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 completely alone on desolate cobblestone paths. I found it by accident, walked in after a small negotiation partly in Greek, and there were no lines, competing guards or services. It was a coup, a miracle – I started to cry – truly the experience was “awesome.” There are dangling, sterling lamps overhead – scores of them – and at the small marble tomb, I was able to briefly kneel totally alone and pray. In quiet. Can you imagine? This never, ever happens for Christian pilgrims. But because of the tense security situation today, the first Friday of prayer for Muslims since the Israeli bombings of Gaza began, Jerusalem’s Old City was in lockdown. Right as I walked out, an Italian tour of 50 was trying to get into the Sepulchre church.
That was the exception to a city otherwise still and divided between Arab and Jew moreso than usual, by all counts. I didn’t see many Christians at all. At dusk, I walked from the Mount of Olives, through the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus spent his last hours with his disciples and made my way through the imposing stone Lion’s Gate into the Arab Quarter. The area was desolate and the first thing I saw in Jerusalem. 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? And how many women just plain wouldn’t take that walk? Only a few young men walking with commitment to their destination were around me. The polished cobblestone streets were mostly empty, the tourist souks and shops mostly closed, the food stands – and I am only imagining this because of what I didn’t see. I was headed for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the gate road turned into Via Dolorosa, but I took a left 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 Dung Gate lines that were about really, really dense. 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, and 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. Arab vs. Jew. 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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