Three of us left at 6:30AM this chilly grey morning to walk in the Western Wall tunnels; the other thirteen members in our group had chosen not to go, not to wake up and be out and about so early in the morning. Zvi drove our very small group in his car to a parking lot nearby, and then we walked in a downpour to the entrance of the tunnels. No people other than maintenance workers were in the tunnels so early, so we were able to walk through at our own pace, stopping whenever Zvi chose to offer us more history. I had thought Osama, our guide in Jordan, was exceptional, but Zvi, an Israeli, is an historian, not only knowing all about Israel's and Palestine's past, but also extremely knowledgeable about all the religions and regions and countries and their histories, including more in-depth knowledge about Christianity than those of us who grew up in a Christian faith had ever known. It is hard for most of us to try to keep everything straight, to try to take it all in, all sides, all perceptions; there is so much information offered. But I always desire to hear more and more. If we hope to try to understand the situation here, to get a glimpse of and to learn what it feels like to live in this part of the world, then the more we hear, the better we can try to comprehend.
The rest of the gang met us a few hours later on this now bright and sunny morning. Our tiny threesome had visited the Wailing Wall earlier and put our written prayers in-between the stones; now it was the rest of our group's turn to do so. These prayers are regularly collected and buried; nothing is burned or thrown away. We also learned that no one reads these prayers, so they remain secrets between individuals and their God. I wonder what people wish or pray for, whether it's for something tangible and specific, or whether it's for something grand and enormous, like world peace. We will never know. After the Wall we walked along the Via Dolorosa, seeing and hearing again the 14 Stations of the Cross. The passageways were now full of shoppers and religious; other groups were also stopping at each of the Stations, but many were praying at each one; we were basically just passing through, acknowledging each one. A few in our group got separated in the narrow walkways among the frequently pushing, milling masses, but we didn't lose anyone for very long. The shops, the sights, smells, sounds are like crowded markets many places in the world; more varieties of olives and delicious loquats were to be found here, but wending our way through this market was not an unfamiliar activity to me. Busy, bustling markets are where and how most people in the world do their shopping, so much incredibly better than spending time in sterile stores, buying packaged and unappealing fake foods and clothing. I prefer this jumbled messiness and colorful confusion to shopping in a modern store or mall any day.
We are learning the four quarters of Jerusalem: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian. Each has its own area of the city; most of us are now able to point out where they are located, and to name one or two of the important buildings within each. The Palestinian settlements also have their own spaces. This is a wonderful city, a meetingplace of multicultural religions, mores, and contemporary compromises. Crowded with tourists as well as local people visiting their religious holy sites, Jerusalem also has its peaceful areas and parks, like one of the ones very near to our hotel outside the Jerusalem Railway Station mall; the former railroad tracks have been transformed and grassed over into a lovely miles-long pathway where one can walk or bike or just sit and watch people go by. I saw so many young families pushing baby strollers along the pathway, happy children running and jumping along beside their parents and younger siblings, dogs, older people slowly strolling on the path, all enjoying beautiful days in the spring sunshine. One afternoon as I was walking in this park I was surprised by the discussion I heard behind me; three young Jewish teens were questioning whether Muslims would be accepted into heaven or not. Had these boys been from America, they would have been discussing sports or girls, but this was a serious debate. I was thoroughly impressed and slowed down a bit to listen to more of their conversation. Our cultures focus on such different things!
There are other parks closeby too. One afternoon two friends and I walked in the other direction through another park; we could see Old Jerusalem in the close distance so we thought we might walk there. But the artwork in that park was so wonderful, and the windmill looked so interesting that we decided instead to just enjoy ambling through and stopping at anything that caught our attention. Deciding only at each turning which way to go, we stumbled upon two weddings that afternoon, and found a wonderful artists' residential area; the doors there were painted a heavenly blue, and the flowers overhanging the balconies were absolutely stunningly lovely. One of the artist's houses was for sale; could we join together and buy this as a communal home for all of us? I thought maybe all together we could afford to buy the door.
One thing I love learning about Jewish people (at least here in Israel) is their willingness to always help others, in any way they can. We are told this is one of their obligations, but I think it is ingrained as it seems so automatic and genuine. Individuals and/or communities all step forward to help anyone in need, whatever that need might be. It must be wonderful to live in an extended community like that, where everyone takes care of each other. What would the world be like if all people, all religions, all cultures felt, from their hearts, that helping others should be paramount, giving or aiding in whatever is needed? Perhaps kindness could become contagious. Heaven on earth; the Golden Rule. Although after hearing all these histories of violence, wars, and fighting through centuries it seems doubtful that this could ever be a realistic goal. But there is goodness to be found in simply continuing to try, and what, really, is the alternative?
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