Sunday, March 11, 2007

From the Moshav to Jerusalem

What a fantastic and fascinating 11 days!

Running straight out of work to Heathrow and jumping on a the BA red-eye to Tel Aviv, drifting in and out of sleep, I was a little disoriented when landing in Israel. A country I have wanted to go to for a very long time. What other country holds an aura like it? So many images jump into your head of Kibbutz’s, the Bible, conflict, Judaism, sacrifice, suffering, the joy of life celebrated by so many inhabitants that I have met around the world and for good or bad, a sense of concentrated passion.

I had not contacted my Israeli friends with sufficient prior diligence and decided to head into Tel Aviv before ringing anyone. Plus it was absurdly early in the morning. Jump on a bus and what is the first thing I noticed – a number of young soldiers, men and women and their accompanying M16’s. It reminded me of something an Israeli friend said on entering Colombia in reaction to the ever present guns "feels like home". For everyone here it is just normal.
Enter the central bus station and as will become a pattern, everything is searched, top to bottom. A frustration with a pack, but understandable. Decide to give Eliana a ring. Lovely girl who I last saw in New York last Feb, but who I really know from travelling through Ecuador and into Colombia at the tail of 2005. A 20 minute wait, a hug and before I know it I am heading off on my own on another bus with directions along the lines of "jump out near there... left across a field... down... up... left... down again... and though an open door". This I did, accompanied by some beautiful views through the shroud of tiredness, stepped through the unlocked door and said hello to Tali. Before I knew it I had drifted off to sleep in the comforting Levantine sunshine….

…. THE MOSHAV….and that is where I spent the next 3 or so days (bar a fun night out in Tel Aviv). After 4 months of work I was delighted to slow it all down in such a special place. I met Tali and Eliana at the same time and barring New York had the same travels. This was Tali’s house which she shares with her older sister, younger brother when he is on leave from national service and half the kids of the local community - the Moshav. I have to admit that before I went to Israel I never had heard of a moshav, but to explain it very badly, it is a community with many similarities to a kibbutz but different – less centralisation. People living together on the basis of similar values. Here, a beautifully peaceful place that immediately carved a niche in my heart.
It was a privilege to spend time in the community and its surroudings. This time gave my mind time to sigh, either lying in the winter sunshine staring at the clouds, orange trees, birds and stunning view of boulder strewn green hills, or walking through the scented pine forest where the light was playing tricks with my mind in shades of purple and effervescent green. I was generously invited to share in Sabbath, from the more than a touch hippy guitar playing celebrations of bringing in and out the day of rest, to the drinking of the youth as they meet together in the house that Tali’s dad built. Some conversations that blow away the blinding cob-webs of home life as you discuss loss, pride and passion with those who are home for a night from a front-line, those who have lost and those who appreciate the very special community in which they live. A few days that hit me more than those around would have noticed, but when Jerusalem is 20 miles away there is just one way that you can head.

This is one point that struck me so strongly – just how small and fundamentally fragile Israel is. From the hills round Modi’in you can see with unaided sight to one side Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast, and to the other the hills of the West Bank. This thin, fertile, beautiful piece of land hangs on a thread. When you live on a thread, you view life differently.

From the Israeli heartland, I walked into the old city of Jerusalem (part of Jordon until 1967) and dumped my pack in an Arab hostel just beyond the Jaffa Gate. How ever much modernism removes spirituality and verve from life, the sheer history and meaning of Jerusalem sent a shiver down my spine as I entered through the mighty walls.
JERUSALEM…. the word says it all. A city split into 4 quarters. The Armenian quarter, small and quiet, people keeping themselves to themselves, many families having fled to Jerusalem some time ago from Turkish atrocities (out of interest I understand Armenia was the first Christian country in the world). The Jewish quarter, heavily renovated after the area was gutted during heavy fighting at the end of the 60’s, for me, outside of the Wailing Wall, the least enticing of the quarters. The Christian quarter with its monasteries, churches, merging into the largest and most interesting Islamic quarter with its ancient winding streets and bustle.

I spent the days wondering on my own through the narrow alleys, especially in the Islamic quarter. It is like being sent back in time. I found people generally welcoming, though I have to admit that once or twice especially outside the old city into the fringes of East Jerusalem I did get a feeling of 'what are you doing here?' As I say though, that was the exception. In fact I found a number of people stressing to me satisfaction that people simply come. Very few want violence or struggle, but an environment where their families are safe and they can do business.

The undoubted three key sites of Jerusalem, are the Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock (in terms of pilgrimage only second to Mecca for Muslims), the Wailing or Western Wall (the focal point of Judaism) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the unparalleled site of prominence for Christians).

The first two have to be explained together, for they are for all the irony that can be asserted literally together.

The Dome on the Rock in all its shining golden glory is planted on top Herod’s temple mount. The 2000 plus year old western wall of the mount is the Wailing Wall.

One is on top of the other, separated atop by an extension of the wall constructed to stop Muslims spitting on those below, and symbolically at the adjoining ramp by a sign that reminds Jews that it is forbidden by the Torah to set foot atop the temple mount.

To see the contrasting spectacle that mirrors so many of the problems of our world is a humbling experience. So many people pour out there passion and devotion so close together but in directions that can clash and lead to blood. What absurdity that here at the very focal point of western religion people can not see that what they seek is different images of the same thing. I am sure many will criticise me for simplifying it so but would Abraham wish his children to fight, and would a a just god promote such division and damn those who seek him by different paths.

..........and next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, more division and devotion that put a shiver down my spine and a tear in my eye (to be continued...)
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