It’s now past 4pm UK time and I’ve been on the flight for about four hours. If all goes well, I should be in Baltimore in another three hours, and if I’m lucky, my roommates will remember to pick me up, or I’ll have to catch the 45-minute Amtrak ride into DC.
When we started this journey over two weeks ago, Susanne said, ‘We’ll be traveling together for 17 days. That’s more than half a month! How did we pull off over half a month of vacation?’ At the time I thought 17 days would seem like an eternity away from home, away from work, away from the day-to-day goings-on of world events, away from responsibility. But as all vacations do, this trip went by all too quickly, for part of me feels like Susanne said her 17 days ago comment to me only yesterday.
Yet at the same time, we accomplished so much in this trip that it almost feels like we would have needed months just to cover the ground and events we’ve encountered. Cairo, for example, seems as a distant memory, though I was there a scant two weeks ago today. So much has transpired within these 17 days, I fear that I may be unable to remember all of the sights, smells and sounds that made up this journey. Fortunately, this journal, as well as the several hundred pictures we took collectively, will perpetually revive those sensations I experienced whenever I choose to see or read them.
This trip was also full of surprises, some good and some dreadful. We never planned to visit Amman, for instance, yet the insistence of our shy, but kind hotel manager in Wadi Musa made us reexamine our itinerary for the better and to go there before Jerusalem. And we were also stunned by the news of Yitzhak Rabin’s death, news that if we hadn’t stopped in Amman, we would have heard either in Jerusalem or at the Allenby Bridge border crossing. In a sense, our trip can be divided into two distinct halves – Before the Assassination and After the Assassination. For the first week, our trip was a true holiday full of aimless wandering and adventures, completely devoid of any sense that trouble was brewing. And though I consider myself to be quite aware of the nuances and history of Mideast politics, I could have never dreamed that such a cruel and unprecedented turn of events would occur while we were visiting there.
Part of me wishes that we had visited Israel first, so that we could have experienced the country and it peoples as it exists day-to-day, without the spectre of tragedy looming over our every move. Yet at the same time, I feel we experienced a nation at its finest, congregating at Kikar Yitzhak Rabin, where they lit candles, sang songs of hope, wrote messages of grief, and came together as one in the hopes of finding a way to move on as best as possible.
Admittedly, I expected this trip to involve periods of introspection – as an American Jew traveling in the Mideast, it would be next to impossible for me to not ponder the significance of it all. But having experienced the death of Rabin, standing at the Western Wall, as the sirens sounded the moment of silence in honor of him, I see that my expectations paled in comparison to the thoughts, emotions, and images provoked by this event.
I don’t want to start rambling here, but as tragic as this time was for the state of Israel, I am proud to have experienced it firsthand. It has also furthered my belief and resolve that peace must be achieved in the Middle East, no matter what the price, and that Palestinian sovereignty and legitimate concessions to the Syrians are the only way of attaining that peace. We American Jews have spent too much of the last generation blaming Yassir Arafat and his supporters for Israel’s woes, while we have ignored the Ariel Sharons and the Meir Kahanes that have lead Jewish identity in the Mideast on a destructive, often racist path. I fear that in the near future there may be civil war in Israel, or at least, an all-out war of attrition of Jew against Jew. I truly hope for all of our sakes that this never comes to pass, but as I hear the hateful rhetoric and sea the actions of the Jewish far-right, I fear their absolutist doctrine might make this path impossible to avoid.
November 12, 1995
It’s now past 4pm UK time and I’ve been on the flight for about four hours. If all goes well, I should be in Baltimore in another three hours, and if I’m lucky, my roommates will remember to pick me up, or I’ll have to catch the 45-minute Amtrak ride into DC.
November 10, 1995
Susanne spent the entire night coughing, but managed to sleep later in the early morning hours. I was up around 9am, so I decided to go for a walk to find some food and coffee. It was cool and drizzling a bit, but fortunately, there was a bakery/cafe on Ben Yehuda Street, right by the hotel, so I got an espresso and half a loaf of cinnamon raisin challah and read for a while. When I finished by coffee, I returned to the hotel with the challah and some apple juice for Susanne, who was still asleep. She started to stir, and somewhat groggy, she told me to go spend the day on my own, for she was too sick to travel outside of Tel Aviv. It was now more apparent than ever that our trip north to Acre and the Galil was off, so I figured I’d have to make the most out of another day in Tel Aviv. I wasn’t feeling too hot either, so I tried to count our blessings since we were near the end of our trip and we weren’t getting ill in some place more isolated, like Luxor.
Leaving Susanne with her juice and bread, I walked over to the beach with the plan to wander south to Old Jaffa. But again, the rain came down, so I retreated to a mall at Opera Tower, one of Tel Aviv’s new modern highrises. I got a copy of the Jerusalem Post and another coffee (decaf this time) and read about the assassination investigation. There was also an article on how Kikar Malchei Yisrael, the square where Rabin had been shot, was turning into a shrine of sorts, so I decided that I’d walk up to the square later that afternoon.
Around noon, I checked in on Susanne, and she wasn’t feeling too much better. I told her I’d disappear up to the square for a couple of hours and then stop by again to see if she was feeling up to anything. With my camera in my backpack and my umbrella over my head, I walked toward Dizengoff Square, which lie between me and Kikar Malchei Yisrael. The rain finally stopped at Dizengoff, so I spent the rest of the walk shaking my umbrella dry in the hopes of draining it sufficiently to stick it in my backpack.
In about half an hour, I was at the square, which was now being called by everyone Kikar Yitzhak Rabin, a name that would certainly become official in only a matter of days. From a distance, I could see hundreds of people scattered throughout the square, with many of them converging on a postmodernish enclosure in the center, as wells as off to the northern edge of the square, opposite of where I was standing. The enclosure was a large metal structure, not unlike a Calder mobile that had plummeted to the ground, and inside of it stood a flat sculpture of some kind. The outside of the enclosure was covered in graffiti, mostly in Hebrew, but there were also inscriptions in English, such as ‘We love You, Yitzhak.’ Inside, about a dozen people huddle around the sculpture, which was covered with so many flowers and yarzheit candles it took me a while to realize that the sculpture itself was a star of David. Most of the candles had been extinguished by the rain and wind from earlier that day, so the mourners feebly attempted to re-light the few that weren’t completely drenched by water. Some people even drained and dried off candles just to perform this solemn act of remembrance.
After a few minutes I was able to light a candle, at which time I said Kaddish to myself. Several people took a picture of me while I stood there, which bothered me at first, but then I realized that I too wished to preserve the moment on film, so I had to become comfortable with being on both sides of the lens. I then worked my way to the northern side of the square. There were several thousand people scattered in the distance, as well as many thousands of yarzheit candles on the ground. Hundreds of candles had been arranged in shapes, like a star of David, a dove, or words in Hebrew, like Shalom, or We are all Yitzhak Rabin. I found a group of candles that hadn’t been shaped in any way, so I took several dozen of them and spelled one of the few Hebrew words I was positive I would spell correctly – chai, or life.
Due north of the square stood the city hall complex and the steps to the parking garage where Rabin was shot by Yigal Amir. Again, there were thousands of candles here, but unlike in the square itself, they remained lit, thanks to an overhang that encircled the area. Huge groups of people were lighting candles, scrawling poems on posterboard, and spraying graffiti wherever they could find room on a wall or floor. The graffiti struck me the most – every inch of sidewalk, wall, telephone box, water hydrant, anything at all, was coated in fresh paint and ink. Most of it, again, was in Hebrew, but I also spotted messages in Arabic, Russian, and French. Among some of the English scrawlings I found ‘We miss you, Grandpa,’ ‘Wish you were here,’ and ‘Why??’ Other areas were decorated with bumper stickers, the most common of which repeated the words of Bill Clinton at the end of his eulogy: Shalom, Haver. Goodbye, my friend. There were also enormous posters of Rabin everywhere – in some places, it felt like an alleyway advertisement for a concert. In the picture, Rabin has a rather stern look on his face, as if he were talking to someone and making an important point – a commanding final pose for the slain soldier and leader.
I spent some time taking pictures of people and memorials. It was now past 1:30pm, and even though I told Susanne I’d let her rest until late afternoon, I really thought she should have the opportunity to experience this impromptu memorial for herself. So I hiked back towards the hotel, stopping along the way for more apple juice, crackers, and some bumper stickers that said Shalom Haver and No More Violence in Hebrew. When I asked the store clerk how much they cost, he said, ‘Just try to smile and that will do,’ and he handed me my shekels back, trying to smile as well.
Susanne was half asleep when I arrived, but as soon as I had finished describing the scene at Kikar Malchei Yisrael, she got motivated and grabbed her camera. She was still quite fatigued, so we took our time getting there, walking for about an hour. For a while I thought she wouldn’t make it, but once we got to Frischmann Street at the southern end of the square, the sky started to clear and we could easily see thousands of people looming in the distance. The overwhelming spirit of the event was enough to put her illness aside for a few hours and to take in the experience, as well as to take a few treasurable pictures. We started off at the candle-enveloped sculpture, which now had even more flowers and rivers of wax over it. While Susanne took pictures I tried to light another candle, but ended up burning my thumb instead.
Having walked north, we climbed to the top of the square’s raised plaza area, where only a week before Rabin, Shimon Peres, and other Israeli leaders wowed a crowd of over 100,000 at that fateful peace rally. Near the steps where he was killed, an artist was painting a large mural of him, as photohounds clogged around him trying to get that perfect shot. Downstairs, a group of three teenagers kneeled with an Israeli flag, posing for some journalists. Susanne and I agreed that the pose seemed contrived, cold, and artificial, and it seemed more and more like these kids were interested in getting their mugs in HaEretz rather than in expressing their sincere grief.
We spent some time watching kids and their parents light candles and tape poems onto the walls. Around the corner I found one of those large posters of Rabin, falling off of the wall. It was covered in graffiti and peace stickers. I started to think that I wanted to bring it home with me, but I asked Susanne whether she thought taking it away would be disrespectful. She and I agreed that over the next few days, much of the temporary memorials would come down and be thrown away, and at least my keeping it would continue to serve as a solemn reminder as long as I possessed it. We gave it a delicate tug, and down it went, exposing even more graffiti behind it. We rolled it up and returned to the sculpture area one last time.
As we were about to leave, Susanne realized that she hadn’t lit a candle, so we knelt be the sculpture looking for a candle dry enough to ignite. It took awhile to get one going, and once Susanne’s candle was burning well, she offered it to some kids and their mother to help alight theirs. My candle, though, refused to stay lit, so I started to dump used matches into the glass, causing the candle to flame up like a bonfire in miniature. I began to wave my hands around it, causing more oxygen to pass through the flame and thus brightened it. For how long I sat there, mesmerized with the candle’s flame, I’m not sure, but eventually Susanne grabbed me by the shoulder and said it was time to go.
After resting and cleaning up back at the hotel, we decided to get dinner on Dizengoff Street. The sun had set and Shabbat was in full swing, so the streets were deserted, as well as devoid of the usually ubiquitous Dan and Egged bus lines. At Dizengoff, there were numerous eateries open, but most of them were kabob and felafel joints, and Mideast food was the last thing our bodies needed. Instead, we opted for an Italian restaurant called Tivoli, where most of the clientele was speaking English. We each ordered an onion soup, and then a small pizza and a bowl of lasagna. The food was warm and fulfilling, but neither of us had the appetite to come close to finishing it. Too bad doggy bags are such a nuisance while backpacking.
Back at the hotel, we packed our bags and arranged for a cab ride with the reception clerk, who was watching The X Files in English. We had to be up at 4:45am and at the airport by 6am if we wanted to make our flight to London.
November 9, 1995
Though our alarm was set for 7:30am, we were both up around 6am, due to both our long sleep as well as our incessant coughing. By this morning, we felt as if were about to cough up our lungs, and we were forced to endure it until the first cafe opened at 7:30, when we quickly consumed mint tea and apple juice. Then, with a fresh bread purchase in hand, we packed our bags and taxied to the Egged Central Bus Station. Catching the direct bus to Tel Aviv was easier than I expected, and within minutes we were on our way. The bus was an enormous doubledecker and we sat up to. I devilishly thought to myself that if a terrorist charged a bomb into us, it would be the folks on the ground floor of the bus who would get whacked first.
The ride to Tel Aviv took about an hour, during which Susanne slept most of the time. Tel Aviv, as everyone says, is a stark contrast to Jerusalem – it is modern, relaxed, and thoroughly averse to stress and interpersonal conflict. The main streets are lined with sidewalk cafes and trees, something like if the French seized Florida and made Ft. Lauderdale their capital.
We checked into a hotel about two blocks from the Mediterranean and we decided to get lunch, get medicine, and eventually to split up so Susanne could sleep and I could look around. We first hit a felafel stand on Dizengoff Street, and then got some Ben and Jerry’s. After that, we went on a wild goose chase to find cold medicine (at first, I led us to the wrong place, because in Hebrew, the food store SuperMart looks a lot like SuperPharm, the local pharmacy chain, and I didn’t take the time to translate it well.).
Back at the hotel, Susanne took some medicine, as did I, and then went to sleep. I took a cab to the Museum of the Diaspora, a huge multimedia exhibit similar to the design of the US Holocaust Museum in Washington. My primary reason for going was to use their genealogy database to look up my family’s original name, Karawan, in the hopes of shedding more light on the debate of whether my ancestors were caravaners in Persia, or from the city of Kairowan in Tunisia, or neither. As fate would have it, the name Karawan, nor anything similar to it, was listed in the database. Five sheks down the tube.
After a dreadfully long bus ride and walk back to the hotel, I woke up Susanne and got her motivated fast enough to watch the sunset over the Mediterranean. Apart from one or two sunsets in Tampa, I’d never seen a good sunset over the ocean before, even though I’d been saturated with ocean sunrises growing up on the Space Coast of Florida. There were clouds on the horizon, but they created amazing light and colour patters in the sky. As we watched, a beautiful young Israeli soldier walked along the shore, with her boots and pants getting soaked as she skimmed along, looking a if she hadn’t a care in the world. I wish I had taken her picture.
We stopped at an espresso bar for some great cappuccino and eventually returned to the hotel to bundle up on more clothes (with the sun down, the temperature had dipped into the 40s). We then wandered a bit south to find a cafe I read about in Let’s Go. Unfortunately, all of the cafes on that strip had their signs only in Hebrew, and my limited understanding of it left me unable to recognize any word that looked even similar to the name of the cafe. So, we sat down at the one place where we saw people eating, and we were pleased to find out that among other things, they served huge bowls of ramen, udon, and a variety of Asian pasta dishes. We soothed our throats with miso and angel hair while the stereo played the Best of Leonard Cohen, an album that I appreciate but rarely find myself able to listen to, due to its incredible mellowness. Tonight, though, Leonard seemed quite appropriate, since we wanted to take things easy, and, as I recently found out, he’s an avid genealogist whose family came from the same part of Lithuania as my mother’s family did.
Feeling slightly better from our mainlining of soup, pasta, tea, and cold medicine, we returned to the hotel to write our journals and hope that our sleep would bring us to a healthier state next morning. And now, as I write this, I Hope we’ll be in good enough condition to visit Acre and possibly Galilee. Otherwise, it’ll be a lazy, sick day in the cafes of Tel Aviv.
November 8, 1995
At 2:30am we were up and ready to go to Masada, despite the freezing cold wind and our lack of breakfast or coffee. For some reason, we chose not to stock up on foods and liquids the night before, and unfortunately, this decision would come back to haunt us. A rickety minibus picked us up around 3am, and then proceeded to load up with backpacking types from a hostel near Damascus Gate. In the pitch of night, we descended into the Dead Sea Valley, a drop of about half a mile to 1200 feet below sea level. While almost everyone else on the bus slept, I sat and observed the descent, wondering just how far down the valley would go before we got to the bottom.
At 4:30am we reached Masada, though at that time we couldn’t see a damn thing. The air was thick with the Dead Sea’s infamous salt air and humidity. Upon exiting the minibus, the driver tells us, “You have until 7:30 to climb up, enjoy the sunrise, and come back down before we swim in the Dead Sea. Have a good time.” The man then vanished, abandoning our group of scruffy backpackers to fend for ourselves and work our way up the Snake Path, Masada’s most treacherous way up the 1300-foot rock.
Consumed with dread and cold, we began the climb, zigzagging on an unlit rock path. We talked with a man named Stuart who had also gone to Northwestern, about four years before us. We all used the conversation to distract ourselves from the fact that our bodies were being tortured every foot upward. Though we were huffing and puffing most of the time, Stuart and I were handling the climb fairly well, all things considered. Susanne, on the other hand, appeared to have reached her limit about halfway up the rock, so we told her we’d stop as often as necessary, resting regularly and taking our time for the rest of the climb.
45 minutes after we began our ascent, we reached the top of Masada. Susanne collapsed as soon as she found ample flat earth, while I walked around to avoid getting a cramp. The wind chill at the top was probably less than 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and our sore bodies, protected by the warmest clothes we had – sweatshirts – were not pleased.
It was difficult to appreciate the history and significance of Masada and its ruins while my brain kept repeating, dammit, why can’t the sun rise now so we can get off this rock? When the sun finally rose around 6am, it was admittedly spectacular, but I still questioned the overall experiential value of our trek. I was convinced that the frigid wind blasts, combined with our physical overexertion, would be the straw that broke our immune systems’ backs, but there was nothing we could do at the time.
We checked out some of the ruins up top, but after 30 minutes or so we had our fill, so Stuart rejoined us and we descended the Snake Path, praying for an open snack bar somewhere below. Of course, the park’s snack bar didn’t open until 8am, but outside there was this one poor schmuck with bushels of citrus, squeezing fresh grapefruit and orange juice in the freezing cold. I asked how much for a large glass, and he said 10 sheks – $3.30 for a glass of OJ. As ill as we were feeling at the time, the three of us had no choice but to burst out laughing at the price. But in the end, it was our citrus squeezing friend who got the last laugh, for we broke down in sheer desperation and bough a glass, which was quite delicious, thank god.
Eventually, the rest of the group was back at the base of the mountain, so we drove off to the Dead Sea, about 5km from the entrance of Masada. Again, the restaurant there had yet to open, so we decided to get our dips in the sea over with, and then load up on morning nutritional sustenance, no matter the cost.
Susanne and I were both terrified of the Dead Sea, for we were both cut, bruised, and mosquito bitten from head to toe, and the sea’s salt content (eight times higher than the ocean) supposedly has a nasty habit of burning all open wounds. We changed into our bathing suits and headed for the water, walking over a beach made of nothing but sharp stones. The sea water wasn’t as cold as I had feared, and I noticed that the cut on my foot didn’t cause me to scream for a quick death. When I got deep enough for my torso to hit the water, the sea’s density became readily apparent as it picked me up, causing me to float at an ackward 45 degree angle. It was truly bizarre. I could roll in the sea almost perpetually, which would have been even easier if I didn’t have to keep my head above water at all times, lest I be blinded rather painfully by the salt.
We frolicked around for awhile, with each of us taking turns coming out to the frigid shore to grab someone’s camera and take the obligatory look-at-me-I’m-floating-in-the-Dead-Sea! photograph. When I got out of the water I could feel a strange film of minerals and salt envelope my skin as the water evaporated from my body. Parts of me looked like I had dipped an arm in powdered sugar. I also noticed that none of my mosquito bites itched anymore, apart from a fresh one at the back of my neck, which ached almost unbearably once I exited the sea.
We then showered and ate at the overpriced beach restaurant, eventually climbing back into the minibus for a trip to En Gedi, one of Israel’s best and most popular nature reserves. Well at least that’s what the guide books claim. En Gedi is a rocky patch of desert blessed by a few moderately spectacular waterfalls and even fewer animals. For an entrance fee of three bucks each, we were order by the park rangers to keep quiet, to avoid bother the animals, and to not hurt them, even though the only animals we saw most of the time were flies.
For a half hour we hiked up a thoroughly unsafe path of wet rocks and broken steps. There were two waterfalls on our path. The first looked more like a backdrop from the Jungle Cruise at Disney World, though the rangers there weren’t as fun. The second fall, Shulamit Falls, was much more impressive at a height of well over 100 feet, but the water flow was week so it felt more like an outdoor shower than a miniature Niagara, to say the least. As we left the park, we encountered a family of ibex, which to me made the trek a bit more worthwhile. The male ibex had enormous horns, and the mother was accompanied by around half a dozen fawns. We then left the park, grabbed a coke, and waited for our driver to shuttle us to our next stop, Qumran.
When I was young, I thought it would be wonderful to explore the caves of Qumran, in search of another set of Dead Sea Scrolls, just like the young Bedouin boy did there in the late 1940s. Well, not today. The climb to the caves was a good 500 feet and the park service charged a whopping 15 shekels each just to enter the gate, so our jaded group of exhausted travelers stayed down below, outside of the park. We snapped pictures from a distance while we made fun of the price of the postcards in the shop – two sheks apiece. Yikes.
From Qumran, we entered the heart of the West Bank – Jericho. Jericho had been on my short list of sites to visit ever since we decided to visit the Middle East, but when we got there I was chagrined to find out that Tel Jericho, the 8000 year old city, was now little more than a pile of old rubble. Much more interesting was the modern city of Jericho, the only West Bank town currently under full Palestinian authority. Palestinian flags were everywhere, as were proud, beret-wearing policemen, but overall the city was rather quiet. We stopped for lunch at a rip-off felafel joint, and many in our group seemed convinced that our driver got kickbacks from the owner for dumping us there.
The ‘tour’ also included stop-and-go photo ops of the Monastery of Temptation and St. George’s Monastery, both of which are situated on cliffs in the steep hills above Jericho. It was rather difficult to enjoy this portion of the trip, for only a couple of weeks ago, a bus traversing that same one-lane mountain road fell over the edge, killing everyone on board. When the driver stopped at one location that had a sheer drop, he suggested that we take some pictures, but no one moved an inch, fearing the shift in balance might seal our fate.
Eventually, our bus dragged itself back to Jerusalem and up the Mount of Olives, where we were afforded a fabulous view of the Old City. the tour was now officially over, so we returned to the hotel and dropped off our bags and wet bathing suits. The sun was going to set in a couple of hours, so we took advantage of our last daylight in Jerusalem, wandering the souks of David St and Khan al-Zeit one last time. At the end of the Khan at Damascus Gate, we found a nice cafe with a superb view of the market. I drink mint tea while we talked to an English Jewish journalist who said he was in town doing stories for The Times and Tattler. He was also a medieval historian at Cambridge in the 70s, so we chatted about the Crusades and other barbaric matters.
We were in desperate need of a nap at this point, so we returned to the hotel to write postcards, work on our journals, and most importantly, shower. Susanne’s hair was completely shot by the Dead Sea salts, so she had to condition it for over an hour just to get it untangled. Even my hair required a good 20-minute drenching of Alberto VO5. For dinner, we returned to Yoel Solomon Street and ate at a lovely South American restaurant. We were both feeling terrible at this point, so we absorbed as much soup as we could and then split a wonderful slow-cooked barbecue chicken.
Back to the hotel for some much needed sleep.
November 7, 1995
I woke up again with an annoying assemblance of mosquito bites, including five on the palm of one hand and one on the bottom part of my nose that connects to my upper lip. We had no hot water, so we went down for a breakfast of lukewarm toast, hard boiled eggs and tea, though the marmalade was quite good, as much as I usually dislike the stuff. Our waiter, an Arab Christian, began to rant like a lunatic about how all the Jews and Muslims were to scourge of humanity. If this were any other time of day, I would have enjoyed his foolishness and made the most out of arguing with him, but the tea was weak and I was trying to butter my limp toast, yet he would not go away. We then told him to shut up and get out of our breakfast, so he proceeded to go to the window and talk to himself.
We decided to complain to the management, so we found this one Palestinian man who had lived in Detroit and who had been a lot of fun talking to on previous occasions. Susanne began an excellent speech about how we don’t want to be forced into political discussions at breakfast, or we would leave immediately, etc., etc. But the poor man, looking absolutely confused and sorry for us, finally said, “Why are you telling me this? I said I was from Detroit. I’m just visiting.” Totally embarrassed, I burst out laughing while Susanne tried to cover her remarks by explaining we were convinced he had to work here, since he was always hanging out with the staff. He said he had been staying at the hotel for over two weeks and had become friendly with the management, which was why he was always around when they were working.
Blushed beyond all recognition, we finally found the real manager and complained to him, who promised that the waiter “would never speak” to us again. Now that the man had been orally banished from our presence, it was time for us to check out the Armenian Quarter of the Old City.
The Armenian Quarter’s main street, al-Khattab, extends perpendicularly from the start of David St, near Jaffa Gate. Unfortunately, it was still very early in the morning, and the Quarter was quiet, so we walked through to Zion Gate, the entry point to Mount Zion. A significant portion of Zion has been co-opted by a sephardic synagogue and yeshiva. We entered the yeshiva’s plaza and were soon met by a grey-bearded Jewish man who gleefully directed us to each point of interest, upon my donation of about 10 shekel’s worth of tzedaka in order to help the Yeshiva’s restoration project.
First, we entered King David’s tomb, a large wooden coffin in a small room, draped with numerous prayers and poems in Hebrew. Initially, we chose not to take any pictures there, but when the plaza keeper noticed our hesitation, he turned us around, saying, “It’s King David – you must bring back pictures to America.” Two or three shots later, the man directed us to the room of the last supper, which happened to be on the second floor of the yeshiva. The room itself was almost empty, and thus helped conjure detailed images of the event, from Dali’s bright yellow painting to Mel Brooks as Jesus’ inept waiter in History of the World, Part 1. Flourishings of Arab inscriptions on the wall suggested that the room had served as part of a mosque at some point in its history.
We wrapped up our trip to Zion a climb to the roof for a view of the city, as well as a quick candle lighting ceremony in the Rebbe’s study. We then started the long walk around the wall of the Old City to get to Gethsemane, which sits on a hill due east of the city. To our disappointment, Let’s Go failed to warn us that the outer wall’s street was under repair, and we ended up walking through at least a kilometer of sandstone dust and truck exhaust.
None the better from the experience, we cut to the right to the church that surrounds the garden of Gethsemane. The site was full of buses and Russian pilgrims, all traveling with groups of Orthodox priests. Scatter among them were hawkers of Pepsi, postcards and rosaries. We squeezed our way into the church and found a small garden with gnarled trees. A Palestinian man watered the grass as I noticed how cigarette butts were as plentiful as the tourists. If I were Christian, I think I would have found the experience to be somewhat undignified. Instead, I just found it amusing.
Leading away from the garden and church we found a sign marked Mary’s Grotto, which we took as being the grave of Jesus’ mother, Mary. Compared to other sites in Jerusalem, there was little fanfare or spectacle leading up to the entrance of the grotto, which looked like a white church with a long, dark entrance. As we proceeded into the crypt, our eyes adjusted to the darkness and we saw a sloping passageway lined with columns of huge Eastern Orthodox candles. Russian pilgrims singing hymns packed the area further down into the crypt, and once we reached the bottom, I could see that the entire floor was filled with about 100 people singing to their hearts’ content, holding candles and lining up to enter the small crypt. The whole melange of a dark tomb highlighted by flickering candles and chanting made it seem to me the most appropriately holy Christian site we had visited so far.
From Mary’s tomb we climbed back up to the Old City, entering at New Gate, and walking down the Via Dolorosa for the third time. We cut left on Khan al-Zeit and weaved through the souk until we found a hidden cafe at the Tabasco Hostel. The turkish coffee there was wonderfully charred, the hummus a bit oily, and the pita quite skimpy, but an Aussie backpacker working at the hostel entertained us as he cursed his way through the sampling over several video tapes until he found Mad Max III – Beyond Thunderdome.
Freshly caffeinated, we spent the next hour or so haunting the souks on Khan al-Zeit and David Streets. Susanne was looking for a present for a friend, while I was just looking for anything that was both interesting and not embarrassing in that “souvenir from Jerusalem” kind of way. I ended up buying a nice relief of the Western Wall, which I added to my collection of things I had purchased so far: a turkish coffee pot, a brass tea pot, an oxidized copper menorah, and a two foot sheesha waterpipe, sans tobacco. Finally, we swung by one of the many spice shops so I could buy an ounce of cheap Mediterranean saffron, only three bucks as compared to well over 100 bucks for its more delicate Spanish cousin.
We dropped off our purchases at the hotel and headed out for a walk through the ethnic neighborhoods of West Jerusalem. From Kikar Tziona, the city center, we walked north to Mea She’arim, the world’s last remaining European-style shtetl. It was quite strange being the only man not dressed up like a 19th century Hasid, but at least we were both dressed modestly enough for no one to take notice of us. The neighborhood is made up mostly of Satmar Hasidim, who actively opposed the existence of the State of Israel, using an interesting argument which claims that Jews have no right to govern the land of Israel until the coming of the Messiah. Therefore, they use the current democratic political structure to convince the rest of the nation that they should dissolve their sovereignty. So far, no such luck.
One of the nice things about Mea She’arim is its abundance of cheap, high quality Judaica shops. We stopped in one shop and I was able to bargain down for a beautiful two-foot shofar, the ram’s horn blown on Jewish high holidays, for only $50, about a fourth of the price of what you might pay for a kosher shofar in the States. Granted, I have to admit that this was my most spontaneous and irrational purchase of the trip, but I figured that I’m not in Jerusalem’s only shtetl very often, and it would be nice to pick up a future heirloom for my yet-to-exist progeny.
The weather began to turn cold and ugly as we embarked for Mahaneh Yehuda market and the sephardic neighborhoods that lie due south of it. Mahaneh was packed with locals shoppers searching for everything from fresh bread and dates to used fax machines. Having spent the preceding week in the souks of Cairo and the Old City, Mahaneh Yehuda was somewhat of a cultural disappointment, seeming more like an American flea market than an Israeli shuk.
As for the two sephardic neighborhoods of Zikhronot and Nahla’ot, they were almost deserted due to the impending storm. Both communities are home for Jews from Iran, Yemen, Turkey, and other west Asian nations, and I had hoped to catch a glimpse of their world in Jerusalem. But thanks to mother nature, it would have to wait until another trip.
Susanne and I killed about an hour in a local coffee joint as the rain came down. We tried to plot out our plans for the rest of the trip, but we were both plagued by a cough and an itchy throat- a poor omen for our health situation to come. By 4:30, we decided to grab an early dinner, since our 3am departure time for our Masada trip the next day would definitely demand an early bedtime. We ate at the Yemenite Step, a Yemeni Jewish restaurant that specializes in melawach, a fried dough topped with everything from honey to a baked half chicken. Our dinner of chicken melawach and a pilaf of rice, meat and almonds was delicious, though the melawach itself was uncannily similar in taste, texture and appearance to the Pueblo fry bread I had feasted on in New Mexico early that year.
Then it was off to bed at 9pm. I don’t remember the last time I crashed that early, but I hoped it would be worth it, with the long day by the Dead Sea that was ahead of us.
November 6, 1995
Bright and early, we shlepped our packs to Abdali Station and caught the hour-long ride to Allenby Bridge. We were a bit harsh to the driver at first, since we were so jaded and sick of being scammed by cabbies, but it turned out that he was a sincere driver, charging us a total of only two dinar for the ride. At Allenby, we sat for a while in a fly infested room and eventually got our passports stamped with exit visas. We then sat some more, and eventually boarded at JETT buss that drove us over the actual bridge, which was so small I barely even noticed it. On Israeli soil for the third time in about a week, we went through an enormous scanner and got our passports stamped again. By the time we got through customs, the entire process from the taxi drop-off till then was less than two hours – amazing, for one of the most notorious border crossings in the world, I thought.
Susanne and I caught a sherut (service taxi) to Jerusalem by way of the West Bank. On the whole, the area seemed no more tense than any part of Jordan, for example, apart from the regular cameos of Israeli soldiers, scattered in roadblocks every 20 minutes or so. The sherut eventually dropped us off by Herod’s gate in East Jerusalem, so we decided to try to walk to our hotel, which was situated on the west side of the Old City at Jaffa Gate.
We zigzagged through the Muslim Quarter to the Christian Quarter, engrossed by the tight stone streets and continuous hawking of goods and food. In all honesty, we had no idea where we were going until we realized we had been traveling along the Via Dolorosa, Jesus’ final walk through Jerusalem before being crucified. It seemed rather ironic that we were burdened by our huge backpacks on these streets while not too far behind us, Christian pilgrims were burdening huge wooden crosses as they traced Jesus’ route. The site was almost too fantastic to believe. We exited the Old City at Damascus Gate, not very far from where we had started, and caught a cab to avoid draining ourselves at only 10 in the morning (unlike Jesus, we had the six shekels for a cab ride around town).
Our hotel, the New Imperial, was a rundown beast which was once the haunt of old-world leaders, including Kaiser Wilhelm. It was an eerie and dark place, with vaulted ceilings and ornate moulding on the walls. The reception clerk was even more creepy, in an evil muppet character kind of way.
After grabbing breakfast at the Moses Restaurant, where our wallets were unduly raped by the proprietor, we headed into the heart of the Old City’s souk on David Street. I was surprised at how the streets were completely enclosed, with roofs covering the markets – much of the souk actually felt like it was underground. Every five meters or so on each side was another shop, selling menorahs (seven pronged candelabras, as opposed to the more useful nine pronged Hannukiahs), sheeshas and sundry smoking paraphernalia, and horrendous t-shirts such as “With America on our side, Israel can do anything!” with the obligatory graphic of an F-15, uzi, or something of the like.
At the end of David Street, not too far from the intersection of the Khan al-Zeit souk, there were several heavily armed soldier guarding the entrance to the Dome of the Rock. We had been warned that the Dome plaza was often closed arbitrarily, but I was pleasantly surprised when the soldiers informed us that it was open that day. We climbed through the small entrance and ascended the plaza steps to where the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosques reside.
Over the week and a half that had preceded that moment, I had seen many wondrous things, but nothing caught me off guard as did the Dome of the Rock. From the outside, it is absolutely magnificent, with its gold plated dome and thousands of blue and white tiles. I found it almost impossible to believe that this mosque had stood at this spot for over 1200 years.
After leaving our shoes, bags and cameras outside, we entered the Dome, which was more ornate than any cathedral or synagogue I had ever visited. In the center of the Dome, of course, was the Rock – literally, hundreds of square feet of the tip of Mount Moriah, where Abraham tried to sacrifice Isaac and where Muhammad made his Night Flight to Jerusalem and ascended to heaven. We weren’t able to touch the rock, but standing there right next to it was an incredibly weird moment in its own right. And considering that less than 48 hours earlier, another Isaac (or in Hebrew, Yitzhak), had been successfully sacrificed in the name of Israel, the irony of the moment did not escape us.
Next to the Dome, across the tree- and fountain-lined marble plaza, stands the al-Aqsa Mosque, built in the eighth century. Though not as grand as the Dome from the outside, its interior was splendid, almost Romanesque in design. The Muslim gatekeeper who took our tickets asked us, “Are you carrying any cameras? Guns? Explosives?” I smiled politely and said, “No, not today, shukran.” He smiled back somewhat bittersweetly and put his hand on my back. Though on paper this might sound like a rather ackward moment, but in reality it was quite funny and I was set at ease by the keeper’s making light of the moment.
We now had a fateful decision to make. The funerary procession from the Knesset to Mount Herzl Cemetery, both in West Jerusalem, was about to get underway, and there was just enough time to get to the parade route. But when we arrived in Jerusalem earlier that morning, we had been told that the line to view his casket was over 5km long and that about one million Israelis had already assembled for the procession. Therefore, our chances of getting anywhere near the event was pretty grim. Additionally, at precisely 2pm, at the opening of the funeral itself, there would be a two-minute nationwide moment of silence, marked by air raid sirens around the country. In the end, we decided to be at the Western Wall for that moment. The Wall was very close to where we were at the time, and it seemed like an appropriate way to honor Rabin’s memory.
We arrived at the Western Wall around 1:45pm. I was struck by the rather small crowd that had assembled there. I suppose that most Israelis were either watching the funeral on TV or they were lining the processional route. Susanne and I stood away from the wall in front of the partition that separates praying men from praying women. We stood there until around 3 minutes to 2pm, then we split up and headed for our respective parts of the Wall. I took a paper yarmulke, grabbed a chair which was pressed against the Wall, and sat down. I then ripped out a strip of paper from the back of my Let’s Go and wrote two messages – a memorial for my grandfather from my family, and another in memory of Rabin. I put the note in a crack in the Wall about three feet above the ground. I then stood up, and suddenly, the sirens went off. For the first minute I stood there, blank to the world, with my head down and my palms resting against the cool stones of the Second Temple. I then turned around and saw several hundred people, outside of the partitioned Wall area, all standing with their heads down. The only noticeable dissenter was a lone Hasid standing to the left of me, who continued to chant to himself without pause. The sirens ended, I stood for another minute or so, then I turned around to leave the Wall and meet Susanne beyond the partition.
We deglazed our minds for about 15 minutes and then headed off to begin the Via Dolorosa. The Via is divided into 14 stations, each point marking a specific incident in the New Testament’s retelling of how Jesus walked through Jerusalem before his death. Being Jewish, I wasn’t moved in the same way that Susanne was (she’s Catholic), but I have to admit I was somewhat taken aback by the mental imagery it provoked. Then again, my only exposure to the Via Dolorosa comes from scenes in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, so the entire time I walked along, I pictured a beat-up looking Willem Dafoe moving from station to station, with a satisfied David Bowie as Pilate starting off the whole event.
I was also struck at how one had to travel the Via in order to visit all 14 stations. For example, sometimes you would take a right, walk down 100 yards, see the station, backtrack, and continue on the original path. This confusion only compounded my image of poor Willem Dafoe, cross on his shoulder, wandering lost and not exactly sure as to where to go next. Granting, I can’t exactly claim that Old Jerusalem’s current street patterns match the streets two thousand years ago, which would certainly explain the scattershot connection between the stations.
Finally, we reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the decrepit old church where Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus are now enclosed. The inside was much more impressive than the outside, but still very worn down by tourist-attracting church standards. Inside we took the stairs up to Golgotha, the place at which Jesus was supposedly crucified. The spot was marked by a life-size depiction of Jesus on a cross, surrounded by scores of candles, icons, and prayers in Greek, Aramaic and Latin. Susanne lit a candle and prayed for a moment while I took pictures. Back downstairs, we visited the tomb of Jesus, which now rests in a tiny crypt surrounded by a small chapel, each part bedecked with Orthodox iconography. Inside the crypt with us were some Russian Orthodox pilgrims who were moved by the experience, to put it mildly. Once again, I was fascinated by the sight of it but not really moved in any spiritual sense.
Having completed the Via Dolorosa, we backtracked to the Khan al-Zeit souk, where we picked up some soda and an assortment of baklawa-related pastries. We brought them to a spot in front of our hotel, right beside King David’s Tower at Jaffa gate, and noshed heartily.
As the sun set, we tried to plan the rest of the week, including a decision to take a sunrise trip to Masada on Wednesday. We then shopped in the David Street souk for a while until the shops began to close, when we then picked up a light dinner by the hotel. Around 8pm, we decided to walk over to the King David Hotel in West Jerusalem. Supposedly it has a great bar and we were curious to see if any heads of state were still hanging about, considering that all of the post-funeral summits had taken place at the hotel. As it turned out, to no surprise, some leaders were still staying there, so Israeli Shin Bet security people didn’t even let us get near the place.
We headed north on a rather circuitous route to Yoel Solomon Street, in the heart of West Jerusalem’s city center, Kikar Tziona. It was a compact, thin neighborhood not unlike Brussels’ restaurant district, with many sidewalk cafes and eateries all packed to the brim. We went to a bar called the Rock, a dark little place which was blasting Peter Gabriel’s recent live album. I had a pint of Amstel (which was nice, since only Amstel Light is available in the US) and Susanne had a bloody mary, which I thought was quite good despite my usual abhorrence for both vodka and tomato juice. To top off a rather holy day, we sinfully indulged ourselves in a huge plate of a pineapple-based Neapolitan ice cream sundae. I figured that I had been forced to poke two new holes in my belt in less than 10 days to keep my pants from falling off, so a bit of Epicurean pleasure every now and then wouldn’t kill me this time.