6/21/13 – Walking through the tunnels under the City of David, the Jewish Quarter, the Kotel, Mahane Yehuda (Jerusalem marketplace), Shabbat

Hey guys! I’m really sorry that I’m so behind on posting. Between unreliable internet and the crazy busy schedule they had us on, its a miracle I can blog at all! Thanks for being patient, and I’ll try to catch up as soon as I can!

This day was perhaps one of my favorite, if not my favorite, of the birthright experience so far. As you can tell by the title, it was chock full of things to do, places to see, and things to experience. Not only did I enjoy this day because of the plethora of historical and anthropological symbolism and import to the day’s activities, but because it was also a very spiritual and emotional day as well. At the end of the day, I was left breathless and deeply touched by all that I had been able to do.

The day started bright and early as usual, leaving the hotel very early in the morning. Our first stop was to pick up seven Israeli soldiers who were given leave for a few days to join us for the remainder of our Birthright trip. Being between the ages of 18 and 22 themselves, they would also equally participate in all of our activities, and hopefully, get an equal experience from all of this. One of the soldiers, Ronni, sat next to me on the bus, and we immediately hit it off. She is almost 20 years old, and yet acts very maturely for her age, which was amazingly refreshing given the large range of maturity levels of some of the people on this trip (gosh, I miss all my college friends!!). We talked about a lot of the things that the Birthright kids had already done, about ourselves, and what we like to do. It was so great to hear about her experiences as a teen growing up in Israel, especially considering that she is currently serving her mandatory period in the Israeli Defense Force. Israel is one of the few countries in the world that requires all Jewish citizens to serve in one of various parts of the army/navy/military so as to ensure that the country will always have a secure and usable defense system. Something interesting I learned about this mandatory requirement is that Arab people are not allowed to serve in the IDF because of fear of conflict of interest, even though there are many thousands of Arab citizens that are of age to serve. In the IDF, boys are required to serve 3 years, and girls only serve 2 years, Additionally, boys are the only ones that can actually become “warriors,” as Ronni puts it, as girls are not allowed to fight. In the army, Ronni serves as a “psychologist” of sorts, interviewing high schoolers throughout the country to determine where they should be placed within the IDF based upon their personality and psychology. I find this position incredibly interesting, and think that this is a position that I would have taken up if I had been required to serve in the IDF. The fact that Ronni does this at the age of 19 impresses me a lot!

After we picked up the soldiers, we then made our way to our first stop of the day: The City of David. First some history on this city: The city of David was the original city of Jerusalem way back when the Jews were divided into many tribes spread throughout the desert. At the time, most of the people where modern day Jerusalem stands were Babylonian, and the Jews really did not have a common land to themselves.  When David was king, however, he decided that this area would be a good place for them to come together and to be united, and thus started the City of David. In order to have access to water and the Dome of the Rock (more explanation on the Dome of the Rock later), he began ordering the excavation of long tunnels underneath the city that connected the two places, as well as provided water to the city. It as through these very tunnels that were thousands of years old that we trekked. As we looked out on the very large and tumultous Arab quarter (which is comprised of hundreds of small white houses on a hillside), we climbed down into some excavated ruins where we entered the tunnels through a small opening. Inside the tunnels, cold, clear water came up to our ankles (and even to our thighs as times) as we waded single file through the pitch black darkness, save the limited light provided by a few flashlights, As we walked, you could tell that the tunnels were very old. The walkway was very narrow, the rock walls of the cave occasionally jutting out and brushing against my arms. Eventually, we turned off all of our flashlights so that we could walk along in the dark, the only sounds being the sloshing of the water against our feet and the reverberations of voices far off as they hit the ceiling. We walked for almost 1.5 hours, ducking when the ceiling came down low and stretching when it reached out high above us. Eventually, we came out into the sun, blinded by the extreme change in lighting, and stumbled upon the excavation dig that was in process just outside of the tunnel exit. I really loved this walk, as it was amazingly unique, and really helped us to understand this amazing piece of Israeli history in a much better and more personal way. Plus, it was super fun (I felt like I was at  Wild Rivers!).

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(Boys in the group in front of the exit we came out of)

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(Our tour guide, Lior, explaining the history of the tunnels)

After that, we changed into more modest clothing (meaning covered shoulders and past knee length for girls) because we were going to go to the Jewish Quarter. The Jewish Quarter is not only important because it houses much of the religious and social importance for the Jews, but houses one of the most important Jewish religious sites in the world: The Dome of the Rock and the Western (Wailing) Wall. The Jewish Quarter is full of narrow streets full of merchants, people, tourists, and stalls selling drinks, food, and souvenirs. While we waiting for the group to assemble, I purchased a drink called “lemonana” which is lemonade with mint leaves in it (mint in hebrew is “nana”). IT WAS AMAZING, especially given how hot it was outside(on average its been near 100 Fahrenheit in Israel). We then walked through the narrow cobbled streets of the Jewish Quarter, watching all kinds of people (Hasidic Jews, Arabs, Tourists, you name it) pass by us. We eventually reached our destination, which was a very important Jewish learning center right in the heart of the Jewish Quarter. This Jewish Center (aside from being air conditioned) was very beautiful inside. When you first enter, you are greeted by a large, beautiful, multi-colored glass sculpture created by the world famous glass artist, Dale Chihuly, The Piece was a multicolored, spiraling and ornamented piece that changed from warm to cold colors as it went from top to bottom. The change in colors is meant to represent the various aspects of Jerusalem and Israel, all the way from the desert to the sea. At this center, we also went to the rooftop and gazed down upon the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, and the Arab Quarter (which was far off in the background). Looking across at the large golden dome of one of the Dome of the Rock and down at the Western Wall was very awe inspiring and memorizing. Our guide explained that the Dome of the Rock marks the place where Abraham, having been told by God to sacrifice his eldest son Isaac, took his son to be sacrificed. His faith and belief in God was so great that he was willing, apparently, to sacrifice his eldest and most cherished childe (rude, everyone knows you’re not supposed to have favorites). Right when he was supposed to sacrifice him, God spoke out again and told him not to, and thus the spot became a holy site. The Western Wall, as you may or may not know, is the last standing wall of the original temple built by King David’s son, King Shlomo, thousands of years ago, The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, then rebuilt, then destroyed again by the Romans. The Western Wall is the last remaining wall of this great religious building, a symbol of the ability of Jews to withstand all adversity, and build themselves back up from the ashes over the span of time (see how well Birthright is working?). It is commonly known as the Wailing Wall because many Jews who come to the wall oftentimes pray (outloud), bowing their heads back and forth. To others, the praying often sounds like “wailing,” and thus gives the wall its nickname. Because of the practice in Orthodox Judaism to separate women and men in religious settings, about two thirds of the wall is sectioned off for men, and one third is sectioned off for women. Neither sex can go into the other section.

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Once we finished our tour in the learning center, we exited the building and began walking to the wall, or the Kotel, as it is known in Hebrew. To enter the large square that houses the entrances to the sections for the Wailing Wall, we had to go through a security check (makes sense), showing our bags to security guards. Once in the square, we started to head for our respective sections.

I have to admit, I was nervous to go to the Western Wall. Throughout all of my religious studies as a child, I had heard about this place, its importance to Judaism, and the millions of Jews that visit it on a yearly basis. Much like going to the Mecca is important to Muslims, visiting this site is a religious “honor” for Jews. Despite being nervous, I made my way to the wall, and waited for an opening in the throng of women so that I could touch the wall. As I waited, I looked around and examined the types of women that were at the wall, noticing that they ranged in all types of age, type, nationality, dress, and demeanor. This wall truly brought together all types of people from all places and all backgrounds together in one common bond: their faith and religion. Even those like me, who are not as religious anymore, could still feel the importance and gravity of this religious site. I had not even touched the wall yet, and I was already beyond impressed.

Eventually, a spot opened in the wall, and I was able to go up and touch the wall. The parts that were within height level were smooth, worn away from years upon years of exposure to the elements and to visitors. Although it was only a wall, maybe only 200 or 250 feet in length, 100 feet high, touching it was an emotional and spiritual experience. To finally touch the wall, after hearing about it for years, after knowing its importance, made it so much  more real. I thought about my Grandparents, who had suffered so much in their lives because of hatred against Jews, and how this wall symbolized so much of the strength and love that they have in spite of that adversity. I thought of my Grandma Jane and Grandpa Roman, who had passed away a few years before, and how proud they would be of me for making this trip. I thought of my own connection to Judaism, and how much I value being  a Jew, even if only culturally these days. I have to admit, I started to cry a little out of sheer emotional joy and chaos, overwhelmed by all of the history and spirituality of this place. When I finally felt calmer, I found a place to insert my note in the wall (for those of you who don’t know, it’s common to write a note of prayer or thanks or request for God to hear in the wall). Then, never turning my back to the wall, I slowly backed away from the wall and out of the section. It is rude, in a way, to turn your back on the wall, and I believe that it increases the import of the wall to maintain eye contact. Even when I had exited the area designated for praying, I could not take my eyes off the wall, knowing that this could very well be the last time I ever see it again. Even though the Wailing Wall is just a wall, it was so much more than I could put into words. If only just to make it to that day, this trip was well worth it.

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After the Wailing Wall, we all were starving, so they took us to the Mahane Yehuda (pronounced mah-ha-neh ye-oo-da), a very fun and vibrant outdoor marketplace, for our lunch. This was one of my favorite lunch stops of the whole trip because of how amazing the marketplace was. Stretching for two or three blocks, the marketplace was crowded with stalls upon stalls selling food, baked goods, fish, fruit, vegetables, smoothies, iced cafe, halva (a dessert made out of crushed and sweetened sesame seeds), and much much more. Being jostled around on all sides by the throngs of people making their way through the narrow aisles, I asked Ronni a million questions about what things were, how much they cost, and where they came from. Because it was Friday afternoon, people were hurriedly going through and trying to make purchases for their shabbat dinners that night. As much as this place was jam packed with people today, it would be completely empty the next day because of shabbat. Just fyi, shabbat is a weekly holiday from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday in which you cannot work, use electricity, drive, etc. Thus, no one would be buying or selling after sundown Friday night. You could see a lot of this chaos just by looking inside one of the stalls selling baked goods. Throngs of people fought to buy chocolate rugelach (I have no idea how to spell that word in English), pastries with cheese or mushroom or potato in the middle, and challah. I myself sampled some of these and it was amazingly delicious. After the bakery stall, Ronni and I found a stall selling food from Yemen, and decoded to try some. This was perhaps the most delicious meal I had had yet. I tried something called memulawach (try saying that five times really fast), which is pan fried buttery dough that is layered with hummus, tahini, grilled eggplant and onions, hard boiled egg (chopped), crushed tomatoes, chives, cilantro, and pickles. It is then wrapped up and eaten hot like a burrito. I cannot describe how delicious it was, but take my word that it was amazing. Seems now that I have to go to Yemen (just kidding, mom!). Soon after finishing eating, Ronni and I walked around, talked, and looked for the meeting place with the group.  I was very sad to leave the marketplace.

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(Candy!)

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(Arabic desert made of cheese)

Our last event of the day ( a very long, jam packed day) was to attend shabbat services at a nearby orthodox temple. This was probably the least favorite for the girls of the group because orthodox synagogues separate men and women, putting women on the second story with a small curtain that blocks their view so that they are truly separate. Some say it’s because women are religiously inferior (bullshit), because women are too distracting to guys, because it would empower them too much, etc, etc. It doesn’t matter the reason, it was still really uncomfortable. I have seen this before, so it didn’t shock me. And while I was equally upset by such an example of gender discrimination within my own faith, I have to remember that different cultures have different ways of life. Obviously, this works for them, so its not really my place to judge or say differently. I just choose not to follow. Even though this was a slight damper to the day, it didn’t take away the glorious and wonderful uplifting that I had had all day. 🙂

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