We’re having an amazing trip, and a very active one. We’re in Jerusalem, where we will stay until Tuesday morning and then we’re off to Tel Aviv. We’ve been doing walking tours of the Old City almost every day, and we’ve been to the Israel Museum and Yad Vashem as well. (I’ve never walked so much in my life – at least 5 or 6 hours a day.) Last night we had the pleasure of having (a fabulous) Shabbat dinner with an Israeli family, relatives of Jack’s whom he’d never met before. They live outside the city, so we had the opportunity to see a bit of the countryside around Jerusalem and some spectacular views of the valleys towards Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean.
Today is our second Shabbat in the holy city, and for once we’re both taking it easy. Jack is “reading” up in our room (I suspect “reading” = “having a schloff (snooze)”) and I’m in the library of our hotel, having moved indoors when it started raining on the outdoor cafe.
YMCA Three Arches Hotel
We’re staying at the YMCA Three Arches hotel, which is an historical landmark in an older neighbourhood of West Jerusalem. It seems to be a common stop for tour groups, who come to gawk at the gorgeous architecture. The building was built in the 30s and was designed by the architect who designed the Empire State building, with a tower that you can see from miles around.
Our room faces the King David Hotel across the street, but if you look really, really heard, you can see the towers of the Old City.
The King David Hotel from our hotel room
The hotel restaurant is one of the best in the city and we can see why. The meals are fabulous and reasonably priced. Buffet breakfasts are included in our room fees, and we’ve been taking full advantage. Every morning there are 3 different kinds of coffee and about 25 different teas, as well as breads and/or croissants, fruitcake, eggs, at least 3 or 4 different kinds of yogurt, fruit, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, Israeli salad, and cheeses, and sometimes a green salad, and other variations on the above. This is really good for me, a habitual breakfast-skipper when I’m at home. Here, we always go back for seconds.
I’ve fallen in love with this beautiful city, with its olive and cedar trees and its hedges – HEDGES – of rosemary and lavender. The city is in full flower now at the beginning of May, and just being here is very moving. This is rather fanciful but the city seems to have a personality all its own, separate from its inhabitants and visitors. When we first arrived, it felt like we were driving around and around in circles, as indeed we were, since the roads into the city circle the mountain. The effect is that you don’t get to meet the city all at once. The approach to the heart of the city must be done gradually, and it is only when you get to the heart that you can see its full glory. We have discovered why it is called Jerusalem of Gold: that is the colour it becomes when the light is right at sunset. The stones themselves seem alive, constantly changing colour and appearance with every tiny change in the light, as clouds pass over and as the sun moves across the sky over the course of the day. Our host at last night’s dinner explained why this happens. The stones are not flat. They’re either left rough or they’re rough hewn – you can see the stone-cutter’s chisel marks on many of the building-stones. This means each facet of each stone on a building catches the light in a different way, like a diamond. And of course, those stones have so very many stories to tell.
I’m slowly getting used to all the hills and steps. I’m hardly even complaining anymore! The walk from our hotel to the Old City goes down a long hill and then up 3 flights of steps to get to the Jaffa Gate, the main gate into the Old City from West Jerusalem. Then once you get into the Old City you go downhill again through a maze of shops, historic sites, and residential neighbourhoods. The first time we went down into the narrow, crowded streets of the Old City shuk (bazaar/ marketplace), I thought we’d never find our way out again. Now I can do it without a map, having realized that no matter where you are, to get back to the Jaffa Gate, you just have to keep climbing!
We’ve been spending most of our time in the Old City, using a fantastic series of walking tours provided for free by the Tourist Information Centre. (Tourists are very well looked after here.) There are at least 10 different tours of three to five hours each, some of which focus on a specific quarter of the city and others on a particular theme. They’re absolutely brilliant – the routes are well laid out, the maps and directions are easy to follow, and the commentary informative. We’ve really enjoyed the four we’ve done so far, and we hope to do a few more before we leave the city on Tuesday. Part of one of the tours is the Citadel of David museum, which tells the story of the city and the temple. The day we visited the museum, we also went to a phenomenal sound & light show on the history of Jerusalem.
Cistern at the end of the tunnel
The other night we went on a tour of the tunnels under the Western Wall, which have only recently been excavated. Another absolutely amazing sight! The Wall we see is only about a fifth of the full height of the actual wall – the rest of it was buried when the Dome of the Mount was built. In order to get get horses, water, and supplies into the Temple Mount, they raised the ground level when they built the Muslim Quarter. The tunnel that has now been excavated runs several hundred meters along the wall under the current Muslim Quarter. Truly amazing. You can see the different layers: Solomon’s original wall, the Herodian addition, and the Muslims’ additions on top of that. It’s a marvel of engineering. The tunnel also passes through and around several cisterns that supplied the Temple Mount with water, one of which still has water in it to this day.
Another highlight of our trip so far is that we were here for Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror) and Yom Haatzmaout (Independence Day). On the eve of Yom Hazikaron, we attended a ceremony at the Kotel (Western Wall) that was very emotional and moving, even though we didn’t understand a word of it. Just being in the crowd and sensing the emotion was powerful in itself. So many soldiers, both in the ceremony and standing guard. SOOO young it’s heartbreaking. There was an amazing chazzan (cantor) who ended the service with a prayer I didn’t recognize, but his voice just grabbed me in the kishkes, so very soulful and mournful, ringing with the pain of all the losses. Then he led the singing of Hatikva, which was amazing. Everyone was singing and crying at the same time. Yom Haatzmaout follows immediately the next evening. We were just heading back to the hotel after the sound & light show when the fireworks and celebrating started. There was a huge street party near here that went on till at least 2:00 a.m. and that we could hear as clearly as if we were actually there!
Yesterday we visited the City of David – the original Jerusalem of King David, which is actually outside the walls of the existing Old City. It’s truly awe-inspiring to see the fairly recent excavations that are REALLY REALLY old – as in nearly 3,000 years old – with portions of houses still standing. The marvel of engineering in the City of David is Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a water tunnel dug by King Hezekiah in the 701 BCE to bring a water supply into the city in times of siege, which was dug by crews starting at opposite ends of its 533-meter length, and when they met in the middle the levels of the two tunnels were only a few centimetres apart.
We’ve also had a chance to visit with Jack’s family here in Jerusalem. We spent a little time with his aunt Shoshana at her home near here, in a place with an amazing view of the whole city, and last night we were invited to her daughter’s place out in the suburbs for Shabbat dinner. We were made to feel very welcome by her daughter and son-in-law, 3 of their 4 children, and a cousin from Toronto who is here for the March of the Living. They served us a fabulous, huge meal, after which we sang some Shabbat songs interspersed with conversation, all of which left us feeling warm and loved. It’s clearly a very loving family and it was a beautiful experience to be so warmly welcomed by them all.
I can’t leave you without telling you about the soldiers. Debi had told us there would be lots and lots of soldiers with guns in Jerusalem. At first it was strange, but now it is strange how quickly we’ve gotten used to the sight of soldiers everywhere we go, with and without guns – at the museums in large tour groups, in pairs and trios on security duty, in groups of 5-10 or so at random places like the outdoor mall, and singly, just walking down the street with machine guns slung over their shoulders as casually as a backpack. I never thought I could be in the presence of so many soldiers with guns without being afraid, but I’m not. These soldiers are not menacing in any way. They are our children, and every single one of them I’ve seen so far looks like what I’d call a “good kid”. Most of them are 18 to 21 years old, and their faces are open and friendly, and in an odd way, innocent, which I would not have expected, considering what they’ve been through by the time they’re issued a weapon.
Our day yesterday included LOTS of soldiers and police with guns. We were on our way to the City of David National Park when we came upon dozens of heavily armed riot police in full gear – tear gas, helmets, bulletproof vests, the whole nine yards. We wondered what was up, but everything else seemed completely normal so we went on our way. Jack figured maybe they were stepping up security at the Temple Mount with a show of force, it being Friday, and the imams have been known to fire up the congregation. However, it turns out that there actually was a riot at the Temple Mount and another in Silwan, the Palestinian part of the city just to the south of the old city, which is close to where we ended our tour of the City of David.
And that brings me to today, a quiet Shabbat in the holy city, which is increasingly feeling like home.