The jump from Amsterdam to Israel may sound random, but I had a Jewish wedding to attend. Back on my first solo backpacking adventure in 2003, I met Micha Blankstein, an Israeli born – Toronto raised guy who just finished his first year of medical school. We went from Thailand into Laos on a slow boat down the Mekong. We’ve kept in touch, caught up in both Alberta and Toronto, and 8 years later, I am heading to Israel to attend his wedding.
I had heard that security would take awhile for my flight from Amsterdam to Israel, so I made sure I was there the recommended 3 hours prior to departure. I was asked a series of questions by a female and male security staff. It started with the usual, where was your bag, did you pack it. Then it proceeded to what my name meant, where have I been travelling, where have I been staying (couch surfing… which I knew sounded sketchy), how did I know who was getting married, what do I do for work, what does my name mean, have I been to the middle east (just turkey), do I know anyone from the middle east…
From the beginning they told me I wouldn’t be able to take my lap top, but that it would packed and I could pick it up in Tel Aviv. I spent maybe 20 minutes with them, in the meantime my passport was taken and brought back with my boarding pass and everything checked. I was told to go to gate 10 about an hour and twenty minutes before the flight because my carry on would have to be checked.
So off I go to find gate 10, and strangely it is down a set of stairs. Weird... but whatever. I go down and show them my boarding pass, they tell me to sit down. 3 minutes later I come with them to find my backpack there, already open. I am told to put on something without zippers.
So I grab a pair of yoga shorts and go change in a room. When I am done a woman comes in, explains that the search, and proceeds to pat me down (after asking if I have a weapon). I had to remove my bra because the underwire made the metal wand beep. Then she takes the thing that they
usually use to swab electronics, and goes over my boobs, along my groin, and then she flipped my shorts down to swab along the top of my underwear.
While I was sitting there waiting for the results to come back, I asked her how long it takes to do the whole plane. She said they don’t do the whole plane, this is a random search. Only then did I clue in that they either thought I was a terrorist, but more likely, that I was a sketchy backpacker carrying drugs from Amsterdam. At this point, I thought it was hilarious!
After my clothes checked out, I came out to get interrogated by another woman who had gone through all my stuff. (I asked if I could eat my yogurt, and she had to x-ray it first).
She opened all my gluten free food and swabbed that, and then the sweating started.
Security woman: turn on the iPod
Sharman: It must be dead.
Security: Where did you get this?
Sharman: My friend gave it to me
Security: So it’s not yours. Who gave it to you (Lena), Lena who? Lena Atkinson. Well you can’t take it on the
Security: Is this your phone?
Sharman: My friend gave it to me.
Security: So it’s not yours either. Who gave it to you? (Liz). Liz who? Liz Barret. I then explained that in Canada phones are locked, so she gave me one when I got to London so that I could just buy a sim card as I traveled. Did this friend know you were going to Israel? No- She knew I was going to Albania. Then I had to show her how to use it, which was brutal, because all I use it is to text.
Security: Why do you have 2 cameras? One is waterproof and fits in my pocket, one I use to take good pics with. Turn it on. (I fumble for a minute then realize she has already taken the battery out and put it in wrong). Finally got the damn thing to work and took a photo for her.
In the end they took my laptop, my big camera, all the cords, and chargers I was going to carry on, and bubble wrapped them. I got a new baggage tag, then was taken upstairs to gate 9 (the real gate),
where everyone was going through those big human x-ray machines. I got to rip through there and get on the plane. Don’t understand everything, but the guy next to me had his laptop. Apparently he’s not the kind of sketchy person that I am. Welcome to Israel
I got in the slowest passport line – which involved another mini-interrogation. I swear the woman was trying to see if I would mess up, asking me when I was leaving the country 3 times. The last question was “What religion are you?” I had a laugh afterwards because I just can’t imagine a Canadian border guard asking that question.
When I arrived it was late afternoon on a Friday, meaning Shabbat was starting and everything was going to close down. I was able to get a mini-bus to Jerusalem where I was greeted by Roi; a friend of Eng’s that she met in Central America. On one days notice, he had invited me to stay with his family.
Shabbat is observed from a few minutes before sunset on Friday evening until a few minutes after the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. My first
night in Israel involved having Shabbat dinner with Roi’s sister, her husband and their three kids. I observed the blessing of the wine, the washing of the hands, and the blessing of the bread. This was followed by a meatless dinner (fish isn’t considered meat). It was a great first experience in the holy land.
Saturday everything is closed, so after a Shabbat lunch with his family, we went inside the walls of the old town and I got to see the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall.
It is one of the most sacred sites in Judaism and has been a site for Jewish prayer and pilgrimage for centuries. It is the only remnants of the ancient wall that surrounded the Jewish Temple’s courtyard, and people come to pray and place slips of paper containing written prayers into the cracks of the wall, praying for their prayers and wishes to come true.
During Shabbat you can’t take pictures. The place was filled with predominantly orthodox Jews, men on the left side, women on the right. By nightfall it looked beautiful.
I was lucky to be there during a festival that had lights throughout the city. We spent
a few hours doing all 4 routes through the old city that had beautiful light exhibits along the way. My favourite was in a cave underneath the city that had African masks that light up to the sounds of Asian inspired music. Absolutely beautiful! Jerusalem – my amazing day in the holy land
Sunday is like a Monday back home, so while Roi went off to school, I did a walking tour of the old city, which is divided into the Jewish quarter, the Muslin quarter, the Christian quarter, and the random Armenian quarter. I immediately became friends with Pat from Oregon, the only other young person on the tour. (Seriously, the holy land is filled with ‘older’ pilgrims and tourists… not exactly the hot backpacker scene).
I learned about all three religions which all have significant religious sites within the city, and took the path that Jesus is said to have taken while his arms were nailed to a cross beam. Along the route I saw a guy that looked like Jesus, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to get a photo.
Afterwards Pat and I went to the famous Jerusalem market where we bought hummus,
falafel balls, and some other dips and ate picnic style in the market. We stuffed ourselves silly on at least 10 different kinds of halva (a sweet treat made from sesame and sugar and flavoured with things like chocolate and nuts). I also indulged in some dates, famous in the land of milk and honey. I have never been a fan of dates, but oh my are good here. It’s like sickly sweet caramel!
In the afternoon we walked to Mt. Zion, which is right outside the city walls. First we stumbled upon a mass happening in the church where Mary is believed to be buried. Then we went through the room where the last supper took place (which also has some Muslim stuff going on inside – but don’t worry. They cover that up with a sheet whenever the Pope comes to visit).
Our last denomination to visit on the site was Jewish, and we were in search of King David’s tomb. We were assisted by an American from Seattle who gave up his life as a lawyer after falling in love with the Torah. He has been in Jerusalem studying for the past two years. Got
to talking about my trip to Africa and all things circumcision, and after half an hour, he told us to come meet the Rabbi.
So – Rabbi Dr. Modecai Goldstein has been the Rabbi at Mt. Zion for 42 years. If you looked up Rabbi in the dictionary – his photo would be there. Our meeting started with “Are you Jewish?” (Sharman – No). “Are you Jewish?” (Pat – No). Ok sit down. We then had a 20 minute session with him on everything to god, to the morals of life, to having children, to how Jews and Arabs can get along on a personal level (it is the politicians screwing it up). He said he didn’t know why we came in, but we had met him for a reason, so he was going to give us a blessing.
So there we were – two non-Jewish backpackers, bowing our heads with our hands together, receiving a blessing from a Rabbi. When I retold the story to Micha later, he told me I was very lucky. Finally, after we saw King David’s tomb, we walked away in complete shock. Completely random, amazing experience in the holiest city in the
world. In search of baby Jesus
The next morning Pat and I met early to take the local bus to Bethlehem (which is in the Palestine Territory). We had heard it was safe to go, but instead of doing the normal tour group with the oldies, we took the local bus. We made our way through the streets to the Church or the nativity, which was originally built in 327 over the site that Jesus was believed to have been born in a cave. There are three denominations sharing the site, the Orthodox, the Armenians, and the Catholics
After a quick tour with a local guide, we went down with some very religious people who were praying/touching/crying at the space where Jesus was born, and then also where he is believed to lay in the manger.
Next up we walked down the street to the Milk Grotto – the cave where Mary was hanging out before they fled to Egypt. She was breastfeeding Jesus and some of the milk dropped to the floor, and the walls of the cave turned white. Now women come to pray to Mary, and to scrape the walls, collecting
The old gate to the refugee camp
Keys of displaced Palestinians are inside
some powder that comes from the walls to put in a drink to help them become fertile. I listened to a Friar tell a group loads of testimonies of women who had become fertile after a visit, and also other miracles for those with cancer who were miraculously cured after a visit.
We jumped on a mini bus out to see a refugee site for displaced people who are from communities which have become Jewish settlements. A cultural centre for youth has been set up, and we had a guy explain how a camp that was originally set up with tents to shelter displaced people, evolved into an area that was fenced off with only one gate for thousands of people (created by the Israeli army), to a community with concrete buildings. He said that most people still have a key to their original home, and believe that is their claim to the property, and hope to be able to go home one day. We saw where the UN has a clinic set up, but he said there is only 1 doctor accessible for 13,000 people. It was a very interesting experience.
In the afternoon we walked in
the searing heat out to the field where the angels came to visit the shepherds to tell them the Messiah had been born. There were two possible fields we could have gone to – it appears that no one in the holy land can agree on where everything happened.
We grabbed the bus back to Jerusalem, having to go through the checkpoint on the way back. Israelis cannot enter the West Bank (except soldiers), and review of my passport this time was quick in comparison to the international border checks Overall we had a great day in West Bank, everyone was so kind, and the hummus I had at lunch was top notch!
The next morning I got up and took the bus to Tel Aviv to meet Micha, who I hadn’t seen in a year. Stay tuned for the next blog on all things Simone and Micha’s wedding.
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