For you, my very good friend, 150 Shekels! I have never sold it for less! (Israel Travelogue VI)

Hearing that Gay Pride was not canceled in Jerusalem, I decided to go back to support my brothers. Regardless of whether you agree with where it was held or not, and the politics and motives behind the march, as I rode the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem the words of Hillel kept running through my head “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” When your brothers are marching on your behalf, placing themselves at risk for you, you march with them. There is never an excuse to not do the right thing. If, what seems like the right thing to do, turns out to be a mistake at least you were not divided and then you can collectively learn from the mistake and rebuild.

Given the current climate in Jerusalem, however, I had to find a new Hostel. Heritage House was no longer an option. Calling home, Mom was able to google a hostel for me called the Citadel. The Citadel is a gorgeous, 700 year old, multi-level house built into the stone walls of Jerusalem, hidden within the Christian Quarter, two steps from the Muslim Quarter and the Muslim Shook.

The Citadel is run by some young Arabs (mid-twenties). Salamon and Faddi, Salamon constantly laughing and smiling and in general, enjoying life. Faddi (his counterpart) mostly looks like a forlorn puppy who’s never had quite enough sleep or quite enough coffee, but will smile if you ask him to in thirty second increments – both, however, are incredibly gracious hosts. For 40NIS a night (10US) you can sleep in a mixed dorm, for 30NIS you can sleep on the roof and see the sun rise over Dome of the Rock (the downside, to this, is that the sun rises at around 5am and the Imam can be heard at roughly 3am for morning prayer).

Not being a morning person, I chose ‘the cave’ which is the mixed dorm at the lowest point in the hostel, far in the back of the building. The Citadel also has Men’s Dorms, Women’s Dorms, and private rooms available for rent. Free Internet, Television, Coffee, Tea and other amenities are provided to their guests and both Faddi and Salamon are always willing to have a conversation with you about pretty much any topic that you want to discuss.

I quickly made friends with three of the other tenants (Kate, Jacklyn and Rudy) and the three of us became a clique for the duration of our stays (as it would later turn out, most of the residents of the hostel were LGBT or ‘Mostly Straight’ or ‘sort of straight’ or ‘straight…but this one time at band camp…’)…ahh Mispucha!

The next morning my new friends and I woke up and made our way to the Western Wall to pray. As Kate went to the Women’s section and Rudy and I went to the Men’s section, on the way there Rudy asked for paper so he could leave a message in the wall too (after we explained the custom to him), and after writing his message, he turned to me to ask – earnestly – if God would listen to a message left by a Goy (Non-Jew) and I was slightly stunned. I took a moment to phrase properly what I wanted to say and told him “of course, we’re all screwed if whatever divine power exists has such low self esteem that they would care if they were referred to as Hashem or Allah or Jesus or Bob” so, with Rudy feeling better about the whole thing, we washed our hands and approached the Western Wall for Morning Prayers.

Meeting up again with Kate and Jacklyn after we finished, we exited the Western Wall and made our way to get to the entrance for Dome of the Rock. Passing through security, an IDF Soldier who was stationed there as a security officer grabbed me by the shoulder to pull me aside and asked me if I knew where I was going. According to the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Jews are not supposed to go to the Temple Mount which is a matter of Religious Law and not Secular Law; so I answered him in the affirmative and he let me pass through. It was courteous of him, seeing that I was wearing a Kippa, to ask me out of concern for my spiritual self.

Walking up a long rickety, wooden ramp, I wasn’t really sure I knew what expect.

Entering dome of the rock is slightly shocking, because it is so calm. Almost perfect silence surrounds you. Footsteps seem to float on ancient rock. All around you are gardens and parks and fountains. Birds perch themselves on lattice fence-work that surrounds many of the fountains and some of the other areas throughout.

As you approach the Dome of the Rock, there are large foot washing stations set into the ground, built out of and into the stone. These foot washing basins are circular, and in the middle of the circle, raised high, plants and trees grow and more birds find homes. Walking up the flight of steps, I left some coins with the beggars on behalf of one of my Muslim Friends (like in Judaism and Christianity, charity too has its place in Islam).

Continuing up a large set of steps, it hits you. The golden dome glistens in the sun and in the mosaic that comprises the outside of the Mosque gorgeous Arabic script becomes art and it comes bursting to life when you hear the Call to Prayer and birds flap their wings as they rise with the call into the sky.

From various steps surrounding the Dome, you can look off into the distance, and all you see around you is beauty…however, sadly, the moment is cut short. Visitors are only allowed for a very short amount of time (if they let any in at all), and we stayed over by ten or fifteen minutes and we were asked to leave. While I’m not yet fluent in Arabic, my Arabic professor did teach me the most important lesson: how to be respectful. So I used what I knew and thanked them (and then asked for directions to the nearest exit).

Leaving Dome of the Rock/The Temple Mount one has a haunting feeling with them.

Later that day, my friends and I participated in the pride march. Everyone in attendance wore respectful clothing, no skin was bare. We marched for the two allowed blocks, and then peacefully dispersed. Jerusalem has not turned to salt, but I can’t help but think that salt might have been poured onto some old wounds…though, while it burns…salt heals as well. 20 Haredim protesters against the march were arrested, one with a bomb.

On Saturday, with Jewish Businesses closed (for Shabbat) Kate, Dave (a new friend) and I went on the Via Dolorosa, and followed the stations of the cross (a somber trip). I felt it was important to go, to get a better feel for the religion that a large portion of my friends find happiness in. The Via Dolorosa ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is considered to be on The Hill of Calvary and also said to contain the place where Jesus was Crucified and Buried (the sepulchre). I lit a candle there for a family friend.

Saturday night we had Havdallah at the Western Wall and we found a traveling reform synagogue to Sing With (…if you can’t sing well, sing loud!) and it was nice to see a synagogue travel together to the Holy Land. It was truly moving experience; though the divisions amongst the branches of Judaism are (sadly) incredibly prevalent and obvious when they all get together, at the same location, for prayer.

Sunday Kate and I woke up bright and early to go to the Tower of David Museum, where we learned about the History of Jerusalem through its birth to how it is today, which was fascinating. I took lots of pictures for my mother (inside are tons of miniature models of Jerusalem that I thought she, as a miniature artist, would like to see and appreciate). The exhibits were well put together and overall, fascinating. I need to rent some more DVDs on the history of Jerusalem though, as I left with the feeling that I got the cliff notes version and would like to see what a Discovery Channel special has to say about it.

After we finished touring the museum, Kate wanted to know if I wanted to join her as she picked up some gifts for her family members in the Arabic Shook; so I said of course.

As we approached each shop, the shop keeper would say “Shalom” and I would respond with “Salam Aleikum” and the shop keeper, would, inevitably ask if I spoke Arabic, to which I would respond that I was studying it at the university (…considering that “I study Arabic at the University in Buffalo” was on every single test I took over two years of Arabic at University, I have to say, it finally came in handy!). The shop keeper would then tell me that I’m a very good friend (it’s amazing how some relationships can be forged so quickly!). Kate and I soon discovered that introducing ourselves in Arabic would knock the price down by a few shekels at each store (if you paid attention to the price quote he was giving a customer who was standing around before you looking at similar merchandise).

Approaching the second store, Kate wanted to buy some tiles for her mother and, it being a breakable objects store, I didn’t go in (Bull + China Shop = Possible International Incident). The shopkeeper came out and we talked in Arabic for a bit (he wanted to know what I had learned in school), and finally he goes “don’t you want to see what’s inside” and I said “no thank you, I’m not shopping” and he says (looking at the band of my linguistics ring on my finger) “Ahh, I see…you let your wife do all the shopping. You do the work, she spends the money…” and feeling no need to dissuade him of the belief that Katie and I were married I said “yup, she even carries my wallet…” When it came time to pay, Kate pulled out her wallet (a large, thick, black, leather wallet) and he just gave me a look of “You poor, poor man” and I shrugged and nodded, solemnly. It’s okay, Kate got a 2 for 1 deal.

The next shop keeper, was, however, my favorite. There are wooden camels, made of olive wood throughout Jerusalem for sale. You can (if you bargain) get a decent sized one for around 10 Shekels. Kate went to purchase one and the shopkeeper says “150 Shekels!!” at which point, we started laughing…it was so incredibly over priced that we couldn’t believe he was serious. So he runs up to us and begins to sing the laurels of this wooden camel, that looks (shockingly!) identical to every other wooden camel we had seen in the shook. He begins to explain to us that this camel is Olive Wood (to which we responded that ALL OF THE CAMELS in the shook were of olive wood). He then tells us that this one wasn’t made in China (to which we responded that ALL OF THE CAMELS ARE MADE IN CHINA) and he tells us that it was carved out of one piece of olive wood (to which we question why, then, a line is running down the middle) and he tells us, that for us, he’ll make us such a deal (“140 Shekels!!”) and at this point, we’re almost in tears, because we’re laughing so hard. We’ve seen this on T.V…we never thought we’d haggle this hard in person. So we finally start to walk out of the store and he follows us as we walk through the shook and asks how much Kate wants to pay for it, so she says “30 Shekels!” and he goes “But I paid 50 Shekels for it!” (which our general response was “then you don’t know how to haggle AND you paid too much!”) so (and he’s still following us through the shook) he finally says “I’ll sell it to you at cost, 50 Shekels!” (and we’re still having none of it) so finally, he offers 40 Shekels (“Because you’re students!”) and Kate accepts…mostly, because we were laughing so hard, and were so tired, that 40 sounded just right at that point…walking away from that experience though, I now know that I’m a good friends with a few shop keepers (actually, I’m apparently a good friend of every shop keeper I met!). I certainly hope they remember that, when I ring the doorbell and ask for a couch to sleep on and for some dinner.

Today I went to Kfar Saba (which, like all the other places I’ve been, is beautiful) to sit Shiva with a friend and I am now back in Jerusalem. Tomorrow I head back to my friends apartment in Tel Aviv for my last full day in Jerusalem. Wednesday night I head to Ben Gurion Airport and will be there by 9PM; I’ll be in the air by 1am, and early Thursday morning my feet will touch ground back on U.S. Soil. This was an important trip, for many reasons, but mainly because it confirmed (to me) that I do want to make Aliyah and that I’m making the right decision…so when I get back home, I start a paperwork process and a the beginning of a new stage in my life.

Salam Aleikum my very, very good friends!

– M