Last weekend I had the amazing fortune to go with CIEE on a weekend trip to Jerusalem in which I had many delightful cultural (especially the culinary related ones) experiences. My morning began at 6:00 am on Friday as I woke up bright eyed and eager, well, more like I woke up and wanted to strangle the first person who spoke to me…but it was all worth it in the end. In Jerusalem, our director’s friend, J, took us on a slightly less than orthodox tour of the more modern sites in the city. First he took us to the most delicious breakfast buffet where I ate more than I want to even think about. Even cooler was the fact that we were in a quaint, literary cafe called Tmol Shilshom owned by a talented Israeli author. He even sat with us and read us one of his short stories about road rage and discussed Israeli literature. If you are ever in the area, this is a must visit:
After stuffing our faces, we went to go buy more food from the market place in order to prepare a shabbat dinner. Each group was assigned certain items to buy and then we were unleashed upon the world. I felt like we were in the Amazing Race and I think we would have won had my group not been distracted by our “modeling-with-fruit session”. Once we had all assembled with our goods at J’s apartment, we began to prepare a delicious meal of a chicken and a orange soup, salad with beets and eggplant, and a veggie stir fry with rice [there was also meat, but I did not pay attention to this]. After working hard on the meal, I personally snuck off for an afternoon snack and got to experience an interesting phenomenon. As I was purchasing baklava in the market, these orthodox Jews came walking by blowing a horn and yelling at stall vendors to close. J explained that they do this every Friday as it gets closer to 4 and the beginning of shabbat. This definitely would never have worked in the US, but no one seemed concerned even though all the racket had me convinced that Jerusalem was under attack!
When I got back, J divided us into groups and assigned us to home-stays with different friends of his. My friend Ashley and I were assigned to a lovely American jew, N, who lived in a almost bohemian style house with 5 other girls. They were incredibly welcoming and took us to their shabbat service where Ashley and I rocked the orthodox conservative style and hopelessly attempted to follow along with their prayers and chanting. It was a fascinating experience and I thought I would feel self-conscious, but everyone seemed perfectly accepting of our presence and some women even leaned over to try and guide as we clearly had no idea what we were doing. Then we all went back to J’s house where we ate the shabbat meal we had prepared earlier [delayed gratification with food is not my thing, but this time it was worth it]. They explained the different prayers and their meanings and showed us how to wash our hands before blessing and eating the challah bread. Everyone was extremely welcoming and the night went quickly as we ate delicious food and had great conversation.
The next day we toured the Israel museum and learned a lot about the history in the area. We got to see several exhibits designed to look just like synagogues in various countries and it was fascinating to see the architectural differences from Suriname to Germany to India. J then took us to a predominantly Arab neighborhood where his friend gave us a tour and tried to break down the political situation. Of course, with any conflict one must keep in mind that everyone has a bias in their story, but our tour guide gave one of the more fascinating accounts that I have heard since coming here. One impressive part was that despite his Muslim heritage, his daughter was Jewish and he thus he had connections to the other side. He even said that he completely understood the Jewish campaign for their own nation, however, he also showed us a darker side to the neighborhood where the intermingling of Arabs and Jews is not a positive relationship.
In this neighborhood in East Jerusalem , some of the more politically right Jews have begun to try and take houses away from Arab families. They do this with claims that they had ownership for the place and wait until the family leaves then try to occupy all or part of the house. Ownership in Israel can be a tricky thing as sometimes people own the house, but not the land and there can be great controversy over the matter. Therefore, clashes and protests happen here on a regular basis. As he was leading us through the neighborhood, I could see that members of our group became emotional as they were confronted directly with the conflict and they had to try and reconcile their own personal beliefs to this tour. We were put through the emotional grinder even further when a group of orthodox Jews tried to confront our group and the looks they shot at our Arab tour guide gave me a feeling for one second of what it is like to have people hate your existence. For one second, I felt I understood the fear and anger one must experience when confronted with such issues. This was only a small slice of life in the neighborhood, but it sent chills down all our backs. Afterwards, our group discussed what we had experienced and, although it was not the most rosy part of our trip, we all agreed that this was exactly why we had come to Israel.
I could not have been more fascinated by my tour of Jerusalem and am so grateful that we got to see such a different perspective. Usually people only go to see the holy and more touristy sites, but our director really worked hard to get us a more unique experience in the city and I feel that I came back understanding this complicated enigma that is Israel in a different way and perhaps feeling even more confused. To be sure, nothing is black and white here.