“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” Matt. 23:37
It’s been nearly two months since I set off for the Holy Land, but truth be told, I’m still not quite ready to talk about it. Not because it wasn’t a spectacular trip—it was. Not because I wouldn’t go again in a heartbeat—I would. Not because there aren’t plethoras of beautiful, hilarious, heartwrenching stories I’m aching to record and share—there are. But because, not surprisingly, this is the kind of place that gets under one’s skin and seeps in deep. And because it’s a very broken place, I left pretty broken, too.
Part of my problem was that I set out on this journey practically on a whim. My sweet friends Kali, Jessy and Sam had already dreamed up the itinerary, and invited me along essentially because I was in the neighborhood. The plan was to see the sights for a week, and then do something meaningful for a week—in our case, to volunteer at Tent of Nations, a reconciliation organization/Palestinian olive farm mash-up. I signed up enthusiastically. At the beginning of August I left the lap of luxury I’d been living in in Bodrum, hurriedly unpacked and repacked in İstanbul, and arrived in Tel Aviv with an acute case of culture-shock-whiplash 24 hours later.
Jessy having arrived from Tunis a few weeks prior, she’d already served at Tent of Nations for a while by the time we joined her in Jerusalem. It only took a few of her anecdotes for us to unanimously veto our Palestinian farm plan, and to begin looking around for better options. We decided to see as much of the region as was feasible, and to visit as many organizations dedicated to ending the conflict as we could contact during our two-week stay. We made the spectacular rooftop of our hostel in the Old City’s Christian quarter the base for our operations, and dove right in.
It only took a few hours in the souq for the painful complexity of the place to rankle. How many IDF assault rifles can you count on the Via Dolorosa? Listen as the ultra-orthodox Jews crank up the blaring Zionist music just as the evening call to prayer rings out. Watch out, it’s Shabbat and Ramadan, so be careful what you wear, where you walk, how you eat, how you act. Slip-sliding over slick cobbled pavement, the same stones in place since Roman times, we couldn’t help but think of the multitudes who had walked these streets before us. Jesus. Jesus carried his cross here. How surreal to be swept along in the throng of adherents of the three great Abrahamic faiths, amid the pandemonium of light and color and noise and smell, and think, This city is holy for each of us.
We saw some amazing things. The hot dusty roads that wound up the Mount of Olives and the cool, starry-night stillness of the basilica in the Garden of Gethsemene stay with me. But Jerusalem is a study in contrasts. A quiet visit to the Garden Tomb (where many suppose it is more likely Jesus was buried than at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) includes a vista overlooking Golgotha, where he was crucified–or what you can see of it, anyway, behind the bus terminal built in front of it, the Muslim cemetery on its summit and the massive tilework phrase, There is no god but God and Mohammad is his prophet etched across its face. It didn’t sadden me the way it might have; the complexities of the city served to prove to me that it is a living, breathing, pulsating creature, and I had crossed its path at a moment of metamorphosis.
I wasn’t on a pilgrimage. I knew too much and cared too deeply about the region’s sociopolitical history for a truly contemplative journey to be thinkable. But I couldn’t call myself an activist, either; even in meetings with pro-Palestinian resistance fighters, I couldn’t set aside the sacred long enough to pursue the purely political. The in-your-face injustices were too real and too violent to leave room for God; yet without crying out to him their weight would have crushed me. What I saw bewildered me. How could a city feel so holy and at once so God-forsaken?
I didn’t feel safe there. It was surprising and unsettling to feel such sharp discomfort walking the sprawling streets and winding alleys, which were in many ways much like those of the chaotic megalopolis I call home. Many of the people were aggressive, physical, offensive. As a woman and a foreigner I was perpetually on my guard. More than once our day’s activities were cut short in favor of beating a retreat to the safety of the hostel, where leering looks and groping hands had trouble following. We were blessed to have Jessy, who had lived in Jerusalem the year before and had made good contacts; she speaks a little Arabic, to boot. We were lucky to befriend two wonderful guys at our hostel and to coerce them into traveling with us for a few days–being Dutch, they were tall and formidable-looking, and with them in tow we glibly ventured into territory we could not have braved on our own. (So wonderful were they, in fact, that I schlepped them home to İstanbul with me, where they continued to treat me with the utmost care and to make sure everyone else did, too.) Nevertheless, there was never a moment when I was utterly at ease.
But we knew that, really, going in. That it wouldn’t be easy, that we couldn’t be carefree. We congratulated ourselves on what perfect travel companions we were for each other, agreed as we were that the best travel is the kind that opens minds and softens hearts. Jerusalem will linger with me not because I had a blast and got a gorgeous tan (I did, though, do you see? Do you see my gorgeous tan?!) but because I learned faces and names, prayed with people, shared meals with people, listened to stories of heartache and provision, and carried those things home with me.
And, despite my philosophizing, it really was a wonderful trip. I slept under the stars every night and woke every morning to the chiming of cathedral bells. I learned the meaning of truly great falafel and hummus. I had good coffee and good conversation. I swam in the Mediterranean and danced like a madwoman in the old market of Mahane Yehuda. I learned a lot, a lot, a lot.
And though this is all the processing I’ll do for now, you haven’t heard the end of it by any means. Don’t even get me STARTED about Palestine.