By the time our road travels around Israel were about to end, tension was mounting in Jerusalem. Violence between Palestinians and Israelis had been erupting in the West Bank, Old City Jerusalem, and in Jaffa (Tel Aviv). We had heard awful stories of settlers being assassinated in their car with four children witnessing, civilian stabbings in Jerusalem, and rock throwing protests in predominately Muslim Arab communities. Israeli strangers and friends alike were concerned about our journey, and cautioning us to take care or avoid the old city entirely. So, with great trepidation and a little fear, we entered Jerusalem. Where exactly were we taking our children?
We ended up staying at an amazing hostel – Abraham’s, which immediately made us feel safe and comfortable. After taking a pulse of the current situation, and understanding that life is unpredictable, but that the odds of something bad happening to us were very slim, we decided that we simply couldn’t come this far without visiting the old walled city of Jerusalem. I am incredibly thankful that we made this decision. We ended up going on an extremely informative tour that lasted six hours. Our guide, Gary, was entertaining and very knowledgeable about the city. He enlightened and educated us to its’ rich history, and kept the kids interested. We walked portions of the Via Dolorosa (the path Christ walked with the burden of his cross and halo of thorns) and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcre, where Jesus was crucified, anointed, then buried in a cave before resurrection. We toured Mt. Zion’s Tomb of King David, the Room of the Last Supper, visited the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter, and went through an extensive security check to enter the Temple Mount and see the outsides of the El-Aqsa Mosque and the stunning gold Dome of the Rock. It was an absolutely incredible experience to finally be in Old Jerusalem and feel the weight of history and the emotion that comes with this understanding.
Every day was full of new and brain-expanding experiences for us. On Friday, we raced through the vast Israel Museum, until the last minutes of closing, seeing the archeological wonders of Israel, learning about Jewish traditions, lifestyles, and synagogue design, saw parts of the Dead Scroll in their own dedicated modern building, and were truly amazed by the art collection, housing significant works of art from just about every big-name artist you can think of. With the sun descending and Shabbat only hours away, we walked through the Mahane Yehuda Market to see the bustle and commerce of shoppers stocking up on food and bread, in anticipation of the city’s 24-hour shutdown. We gathered for another tour into the Old City that would focus on the Jewish Quarter and the rituals and prep that would begin before and during sunset. Shabbat is a weekly day of rest that begins with sundown on Friday and ends with nightfall on Saturday. There is no working, no driving, no use of electricity, no cooking, carrying, or turning on and off of lights. Friday night begins with the ritual of lighting a candle in anticipation of darkness, the blessing of wine, and then a big feast with the breaking of bread and sung prayer. This is also the time when large crowds of religious Jews flock to the Western Wall to pray (previously called the wailing wall for the sung prayer). Many people write their own individual prayers or messages for god, on paper, and then stick them in the cracks of the wall. After viewing this spiritual and highly charged ritual, we returned to Abraham’s to partake in our own special Shabbat dinner with the other travelers (including a lovely couple on their honeymoon!).
Saturday was eery, in that we have never been in a city that almost completely shuts down, with the noises of traffic shushed to a low murmur. The Muslims, Christians and tourists are the only ones scuttling about. We took this opportunity to go on another tour to Mt. Olive and the primarily Christian sites in this part of the city, including the location where Judah had betrayed Jesus’s location to the Romans. From a large Jewish cemetery on the mount, we had the perfect vantage point of the Temple Mount in the old city. As we were photographing Jerusalem’s skyline, we heard what sounded like fireworks, or some sort of gun shot or explosion. As our tour ended and we made our way on foot around the city walls and back to our hostel, we passed a cordoned-off area near the Damascus Gate, with many armed soldiers and journalists and cameramen in bullet-proof vests. We soon learned that more violence had erupted in this vicinity a mere hour before our passing, including the stabbing of two special patrol officers and the subsequent shooting and killing of the Palestinian assailant. We tried to shield Stella and Gabriel from the scariness of this event, and hightailed it out of the area as quickly as possible.
There was a sense that the situation was getting worse and more unpredictable. There were obviously those people in our hostel who were staying away from the Old City and any areas with denser crowds, but the large majority was living life as usual. It was only the randomness of being somewhere at the wrong time that made me nervous, but security was amped up. Israel had broadcast an invitation to all civilians to carry their firearms (read: machine guns) in public as protection, in addition to the measures that were being taken by the police and army to safeguard the public. We learned that tourists who did the same Holy City tour we had loved, were not allowed to enter the Temple Mount and see the glorious golden Dome of the Rock, one day after we had.
As Shabbat ended on Saturday night, we still ventured to the Market for dinner, as many locals did, but were happy to return to the safe haven of our hostel. Our final night was spent enjoying the company of newlywed friends and watching a free music concert in the common area. I kept looking at Stella and Gabriel, while they were mesmerized by the performers, and thinking that they had already experienced so much now – including their first concert in a more adult environment. Gabriel bravely went to the front of the band to join in dancing, which delighted the audience and the lead singer, who invited him to stand by his side and clap to the music. I couldn’t help but feel grateful for our travels, and the personal growth and confidence I was seeing in my children.
“Shalom, shalom! Layla tov, Israel.”