Today was our organized trip to Jerusalem with all of the overseas students who are studying at Tel Aviv University. I hope to adequately portray all of the amazing things we did and saw, while also capturing the very essence of how I felt during the trip. It was a spectacular day to say the least. We got onto the busses at around 7:30 in the morning and left the humidity of Tel Aviv behind us as we ventured towards the hot, dry desert like climate of Jerusalem. After driving for maybe a half of an hour, we stopped to eat breakfast at a location just outside of Jerusalem, that overlooked the green, western side of the city.
Once we had all finished eating our traditional Israeli breakfast of egg, cucumber, and cheese sandwiches we were back on the bus and headed towards East Jerusalem. The drive was not so long at this point, and I could literally feel the atmosphere change when we entered Jerusalem; of course it didn't hurt that they played the song Yerushalayim Shel Zachav (Jerusalem of Gold) as we entered the Holy City. It is relevant to note that when I lived in Jerusalem, I lived in the Eastern part (consisting mainly of Arab towns and villages that used to be occupied by the Jordanians before the six day war in 1967), so as we were driving up towards Mount Scopus (Har Hatzofim in Hebrew), and the Mount of Olives, I felt like I had just arrived home. In fact, we actually drove by my old dorm building as we were going to our lookout point on the Mount of Olives. It is no surprise I felt so at home in East Jerusalem; though completely belonging to Israel, most of the occupants of the area are Arab, and you can tell it is old Jordanian territory because none of the shops or signs have any Hebrew written on them; only English and Arabic. It's actually the perfect place for someone like me. It's an Arab neighborhood in my Jewish homeland :-) We finally arrived at the Mount of Olives, got off the bus, and had a view that could bring the most manly of men to tears. In front of us was all of Jerusalem in her glory, with her villages and towns surrounding one of the most holy places in the world; her Old City, with the Dome of The Rock on the Temple Mount, what has become a sort of symbol of the city, glittering magically in the sun.
After admiring the view for a little while, and hearing some fascinating stories about the Old City and why it is such a holy and important place, we were given some time to explore the Olive Mount. Aside from the droves of tourists, it really felt like you were back in time about to begin a pilgrimage to the Old City. There were vendors and street sellers selling books, pictures, carpets, bags, and so on, camels and donkeys were walking around by the control of their owners, and we were looking out over the roads and streets we would soon be venturing on as we made our way to the Holy City. I met a camel and named him Schmitzy (it just seemed very fitting), and I finally gave out my phone number to a Middle Eastern man for the first time in Israel. As the older Arab men were trying to sell their products to the tourists, a very sweet older man found my friend Dana and me and began to try and sell us a book. We clearly didn't want to buy anything, so he said we could just look and then asked us if we spoke any Hebrew. Dana replied that she spoke a little, and then, per usual, I took the opportunity to get in some Arabic when I replied (in Arabic) that I spoke a little Hebrew but spoke Arabic much better. His response, like most of the others I talk to, was WALLA (Really???)!!! And then we struck up a conversation. He asked for my number and said he would call me periodically so that I could talk Arabic on the phone. Naturally I could not refuse such an offer :-) and thus I made my first new Arab old man friend/tutor!
When we were finished on the Mount of Olives, it was off to a place I have never been before; Ammunition Hill. I was so excited to be somewhere new in Jerusalem, and it was one of the most fascinating places I have ever been to. The story about Ammunition Hill is one that truly illustrates God's intentions for Israel to exist as the Jewish state. It was a key battle the secured Israel's ability to defeat her numerous enemies in the 6 Days War. Before 1967, much of Jerusalem, including the East and where I lived belonged to the Jordanians. The Jordanians also had control of much of the Old City, and so, for 19 years after Israel became an independent state (1948-1967), Jews were not allowed to go to the Western Wall to pray; they were denied access to their holiest location in the world. In 1967 The Jordanians, Egyptians, Syrians, and Lebanese declared war on Israel, and in 6 days her army defeated an enemy 10 times her size, with less than 200 casualties. The battle on Ammunition Hill was fought against the Jordanians, and from that battle Israel secured her control over most of the East (Including Mount Scopus, Sheikh Jarrah, Beit Hannina, etc.) and was able to take her forces into the Old City to claim back the Western Wall, Jewish quarter, and Temple mount. Granted this happened only after the Jordanians pillaged and destroyed most of the Jewish quarter, but we prevailed and, Jerusalem was again united under the Israeli state. It was fascinating standing in the bunkers where the Israelis fought, knowing that if the battle was lost, I would probably not be standing in a free Jerusalem today, nor would I be able to pray at the Western Wall.
When we were done on Ammunition Hill it was off to one more look out point that showed us all of the Eastern block of the city, including the separation wall and the West Bank. It looks like such a barren wasteland in places, but I think that makes the feel of the city so much more authentic; we can so much better imagine how Jerusalem must have felt like in ancient times when there aren't McDonalds and huge corporate buildings everywhere.
There was one more stop before the Old City which was very interesting. It was called "The Time Elevator" and it was a virtual simulation movie that took us back in time and showed us all of the important time periods in Jerusalem. We learned about the building and destruction of the first holy temple, the Roman occupation in Jerusalem, the destruction of the second holy temple, the rise of Christianity in Jerusalem, the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem, the Ottoman occupation, the British protectorate, and then independence and the creation of Modern Israel. It was so fascinating to see all of the important history that this city has been apart of, and the best part about the film was the fact that Tople (for those of you who have seen Fiddle on the Roof, he is the man who immortalized the role of Tevye) narrated!! It was amazing :-) After the film it was finally time to go to the Old City!
When we entered the Old City it was not from the usual gate that most tourists go through (Jaffa Gate). We entered through Zion Gate on the back side of the old city behind the Temple Mount. It brought back many good memories for me because when I lived there two years ago, my boyfriend at the time, Jordan was doing a program in the Old City, and he was staying at a Yeshiva directly through that gate entrance. Naturally I spent a lot of time on that side of the Old City with him, and I was so happy I could look back on that time we had with such fond memories. For the first time in a long time, I thought about Jordan and wished nothing but the best for him.
As we entered through Zion, we walked around the inner walls of the city and found ourselves on the back side of the Kotel (Western Wall). This was the way that Jews from all over the ancient world would enter the city to get to the Holy Temple, and we were walking through old roads with remnants of a vibrant market place that both time and conquest had destroyed.
Once we stopped to take the obligatory pictures of where we were, it was off to the front of the Western Wall. Being at the Kotel never lessens in its amazingness. I could go there everyday and still feel like it is the first time that I am seeing this place that has survived thousands of year of battle, conflict, conquest, and tragedy. To be there, and to see Jews praying freely after so many thousands of years of being denied both a homeland and entrance to their Holy site, it is an overwhelming feeling. When we entered the grounds of the Kotel there was a ceremony taking place for firefighters who had won some kind of honor. After the ceremony a beautiful violinist played the national anthem of Israel (Ha'tikvah), and we all stood, looking at the Western Wall, listening to the beautifully haunting tune of our country's anthem, in the Holiest place in the world for the Jewish people. To say it was overwhelming would be understating the severity of the moment.
After the ceremony we were given some free time at the wall, and I was able to meet up with a very dear friend that I had met when I lived in Jerusalem two years ago. It was so amazing to catch up with him and I'm so glad I had some time where we could just talk and spend some time together. He is so funny, he told me that I look different, and when I asked him why, he said, "You're so much darker"! I was clearly very happy he said this :-D. We spent about 20 minutes with one another and then it was time for him to go up North for a wedding, and time for me to head back home to Tel Aviv. I said my goodbyes to him, and one more goodbye to my Old City, and then we were off to a kibbutz for dinner, and then finally home. It was an exhausting day, very long and very hot, but worth every bit of discomfort and exhaustion. It was amazing being back, and I hope that everyone in the world can have the kind of experience I had, and have every time I'm in Jerusalem, even if only just once in their lives. For Jews, Muslims, and Christians, you can't go to Jerusalem and not be swept off of your feet.
Around midnight we finally made it back home to Tel Aviv, I got to my room, took a shower, and went straight to bed. I was so tired I couldn't even blog! I want to say that I already miss Jerusalem so much, which I do, but luckily I won't have to miss her for long since I am going back again tonight to experience my first Iftar! I am so excited to learn about other religions and cultures, and since I am so secure in my faith and Judaism, it is amazing to see how others express their faith through their own religions. It also doesn't hurt that they will have Arabic food and music there :-)