Jerusalem Journal: First Impressions, Falafel, and Faith

[This was intended to be the first of the series of entries in my Jerusalem Journal–observations and opinions arising from an eight-day trip my husband Jonathan and I took to Israel in mid-October so he could attend the annual conference of the International Association for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology.  Somehow, I never published it and only recently discovered the draft and published it for public view on January 15, 2015. Jonathan and I had some adventures together, and as you will learn if you read other entries, I had some of my own, in Jerusalem and in other parts of Israel and the West Bank.]

Our first full day in Jerusalem was a wonder of delights and moving moments.

How can one go to the Western Wall and not be moved? It is impossible not to feel the millions, nay billions or even trillions, of prayers that blanket the space in hope and fear and love and even anger of course. The power is palpable.

I felt great joy in noticing that even in separation there are more women praying than men. When will the men realize that we have so much to learn from women? At least, as a friend said, now the women are allowed to pray at the wall!

And who knew that people actually live in the Old City? I did not. It is not only an antiquity, but a living, breathing community. There are children playing after school, and cars in a parking lot, and people hanging out their laundry and making supper. And of course, the merchants–many of them Arab I think–selling everything from electronics to religious objects (for all three Abrahamic religions) to art and scarves and dried fruit and spices.

Be prepared….if you pause to look at something, the merchant will seek to engage you in conversation and draw you into his store. They are persistent and occasionally you have to be almost rude to break away. But there is sometimes a friendly repartee between passerby and merchant. At other times, the men–they are all men–seem sad and hurt when you keep going. One stuck out his hand as if to shake Jonathan’s hand and then tried physically to pull Jonathan into his store. But that is not typical.

And we went on a free two-hour tour (meaning you pay the guide what you want at the end).  We had intended to go on a longer, more expensive tour but we were so exhausted from 24 hours of travel that we overslept.

So we found Jaffa Gate, and looking like tourists–because we are–we were accosted by a tall, handsome man with a big sign–FREE TOUR–and he told us it would leave in less than an hour. We told him we were hungry and he said, “I will take you to the best place in the Old City, not far, and then you come on our tour!”

What do you do? We did not know which place to eat. There is no Panera or Chipotle (although I have seen McDonald’s in places), and besides, we want falafel, the Middle Eastern staple of chick peas ground up and made into balls that are are deep fried. We both really like it.

So, we follow the man and are introduced to the host who greets us as if we are long lost friends–after all, we are now friends of his friend, who brings him business– and seats us with a great flourish and takes our order.

And we eat falafel–it may be the best I have ever eaten, much lighter and more flavorful than what I usually find in the U.S. [Note: Jonathan went back to the same place for lunch on Friday, while I was on a tour out of the city, and as it happens, he sat with the “tour man,” who is Jewish, and they talked about the Middle East.]

“Tour Man” returns and leads us to meet our guide, a shorter, less charismatic man who has some trouble with English but who nonetheless knows much and shares freely. We are a small group of 10–various Europeans and U.S. people. We visit more of the market area, and the four Quarters–Armenian, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian. In the latter, we visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (he never could pronounce it correctly).  Along the way, we receive an extended history lesson involving each quarter.

What really impressed me about the guide was his even-handedness. He told the story of each religion in terms of the Old City–for example, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre he straightforwardly told the story of Jesus being crucified and buried and rising–including the belief that the latter two events happened where the church was erected centuries later.  He demonstrated that practice with each.

After the tour, we went back to the Western Wall–the Wailing Wall it is sometimes called–to pray. As I noted above, the area is divided by gender. I wanted to go with the women, but it would have created a great scandal, and I am sure much trouble, probably including forcible eviction (there are soldiers even here, and visitors have to go through a security check to get in), so we went with the men.  I touched the wall and prayed as best I could–it was not easy because there was a man very loudly saying an endless prayer, or perhaps reading from the Torah. He did not seem to take even the smallest breath and every word came out sounding angry.

Despite him, I found it moving to be there. At the same time, it is so different from going into a church or synagogue to pray, and it was not easy to stay connected to a spiritual feeling, despite the holiness of the place.

So, we went in search of a good place to buy some dried fruit. If you can’t pray, you can at least eat! Jonathan had noticed beautiful figs and had tried to buy a few. But each merchant wanted to sell him a big bag. So he scouted many places before he found one who sold a small quantity of figs, as well as apricots (for me) and even kiwi. I am not a big fan of kiwi, but these dried kiwi were exquisite.

On our way back, we saw a bench and decided to rest briefly–it is a steady, if gradual, upward grade back from the Wall to the Jaffa Gate, and we were still dealing with travel fatigue. There was a woman taking pictures, and we spoke. Her name is Elizabeth and it turned out that she is a psychoanalyst from Chicago, attending the same conference as Jonathan (and staying in a room on the same floor as ours at the conference hotel), and they have a mutual friend.

She led us to a wonderful vegetarian restaurant later that evening (local friends of hers had taken her there for lunch).  It was great fun getting to know each other and sharing dishes.

We walked back to the hotel, and fell into bed, exhausted.

Thus ended our first day in Jerusalem.

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