly in front of the walls of the Old City). I turned into the neighborhood and kept walking. I managed to get myself very lost at this point. Again, I was surrounded by nothing but Arabic. I realized I was a woman completely alone in a brand new place that I didn't know, and no one knew where I was. I feel comfortable in the Old City, no matter where I am. I think that simply knowing that the Old City is confined within walls and that many major holy sites exist within the walls leads to this sense of security. In this open Arab neighborhood, I felt a sense of unease and slight anxiety about my situation. My thought was that if I just keep walking, eventually I will find either a light rail station or a neighborhood I am more familiar with.

It took a very long while for this to work out for me. In the meantime, I took various turns and found myself on smaller, residential roads. I noticed as I walked the differences in the conditions of the streets and utilities in more Jewish neighborhoods and this Arab neighborhood. The main streets had crosswalks but didn't have the lighted signs that told you when to cross in correspondence with the traffic lights. When I would have expected about two or three light rail stops in the distance that I walked, I found none. The bus stops were only for Arab buses, not the Israeli Egged bus line. All over the streets of Jerusalem is trash, particularly broken glass. In this neighborhood, though, I saw corners and lots that were simply dumping grounds. As I walked past a Muslim school, I watched a boy climb out of a rusty dumpster that had holes in the lid from where it had been set on fire before. It became obvious to me the difference in allocation of resources between the Arab and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

As I kept walking, I passed the French Institute, the East Jerusalem Baptist Church, the Seventh Day Adventist Community Center, and the Jerusalem District Court. I was about done with this adventure (by this time I had been walking 6 hours since I had left for the field trip at 8:30 am) when I spotted St. George's Cathedral. I recognized this name as one that Douglas Dicks sent me in the list of churches I should check out in Jerusalem. Being the carefree adventurer that I am, I decided to wander into the church. It was a guest house, a school, and an Episcopal Church all on one campus. The property was incredibly open and easily accessible. I wandered to the sanctuary and all the way through the beautiful garden on campus without ever being questioned. Once I had finished exploring the beautiful scenery, I decided to stop by the office. What's better than doing some real life social networking in the Holy Land when you're living as a minority? Nothing. I wandered into the office looking for the pastor. Apparently 2:30 pm on a Thursday is "late in the day" because the secretary informed me that he had gone home for the weekend. I could come back on Monday or call/email him (she gave me his contact info).

Even though I wasn't able to connect with any clergy, that visit was still a success. As I left the church, I saw the Leonardo Hotel that I recognized from my travels on the light rail. I knew that if I walked toward the hotel, I would find a light rail station. Once I got to the light rail, I realized that I had meandered to one stop closer to home. I got back to the Kfar only to realize that I had lost my keys to my apartment, room, and mail box at some point during this excursion. Luckily, I was able to replace them that afternoon for a nominal fee.

On Friday, March 15, I went with Julia and Brittany to Herzliya to celebrate my roommate Shira's birthday. It was a perfectly relaxing day on the beach in Herzliya. I'm becoming a huge fan of naps on the beach and chill day trips to the beach. Even though the sky was gray, it was still warm enough to validate the trip.

Saturday, March 16, I had the opportunity to view a screening of Five Broken Cameras at the French Institute in the same Arab neighborhood that I had wandered into on Thursday. (Click here to watch Five Broken Cameras online for free.) Every room was packed. By the time we got there, it was standing (or sitting on the floor) room only. Five Broken Cameras is a documentary by a Palestinian man, Emad Burnat, who lives in the West Bank village of Bil'in. All of the footage comes from the five different cameras that Emad has used since 2005. He documents every non-violent demonstration that the village participates in at the separation barrier after the Friday prayers. The story follows the childhood of Emad's youngest son, Gibreel, as he grows up in the occupied West Bank. Although, I know that the movie presents a very specific perspective to the conflict, there are certain pieces of footage that cannot be faked. For example, Emad films his brother getting arrested by the IDF at a demonstration. His brother is in handcuffs and blindfolded near an IDF armored truck. A soldier takes his gun and shoots Emad's brother in both knees. No matter what Emad's brother may or may not have done to warrant his arrest, this was a completely unprovoked action.

After the screening, we had the opportunity to have a Skype call with the Palestinian director, Emad Burnat, himself. Even though the call quality was not good and his accent was difficult to understand in a crowded room, it was interesting to hear him talk about this movie and his life. He told us a story about how he was supposed to go to an awards ceremony in the States, but he and all of his family received extra questioning and searching upon their arrival to the airport in the US.

Once the Q&A session was over, a group of 16 students from Rothberg went to a coffee shop in the area. We pushed four tables together and had a great processing discussion about what we had just seen. We had many different perspectives and opinions represented around the table. We established a very mature set of guidelines to facilitate the discussion. It's like we were adults having a mature discussion about an issue that is important to all of us, and we could respect each others' viewpoints without getting offended or defensive. Huh, that's weird. I didn't think that could happen. But actually, it was really nice to be accountable to each other and to make sure that we didn't interrupt each other, as can happen so easily in everyday conversation, as well as important discussions (read: peace negotiations).

Even though everyone took something different from the film, it was really interesting to hear the different perspectives and reactions each person had. One of my friends saw it as a ploy similar to the Kony 2012 campaign that became really popular for about a month last year. If you humanize children and show the film to an American and European audience, they are more likely to sympathize with your cause and donate money...for the children. All of us struggled with the direct exposure of the children to the conflict as was depicted in the documentary. The conversation then moved to questions of agency within the IDF. How much do the soldiers get to decide their own actions and how much is simply following orders? Most members of the IDF have come through the Israeli education system (which is anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian) and join the IDF before they have had any college education. The soldiers are my age. For me, it is nearly impossible for me to imagine having that kind of power (or lack thereof) at that age. I have learned so much in the past three years of college, but none of that has come from direct exposure to a military conflict and my participation in it. Just think about it. On both sides of the conflict, young kids who haven't even reached their full development are the ones on the ground dealing with the conflict.

As a poverty minor, I have learned a lot about poverty in the US (causes, interventions, systematic exacerbation, etc.). I have also observed poverty in Nicaragua when I spent a month traveling around the country and taking a class. One of the key buzzwords when talking about poverty is upward mobility, or the ability one has to improve one's socioeconomic status or standard of living. From watching Five Broken Cameras, I didn't see much opportunity for upward mobility. Emad's children have been born into the conflict. That permeates their lives as an ever-present white elephant that they just live with. I could not see any real hope or opportunity they have in the West Bank (although, I am fully aware that in no way, shape, or form did the documentary show all aspects of life in the West Bank). Emad's family lives by working the land and harvesting the olive trees each year. Some of the olive trees must be removed in order for the construction of the separation barrier. Some olive trees are burned by settler violence. If this is what Emad's family knows and loves doing, then more power to them. However, the destruction of the land takes away their way of life. If they don't have that, then what are they left with? What legacy can Emad leave for his children? I am amazed by the hope that the Palestinian people show amidst a seemingly hopeless situation. No matter how dismal their situation appears to be, the people of Bil'in maintain their commitment to non-violent resistance each week.

Last week, there was a music festival called Music in the Old City. On Tuesday (3/19), I went with Mollie, Brittany, Julia, and Melissa, Julia's sister who was visiting. Basically there were different stages with two or three different groups that rotated 6-11 pm Tuesday-Thursday night all around the Old City. Everywhere you walked, you could hear all kinds of music. The first stage we came to was a Jewish gospel choir from Africa. We heard the last three songs of their set which were a Hebrew spiritual, Akon's "Right Now (Na Na Na)," and Santana's "Why Don't You and I." It was an amazing eclectic set of music, to say the least. As we walked through the city, we found Arab, klezmer, Turkish, traditional Israeli reggae, and a combination of all sorts of Middle Eastern flavors of music. We enjoyed it so much that we came back again on Wednesday night to celebrate the beginning of Pesach Break. In the Christian Quarter, we found a soul band and Carmi Shimron who sang "Georgia" during her set. I was convinced I was back home when I heard her start to sing it. As we were leaving the festival, I was struck by how similar this festival was to Come-See-Me in Rock Hill. It's crazy to think that one of the holiest cities in the world has families and community events just like my hometown.

Thursday (3/21), I got up bright and early for our 4-day Yam le Yam (Sea to Sea) trip across the country from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee (Or Kineret). Typically, you would hike the entire way on different trails from the Mediterranean to the Kineret. Because this was a school trip with about 80 people doing the hike, we would do a hike for part of the day and then drive to our hostel for the night. We drove to Achziv Beach in the North to truly start at the Mediterranean. Then we drove to the Nahal Kziv hike. It was beautiful. We saw an old Crusader castle at the beginning of the hike in Montfort, hiked down to the river bed, and crossed the river many times as the trail wound through the valley. The end of the hike was basically scaling the mountain as it felt like we were going straight up the whole time. This was my first time going to the North, and I didn't know that Israel had such lush vegetation in its landscape. I have only really seen the desert in the South and from a distance in Jerusalem. The mountains in the North remind me of a place I like to call home: Appalachia. Growing up going to Montreat, going to school in southwest Virginia, and volunteering in eastern Kentucky means that I have spent a significant amount of life in the Appalachian mountains. They are beautiful and close to my heart. As we hiked through the mountains, I felt transported 7,000 miles away to where my heart lives.

The Crusader castle at Montfort

When we had all finished the hike, we drove to Akko, where we would stay in a hostel for the night. Thursday night, we took a tour of the town of Akko, which is primarily Arab. We saw the main mosque in the town and walked to the marina. Across the Mediterranean, we could see Haifa.

The next morning, we went to Mount Maron, the second highest peak in Israel. We started about halfway up the mountain so the ascent wasn't too bad. This hike was beautiful and full of vegetation but felt more like a shepherd's pasture than the first day's hike. At the various lookouts, we could see the many villages below the mountain. At some places, we could even see the mountains of Lebanon! I'm still amazed by how small this country is compared to the US and its high visibility on the peaks of mountains.

We then drove to the village of Peki'in, which is a bit off of the trail of Yam le Yam, to celebrate Shabbat. Saturday morning, we went on a walking tour of Peki'in. This village is fairly unique in Israel. 80% of the inhabitants are Druze, which is a secretive religion that branched off of Islam around the 11th-12th centuries CE. Its esoteric nature is probably the reason you've never heard of it before. Even secular Druze don't know anything about the religion. If you're religious, you must lead a religious lifestyle, and you get to know all of the secrets. If you aren't, well then you're not in the cool kids club. 18% of Peki'in's residents are Arab/Muslim, and the remaining 2% are Christian. Now you may be asking yourselves, "Isn't Israel a Jewish State? Where are the Jews in this village?" Jews have lived in this village as early as the Second Temple Period (just pre-Jesus time). Over time the families have left, and now there is only one elderly Jewish woman living in all of Peki'in. She is paid by the government to stay and operate the town's synagogue, but she would stay even if she weren't paid. A few years ago a group of Jewish settlers came into the town and displayed a banner proclaiming "Peki'in Forever." This really disturbed the delicate coexistence that has thrived in the village for many years. Although the settlers left and the situation has returned to its peaceful state, that instance has scarred the village. It is uncertain what will happen to the Synagogue after this woman dies. Will the government find someone else to carry on the Jewish tradition? So much of Jewish culture revolves around the family and the community. I couldn't even begin to fathom how lonely it would be to spend every Shabbat dinner alone in your home. Either way, once this woman dies, it will be a very delicate process to decide who will live in Peki'in to take over the synagogue.

After visiting the synagogue, we walked further up the mountain to Cave of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, which is supposedly where the Zohar, a book central to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), was written. You can read the story in the picture below.

The description of the cave where the Zohar was supposedly written
The Cave of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai

After seeing the cave, we continued up to a lookout of the city and the entire surrounding valley. At the top was a map of the town that highlighted 7 tourist sites to visit from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druse faiths. Interestingly enough, we only visited the two Jewish sites on the map. I understand that the two Greek Orthodox churches in Peki'in aren't really super significant to the Christian tradition or built on historic sites. However, Hebrew University's Office of Student Activities (OSA) has a history of demonstrating bias toward the Jewish faith at the expense of others. I fully understand that the vast majority of people in my program are Jewish, and that's fine. It's just that when you claim to want to attract more students to your program, you should provide opportunities for them to experience their culture in the Holy Land. For example, there are countless ways to get set up with an Israeli family for Shabbat dinners. That's fine. There are plenty of extracurricular activities involving the various colors of Jewish studying, but only the one Christian group that I found earlier in the semester. Additionally, I believe they should offer more extracurricular religious opportunities for the many Muslims on campus (just in case people thought I was whining because I'm in the minority).

People who come here to learn about the conflict can learn about it in the classroom, but it's more difficult to experience both sides in their respective contexts. We have been warned not to cross the green line into the West Bank (even though it is a 15 minute drive away from campus), and our health insurance through the school does not cover anything that may occur in occupied territories. (Don't worry. I'm covered by literally 4 other types of insurance.) On OSA trips (such as Yam le Yam) we have to drive all the way around the West Bank because the school won't allow us to be there. I could understand this if the Israeli bus line Egged didn't travel through the West Bank to get to destinations.

I have read many a not-so-pro-Israel articles that claim that Israelis only acknowledge sites and events that are important to Jewish history, while ignoring the centuries of culture and history that occurred on this land between the first centuries CE and the establishment of the Israel in 1948. I don't believe that it is right for anyone to say that any one culture is better or more important than another, especially when it comes to preserving the history and retelling future generations of a culture.

However, I realize that this is probably just a really liberal, post-modern, hippie-esque, pluralistic view that I have. After struggling with this issue for about a week, I came to realize the opposition to my argument. Throughout the history of this land, I bet the ruling parties didn't care about what had come before. The Byzantines didn't care about the Israelite Period. The same goes for the Muslim Period and the Ottoman Empire. History repeats itself, and the victors are the ones who own history. It just so happens that we are in the times of Israel as a Jewish State. All of the streets in every major city have the same names of important founders in Zionism (Yafo, Ben Yehuda, Allenby, Rothschild, Ben Gurion, etc.). However, my point remains that we should respect the history and cultures of this land's past. Humanity has advanced ideologically, technologically, and economically. We are changing. So why not change?

Back to Yam le Yam after that slight intellectual detour. After the walking tour of Peki'in, we returned to the hostel for a restful day of Shabbat. After Shabbat ended, we drove out to a campground where we would cook our dinner (yes, all 80 of us). Different groups made different dishes, such as salat (salad, which is not just tossed or chef. Israelis actually don't really use lettuce in their salads, but they love putting just about any other vegetable with the staple diced tomatoes and cucumbers.), side dishes, homemade pita, and, my personal favorite, poyke pot. I was on the poyke pot crew. We cut up vegetables of all kinds, potatoes, and beef. Then we threw it all into a pot with seasonings of all kinds. It was basically an Israeli dutch oven style of cooking. The pot sat in the fire for 1-1 1/2 hours with various seasonings added periodically to make a scrumptious stew. Once everything was cooked, we all dug in to all of the delicious dishes each group prepared. In my humble opinion, ours was the best, hands down. After the satisfying meal, we returned to the hostel for our last night.

The best poyke pot

On day four of Yam le Yam, we drove to this field off the highway. It looked and felt like an actual shepherd's field. We actually had to strategically maneuver around gates and fences that were supposed to keep cattle, sheep, or goats in the pasture. The trail eventually led to a wadi (dried-out river bed) called Nahal Amud. During the rainy season, the river bed fills with water. The pastures gave way to steep cliffs with many caves on both sides. It's fascinating how the Israeli geography and landscapes change so quickly. At the end of our hike, we came to the namesake of the stream, the amud.

The amud (pillar) of Nahal Amud
After we finished hiking, we took the bus to Bora Bora Beach on the Sea of Galilee. We were all able to hang out by the beach and enjoy the sun (and extremely cold water) after our four-day kinda sorta hike (more like walk). It was a great way to spend Palm Sunday even if I couldn't go to a Palm Sunday service.

The Sea of Galilee from Bora Bora Beach

So I know I haven't updated to right now. It has taken me a week to finish all of this, and I just want to publish it! Also, this would be about twice as long if I included this past week in this post. Basically, my point is, look out for the Holy Week post sometime soon!

1 comment:

  1. So many great adventures! I will need to look at a map to follow you! I am so glad you are having so many wonderful learning opportunities.