Day 3 – Old Jerusalem

So I’ll admit it, my plan was ambitious, and ultimately an overreach. The trip itinerary was jammed packed, and the only way to get enough sleep was to not socialize. If you decide to socialize, which I did, there was zero time to maintain a blog. However now, up at three in the morning while attempting to adjust to the time change, I’ve got the time to relive our travels and set them down here.

The third day was my first getting a full night’s sleep, so full I slept through my alarm and almost missed breakfast. Luckily I was able to throw on some clothes and get ready without missing much. Soon after breakfast we filed onto the bus for one of our shortest trips. We closed the blinds of the bus as we left the hotel parking lot and Dvora and Arielle, our group leaders, handed out our official Taglit shirts. Under orders we fashioned these as blindfolds, to varying degrees of success, so we could have a proper first look at the city.

Before long the bus stopped and we slowly walked out. I was towards the front of the bus and so was one of the first to be lead out by one of the group leaders, or possibly Ido, I couldn’t tell. Then I was left alone, which I have to the admit is a very isolating experience. After a few minutes, and plenty of shuffling, we grasped hands with the two people on either side of us and walked to where we would see the city for the first time. We ended up leaning against a low wall, but still without any ideas about where we were. Finally Shimi told us to take off the blindfolds and greet the city.

Group overlooking Jerusalem

As much as trying to walk blind was frustrating and getting all of us in the right spot took time, I wouldn’t have wanted to see the city for the first time any other way. Below us the city of Jerusalem spread across several hills. Towards the center of our view, and immediately catching my eye, was the golden dome of the Temple Mount After taking in the view for a few minutes Shimi explained that we were standing on the very spot where when the Jews were last exiled from the city they stood and swore to return. It was in that moment when I really appreciated the way we approached site. Like a microcosm of the trip we started out alone, then came together, taking comfort from one another’s touch, and finally experienced the wonder of Jerusalem as a connected group.

Zion Gate

After spending several minutes appreciating the wonder of the city we reboarded the bus and headed to the gates of the old city. I could not keep my eyes off of the city as we approached, the magic held me captive. We got off the bus and went into the city through the Zion Gate. It was such a juxtaposition when a car came through the gate, barely making the turn, as I was trying to get a picture. The walls around the Zion Gate were pockmarked with bullet holes from the fighting in the War of 68. Even hundreds of years after they were built the walls of Old Jerusalem still see blood spilt on them.

Random Balcony

Walking through the old city was an experience in over-stimulation. Every few paces an alley or courtyard opened up, all in the standard pinkish limestone. The uniform color of the buildings simply make any color pop out. I could have wandered the streets all day simply exploring.

Roman Market

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective, we run a tight schedule and were soon off to the ruins of the Roman market. Jerusalem is a city of layers, each civilization seemed to build on those that came before. Shimi spoke about the layout of the Roman city, and how every effort was made to erase the religious significance during the first Roman occupation.

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Next we went to an open square overlooked by the Hurva Synagogue, which had been recently been rebuilt for the third time. While Shimi was talking I have to admit to being at least partially distracted by a bird call filling the square. What can I say, it runs in the family; at least I wasn’t driving while trying to bird as my grandfather was prone to do. Luckily my obsession with audio books prepared me to listen to the lecture while searching out the bird; a search that eventually proved futile. After our history lesson we were released on the area. I zeroed in on some decadent looking donuts, along with a half dozen of us, set up on some tables along the main way. I may have covered the back of my camera with powdered sugar, but it was worth the trouble. We did some shopping, but most of what we saw screamed tourist to me so I bought a bare minimum, all the while regretting the missed opportunities in Tzfat’s artist’s alley.

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After learning about the city in its Roman guise we walked up to the roofs of the old city. In front of us we could see the Dome of the Rock, and behind us was the Holy Sepluka. We talked about the formation of the city and it’s division into quarters. While we were talking the bells from the Christian quarter started tolling. I wandered towards the back of the group to take a picture of the Holy Sepluka, but couldn’t find an angle without barbed wire in the picture. It was quite a statement to me that the three holiest sites in the world, at least for the Abrahamic religions, have to be divided like a war zone. Before releasing us Shimi showed us the third incarnation of one of the most famous synagogues in the city. It was a very recent construction, only ten or fifteen years ago it was only represented by an arch.

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Finally we were on to the main attraction, the Wailing Wall. We got our first look from an overlook, but before we were able to appreciate the wall we were sidetracked by a proposal taking place in front of us. I was towards the back of the group so I didn’t see the event, but based on the crowd of suddenly cheering, dancing, and signing people I can only assume the answer was yes. Within seconds a mob of girls, presumably friends of the bride to be, ran out of a nearby alley and caught everyone up in an infectious display of singing and dancing. The spontaneity and joy of the moment made it one of my favorite on the entire trip.

We left the happy couple to share the moment with their friends and family and started towards the wall. After passing through security we took a moment to appreciate the wall from a distance, wrote notes to put in the wall, and set a meeting time. Then we went to the wall. The wall is segregated, with different sides for the men and women. To show proper respect those of us without hats, myself included, put on yamakas before entering the area next to the wall.

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Whether or not you’re religious, I’m certainly not, the Wailing Wall emanates power. Standing beneath it, looking up at two thousand years of history, is a humbling experience. The stones were cool to the touch, and worn smooth by the touch of untold millions. When you learn the history of the religious significance of the wall, at one point Jews secretly prayed in an alley that ran alongside the wall, the weight seems even greater. I think most of us placed a note in the wall, and stood at the wall, either in prayer or quiet reflection.

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As we prepared to leave the wall there was one more obligatory task: the group photo. I handed my camera off to another tourist and the guys gathered around (remember the men and women are segregated at the wall). Before a photo could be snapped this old man, dressed in a black hat and long black coat, and sporting a very impressive beard, ran into the picture. He stood in front of me, saying that the picture wouldn’t be authentic without him. We were all laughing as the picture was taken.

While we were standing around under the wall we had one more spontaneous experience, and yet another as we were leaving. At the wall we saw a boy getting bar mitzvahed, and after asking around we discovered that anyone can come to the wall to get bar mitzvahed, no reservation required. Then, while leaving, we saw a very young boy getting his upsherin, or first haircut in a small plaza overlooking the wall.

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Leaving the Wailing Wall we headed to the shuk, an open air market where the city was doing it’s last minute shopping before Shabbat started. One of the market goers actually complained that we, the birthright group, were going to the shuk right before Shabbat since we would only get in the way. A group of us went into a side alley and got falafel, somehow my first of the trip. As always we had our trusty guard Ido there to help translate. While the falafel was delicious, it was made better by the chaos of the market surrounding us. After finishing it I spent some time wandering the shuk, simply taking in the sights and sounds of the place. It fulfilled my every expectation, and then some, of what an open air market should really be like. The people were jammed packed, I was constantly jostled, and conversation and laughter rang. Luckily the soldiers were there to help us haggle; a major part of the market life.

A very short hour later we reboarded the bus and headed back to our hotel to do our own preparations for Shabbat. We showered and dressed up, then walked back to the old city. This time we left all technology in the hotel, or tucked discreetly into our pockets, to respect the orthodox tradition. After carrying my camera around constantly, of course not something I regret for an instant, it was nice to simply live in the moment for a while. Getting to the Wailing Wall took almost an hour, and it astounded me how much it had changed since we had been there during the day. On the men’s side, I can’t speak for the women’s, there was singing and dancing. Overall it was an incredibly joyous affair. First going in the guys stayed together, I think we were all slightly intimidated by the commotion. Before long we were swinging around in circles singing songs in Hebrew to which we didn’t know the words. I distinctly remember seeing an old man, easily in his seventies if not eighties, crouching over to join a circle with two young boys, laughing and smiling as he lead them through the circle. While the Orthodox Jews we saw seemed very serious during the day, we saw them laughing and singing and relaxing at the wall. It was an eye opening moment for me, and I think many others.

We walked back through the old city, where almost every doorway was lit up with a menorah and shabbat candles. It gave the city the glow of life. Back at the hotel we lit our own candles before eating dinner and doing some group activities.

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