Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: A Remarkable Day in the Old City of Jerusalem

It being my day off, I arranged a trip to Jerusalem. It’s about a 20 minute drive from Ramallah, depending on which check point we go through and whether there are many cars and/or soldiers are stopping folks. Outbound was no problem because the driver knew which checkpoint was easiest to get through; inbound back to Ramallah we were slowed by Friday evening traffic inside the checkpoint.

With the driver, Salah, I did a three-hour tour of Jerusalem and then spent the rest of the day walking around the Old City. On the drive-around I asked Salah to show me: a) areas of the city where Jews and Arabs live side by side; b) walls that have been built to deter terrorist acts and protect Jewish settlements; c) Yad Vashem (the holocaust memorial); and d) a poor section of city (which to my surprise turned out to be Mea Shearim, the long-lived bastion of the ultra-religious – famed or notorious (depending on one’s view) for the stoning of cars driving through the community on the Sabbath.

While the drive-around was very interesting, what really made me want to share this commentary with you was what happened while I was wandering around the Old City. I suppose most everyone who reads this has been to and/or seen pictures or movies of the traditional Middle Eastern souk – the mostly narrow, mostly covered “streets” lined with small shops and/or stalls on both sides. And, that’s where everything I’m about to relate unfolded, as I wended my way through the Christian, Moslem, and Jewish Quarters.

Having walked for a good while, I hadn’t quite focused on the fact that I was on the Via Dolorosa – the route believed to be the one Jesus passed along on the way to the crucifixion – when suddenly ahead of me the passageway became filled with a crowd of people and a voice could be heard reciting incantations via a portable speaker. Turns out I’d stumbled on the weekly Friday Procession, which this time was walking to and stopping at the holy Stations of the Cross. The priest (monk, dressed in full length purple/brown robes?) leading the procession stopped and prayed, joined by those present, at the door of the small stone chapel (station #6) where tradition has it Saint Veronica wiped Jesus’s face with her handkerchief, leaving his image imprinted on it. Don’t recollect any strong feelings about what was happening, save to have noticed the intense expressions on the faces of the faithful as they passed by where I was standing.
After the narrow passageway cleared, I continued down the Via Dolorosa to its end and then turned right in the direction of the Moslem and Jewish Quarters. This street was considerably wider than the Via Dolorosa but, all of a sudden, it too began to fill up with people. This time, however, it turned out to be hundreds of Moslems – men, women, and children – headed home or wherever after Friday late afternoon prayers at the holy Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. While I can’t put my finger on what struck me about the continuous stream of humanity that passed by for many minutes, there clearly was some sort of energy emanating from them that was tied to where they’d been and what they’d been doing.

Everything I’d experienced so spontaneously reflects and captures so much of what Jerusalem is about.

Next was the Jewish Quarter and Wailing (Western) Wall – the only remaining wall of the great temple that was destroyed in the year 70 a.d. – which is now one side of an enormous plaza. It being late in the afternoon and sundown signaling the coming Sabbath, there were already hundreds of worshippers, with more arriving continuously. The religious fervor here was palpable, with large numbers of Orthodox men (the section for women is adjacent to but separated from the men by a partition) dominating the scene with their black garb, ringlets of hair on the sides of their heads (sidecurls), and oversize fur hats – all rapt in prayer, bending forward and back at the waist in short, jerky movements (davening) while reciting prayers.

As all this was coming to an end – my senses filled with the sights and sounds of the preceding hours – and I slowly moved to leave, the thought occurred that everything I’d experienced so spontaneously reflects and captures so much of what Jerusalem is about and why it lies at the heart of the gordian knot that makes peace between Israel and the Palestinian state-in-waiting so terribly difficult and sadly elusive. While the reminders of the historical and cultural diversity are all around the Old City in its churches, mosques, and synogogues, and scores of other sites and buildings, it was stumbling on the people – Christians, Moslems and Jews – “doing their thing” that brought this point home, leaving me with the realization of what a remarkable day it had been.

 


Hal Lippman, a City of Falls Church resident, just returned to F.C. from a consulting mission in Israel.