Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter
Trip Start Sep 27, 2008
14Trip End Oct 18, 2008
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On our first night in Jerusalem, we made our way down to the Western Wall. The Western Wall is "open" 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every week. Signs lead you through the narrow, twisting streets and eventually into a tunnel where you go through a metal detector and bags are searched.
Then you step out into the open Western Wall plaza--and there it is--just like you always see it in pictures! Smaller then I imagined--but clearly "The Wall" with the plants growing in the cracks and hanging down over the massive stones. Floodlights lit the area and the Wall. It was Rosh Hashanah and no photos were allowed
I walked slowly down the way into the ladies section of the Wall, noting that a female security guard wore combat boots and a regular military button-down shirt with badges--along with a long skirt and a head scarf. There were shelves of books along the way...I supposed to borrow for prayers. Women sat in plastic chairs--knees against the Wall, reading to themselves. I walked up to an empty spot at the Wall and looked up at the old old stones. In between the stones and in every knick, crack, or pock-mark, there were thousands of pieces of paper stuffed in...prayers, wishes, hopes and dreams. I stood there looking closely at the stones--in awe at their size and age, wondering what all they've seen (from Solomon's Holiest of Holies...where IS the Ark of the Covenant?), and marveling that people could get paper to stick in such small knicks. Did the wishes and prayers come true? Were the walls now sustained by paper mortar? After a few respectful moments of observing and listening to the women around me softly reciting prayers (in a cadence much like a song or a poem) in a language I could not understand, I reached out and put the full of my hand against the cold old stone Wall. I stood like that for a minute--made my wishes and then said good-bye
When I came back out into the Plaza, Bryan pointed out that I had not backed away, but had turned and walked away. I looked back at the area and saw for the first time how the ladies walked backwards away from the Wall for the first 30 feet or so. It was the first time we'd noticed this phenomenon of not turning one's back on Holy places. We'd see this later at the Holy Sepulchre and in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. I felt really bad because I'd meant nothing but respect for this site. We ended up the evening having the first of our religious beliefs conversations--about the respect for others' religious icons and the historical/political/religious significance of relics, icons, sites and "turning one's back" (as I understand it, early on, Muhammad told Muslims to turn and pray toward Mecca's Kaaba, not Jerusalem--essentially turning their backs on the establishment of Jerusalem)
We ended up walking over to the Western Wall Plaza a number of times during the trip--but we did not go down to the Wall again. We were finally able to take pictures there once the holiday was over. Some men worshipping in the holiest corner of the Wall area by dancing and singing. Others sat quietly on the white plastic lawn chairs with a book on their knees
One day I sat in Hurva Square for some time--just watching the world go by. School kids in uniforms--moving here and there in packs, some trying to pick up the internet on laptops, others just trying to get a seat in the shade. I began to wonder if maybe everybody new each other in the quarters--did they have any "West Side Story" romances that crossed religious boundaries?
I noticed Jewish men dressed in white/blue shawls with scarves over their heads, other men wore black suits, white shirts, and 4 white strings hanging from their waists along with a black hat over their caps. Some men wore really big round hats. Many boys had crew cuts, but with long curls hanging by their ears. Women also wore alot of black and white...long skirts and crisp white blouses, hair wrapped in white or black scarves. The black and white combo seemed to be the "Sunday's Best" outfit for prayer. I noted that the women wore long skirts...down to their ankles, with capris or another skirt peaking out. Very cool.
Another day, we took a taxi from Jaffa Gate to the museum to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and the huge model of ancient Jerusalem. The scroll exhibit was beautifully done. Disappointed to know that only one display case held an actual scroll, the others were stand-ins. Amazing to see--whether real or facsimiles. What a find those clay jars were! The model was much bigger than we'd imagined. It replicates ancient Jerusalem--when Solomon's Temple stood where the Dome of the Rock is today. It helped us to see the small portion of the Western Wall that remains, and to see the grandeur of Solomon's Holy Temple
The Jewish Quarter was a great place to get pizza, a nice cappuccino, ice cream, spaghetti, wine/beer--we ended up eating a few meals here...and in the Armenian Tavern. Surprisingly, it didn't feel as foreign as the other old, quarters of the city. One day, we tried the Quarter Cafe, up on the hill overlooking the Western Wall. Lots of options--like an old-timey cafe where you walk through the line with your tray and point out what you want to the lunch lady--who spoons it out onto your plate, you pick up a drink from the cooler and pay. Another day, we had an after dinner dessert (a delicious warm chocolate croissant) at the Menorah Cafe (the sign described it as a "dairy" restaurant). As we sat there sharing dessert--a kid was singing from a window above, his voice echoing in the narrow streets.