Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Moment in Jerusalem

Whenever I travel anywhere, I have an interior monologue going that sounds a bit like this: “How should I describe this?” “Is that the hook?” Or “Will this pull it all together for me?” Knowing that I will have to write about a place, I am constantly looking for patterns, for new insights, for odd twists on old stories. 

I came up short in Jerusalem.

The city, with its layers upon layers of history, of politics, of religious philosophies, was simply overwhelming. I kept finding tidbits that seemed like they’d be just the thing, such as the fact that it’s now possible to email and Twitter one’s prayers to the Western Wall (go to  Or that the mini pizza-like breads sold on the streets of Jerusalem are topped by the herb “za’atar” which comes from the plant that was used as a paintbrush in the Old Testament, to mark the doors of the homes of Jews with blood so that the Angel of Death would pass over (a story recounted at Passover ceremonies).

Both were interesting thoughts, but they didn’t seem to get to the heart of the matter. I realized I had to get off the tourist trail and, well, onto the light rail. I left the walled Old City to visit Jerusalem’s main market, and as I took my seat I noticed two mothers, each with a young child, opposite me on the tram. Though they clearly didn’t know one another, they looked like twins, each wearing modest skirts that ended mid calf, topped with a lumpy sweater, hair hidden entirely under a scarf. When I looked closer, however, I noticed that the shapes of their headscarves were quite different, and from that realized that one of the mothers was Orthodox Jewish and the other Muslim.

Their sons, too, were like peas in a pod, both about four years old and both eager to get to know one another. Soon they were engaged in a game of who could make the strangest face. They started to giggle loudly, and suddenly all of the passengers—and they ran the gamut of Jerusalem’s religious groups-- turned to smile, their movement like a happy wave down the length of the tram. People started to chat, and make their own faces at the kids. For a moment, we were all united in our delight at the silliness of these two handsome little boys, the happiness they took in their simple game, their musical laughter.

A small moment surely, but one, I think, that speaks of peace. And of a sense of community, in a place where the many sides are often battling one another (and, to be fair, there are conflicts not just between Jews and Muslims but within the different sects of these religions as well as within Christian denominations).

Now, I’m not naïve or simpleminded. I know that there are deeply entrenched conflicts in this region and long-standing hatreds. With the recent turmoil in the Middle East, long-standing relationships are now at risk. And yet. And yet, the moment was a genuine one.

And I thought, once again, about the tremendous power of travel. Usually, the only time one hears about Israel is when bad news occurs—a bombing, a divisive action by one of the factions.

But in Israel I saw with my own eyes groups of people, of different life philosophies, rubbing shoulders. I saw great works of art and architecture, iconic sights that gave life to Biblical passages, and on a less exalted plane, I ate delicious and wildly varied food, in crowds that seemed quite mixed. I saw another side of this storied country, a better and more hopeful side than makes the evening news.

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