Friday, October 24, 2008

Pilgrim Watching

Last week I tagged along with the Kleins on a visit to Bethlethem/בית לחם, where Jen and Daniel had eached worked in the past. Jen still has adopted family there.

I found myself to be very much in "observer" mode during the whole trip; just a bit removed emotionally from the various highly evocative scenes I was passing through. First was the getting there.

While Alan and I had definitely been over the Green Line before in our travels together, all the checkpoints we had passed through had been relatively low-key, at least for two Jews driving a car with Israeli plates. An American might have easily mistaken the most casual for sobriety checks (albeit with a very well-armed staff) and the most formal for toll booths (also with well-armed staff). We were usually waved through without even being asked to stop. When we were stopped, the soldier usually wished us "Good travels" or something equally friendly. We were never asked to identify ourselves in any way.

The "terminal" at Check Point 300 (as the cab drivers call it at least) on the road to Bethlehem is another matter entirely. The separation barrier here is very much a wall and the fortress-looking terminal is built into it. We presented our passports at booths much like security/passport/customs checks at the airport and then exited through a somewhat confusing set of hallways and revolving gates. Busloads of Christian tourists/pilgrims were also passing back and forth between Jerusalem and the West Bank. Jen said that some Palestinians reported receiving better treatment at the terminal than they used to at this checkpoint because the soldiers felt more secure and comfortable. I wondered what behavioral intentions had gone into the terminal's design and couldn't help but be reminded of the work of Temple Grandin on designing slaughterhouses to have a comforting effect on the animals.

And then we exited into another world. One of the brothers from Jen's adopted family picked us up in his taxi and took us to Manger Square. Our first stop was the Church of the Nativity. The original church was built by Emperor Constantine I in the 4th Century with his mother, St. Helena, serving as something of a general contractor. There were large groups of Christians speaking at least a dozen languages. They listened intently to tour guides, waited patiently in long lines for a personal glimpse of the silver star said to mark the very spot of Jesus' birth. We wandered here and there among them, past them. I don't recall any situation in which I have felt more like a fly on a wall. We did have one moment of excitement when Daniel inadvertently set off a small "incident" with a guard of some kind by wearing his baseball cap. Whose holy places require you to cover your head and whose require you to uncover your head??? It's all very hard to keep track of!

I was impressed with this tour guides enthusiasm as he explained that the 4th century mosaic was still visible beneath newer wooden floorboards:

I felt both emotionally moved and somewhat alienated by watching other people have spiritually moving moments. The overall effect of this combination of feelings was a sweet but distant wistfulness.

Here are pilgrims leaning in to touch or kiss or at least get a snapshot of the spot of Jesus's birth:

We wandered down into the grottoes and could hear a group of Americans who had gathered in a small room to pray and sing. Their voices echoed hauntingly off the stones walls of the grotto.

When we walked back up and then out into the courtyard, their songs floated up through gratings creating a sense of endlessness.

Then it was on to the shuk where we wandered a bit and ate falafel, noting the differences between Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli varieties. Here, they smoosh the falafel balls in the pita which makes for a much more compact, less messy snack. I wanted to stop and take a closer look at the posters of "martyrs" plastered on many of the walls, but didn't feel comfortable doing so.

Here are some obligatory shuk pictures
of hanging meat. Note the lovely sprigs of fresh herbs hung with the carcasses. In one picture you may also note that the animal's tale has been left with a tuft of hair on it. Don't know why.

From there we walked down hill to the neighboring village of Beit Sahour where Jen's adopted mom had cooked up a simple but delicious feast. Micah was definitely the star, being passed from sibling to sibling to sibling.

We ended our visit in The Tent, a large restaurant where, if one were inclined, one might drink beers, smoke nargilla, eat french fries, relax, or do all of the above. It was a lovely evening with warm and welcoming company and the place had a feeling of respite.

And then it was back to the checkpoint. The terminal itself was largely closed for the night so we walked in on the road. The young woman soldier checking our passports was ready to just let us all through but then suddenly looked at me and said, "Bromberg. You're Jewish?" I didn't lie. I wasn't sure what kind of trouble we were about to get into, but I felt very nervous. She smiled but said firmly "Jews can't go to Bethlehem." We tried to clarify what she meant by this. Had we violated some unknown regulation? No, she meant that we shouldn't go there because it wasn't safe. I definitely felt safer after she let us go. Thankfully, on this trip, the checkpoint was the scariest part of the experience.

It was only on returning home that I was looking at the news on line and found that maybe we hadn't really picked the best day to visit....turns out the IDF was raiding Tekoa, a nearby Palestinian village, after one of its residents stabbed an Israeli police officer and an 86-year-old passer-by in Gilo, a neighborhood in southern Jerusalem which Israel thinks of as part of Jerusalem and the Palestinians (and some other countries too) think of as an illegal settlement. The 86-year-old man died of his wounds.

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