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Jordan

One of Liz’s goals was to visit Petra. Petra requires going to Jordan. Before we left, I read some guy’s blog about how to cross the border as an independent traveler. “Hey,” I thought, “We’re independent travelers. We could see Petra on the cheap.”

Instead, I reluctantly booked a tour through Abraham Tours, which included the Jordanian cities of Jerash and Amman and only six hours at Petra.

Turns out the tour knew best. We were fascinated by the other cities and six hours was exactly the amount we needed in Petra.

Also, I’m pretty sure I’d still be blubbering at the Jordan River Crossing if we’d attempted it ourselves.

The Jordanians posted this little sign to gently guide their visitors through the process of entering their country. Just follow these two simple steps and you’re on your way to a pleasant stay!

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This sign is full of lies.

Here is how we REALLY got into Jordan.

  1. A guy got on our bus. He didn’t do anything, just got a visual of the contents. Made sure the bus was full of tourists and not rabid badgers.
  1. Entered Israeli side and stood in line to pay 106 shekel border fee. The huffy lady gave us a little receipt which we took to another line where an equally huffy lady gave it a firm stamp.
  1. Got back on the bus. Before it went anywhere, another lady came on to check that everyone had their receipts and they were, indeed, stamped.
  1. Drove half a block to the Jordan side. Everyone and luggage got off the bus which scooted back to Israel. Our Jordanian guide, Rami, met us there.
  1. Gave our passports to Rami—while he took them to get barcode stickers, we went to the currency exchange (no ATMs anywhere) and exchanged shekels for 40 dinar.
  2. Gave dinar to Rami who returned our passports. Took luggage and entered a building crammed with people. We were told there was an Enrique Ingleses concert that night! Turned out it was big Arab festival in Jerash—Enrique may or may not have been playing.
  1. Rami bypassed the line—must have had a friend at the desk—handed over our cash, then called us up to present our passports for a stamp.
  2. Ran our bags through the scanner, ran ourselves through the scanner and scurried off to our new bus with a new driver.
  1. The very last checkpoint, a Jordanian police officer got on the bus and inspected our passports with the shiny new stamp.

And—hello, Jordan!

Was it worth the trouble?

Where else could you hear an Amazing Grace/Yankee Doodle medley played on bagpipes by Jordanians in a Roman amphitheater?

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You can’t make this stuff up.

There were 15 of us on our tour. I know there were 15 because we were constantly counting each other to figure out who was holding up the bus.

“I think one of the Dutch is in the bathroom.”

“The German wasn’t feeling well, so she’s down by the gift shop.”

“Where did the Portuguese go?” (They were usually the culprits.)

After two days, we still referred to each other by our country of origin: Five Americans, two Dutch, two Portuguese, two Swiss (one of Turkish descent which earned him extra questioning on the way back to Israel), a German journalist, a Chinese intern, a Brazilian lawyer, and a Canadian biologist (who was living in Portugal, but didn’t care much for it, which she didn’t mention to the Portuguese).

Rami, our bus driver, and a Jordan Tourist Policeman rounded out our merry party. We asked why the policeman was with us if Jordan was as safe as Rami insisted emphatically, multiple times, that it was. Rami shrugged. “He’s looking for a wife!”

The policeman grinned. A less-intimidating fellow I have rarely laid eyes on. He was tall and slight and couldn’t have been more than 24. He didn’t speak English, but smiled happily the whole time he was with us.

“I hope he has a gun somewhere,” I whispered to Liz, “Otherwise I don’t think he’s going to be much help.”

He did. He also stood guard, at a polite distance, when the girls got off the bus to use the bathroom, or when Liz withdrew money from a gas station ATM.

“Even though Jordan is safe, there are people who would like it to not be,” said Rami. “He comes along so…no one is bothered.”

They had a very vested interest in making sure we had a good time in Jordan. Rami told us tourism in his country is only 1% of what it used to be.*

If something happened to us, the 1% would be zero.

When I got home, I Googled “Is Jordan safe?” out of curiosity. (This probably would have been a good Google before going to Jordan, but…) It doesn’t have a travel advisory, but, among other things, the U.S. Department of State warns that, “Celebratory gunfire is common, especially during major festivals, sporting events, or the biannual release of high school test scores.”

Good thing we were there during summer break!

“We are suffering, the whole region is suffering,” said Rami. “In the news, it’s always, ‘The conflict in the Middle East, the war in the Middle East’ so tourists don’t come. Everyone thinks the whole area is dangerous. But we have borders. Tell your friends, ‘Come to Jordan!’”

He motioned to the beautiful hotels in Wadi Musa, the town just outside Petra. “Most of these are empty,” he said.

Our meals were gorgeous buffets, long tables groaning under silver warmers of carefully prepared food, in restaurants that could easily seat a hundred. We were the only tour group.
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It gave the impression of a region that had just perfected its tourism, only to run out of tourists.

The evening of our first day, the bus was quiet after a long, hot day of exploring the Roman ruins of Jerash (the ancient amphitheaters were outfitted with speakers and stages for the music festival that night) and Amman. Our driver turned down a gravel road and we were lulled by the clattering wheels. We drove for a long time in pitch darkness, up and down hills, deeper into the desert. Finally, the driver made his last turn and descended into the valley, Suddenly, the mountainside in front of us glowed with tiny lanterns. The orbs of light climbed high up the slope and we blinked, wondering if we were imagining things.

“What is it?” we asked.

Rami smiled proudly, “It is for you!”

We’d arrived at the Bedouin camp.** The camp itself was in the valley, but they had strung lights across the mountainsides and covered them with bags. The effect was quite magical.

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“It is so romantic,” said the Swiss.

We stayed that night in little huts in the desert and the next morning we piled into the bus and clattered over the gravel roads to Petra.

Our entrance fee was 50 JD (about $70). “For the Jordanians–guess how much they pay?” asked Rami. “One dinar is all! We want them to come!”

Petra is a city carved out of rock by the Nabataeans, a tribe of nomads with a penchant for facades. It dates to about 300 BC. The city is deep in the desert and the entrance is a high narrow canyon called the Siq. It was abandoned in about 550 AD and mostly lost to record except by the locals who drove their goats beneath the shadows of its towering tombs. For that is what most of the facades are: tombs.

The city was rediscovered in 1812 by a Swiss explorer who had heard rumors of the place and told his Arab guide that he wanted to sacrifice a goat to Aaron—whose tomb is nearby.

Since then it’s been excavated, starred in many movies, become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and joined the new Seven Wonders list.

We wound through the Siq, past the camels for rent and their persistent owners, stared in awe at the Treasury and then began the hike up to the Monastery, a facade three times as big as the Treasury, but less intricate. It’s exposed on the side of a mountain and much of its details have been eroded.

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The best view in Jordan

Our hike was punctuated by the persistent entreaties of Bedouin men (and higher up, in the less desirable locations, women) selling everything from necklaces made from camel bones to dusty plaster magnets.

“Hello! Ladies! My name is Sarah! Remember me on your way back. Good prices. One dinar only! No customers in three days!”

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This was a much fancier spread than the ones up the mountain.

 

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We thought it was a bit racist that his name is John. Not…Ahmed or something. Way to go, John.

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Rami told us that school is compulsory for boys and girls in Jordan. But it’s a difficult policy to enforce.

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Rami also told us the government buys houses for the Bedouin people, but they’ll use the house for storage and pitch their tents in front to live.

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One car garage

We returned Israel by the Allenby Bridge crossing, which deposited us into Palestine. Due to some regrettable miscommunication, Liz and I got separated from the rest of the group, and took a shared taxi and tram back to our hostel in Jerusalem. We were rather proud of our independent public transportation skills, and were smugly checking in when the rest of our tour group barreled through the doors of the hostel.

We had assumed they’d gone on without us. But no. They’d waited patiently for the Americans in the parking lot at the border crossing. And left only because another member of our group had to catch a plane.

The bonds of experiencing Jordan run deep.
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*I know this is not a very helpful statistic. One percent of how many? How long ago was it at 100%? I don’t know. That’s all I wrote down in my journal, so I present it to you with the purpose of underscoring that tourism is basically nil.

**This was a Bedouin camp for tourists. The bathrooms were nicer than our hostels and I’m pretty sure our hosts dressed in Bedouin garb solely for our benefit.

 

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Of Galilee and the Golan Heights

The Galilee–where most of Jesus’ ministry took place–is the region around the Sea of Galilee. It’s a lake, really, not a sea. But when there’s a Dead Sea, Red Sea, and a Mediterranean Sea—you can’t leave out the little feller.

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Hills around the Sea of Galilee. They are beautiful. No wonder Jesus climbed them when he wanted to be near God.

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We were so thankful for our air-conditioned car. Galilee was, if possible, hotter than Jerusalem. We scoffed when a mother and daughter at our Jerusalem hostel warned us of the heat. “How could it be?” we thought. We were going north, towards water, it must be cooler!

Wrong. We experienced “the exact sensations one would attribute to a beefsteak on a gridiron.” That is, being cooked.^

But everywhere were fully clothed (and clearly insane) couples with strollers, groups of teenagers, families out for leisurely strolls. The only, only reason anyone should have been outside is if they were submerged to their neck in the Sea of Galilee.

We navigated the region the old-fashioned way: a sorry excuse for a map (1 cm : 3.65 km, compliments of Hertz), asking directions (a truck driver at a gas station in Afula graciously led us out of that labyrinth of a city) and road signs (thankfully in Hebrew, Arabic, and English).

We used our phones only thrice, very briefly, and were rather proud of that. (We fiercely guarded our data, in case we needed it to extract ourselves from a wrong turn into Syria.)

Our first stop was Megiddo—Armageddon in the Bible.^^

It’s a raised plateau surrounded by farmland and a major highway. People have lived around Megiddo since the Canaanite period, so it’s an archaeologist’s paradise.

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The poor archeologists in Jerusalem have to hunker down on the outskirts of the city waiting for a disaster, so they can scurry in like historically minded moles and burrow into layers of time. “The Jordanians destroyed the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in 1967,” our city tour guide told us cheerfully, “This allowed for many excavation projects that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible! I mean, you can’t dig up people’s houses.”

The guide at the City of David rubbed his hands gleefully as he told about a water main bursting which led to the discovery of this Roman pool!

At Megiddo, they dug freely, stripping the mound to the Assyrian stratum in several places. We walked through the 70 meter-long water way constructed during the time of the Israelite kings so water could be brought into the city without exiting the walls. Unlike Hezekiah’s Tunnel just outside the Old City in Jerusalem, this tunnel did not require sloshing through shin-deep water.

It did, however, require sloshing through a tour busload of sweet Sri Lankan ladies who were working as caregivers in Tel Aviv. They’d organized a weekend getaway and were delighted to photograph places from the Bible with a zeal that would put any Japanese tour group to shame. We visited with two of them and before their bus motored off, they kissed our cheeks and declared, “We will meet you again! In Heaven!”

The lady at the Megiddo jewelry shop peered around us into the parking lot, “Just you two? No bus?” she asked twice. Independent travels have become a rarity in Israel. Locals blame the media’s fear-mongering for the slow in tourism. Those who do come are mostly the massive tour bus variety.

“We retired here and opened our home as a B&B for people like you—who rent a car and come to the Sea,” said Ethel and Irwin, our hosts in Korazim, a tiny town overlooking the water. “Now our business is practically dead.”

Irwin’s parents fled Germany and settled in the U.S. when he was a child—they were fortunate enough to have escaped the Holocaust, though members of his extended family did not. He and Ethel emigrated to Israel in the 1960s with a wave of Zionists. He was a journalist in Jerusalem and she was a social worker. They retired to Galilee and began what was once a thriving bed and breakfast.

We were their only guests, if you don’t count their daughter’s dogs, so we had their luscious garden to ourselves. The land is naturally a barren desert, so their garden was super impressive. Much of Galilee and the Golan Heights has been painstakingly irrigated and cultivated and is now rich farmland.

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Ethel and Irwin’s garden—olive, pomegranate, mango, lime, grapefruit, and hibiscus trees!

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We drove to Mt. Tabor, a possible location of the Transfiguration. We followed a carload of blue-clad nuns up the narrow, switchback road and were deeply thankful we didn’t meet any cars, filled with nuns or otherwise, coming from the opposite direction. Our other stops included the Church of the Multiplication (sure to fill any third grader with dread), Capernaum, the Mount of Beatitudes, and a museum that holds a 2000-year-old fishing boat pulled from the shores of the lake—very much like the one the disciples would have used.

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Capernaum, the town where Jesus lived as an adult.

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The Jesus Boat

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Haha…”Please take verse figuratively.”

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We also dipped in the Sea of Galilee (warm), rubber rafted down the Jordan River, toured the Golan Heights winery, and stayed at another bed and breakfast with the unbelievable luxury of a swimming pool (also warm).

But my absolute favorite part of our time in Galilee was imagining Jesus and his disciples there. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh—God’s representation of himself to us. So the way Jesus lived his life and his personality perfectly reflect what God wants us to understand about himself. Jesus could have been some secluded, introverted mystic tucked away in a cave. He could have delivered solemn and unintelligible messages via emissaries. He could have holed up in some fortress like a prince and had all the luxuries of life delivered to him.

But he didn’t! He was full of life and joy! He was always going from one gathering to the next, exploring the whole region. In almost every story he’s climbing a mountain, sailing across the lake, up on another mountain, at supper at a friend’s house. He loved people and nature and adventure!

We did a fair amount of exploring in the Galilee and Jesus and his disciples had to have been the outdoorsy type. The lake is surrounded by decent-sized hills, and marks of Jesus’ ministry are scattered all over them. Six times in Matthew and eight in the other gospels, Jesus is up on a mountain or coming down from one!

And they hiked everywhere. No zippy little Chevy for them.

We had an extra day in our itinerary, so we spent it in the Golan Heights.

And almost going to Syria.

In Nazareth, the guy at the gift shop whose friend owned the BBQ place gave us a list of places to visit in the north. He ended with, “And you can drive up Mt. Bental and see the crazy Syrians.”

Ethel and Irwin suggested this destination, as did Gefan at the other B&B. Since we’d opted for full coverage on the Chevy, we decided to go.

Mt. Bental is right on the Syrian/Israeli border. You can see the ruins of a Syrian town that had been destroyed in an earlier war, and sometimes people on the overlook see smoke and explosions from the farther cities. 😦 We didn’t see or hear anything, but it was a sobering vista anyway.

Forty Jewish Americans on their birthright tour explored the bunkers and two unarmed U.N. soldiers hung out next to huge binoculars. “They disappear if any trouble starts,” said Irwin later, “Literally. They’ve got underground bunkers. It’s a pretty cushy job.”

I struck up a conversation with one of the birthright girls, a recent college graduate from New Orleans. “You’re from North Dakota?” she said incredulously, “I’ve never met anyone from North Dakota. Are you Jewish? I’ve never heard of any Jews in North Dakota.”**

I smiled and remembered a conversation we had with Gefan, our host at the swimming pool B&B. Liz had been diligently smiling at nearly every person we met on the street and was disheartened at their lack of response. “We are not smiley people,” said Gefan, “But we are happy on the inside. You–in America–you are lonely. You go home and watch TV by yourselves. But me, if I meet a Jew anywhere in the world, we are instant friends. We will talk and laugh and we’re family.”

It made me think of a few years ago when some Gallup poll listed North Dakota as the happiest state. For a week, I grinned like a maniac at every driver on my commute to work. At the end of the week, I thought, “Gosh, they sure don’t look very happy.”

So, who knows, maybe North Dakota is full of Jews! 🙂

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Not a UN soldier.

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Syria begins right beyond the green strip. Wounded are sometimes brought to the border and the Israeli border patrol takes them to hospitals in the nearby Israeli towns.

^This apt line comes from King Solomon’s Mines.

^^“Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is Armageddon.” Revelation 16:16

*Any Jewish American can visit Israel on what’s called a birthright tour—an all expense paid visit to their motherland.

**We were a first for several people. At the Shabbat dinner, we met Naomi, a Jew of Middle Eastern descent who had been born and raised in Jerusalem. During our political discussion, she said to us, “You are the only American conservatives I’ve ever met.”

She glanced at our hosts who had just expressed their support of Obama, and said, “My impression of Obama is that he hates us. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I feel like he hates Israel.”

I can see where she would think that. When he sends $1.3 billion to a country that writes “Israel must be wiped out” on their missiles, it makes you wonder.

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Which contains an unwarranted scolding

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”^

Maybe Nathanael meant it rhetorically, but I agree with Philip. “Come and see!” Out of Nazareth came a fabulous hostel breakfast, our zippy little rental car*, my favorite souvenir of the trip, lots of stories, and…Jesus!

During our trip, we stayed all but three nights in Abraham Hostels. They’ve got affordable hostels in Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Tel Aviv.**

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Affordable–but full of Red Bull thieves. Poor Gustav.

Since we stayed in multiple hostels, we could hop on the free shuttle that ran daily between the three locations. The shuttle from Jerusalem to Nazareth deposited us and our luggage right at the hostel for bonus convenience!

Nazareth seemed like a good hometown–narrow, winding streets and friendly, but not overbearing, shopkeepers

I was on the fence about the platter I wanted, but instead of offering to lower the price when I said I’d think about it and come back, the shop owner shrugged and said, “As you please.” Signs posted prominently declared that the prices were fixed. We got that feeling many places we shopped in Israel: “You can buy my stuff. Or not. I’m not going to beg.”

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The only super persistent vendor we encountered was at the Yehuda market in Jerusalem. “Girls, put down those cups and hold out your hands!” (Dumps dried fruit into our palms.) “Quick, eat it! You mix with hot water and it’s amazing. Try this kind. Where are you from? America? You are beautiful. I’m not just saying that because you’re buying my tea. Why are American women so beautiful? So sensitive!”

We snorted and bought the tea.

It was good tea. Don’t judge. I’m sensitive.

In Nazareth, we covered the main sights in half a day. We moseyed through the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation, where Mary was told she’d be the mother of the Christ.

Across town, we poked our heads into the Greek Orthodox Annunciation Church, where Mary heard the news as a good Orthodox. “The real spot is probably here,” said a shopkeeper and jabbed at a point on our map halfway between the churches. “It’s my friend’s barbecue place. You like barbecue?”^^

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Exterior of the Basilica of the Annunciation

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The walls were covered in huge pieces of mother/child art from around the world–like this piece donated from Japan.

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This was the one from the USA. Liz was less than impressed.

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And we wandered through the Arab market so many times, we felt like the retired mall walkers at Kirkwood.

We also popped into the International Mary of Nazareth Center. It’s an event center/chapel/theater/garden/museum/a bunch of other stuff run by a French mission. We were greeted by the tiniest Japanese woman who had the cutest French accent. “She is adorable,” hissed Liz. “I love her!”

She radioed Clara, another volunteer, to set up the theaters so we could watch two of the four multimedia presentations about Jesus’ birth, ministry, and resurrection. While we waited in the gift shop, another tourist wandered in. “Where are you from?” inquired the tiny woman. “China,” said the girl.

“Oh!” our adorable friend clapped her hands in delight. “I am from Tokyo!”
The girl stared at her blankly. “Huh?”
“In Japan!” she offered cheerfully.
Still nothing.

Liz had to go into the garden before she choked with laughter.

After the multimedia shows, which featured great sound effects, dramatic lighting, and lots of references to Old Testament prophesies about Jesus, I asked Clara if many Jews came to see these movies.

She said yes, Jews and Muslims both visited their center. “Do some Jews accept Jesus as the Christ?” I asked.

“Yes, some,” she said. “But it is hard to know how many. It means turning away from their family and their culture. So they do not tell anyone.”

Gradually, we pieced together Nazareth’s story from chatty shopkeepers and the members of a church where we went for Bible study.

At one time, in the not too distant past, Nazareth was 70% Arab Christians. (One guy told us 60%, another 80%–so I averaged.) Now it’s more like 35% Christian. Why were they leaving, we wondered. It’s not a case of genocide, as in Syria and Iraq. Where were they going? It matched what our guide in Bethlehem told us: that West Bank city used to be 65% Christian, and now it’s 19%.

“The Jews hate us. The Muslims hate use. They push us out,” said Mr. Abu-Sinni, proprietor of the once-renowned Kol-Bo—a shop in the old market of Nazareth. “They won’t buy from us, they won’t marry us. If a Muslim loves a Christian, there will be war with the families.”

“Where do they go?” I asked.

“America…or Canada,” he said. “My daughter moved to Houston. I’m going to see her at Christmas.”

“Are you Christian?” he asked us. When we said we were, he asked, “Christian Christian? Or just Christians in name? You go to church? You read the Bible?”

He was 82 and retired from the Jerusalem Post. He said he was the only Arab journalist on staff at the time. “When I was young, I traveled all over the world. I would get up close to the people and talk about their lives—their politics. When I got home, I would speak to hundreds of people about these countries. Now you will go home and people will ask you about Israel, and you will say, ‘The hotels were nice.’”

I laughed because we were probably the nosiest tourists in Israel. We asked so many questions our guides pretended to be engrossed in their smart phones to avoid eye contact and another round of questions!

Mr. Abu-Sinni

Mr. Abu-Sinni

“Please pray for us,” said the precious pastor, as we lingered on the church steps after Wednesday night Bible study. “It is very hard for the people here. It is hard to be a Christian here.”

He reiterated what Mr. Abu-Sinni said–Christians were leaving at alarming rates–pushed out by hostile neighbors.

But I was still puzzled. If a community is majority Christian, it can’t be bankrupted by a quarter of the population boycotting its businesses.

Unless they didn’t support each other.

In our search for a church to visit on Wednesday, we discovered two churches meeting in adjacent buildings–one split from the other a few years ago. If the same denomination couldn’t raise a united banner, it was difficult to imagine the other churches in Nazareth doing so.

“If the Christians don’t get along, how can they share the message about Jesus?” we asked Mr. Abu-Sinni.

“Yes,” he nodded thoughtfully, “You are saying words from my own heart.”

And from Jesus’ heart. I thought how well he knew us when he prayed for future believers: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17) He knew discord would trip us up.

“You are not alone in Nazareth now,” the pastor told us, “Now you have a family here! If you need anything at all, call us.” I pray that those bonds of love will unite every believer in Nazareth and all of Israel. That the truth and good news of Jesus would be lifted much higher than any differences.

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:3-4

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^John 1:46

*When our cab driver deposited us at the Hertz in Nazareth Illit, he raised his eyebrows skeptically, “You rent car? You drive?”

“You bet!” We waved and sped off in our little Chevy.

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And promptly turned around because we couldn’t figure out what was making that dinging sound. (It was the parking brake.)

THEN we were off!

**A bed in a six-person dorm was about $20.

^^BBQ turned out to be code for SSP (Something Stuffed in a Pita)

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Pomegranates!

 

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

In which we hike, dunk, and float

“Have you ever been questioned for five hours?! It’s a human rights violation!”

Our bus driver, Yair, listened calmly as the last passenger he collected complained vehemently about his encounter with Israeli security at the airport. We were leaving Jerusalem on a combination Masada, En Gedi, and Dead Sea tour.

“Five hours—just because of my name! It’s racial profiling!” railed the young man from Morocco.

I sat a few rows back wondering if this kid actually knew what a human rights violation was. Or if he knew why the Israeli security was so tight.

If he thought the four Israelis who were shot and killed by a Palestinian at a Tel Aviv cafe just a month earlier were human rights violations.

What about the countless lives saved on the Jerusalem light rail a week earlier because the same Israeli security who questioned him at the airport stopped a Palestinian man from boarding the train with a bag full of pipe bombs. Were those people’s lives worth five hours of his time?

“Well…” said Yair, “We say…if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…it might be a duck. So we have to check it out.”*

Yair went on to explain that he had, actually, been detained by airport security (in England, of all places!) for more than five hours and was nearly sent back home. “But if they don’t question me—if they don’t search my bags, I am upset. I think, ‘These people are not doing their jobs!’”.

I shared Yair’s sentiment. On our flight out of Tel Aviv, my carry-on was selected to be hand checked. I waited in one line, then another. Security opened my backpack and ran a wand through all the pockets to detect traces of explosives. Three Irish businessmen on my flight were behind me and complained at the long wait and inconvenience. An American (also on my flight) rolled his eyes in my direction. “What a process.”

“Well…,” I said, “if it was up to me, they could hand-inspect everyone’s bags on this flight. I’d rather wait in line than not make it to Charles de Gaulle.”

The inspectors were polite and everyone in my line made their flights with time to spare.

I appreciated the security. About an hour before our New York to Tel Aviv flight landed, the pilot announced, “When we enter Israeli air space, their law requires passengers return to their seats until landing.” The flight attendants propped open the lavatory doors and you couldn’t so much as adjust your seat belt without a Delta representative hollering across the cabin, “Sir, SIR, you MUST remain in your seat, or we’ll have to turn this plane around.”**

But our Moroccan was mollified not at all by Yair’s tales of commiseration. In fact, he seemed to insinuate that extensive security questioning was the cause of attacks against Israel (because it made people angry) rather than the effect.

Mercifully, about 4:30 am, (this was a sunrise Masada tour) Yair pulled into the parking lot of a respectable mountain (only the most respectable have parking lots) and we turned our attention to climbing said mountain before the sun rose and it became too hot to ride an escalator, let alone scale a mountain.

Masada is a plateau which Herod covered with palaces, water systems, and defenses in the first century before Christ. But the fortress is best known as the Jews’ last stand against the Romans.

In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and crushed a Jewish rebellion. The last rebels, about 960 men, women, and children, fled to this mountain—Herod’s palaces long deserted–and prepared for a siege. The cliffs were 1,400 feet high, but over the course of a year, the Romans built a massive earthen ramp—a steep road straight up the mountain.

When the Romans finally breached the walls, there was a deathly silence. The rebels—all but three–had killed one another rather than be enslaved by their enemies.

Liz and I started up in the dark at a good clip, passing groups left and right. We were sure we’d have the mountaintop sunrise all to ourselves. After an hour of strenuous, sweaty (even in the dark!) climbing, we burst through the wall. We were not met with silence. There were hundreds of people already up there!

Eighty kids in matching t-shirts, soldiers in training, Orthodox Jews having services, and a handful of tourists taking sunrise selfies had beat us. We appreciated the sunrise, and  trotted back down—appreciating the sunrise less with every step. We were soaked by the time we got to the van.

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Maybe they spent the night.

Maybe they spent the night.

Intense cell phone training. Probably on how to safely play Pokemon Go on a mountain.

Intense cell phone training. Probably on how to safely play Pokemon Go on a mountain.

 

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Then it was back to politics. I overheard the Moroccan bellyaching to another bloke on our tour about Israel and its human-rights-violating airport security.

“Oh, yeah, man. I totally agree with you. It’s rubbish,” he said. I wondered why they hadn’t chosen to begin their middle eastern tour in, say, Iran, or if they could explain why Joe Vacationer relaxes by the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv instead of Syria.

En route to the next stop, En Gedi, the Moroccan and the girl sitting next to him continued to pester Yair with leading questions: “How long has your family been in this country?” “Is Israel going to invade Gaza again?”

He answered politely, though they clearly weren’t interested in anything he said. At one point, he said, “Look, the Palestinians had a chance to sign for their country at the same time as we did. And they didn’t. Because they wanted it all.”

Palestinian leaders have had the opportunity to agree to negotiations that would have given them their own state. Not just in 1948, but also more recently. I know some would argue that the terms were not favorable enough, etc. etc., but I think Yair was right. They want it all. They want Israel gone.

Rick Steves is fond of saying, “In this region, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

But when leaders reject multiple offers of what they claim to want, and still call for and perpetuate violence against Israeli civilians, they’re not freedom fighters. They’re terrorists.

And who can blame a nation for not negotiating with terrorists?^

“I have Arab friends—friends from Jericho. We work together a long time,” said Yair. “We love each other. We want peace.” He pointed to cars in the parking lot—Israeli and Palestinian license plates side by side. “And that is what they call apartheid,” he said.

It’s easy to see the Palestinians’ frustration. I’m hopeful that the majority of them want peace and stability. But there’s always a segment of people who benefit from chaos and terror. If the majority—those who want peace—could somehow overshadow the culture of violence, there might be hope. But electing a terrorist organization as a government seems highly counterproductive.

“Don’t you think the problem is the Israeli settlements in the West Bank?” asked the Moroccan’s friend.

“Some say, ‘Stop building settlements, then the violence will end!’ But when the settlements stop, negotiations stop.” Yair answered, “The Palestinians worry about losing their territory. So they negotiate. There was violence before the settlements, there will be if we remove them.” “What is the solution?” he mused. “If a very courageous leader from Israel, and a very courageous leader from Palestine were determined to make peace, they might do it.”

“But they would have to be prepared to be killed. Because that’s what happens to all leaders who try to negotiate. Assassinated.”

When we reached En Gedi, it was a welcome relief, an oasis of springs in the Judean Desert. We hiked a short way into the nature reserve and aimed for the first waterfall we saw. After the heat of Masada and tense tour bus politics, the cool water was magnificent.

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The park was nearly deserted and the rest of our group quickly bypassed our waterfall for bigger ones, higher up. We dunked our heads and soaked our blistered feet. David hid from Saul in En Gedi, and surely he must have remembered it when he wrote Psalm 107:  “He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs.”

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Ibex chillin’

Animals like En Gedi! Here we have a hare.

Animals like En Gedi! Here we have a hare.

Our last stop was the Dead Sea—the lowest point on Earth with a salt concentration so high it’s impossible to drown. We bounced on top of the water like beach balls. Two men sat like statues on a bench–black from the mud—slowly baking in the sun.

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Muddy men chillin’

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It was truly a Dead Sea—in a body of water that size, you might expect some docks, cabins, boat traffic. But there was nothing.

The Dead Sea is gradually evaporating—there’s a plan in place and an agreement between Israel and Jordan to stop it, but scientists are scared to start. It’s such a unique ecosystem, no one knows what will happen if they start messing with it.

So for now, we tried to do our part by not splashing any water out of the sea (haha) and returning all the mud to its original location.

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I’d know more about Masada, except we used the very informative pamphlet to stage this photo and it got all wet.

 


*A friend who lives in Turkey told me her friend (an American) recently visited Israel from Turkey. She was…wait for it…also questioned at the airport for five hours. (The delay so incensed her that she abandoned her sightseeing plans and joined Hamas. No. She answered all their questions, and went on to have a rather pleasant stay.)

**This happened. Nothing like Delta to make you feel like family. Specifically like a ten-year-old kid on a road trip with your parents.

^The idea that terrorism is not a legitimate means to an end seems difficult for some people, like these Portland university students. Ummm…scary…

I asked our Shabbat hosts, recent immigrants from America, about their political views  when they lived in the U.S. “Definitely liberal,” they said.
“Has that changed since you’ve moved to Israel?” I asked.
“Oh, no. Not at all.”
I asked if they were concerned that the left in American is moving away from supporting Israel.
“Well, we don’t think it’s necessarily the U.S. President’s job to be the biggest supporter of Israel. I mean, he doesn’t control the budget, so we think Obama has been really good for Israel. The budget comes from Congress, which is Republican, so Israel is still getting the support it needs from America.”
Liz and I looked at each other. It was like we were in an Ami Horowitz film.

 
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Posted by on August 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

In which we Shabbat

My earliest non-Biblical connection with Jerusalem was the Wailing Wall. I heard this phrase as a child, and had no idea what it was (or why it wailed) but it sounded mysteriously important.

Now I know it’s the people who wail, not the wall. Jews pray at this wall because it’s the last remnant—the western retaining wall–of their Temple complex that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The cracks in the wall are stuffed with tiny bits of rolled paper—prayers for the peace and restoration of Jerusalem.

What is on the Temple Mount now is a mosque and the gold-plated Dome of the Rock. The Temple Mount is under Muslim jurisdiction. The wooden walkway snaking above the women's section of the Western Wall is the only entrance for non-Muslims into the Temple Mount area.

What is on the Temple Mount now is a Al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold-plated Dome of the Rock. The wooden walkway you see above the right section of the Western Wall is the only entrance for non-Muslims into the Temple Mount area.

The Jews are not allowed to enter the area where the Temple stood because no one knows exactly where it used to stand, therefore, no one knows where the off-limits Holy of Holies was.

Jews are not allowed to enter the Temple Mount because no one can know exactly where the Temple stood, therefore, no one knows where the off-limits Holy of Holies was.

The Western Wall is at the far end of a large square. At each entrance to the square a bored-looking security guard runs you and your bag through a scanner. While in line, we eavesdropped on the conversation unfolding between a chic 20-something behind us and the hefty, kerchief-clad woman behind her.

It was soon revealed that the young lady, visiting from New York, had gotten engaged while in Israel.

“Engaged!!” clapped Kerchief. “What is his name?”

She replied and was quickly corrected, “No, his Hebrew name!” With nary a pause, Kerchief followed up with, “And when will you get married?”

“We think next summer.”

“Why wait so long?? Can I give you some advice? It’s not good to wait so long!
…but don’t pressure him!”

We approached the wall and the atmosphere changed. The stones of the wall are massive, some of the biggest in Jerusalem, and only a third of the height of the original wall is visible. Another third is underground and the top section has been destroyed.

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We entered on the women’s side—as in a synagogue, the places of prayer are separate. A handful of women hunched over prayer books and slowly rocked on the plastic lawn chairs in the shade of the suspended wooden walkway leading to the Mount itself. Many more stood pressed against the wall praying quietly.

I saw a gap and slipped up to squeeze the paper I’d brought into an open crack. A teenager bowed her head next to me, her forehead resting on the cool stone. Her hands were clasped reverently in front of her. I was so impressed by her devotion that I prayed extra silently to not disturb her. Then I looked closer.

She was texting.

Sigh.

The worshipers never turn their back to the Wall. When they leave they walk backwards. That's what this little guy is doing.

The worshipers never turn their backs to the Wall. When they leave they walk backwards. That’s what this little guy is doing. The lady with the blue bag: tourist.

The men’s side was an Orthodox fashion show. Practicing Jewish women dress modestly, but modernly, and those who are married cover their hair. But the men! The stricter the sect, the more remarkable the garb. Ultra-Orthodox men wear long black coats with tassels hanging past the hem and black top hats. They don’t cut the sides of their hair so it dangles below their ears in two impressive curls. Some men wear small wooden prayer boxes attached to their foreheads and arms.* Less austere groups wear a kippa—the small hat that covers the crown of their heads.

The first question (of many!) Liz asked in Holy Land was, “How do they keep those little hats from falling off?”

Fortunately, we were about to have all our questions answered!

We’d signed up to participate in Shabbat of a Lifetime. Visitors are invited into homes to celebrate the Friday night Shabbat meal with a Jewish family. The hosts share the meaning of each blessing and tradition and graciously answer any questions their guests might have.

Shabbat (or Sabbath) begins sundown on Friday ends Saturday at sundown. Honoring Shabbat is a huge part of Jewish law. God’s most well-known instructions about Shabbat are right in the Ten Commandments:

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

In Jerusalem, public transportation stops Friday night, Jewish owned businesses are closed, and in some Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, they block the streets so vehicles won’t disturb their rest. Shabbat is woven into the fabric of Jerusalem.

We waited in front of a (closed) Super SOS market until our host—a guy from Cleveland (!!)–met us. Ben had come to Israel seven years earlier as a secular teenager on a birthright tour and fell in love with the country. He became a citizen, served in the army, and began practicing Judaism. His wife, Jenna, had an almost identical story.

Joining us were two 13-year-old boys, Tyler and Max, and their families from the States who were in Israel for the boys’ bar mitzvahs. The two families were accompanied by a harried private guide who had spent the day facilitating their tour of Jerusalem.

The boys had their bar mitzvahs at Masada. Maybe in the ruins of this synagogue.

The boys had their bar mitzvahs at Masada. Maybe in the ruins of this synagogue.

Jenna and Ben were very knowledgeable (For instance, the men use hairclips, or, if they don’t have hair, sometimes tape.) and dinner^ was delectable.

“Humanity continually creates or destroys,” Ben explained, “For six days we are human DOings. Shabbat is the opportunity to be human BEings.”

He believed that the resiliency of Judaism pointed back to Shabbat. Throughout the Diaspora** Jews continued to come together each week to reflect and rest. “This creates strong community,” Jenna said. “No matter how tired you are or your feelings toward a family member, you have to lay it aside and participate in something bigger than yourself.”

We sat across from one set of Tyler’s grandparents who explained that to prepare for his bar mitzvah, Tyler’s other grandpa taught him to read the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) in Hebrew—no small feat for a kid who doesn’t actually know Hebrew.

The other grandpa was so proud of his Herculean efforts that he piped up: “It was so fulfilling to see how pleased the Rabbi was with Tyler’s reading during the ceremony. The Rabbis go in there not knowing what the boys are capable of, but anything he asked, Tyler could do! For instance, when Max couldn’t read all his parts, Tyler stepped up and could help him.”

Silence.

Then, from Max’s parents, “Excuse me?! Max was completely prepared for the ceremony. I don’t know where this is coming from. There was no problem at all with what Max could do!”

It went downhill from there. Our host tactfully intervened with dessert, because it’s difficult to exchange blows over chocolate cake.

Max’s mother scowled, arms crossed stiffly, for the remainder of the meal and Tyler’s grandpa, having been roundly scolded by his wife, glared into his cake.

Ah, Shalom!

——————

I just read through this and chuckled at all the silly people we met! The nosy, the irreverent, the puffed up, the defensive. And then I thought, “I am all those things!”

Aren’t we all!

I’m so thankful for God’s patience! With all our ridiculous pettiness God still thought it was worthwhile to create an elaborate system for us to commune with him. And when that didn’t work, he didn’t give up.

He made a new way for us to know him. He sent us a Savior. A Savior to cover our imperfections– we clearly can’t take care of them on our own–and make us right before God!

Truly, “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made!” (Psalm 145:8-9)

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*These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.” Deuteronomy 6:6-9

^Our meal plan up to that point was to gorge ourselves on the free hostel breakfast and then have SSP [Something Stuffed in a Pita] around 4:30 pm.

 **The Diaspora is the scattering of Jews to countries outside Israel after the Babylonian captivity (around 600 BC).

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

In which we inspect the tomb and find them both empty!

“It’s not a dry heat,” Liz said as we stepped out of Ben-Gurion Airport’s air conditioned arrivals terminal. A blast of muggy hotness smothered my reply.

While we’d planned our end-of-July Middle Eastern getaway, we’d warily watched the forecast and warded off nay-sayers with the mantra: “But it’ll be a dry heat.”

This was false.

The next two weeks my armpits gushed sweat even as I stood completely still. Each shirt I had carefully rolled into a space-saving burrito was rendered unwearable by the stench at the end of the day.

But I wore them again anyway, because that’s all I had.

“Drink lots of water. Here it is very hot,” our cab driver in Nazareth cautioned. “Tourists don’t drink enough and they get sick.”

He eyed us in the rearview mirror. “Even if you don’t feel it. Drink the water.”

We nodded obediently. My mom had followed us to Israel in the guise of an Arab cab driver!

So while I want YOU to visit Israel, I’d also encourage you not to go at the peak of summer.

Israel was…complicated. Every story we heard, every place we visited had more layers than the Pioneer Woman’s bean dip.

Politics, religion, culture, history, border security, the wall, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Arabs, 587 BC, 70 AD, 1948, 1967, Moses, David, Jesus, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, Arab Christians. It made my head spin!

But I feel compelled to share about our visit to Israel and Jordan. Maybe it will whet your spirit to experience this country yourself. We’re here to tell you it’s possible–even without the company of a massive tour group!

In Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

There it is. This one was built by the Crusaders in the 12th century and has been repaired and added on to many times, but there's been a church on this spot since 326 AD.

There it is. This one was mostly built by the Crusaders in the 12th century and has been repaired many times, but there’s been a church here since 326 AD.

Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, visited the Holy Land in AD 326 to find, and plop a church over, all major Christian sites in Israel. It seemed to me her findings were a bit too conveniently located to be completely accurate (For instance, this church contains the hole where the cross stood, and only a few hundred feet away, the empty tomb!), but I’m no archeologist.

This is the Stone of Unction. Where Jesus' body was laid to wash and prepare it for burial.

This is the Stone of Unction. Where Jesus’ body was laid to wash and prepare it for burial.

I wasn’t too crazy about all the churches. I wanted the places from the Bible to be pristine panoramas of solitude and reflection. Not full of icons and candles and tourists whose cell phones went off in Jesus’ tomb. (That happened. And she answered it!)

But gradually I understood that when Jesus traveled Jerusalem, he wasn’t surrounded by a holy, meditative bubble. His time there was noisy, crowded, hot, jammed with people and animals. He probably would have said, “Go ahead–take the call, it’s fine.” The Jerusalem we experienced was spot on. Jesus didn’t come to transport us to some Rembrant landscape. He showed us, by example, how to live in the real world–messy as it is.

St. Helena—we eventually made our peace, too. Her churches preserved places that would have been lost in a land of people who weren’t concerned with following Jesus’ footsteps.

For instance, Liz and I were super excited when our guide in Bethlehem said our tour included an overlook of the Shepherd’s Fields–where the Multitude of Heavenly Hosts showed up with good tidings of great joy for all men!

We were less amazed when he waved his arm over a sprawling subdivision in a valley–“There it is–the Shepherd’s Fields!”

The shepherds put up in the Ararat Hotel when the weather was bad.

The shepherds put up in the Ararat Hotel when the weather was bad.

Maybe that’s what would have happened if Helena hadn’t been Johnny on the Spot with her cathedral construction. Despite my opinion on the churches, it would be infinitely less inspiring to read a plaque next to a shopping mall that said, “Historians believe that the Rock of Agony, where Jesus prayed on the night of his betayal, was located in the dressing rooms of this H&M.”

So yeah. Thanks, H!

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shared by the Roman Catholics and Greek, Syrian, Armenian, and Coptic Orthodox. Any renovation projects have to be approved by all five denominations. You can imagine–the place needs a little TLC. Our city guide waved at a ladder under a window. “That ladder has been there over 250 years. No one can agree to move it.”

See the ladder under the right window?

Under the right window. See it?

This chapel is Greek Orthodox

This chapel is Greek Orthodox

Right next door is the Roman Catholic chapel. They have different tastes in decorating...

Right next door is the Roman Catholic chapel. They have different tastes in decorating…

In fact, the key to the church is held by a Muslim family, because none of the groups trusted the others with it. “You can come back here at 9 o’clock tonight, and watch, with 300 other people, as a man comes out of that house with the key, like someone from his family has for centuries, and locks the door,” said our guide.

He shrugged. “Or, you can come at five in the morning and watch all by yourself. Because no one is crazy enough to get up that early to watch someone unlock a door.”

Later that week, we followed our trusty city map to the Garden Tomb. In East Jerusalem, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, is an alternate location of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In 1883, a British chap was on his balcony overlooking the city, munching a scone, and suddenly, “What ho! That cliff there looks like a skull!”*

He corralled some archeologists who probed the area and identified tombs from that period, a wine press, and a main road along which the Romans would have crucified criminals. (The crucifictions were not high on a hill–the Romans wanted people to see the punishment, read the charges**, and be thoroughly deterred from a life of crime.) The place where the cross may have stood is at the foot of this cliff, which is still a major transportation hub!

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It’s a bus station!

Since the Catholics and Orthodox had already staked out Helena’s sepulcher, this location was left to the Protestants. Now the area around the tomb is a peaceful garden maintained by Messianic Jews and Christian volunteers from abroad.

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The Garden Tomb matched my idea of the resurrection scene with Mary and the Gardener^ so much better than a gloomy church.

But what delighted me most is that our tour guide, a retired Belgian, opened with, “We are not in competition with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The tomb could have been there. It could have been here. It could be someplace completely different. What matters is the tomb is empty! Amen?”

Amen!

He carried on to persuasively proclaim the gospel with the greatest visual aids any teacher could ask for.

We absolutely loved that the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection had a such a passionate witness in the heart of the city he longs to “gather together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”

Obviously, there have been a few repairs, but the small wall in the front dates to the time of the tomb, which formed a track for a stone to be rolled in front of the entry. The layout inside also matches the description in Mark 16 of the angel sitting on the right side when the women entered the tomb.

Obviously, there have been a few repairs, but the small wall in the front dates to the time of the tomb, which formed a track for a stone to be rolled in front of the entry. The layout inside also matches the description in Mark 16 of the angel sitting on the right side when the women entered the tomb.

There's a sign on the door that reads, "He is risen!"

There’s a sign on the door that reads, “He is risen!”

 

* “They came to a place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull.)” Matthew 27:33

**Above his head they placed the written charge against him: ‘This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.'” Matthew 27:37

^”Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.'” John 20:15-16

“At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid.” John 19:41

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Which contains a small, but notable, win

I uncovered this gem whilst flipping through my students’ Work on Writing journals. IMG_2191

If this were my first year of teaching, this entry would have thrown me into a panic. Bored? No! I would have flown to my lesson plan book and scribbled and erased. I’d have scoured the deepest crevices of my brain for tips on student engagement. “Did my anticipatory set fall flat?” “Were my questions too low on Bloom’s Taxonomy?” “Was my data driving my instruction?!”

But ten years into this gig, I got excited. This paragraph was probably the little fellow’s first experience using writing as an outlet for strong emotion. He did not run around the classroom during Work on Writing time screaming, “I’m booooooard!!”

Nope, he channeled his feelings into an authentic piece of writing. Complete with charming illustration.

He’ll probably grow up to be a moody poet.

Another success story!

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2016 in Uncategorized