To cluster my observations of Israel over the next two weeks, I decided to pick around five to six photos for each day and use them as a source of inspiration.
Searching for an escape from the claustrophobia induced by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (see below), I found a wonderful view of East Jerusalem, Dome of the Rock, and Mount of Olives. Beside me were two IDF soldiers (Air Force and intelligence) enjoying their free weekend before Passover. Given both my own (and Israeli!) blutness on political and cultural controversies, we quickly delved into some interesting discussions on religion-state relations in Israel, BDS boycotts, settlements, and American Evangelicals’ views of Israel. Interestingly, our opinions on Israeli politics mostly aligned, as I applauded their support of Yair Lapid’s new centrist party. One was Ashkenazi and the other had family hailing from the Middle East, making for some interesting debates. The former complained that Israel was becoming too “Eastern” and “oriental” in culture, a claim his friend vigorously contested. As clearly patriotic soldiers with IDF, they spoke quite movingly, even amidst a generally calm, quiet “status quo” – all the more attractive in comparison to nearby regional catastrophes – about the urgency of the two state solution. On a lighter note, one offered hilarious annecdotes about his cultural shock as a camp counselor in the United States, where he was puzzled by the extreme fragility of the kids and staff. “What’s with all the medications and allergies?”
A group of young Israeli Arabs came by to play, and one soldier took out his chess set and tried to teach them. Interestingly, they could only communicate in broken English, as the kids apparently do not learn Hebrew in their schools. I asked my new IDF friends what jobs these young people could acquire without Hebrew. “They will probably learn English and then work with tourists in the markets here in the Old Quarter”. Not an awful prospect, to be sure, but certainly one ought to hope for greater possibilities.
Before returning to their home village, they kindly recommended and dropped me off at a favorite restaurant with the best hummus ever. If only the various actors in the Middle East power games could heed this sign, no?
After recovering from my 6 am flight to Tel Aviv (and overnighter in the Bucharest airport), I took on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
This statue is hardly famous in a labyrinth of multidenominational chapels and liturgies, but it deserves note. It honors St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. Between his death bed conversion and earlier murder of both a wife and son, Constantine’s Christian commitments can be put in doubt. That cannot be said of Helena, whose piety was credited with helping to stir the Roman emperor into tolerating and then favoring the new religion. Helena would turn this site, only just making the transition from pagan temple to Church, into Christianity’s beating heart through her visit and discovery here of the “piece of the true Cross”. One can only ponder what she would make of the daily throngs of pious (fanatical?) believers and selfie-stick wielding heathens falling over one another here.
The church took its final form in the 12th Century under the Crusader kingdoms. It is collectively used by six communities: four from the Oriental Orthodox tradition (Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, and Ethopian), Greek Orthodox, and Catholics. I spoke to an Irish friar who described the church as a fragile “ecosystem” where only a few acts of arrogance or mean-spiritedness could disrupt the entire order. His analogy: “Imagine if six different families needed to use the same kitchen?” And that was only for most days of the year: “Now they must share it for the same holiday celebration” (Holy Week). Tensions apparently rose up earlier in the day with some clashing liturgies; apparently the “bells” of the Armenians made it impossible for Catholic visitors to hear during Mass. But all the priests here have a wider perspective; the friar visited his Coptic brothers to offer condolences that morning following the bombings in Egypt. I will certainly be back for the services here on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. It is Easter!
Here is the tomb! A long line and a sad amount of cutting, arm-twisting, and pushing by the Christian faithful. Honestly, I had two seconds inside, so I barely remember what it looked like in retrospect. But I loved hearing the spontaneous chanting by different tour groups of Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Russian Orthodox! After a year in Greece, I easily could sing along to Christos Annesti!