Friday, January 2, 2009

Don’t Fear the Reaper

OLD CITY OF JERUSALEM, Israel - In the dark of a cold January night in Jerusalem’s Old City, I found myself at the tomb of Christ, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre tonight. I walked there alone on desolate cobblestone paths.
There were no lines or competing services as I made my way to the dangling, sterling lamps – scores of them – and at the small marble tomb. I was able to briefly kneel and pray alone, in quiet. This never happens for pilgrims, but the old city had been on lockdown before the first Friday of prayer for Muslims following Israeli bombings of Gaza. 
Otherwise, the city seemed still and divided, and I didn’t see many Christians at all.
I started my walk near the Mount of Olives, and passed the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus spent his last hours with his disciples. I then made my way through the imposing stone Lion’s Gate into the Arab Quarter. The area was desolate. I couldn’t help but realize that I was privileged to be there: how many of my Jewish friends wouldn’t or couldn’t do that walk, alone at night – especially on a tense day like today?
Only a few young men walking with commitment to their destination were on the polished cobblestone streets lined with closed tourist souks.
The gate road turned into Via Dolorosa, and somehow and ended up at the security checkpoint for the Western Wall as swarms of Hasidim in massive hats whooshed by. By essentially coming in the back door to it, I avoided the dense lines at the Dung Gate. There were young Israeli soldiers everywhere, boys and girls, with rifles casually slung on their shoulders, over their baggy coats and cargo pants. No men under the age of 50 were allowed to enter the old city today – especially to the mosque at prayer time – but there were busloads of Birthright Israel kids at the Wall. And groups of Orthodox and Hasidic men, on their side, were dancing and singing and jumping at the wall. When I left, walking backwards from the Wall in respect, I stopped into the first café I could. They had those mahmool date cookies I love. After I asked for directions to the Holy Sepulchre, the cashier seemed relieved to have me as a customer in his empty shop and gave me the cookie as a gift.
Imagine that thousands of people pass his café-restaurant, just beyond the plaza where people worship at the wall, and his shop was empty today.
I bought packaged hummus, toursi and pita with zatar at a grocery, and took a cab to the hotel from the Damascus Gate where about a dozen Israeli army guards lingered, eating mandarin oranges.

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