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Israel May 15, 2006 Español

Posted by Belle in : Israel

I misplaced my journal which had my notes on Egypt, India, and Israel so I apologize in advance for the lack of details.

Israel is the kind of place most people would like to visit, if it weren’t Israel. It’s the womb for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. You can walk the stations of Christ on the Mount of Olives, you can light candles at the Western Wall, or you can see the third holiest mosque in Islam, a friend of mine also added, or you can die in a car bomb, an air strike or cross fire. When confronted with this perspective, I always say something about the chances of getting hit by a car in New York City or Miami are much better than being in a bus where a car bomb goes off. And although I’m pretty sure I’m right, we took no buses while we were in Israel.

I was not brought up with religion. I think my parents took me to church once when they were feeling guilty about something. I wish I knew what that was… I only knew two kids at school who went to church every Sunday. My best friend in fourth grade, Jennifer Marcus, was Jewish. I think the only time I prayed during childhood was when Jennifer and I decided to go skiing out of bounds one Christmas day on Tiehack mountain. The powder was calling us, we said. Virgin powder, we said. And though we did not know what a virgin was, we damn sure knew what virgin powder was. How could we resist! We got completely lost. It got dark and we were still hiking back up miles of fresh powder. I thought I was going to die. I saw Jennifer praying and asked what she was doing. Praying to Jehova for help, she said. It sounded like a good idea to me, so I went along with her and really put my heart into it. We both cried. But we kept going. We never stopped.

A few hours later we followed our tracks back to the place where we had gone out of bounds. Though we had come a long way and would not have to hike in powder anymore, we still had to hike to the top of the mountain so we could ski down the other side to the bottom, to our homes. Suddenly we heard a buzzing in the distance. A ski patrol was performing the final sweep of the mountain. We waved out poles, screaming. I’ve never been so happy to see a snowmobile in my life. He saved our lives. Or was it Jehova? Maybe I should have converted. Maybe that was my calling to become a Jew. Was it luck? Or maybe it was the fact that my mother had not stopped calling the ski patrol when I did not show up for my aprí¨s ski ovaltine and bath. Maybe it was all of these things. Maybe all of it was God’s work. Who knows.

Usually when we sail into a new country, we could pretty much sneak in without being noticed. I’m sure many people skip from country to country without clearing customs, but of course we would never do anything illegal like that. Never. Ahem. Nobody could ever sneak into Israel. They know where you are before you do. And they know what you had for breakfast, and what kind of underwear you’ve got on. When we were miles from the marina in Herzliya, the Israeli navy confronted us on the radio. We could not proceed until we answered dozens of questions. When we arrived at the marina we were asked more questions than all of the other customs officers across the world had asked, combined. Who knew we were coming to Israel? Had we spoken to any Egyptians while in Egypt. Well, yes. Quite a few. Had we told any Egyptians where we were going? Yep. Did anyone show interest in our visit? Yep. Were we carrying anything for anyone that we met? Nope. Did we buy anything in Egypt. Oh yes. Many things. They performed an in depth search of the boat, checked to see if we were listed on any list of terrorists, shook our hands and left. They were polite and to the point, but it felt strange having men dressed in black Calvin Klein t shirts and tight jeans with hand guns strapped to their hips on the boat. Oh yes. We had entered a war zone.

And yet after that first hand gun encounter, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a war zone in Herzliya. Right in front of the marina was a huge mall. Wence and I would go for a morning coffee and breakfast, I would wander through the monumental mall and find all kinds of things the boys needed, warm clothes, for example. We were freezing. A few things for the boat, salt grinder, a super cool coffee press that turned into a coffee mug and thermos, some new dish towels, new towels, some pants, some shoes that would bring me back to civilization. It was like being in Miami again. Everyone spoke English and there was nothing you could not find. Even if everything was written in Hebrew, you could always ask someone and they would answer you in perfect English. And yet, the people are different here. They dress in the latest fashions and wear all the trappings of modern civilization, but there is something primal here. Anger. We found the people here volatile, rude, aggressive, tough. Not all of them, but most of them. Living in a war zone has to shape you some how.

After we had been in Herzliya a few days, our friends Diego and Javiera came to visit us for a week or so. Diego is Wence’s lawyer for his businesses and he and Wence have become friends over the years. They always invite us to do fun things when we are in Santiago. They even wrote their own Lonely Planet version of Santiago for us. They have an amazing house in a beautiful neighborhood. How can I describe their house. I guess the structure is old. Javiera actually grew up there, but they have remodeled it into a colorful, modern house, with cozy corners and great art. Javiera runs her own catering company in Santiago. I love her food. Every time we go over to their house she throws together some elegant, yummy hors d’oeuvre in seconds while Diego hands us a pisco sour or some wine. Diego and Javiera are also involved in film production. Diego produces and Javiera does the catering, some art direction, and probably tons of other things. They let me come to a casting for SE ARRIENDA, a movie that is in film festivals all over the world now. It was so fun to sit next to the writer/director Fuguet and listen to what he saw in these people and what he was looking for. SE ARRIENDA was very well received and asked to film festivals around the world. Javiera and Diego organized a great trip for all of us to Jerusalem before one of these film festivals.

When I thought of arriving at the Holy Land, I always imagined coming across some Titianesque scene like his Assunta. The color of the sky alone reveals the divine, and that floating Mary, well, she seals the deal. And though horns were blowing when we arrived, there was nothing angelic about these babies. Bleeping Toyotas and Hondas screaming in the heat of a traffic jam. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been in the exact same spot in a car for such a long time. Diego finally went to go see what was going on. When he came back he looked a bit off. What? We asked. Two groups of men fighting, and when the police showed up, instead of keeping the peace, the police seemed to jump right in with the rest of them and add fire to flames. Well, we know that kind of thing happens in the States. We all remember Rodney King. But since it is very clear that behavior is NOT acceptable, they hide it. It is not so hidden in Jerusalem. There is no need.

We stayed at the American Colony Hotel. A beautiful hotel in the old town. The first thing I noticed when we walked in was that the staff seemed to be an equal mix of Palestinians and Jews. Now this is something you do not read about in the papers. We read about all the violence but the fact remains that many Palestinians and Jews work side by side in Jerusalem without any problem. That alone shows that peace is possible. But what may be possible so often never becomes a reality does it.

The buildings in Old Jerusalem look like they were all made of pieces from the same huge rock. It’s hard to describe the color. It’s not white, not yellow, not pink, not gray, but somehow a uniform mix of these colors, perhaps more white and yellow than anything else. It’s really a beautiful color. Jerusalem is scattered up a valley and down the side of another.

We had a very interesting guide. Naim. He was a Palestinian Christian. He knew all the facts. There was not one question he could not answer. The first day we were all excited to talk about politics because none of us really know any Palestinians. He tried to shut that door, however, saying we should not discuss politics. Right. How can you not discuss politics in Jerusalem? He could not help himself so eventually we had some very interesting conversations about what it is like to be a Palestinian living in Jerusalem. He showed us the check points he has to go through every day. Told us stories about not being allowed to take his daughter to celebrate religious holidays because the guard at the check point did not feel like letting him in. It did not take long before we were feeling his anger.

Then we saw the wall.
Naim described what the wall was doing to his community. By the time the wall is completed, 90 percent of East Jerusalem will be absorbed by Israel. More than 200,000 Palestinians will be cut off from both East Jerusalem and its surroundings, thus belonging to nowhere. This means they will have lost their access to schools, universities, medical facilities, the Haram al-Sharif and Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as their own communities, neighbors, family members etc. And it really does look like a prison wall. Generations of Palestinians living in these conditions, forced to go through check points cannot help the quest for peace. But neither do car bombs.
We asked him what it would take to make peace. He said peace was impossible because the Jews would never agree to what the Palestinians deserved. He defended his skepticism by saying that during the last peace talks the Jews did not stop building settlements, but on the contrary built more settlements, faster. How can that be in the spirit of peace? He demanded.

And that is the irony right there. There is no spirit of peace or forgiveness in Jerusalem. Or just not enough. Here in the Holiest of Holy Lands, they’ve been fighting over real estate for centuries. It would truly take a miracle to stop the fighting here.

My favorite places were The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Gethseman Garden, and The Church of All Nations. I have a wonderful image of Javiera and Dio walking hand in hand in the Gethseman Garden. They became pals on the trip. And I felt like I got to know both Javiera and Diego much better. They’re fun, curious, and open minded which is the perfect combination in traveling companions. They also really helped me a lot with the boys.

The Dead Sea
We all took turns holding Theo while we went into the Dead Sea. We were told the water is so salty, that it would not be a good idea to allow the kids to swim in it. I thought maybe they were exaggerating. My boys were born in the sea for chrissake. Thank God we didn’t let them go in. Aside from swallowing a gallon of liquid salt, I cannot imagine what that water would have felt like on a diaper rash. That water is like no other water. It is one of the saltiest bodies of water with a salinity of 30%. Almost nine times greater than the average ocean salinity. It’s so salty that you actually have a hard time maintaining your balance just being in it. You float so high out of the water. And it has an oiliness that you would never imagine accompanying such salt content. Yet people flock from all over the world to bathe in this special water. Doctors say it cures psoriasis and the well below sea level air helps people with cystic fibrosis. We found it one of the strangest, most unattractive tourist spots in the world. Dozens of very overweight, over forty (I can say that because I am 37…), Europeans rubbing black mud all over themselves and lying in the sun for hours. It doesn’t help that there is no nice place to have a water, a coffee, ponder the theology of the geography, or just sit and do nothing. Just a very rocky terrain and half naked bathers dispersed amid the rocks.

I had a very memorable moment when we were in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There were many groups from around the world, praying together. I usually feel awkward around a group of people praying, as I have no idea what they are doing and feel like that day in eighth grade when I stood up in front of my class to recite a poem, and forget every single word. In The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I did not feel that way. Maybe because there were so many different groups of pilgrims singing in different languages that I did not feel like an intruder. Instead I was moved by their focus and dedication. Many prayed with their eyes closed tightly, holding hands. I wanted to see what they saw. I wanted to know what they were feeling. I wanted to know them. It changed the way I walked through the building. It changed the way I thought about prayer. As we climbed the stairs to leave the church, Dio caught the attention of a large group of pilgrims staring up at him. He gave them a huge smile. They all sighed in unison, smiling so sweetly at him. Suddenly the church bells started ringing and as I looked at all of the faces smiling with such love, I started to cry. There was so much love in that moment. What an awesome feeling. And for a second you think that anything is possible. It was one of those moments that when it happens, you know you will never forget it. But you also know you cannot keep it. Like everything else in life, it moves, it fades. It grows into something else. As I sit here, months later, remembering that moment, I can still feel that love and it still makes me cry.

The day we left Jerusalem, we saw a very strange sight. A group of young teenaged boys, dressed in the latest jeans, tight t shirts and sneakers, chatting to each other as they made their way, a half dozen of them or so, down one of the main streets. Casually thrown over each ones shoulder was a machine gun. Boys toting machine guns is too much for me. And that was the last thing we saw as we left Jerusalem. Somehow that seems appropriate. Jerusalem is a beautiful place, Holy, spiritual, culturally rich, whatever you are looking for, you will find it in jerusalem. Including an overdose of anger, hatred, and violence. It’s a war zone. And in my opinion, it will always be. However, for one of the first times in my life, I really hope I’m wrong.