Monday, January 01, 2007


on Christmas Day 2006 i had the single most _____ experience of my life.
the taglit trip ended at 8AM in the Tel Aviv airport. a bunch of us headed for Jerusalem where i met up with my israeli buddy and left the others to their hostel. we made plans to meet up in Bethlehem, a short busride via the Arab bus system through the West Bank to the edge of the city which, like all Palestinian cities, is surrounded by a 30 foot high concrete wall. from there you pass through the double checkpoint and walk 25 minutes through the recently destroyed Arab city towards downtown Bethlehem.
My birthright friends had made the plans; i really had no clue what the goal was, what we were aiming to see, where i was headed as i weaved through the razor-wire fences and massive metal turnstyles of security.
i was happy to be alone, finally, after 10 straight days of zero freedom, obligated everything, very little breathing room, virtually no solo experiences. it had gotten to the point that i simply could not enjoy a moment alone. the extremity of the group-oriented nature of the trip had affected so deeply my core that on the one occassion i walked off alone on the beach of the red sea to enjoy the sunset i only minutes later returned after having the feeling/thought: "i wonder what the others are doing...i desire to share this moment with them." it was not bad. i'm proud that i so smoothly adapted to the nature of the trip and so thoroughly integrated myself into the social and spiritual aspects of the community.
i was however, overcome by the feeling of travelling once i gave the drive the 3.5 shekels and found myself without a friend on the Arab bus that travels the six miles from the Damascus gate of the old city to the edge of Bethlehem, the city of Jesus's birth. my body breathed deeply. it soaked in the sensation. alone, in a foreign country, a foreign world, already 10 times more foreign than the israel i had left as Amit, my israeli friend with whom i am staying and from whom receiving wonderful Vespa rides, and i had passed into the Arab side of Jerusalem.
it had been nearly two years since i had had that feeling. my body, exhausted from the 10 consecutive nights of 2-5 hours of sleep, found great effect in the moment. my mind had not fully recovered from the lack of sleep, my heart and soul still struggling to understand the spiritual growth that it had undergone in the past week and a half. to answer the ultimate question of Birthright: i do not necessarily feel more Jewish. i do not know if i will consider myself more Jewish. i know, however, that i AM more Jewish, and, most importantly, i walk away with the knowledge that i am a Jew, that i share a history with these people and i share a cultural characteristic that i need not define. i know that being a Jew means something, and that i am many of those things.
but the more significant effect of the trip was this: a religion is a community. anywhere across the world you can look into another Jewish person's eyes and share a moment with them. candles bring two people together, a prayer, a handshake and a hug. how could it be so simple to unite two complete strangers? i know that there are other ways, i know that these lines of identity only seperate the globe; but i also know that there is value in attaching ourselves to these traditions, to this history, ancient as well as recent, if not for the sake of our ancestors than for the sake of us.
these feelings of being Jewish came to me in a number of ways and a number of places. each one could be written in an email twice this length. perhaps the opportunity to write about each experience will pass, but for now i must focus on my recent memory, on yesterday, Christmas day, 2006.
my birthright friends were already well on their way to downtown Bethlehem by the time i passed through the security checkpoint. i walked briskly past the taxicabs waiting to take people on the last leg of their pilgrimage to the holy site, a site i did not realize would be our goal. flying high on solitude i cruised through the Arab city, soaking in the differences-a world apart from the Israel i had been introduced to in the previous 10 days. this was not Israel. that was clear. tea shops and shawarma restaurants lined the streets. a boy in a Santa costume shouted out his version of Ho-Ho-Ho as our eyes met in an alley. a ritzy house had set up a gorgeous manger scene aside a Christmas tree and sang a familiar yuletide tune. an Arab city, a Christian feel, a Jewish occupation. where am i? i thought.
i walked and walked and walked. the views from the high rode on the hilled city showed me dry olive tree terraces in the distance, still inside the massive concrete wall. the city was in decent shaped considering that, as one israeli put it "we bombed the shit out of that place two years ago." there were destroyed structures. we saw one buiding that was nothing more than a shell, with mutiple stories, concrete floors and ceilings but no walls. you could tell people lived there because, instead of the wall, there was a clothesline strung airing laundry. it may snow tonight. this is a harsh reality.
as i came towards downtown Bethlehem the amount of tourists rose significantly. ironically, there were very few white tourists. the massive groups i saw were southeast asian, most likely Philipino, and Indian subcontinent (any thoughts which country...?). it was a mixed bag. i never wouldve expected it.
i glanced up a narrow cobblestone alleyway to the right and saw an opening, a gap, light, a people. i headed up it and found a plaza with a stage that was being deconstructed. the press was there, and hundreds of people gathered despite the feeling that the main event had ended. i called my friends and they oriented me. i walked towards the doorless wall as they had directed me. i came upon a group of hundreds gathered in a circle singing, chanting words i did not understand to a tune i did not recognize. i stopped to gaze but had to continue as i had seen my friend poking out of the doorless wall. we hugged and she said: "your jaw is dropped already...wait til we get inside."
the wall, constructed entirely out of massive stones, did have a door. it was about three and a half feet high and appeared to have been dug out after the construction of the church. i bowed into the building and it opened up into a massive church-room-hall(?). the floor was made up of old wooden planks. there was one section that was opened to reveal the original mosaic floor beneath, the original floor. above us rose massive wooden support beams, the sloped wooden ceilings 4 stories high had windows that let sharp rays of light shine on the lamps that dangled 30 feet below. the lamps had red Christmas ornaments on them...the very same you'd find on any americans christmas tree. the hall aimed towards a massive crucifix, jesus with his arms spread wide. people and candles were everywhere. there was an undeniable buzz in the building. "where am i?" i asked. "this is the church of nativity. this is where Jesus was born." it made perfect sense when she said it.
we found the rest of crew, already a few spots up from the end of the endless line of people waiting to enter into the grotto door. i took the chance to explore the venue while the others waited. still in awe i examined the ancient structure, the Christian paintings, the ornate gold plates, candle holders and grails.
back in line we passed through the first grotto hole and into a smaller room where people lit candles and priests struggled to maintain the sanity of the place. the line funnelled down a set of semi-circular stairs towards an even smaller cave door. the madness of the line increased when it became, not a line, but a group of people 10 bodies wide trying to force themselves into a 2 foot wide doorway. an Arab policewoman kept the peace, and people smiled and laughed as the energy of the group wavered between angry/uncomfortable and happy/excited. a woman shouted and the policewoman asked her to be quiet. we were, after all, headed into a very holy place, the place where Jesus was born. the church had been built upon it many centuries later. the crowd got rowdy and an Arab-looking man, wide and tall in the dead center of the semi-circle of stairs extended his hands at shoulder's hide, snapped them twice then turned his palms down in an attempt to calm the massive group. i liked his effort and we smiled at each other.through the grotto door was an entrance to another world. inside was calm, other than one priest desperately trying to keep the pilgrams from taking pictures of Jesus's actual physical birthspot and, of course, failing to do so. people lined up to get on their knees and pray at the spot. "are you gonna do that?" my friend asked, pointing at the people on thier knees, bowing. "i dont think i can" i said.
next to this cave lay a sunken cave a few feet below, clearly calmer, where several priests held a grail and chanted. i came closer but could not get down the stairs, as others stood there too. i ducked my head, careful not to get to close to the hundreds of burning candles to my right. i heard the prayers and they made sense. it wasnt spanish, but it wasnt too far from spanish. portuguese, italian, latin....? i watched the mild faced 40 year-old holy man lead the prayer. he wore glasses, was unremarkable in his features, but wore a robe of colors, perhaps yellow, instead of black. after the prayer he began to pass out communion wafers. he dipped them in what i thought at first must be holy water but in retrospect represented the blood of Christ. i knew i wanted one but i could not get close enough to him. after satisfying the urges of the people around him he looked up and i flashed my eyes at him. i craned my head even lower towards him, hovering over the people on the stairs below. he held the wafer up towards my mouth and i took it in. i was surprised by the taste of wine, as i had thought the clear liquid was water. the texture was soft and i let it dissolve slowly on my tongue. it was warm with energy.the men continued their prayers and heard them deeply. when it ended, the man in the yellow robe headed out of the sunken grotto and i motioned towards him in this spaceless space. i reached out to shake his hand, not knowing whether he'd even be allowed to shake mine. i thanked him and he met my eyes firmly and deeply. "mi primera vez" i said. he looked into me with a smile, proud of me.
i backed away from the scene, overcome with tears at this point. i knew that what i had just shared with the priest was no different than what i had found amongst my jewish bretheren during the previous two weeks. i knew that this was religion, the simplicity of the connection, the shared moment, the expression of God. i was grateful for where i was and what i had been through, overcome by the feelings of the circumstances that had led me to this trip, these places, these experiences, and this moment. my body began to shake and i thought i was going to faint. i doubled over, hands on my knees and let myself cry. my head began to spin. i found a spot on the stones in the corner of the cave beneath the paintings of Jesus. my body slouched onto itself and i put my head in my hands. i know that i was crying, but at this point that was the only understandable physical sensation. everything else that my body was feeling was completely foreign, previously unfelt. my body vibrated, pulsated. warmth. i no longer shook. i tried my best to let the moment flow, to not be afraid. i knew what i was going through, i knew the reasons for it, i knew where i was, what i had just experienced. i knew my physical state. i knew my mental state. i knew my emotional state. i understood how these entities combined into what i was feeling. but i also knew that there was a point in the feeling where these entities were not the cause. i knew what was really going on.

alone in the corner my face was caressed, as if to calm me. the hands were fuzzy, thousands of tiny feathers extending from the fingertips and palms. this warmth massaged every exposed peace of skin. i was told me that i had come upon something, a truth for me, the secular half and half, the two sides of my family, my self, my soul. it was proud of me.

this lasted for several minutes. i kept thinking it was about to end, hoping it would while at the same time fearing that it would. then it would come on stronger and i would be thankful.when it ended my body was incapable. i tried several times to stand. i still worried that i would pass out.

i walked slowly and carefully through the grotto and found more passageways. i was lost. my friends were nowhere in sight and i knew i was not ready to find them. i found places to sit and rest. around me religious people passed. these caves seemed endless.i went outside when i was ready and found two friends by the exit. they told me that the others were waiting outside. i did not speak. they asked if i was ok and i nodded. my body was shaking.
the next two hours were a blur. i found places to sit while the other bought snacks. i walked slowly and firmly through the medina we had come upon. i floated above everything. i could not speak or look my friends in the eye. i could walk and breath and make eye contact with the locals walking past me. i saw myself in a mirror at one point. i looked like myself.

There is a story that goes like this: there are four children that go to an orchard to play. they fall asleep under an apple tree. they each dream that they see God. the first one sees God and....
the second one sees God and....
the third one sees God and....
the fourth one sees God and....


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