An American in Tel Aviv – Day Three

On Thursday we gathered on the tour bus at 9:30 for our trip to Jerusalem. This day has been hard for me to write about, for a number of reasons. While nothing about Israel is simple, Tel Aviv is at least straightforward–I kind of get it. I relate to its energies and rhythms as I would relate to other urban centers: I buy espresso drinks, I wander through city parks, I can even visit the MAC store (cosmetics, not computers) if I want to.

Jerusalem is different. And this trip to Jerusalem proves to be even more different.

Another flashback. The first time I visited Israel I started my trip in Jerusalem. Bleary-eyed and travel-weary from my flight, I found my way to the hostel where I’d booked a bunk–a guest house run by Catholic nuns which had been described by Let’s Go as clean and conveniently located. My bunk mate happened to be a Christian Missionary from North Dakota named Sheila. She was visiting Israel after doing outreach work in Nigeria and the Congo with the Assemblies of God Church for a year. She confessed to me that it was her secret dream to meet and marry a Messianic Jew from Israel. Later I realized that this might have had something to do with rapture prophecies, but at the time I knew very little about evangelical Christianity and even less about Messianic Jews.

We were, quite literally, the strangest of bed-fellows (bunk-fellows?) but we unpredictably hit it off. We ended up doing a substantial amount of traveling together, including a harrowing overnight bus ride to Cairo. There we toured the loud and dusty city for two days and two nights, visiting the pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, perfume factories, a light and sound show at the Sphinx (just as cheesy as you might imagine) and other must-sees as dictated by the taxi-driver slash tour guide we paid to drive us places (way too little, but indeed the going-rate). We also toured Jerusalem—she took this picture of me at Masada.

Ah, Youth! Me at Masada in 1999.

I liked Sheila, she was smart and well-travelled. She spoke occasionally about her relationship to her faith, but it seems we had a sort of unspoken agreement not to bring up politics or the politics of religion. Remember, this was 1999—Pre-Bush Jr., pre-9/11, pre-Iraq and Afghanistan. As a good secular lefty American, I didn’t feel any urgent, specific threat from the  right at the time. We were able to keep things light and friendly.

And then one evening we walked through the old city of Jerusalem eating sticky pastries and talking with an Arab taxi driver Sami (different from the Egyptian taxi driver) who may have taken a shine to one of us or just appreciated the conversation. And then–Sheila and Sami started talking about the abomination of homosexuality. And my stomach dropped. But we’d been doing so well!

Or had we? Does agreeing simply not to talk about something allow for a point of connection, or will that always mean tiptoeing around ideological landmines? Can one establish an honest relationship when avoiding key topics that matter? In that moment I realized that having strong beliefs would mean being divided by those very beliefs, at some point, from some people. (For the record, and maybe regrettably, I didn’t argue with them at the time. I was leaving for Tel Aviv the next day–incidentally, just in time for their Pride Parade–and so I chose the path of least resistance, silence.)

Looking back I think there was something prescient about that incident: in the  decade that followed fundamentalist forces would wage ideological and literal war against a secular west, and we’d watch the Culture Wars flare up in our own country. Just as in this microcosm of a relationship between me and Sheila and Sami, when it comes to core beliefs about humanity and how we should or should not live our lives–our world remains ideologically divided.

But that was 1999. Now it’s 2011 and we arrive in Jerusalem after a perkily narrated bus ride, which leads to a quick walk through the Jewish quarter of the old city. We see the chamber where the last supper supposedly took place, the ancient columns that make up the excavated remains of the Roman and Byzantine era Cardo Maximus, and the Lubavitcher Synagogue on Chabad Street. After a quick falafel (number two, for anyone keeping track) we visit the Western Wall.

The women's side of the wall.

Seeing the white plastic chairs reminds me of the Youtube videos I’d watched while rehearsing for MIKVEH, of the courageous “Women of the Wall” standing up for their right to pray at the wall in a way that is meaningful to them: sometimes wearing a prayer shawl, praying out loud, or wrapping tefillin. Orthodox law forbids women from participating in these acts and so–outraged at what they perceived as transgressions of the rules—Haredi men on the other side of the divider hurled the chairs over the barrier. Fortunately, no chairs are thrown on this day. Instead, a joyous bar mitzvah celebration takes place flanking the wall, women on one side and men on the other with a canopy uniting the family.

Now it’s time for us to split off from the group for the tour of East Jerusalem that Ari has arranged through an acquaintance at Ir Amim (“For an Equitable and Stable Jerusalem with an Agreed Political Future”). A handful of us pile into a van and circle around the city, making stops at different neighborhoods to discuss the settlement activity happening in designated (according to International Law) Arab neighborhoods. But continuing the maxim “nothing is ever simple here” even use of the term “settlement” is controversial, as Ir Amim’s website explains:

“The term “settlements” is problematic in the context of Jerusalem because most of the Israeli public does not consider the established Jewish neighborhoods built in the east part of Jerusalem after 1967 — neighborhoods such as Gilo, French Hill and Pisgat Ze’ev — to be settlements…Ir Amim applies the term “settlement” in Jerusalem mainly to Jewish construction in the middle of Palestinian areas when the construction is not a direct and open government initiative — namely concentrations of Jewish settlement in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, the Old City and the adjacent neighborhoods.”

Silwan, in East Jerusalem

We stop and look out over Silwan, its homes packed together tightly and haphazardly—because of the exceedingly limited number of construction permits issued to Palestinians (around 20 since 1967) the area looks like an underprivileged village built on top of another underprivileged village.  In Sheikh Jarrah we talk about struggles that can simplistically be described as questions of land claims and property ownership, but seem to be about something more political. Finally we stop about twenty feet away from the tallest portion of the separation wall. Again, from the Ir Amim site:

“In June 2002, the Israeli government decided to build the “separation barrier,” also known as the “security fence” or “security wall,” or simply “the wall” along the Green Line. Its purpose is to control the entry of Palestinian West Bank residents into Israel. This decision came two years after the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa intifada and the subsequent escalation of terrorist attacks inside Israel. Jerusalem found itself on the front lines. In the first two years of the intifada more than 330 Israelis were killed in it (one third of the total victims of the terrorist attacks); more than 6000 Jerusalemites were injured.”

Me and Jen in front of the partition wall.

When people ask me about the differences between my trip to Israel in 1999 (before Sharon went to the Temple Mount, before the start of the Second Intifada) and my short time in Israel now, the simple answer is that the country seems much more divided. (Writing that, I think the same is probably true of our country). And of course I mean divided between Israeli and Palestinian; but also Jew and Arab; Religious and Secular; Right and Left. And then the wall stands in front of us, a tall, aesthetically unsightly (that’s not political, that’s just true—it’s ugly, no one can argue that) physical manifestation of this division. I think about walking around Jerusalem with Sami the taxi driver in 1999. I wonder where Sami is now.

We finish the tour, and sit down for a meal at a Kosher restaurant near the theater. Good for me, it’s a dairy restaurant—groups of Orthodox young people and families teeming with children surround large portions of pasta and pizza. Afterwards, we head into the smaller space at the Khan Theatre for a talk about the history of Israeli theater. It’s a bit too much like a lecture for my tastes, though certainly well intentioned. The space is lovely, maybe 60 seats surrounded by cave-like walls. The building has an interesting history: constructed during the Ottoman period as a factory for producing silk it was later converted to a hostel for convoys of pilgrims. It proved particularly useful for travelers arriving after the gate surrounding Jerusalem had shut for the night–which usually happened at sunset and opened the next day after sunrise.

We moved into the larger space for a performance of EATING by Yaakov Shabtai. The play is based on a biblical story from the Book of Kings, and while I appreciated the choices made by the director and actors to bring the story movingly into a contemporary context, the stylization of the performances left me a bit cold. Later this season Sinai Peter will direct NEW JERUSALEM at the Khan Theatre—that’s the David Ives play that was so well received at Theater J two years ago that we’re bringing it back this spring. I wonder how conservative Jerusalem audiences will process the ideas of Baruch de Spinoza–will they embrace the 17th Century rebel like we did?

A bus ride back to Tel Aviv, and then bed. With three shows in Haifa scheduled for our next day’s agenda, the pace of our Israel trip shows no signs of mellowing.