To Slant or Not To Slant

This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, June 24, 2009 was originally posted on June 30, 2009.

DAY 11:  “Do you have anything in your bag that might look like a knife or a weapon?” asked Yael, the super-friendly, super-knowledgeable tour guide from the Sandeman’s tour company, which ran the Old City’s twice-daily free tour from the Jaffa Gate.  (I opted to pay 75 shekels for a more comprehensive tour that would bring us inside most of the holy sites instead of discussing them from afar.)

“I might have a can opener that might be construed as a weapon, but I’ll check and get rid of it,” I told her.  “I’m just staying over there.”

“Anything like a knife or a Bible, and they won’t let you up Temple Mount.”

I emptied my bag of any sharp or holy objects.

THE OLD CITY OF JERUSALEM is a confusing and overwhelming place, which is why guidance is highly recommended to the first time visitor.  It is a maze of narrow streets that go up and down hills, and everything sort of looks the same, with its countless shops and markets selling t-shirts, kippas, hookahs, magnets, religious paraphernalia, spices, baked goods, fruits, meats, and everything in between.  Amidst the network of walkways lies three major sites of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which Yael would lead me and a group of about fifteen to.

The Old City is divided into four quarters: the Muslim Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, and the Christian Quarter, which expands out to the (Christian) Armenian Quarter.  However, “You can’t go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and do the Christian part of the tour, you can’t go to the Muslim quarter and do the Islamic part of the tour, and you can’t go to the Jewish quarter and do the Jewish part of the tour,” said Yael.  “What’s holy to one religion, you turn to the other side, and it’s holy to another.”  She went on about how the three religions were very intertwined in the Old City and that, “You will see there is a lot more in common with the religions than what’s different about them.”

Yael made it clear that she would be running a historical tour, so as not to slant the information towards any one faith, which was good to hear since I would try and do a non-partisan travel blog.

“Christian site, no hats.  Jewish site, hats back on,” she said.  “Let’s go.”

Finding our way through the crowded maze — crowded mainly by the dozens upon dozens of big bus tour groups jammed into the narrow spaces — we found our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built upon Golgotha, where Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross.  To sum up Yael’s history lesson, Jesus was of course, a Jew and had many followers back in the early A.D. years.  The land was run by the Romans and Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for the Jewish traditional Passover seder (later to be known as The Last Supper), which explains why Easter and Passover are always almost on the same weekend to this day.  Meanwhile, Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of the land, traveled from his pad in Caesarea to Jerusalem, hanging out for Passover for political reasons. 

Jesus was a bit of a larger-than-life superstar, sort of like Barack Obama is today, which (like Obama) spawned good and bad opinions of him.  It was the peacekeeping period of Pax Romana and Jesus was considered a threat to the Roman Peace.  The famed traitor Judas gave Jesus up to Pontius Pilate, which ultimately led to his crucifixion.  Jesus died on the cross — due to the suffocation associated with hanging there (I recalled, according to Mr. Gruber, my Jewish world history teacher at Teaneck High School) — and was taken down and buried into a nearby tomb where he vanished three days later and resurrected according to Christian belief.

That is the gist of the story, but it wasn’t that simple at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which housed not only the crucifixion site, but Jesus’ tomb as well.  Different denominations of Christianity jointly run the church — the Catholic Franciscans, the Greek Orthodox, the Coptics, the Ethiopian Orthodox — and there has been constant bickering since Day One between the factions with their different interpretations of the main story, the littlest things, like the placement of a ladder.  Later I heard someone joke about how they swept their floors onto each other’s section, back and forth, back and forth, like a dysfunctional family.

The church was jam-packed with general interest and Christian pilgrimmage tour groups that morning, with lines wrapping around the corner to enter and venerate the tomb of Jesus Christ.  Rather than wait hours for that, Yael brought us to the tombs of others in the burial site, as a generic example of what tombs were like back then.  After that, things got more complicated because the last I heard from Yael was the phrase “...then leave the Church.”

I GOT LOST.  Yael, or anyone from my tour group had vanished from my sight after I held back a bit to take a photo.  There must have been five hundred people around and I couldn’t find her red shirt.  I left the church and head into the confusing maze, not knowing where I was going.  I followed another tour group with yellow hats, figuring everyone was probably going to the same next location, but I forgot that not all tour companies would take you to the other sites; a Christian tour will slant more towards Christian sites, Jews slant to Jewish sites, etc.  Yael was no where to be found and I ran towards anyone wearing a red shirt — it was as confusing as that basket chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  In the mix up, I got even more lost; I had no idea where I was in relation to anything.  I followed signs to the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site today, figuring they might be there since it was on the way to the entrance to the Temple Mount, which I remembered we’d line up for its 1:30 opening to the public.  I asked for directions back to Jaffa Gate to ask tourist information there, but it was no use.  I ran back to the church and to the Western Wall, passing in and out of X-ray and metal detecting security each time.  Asking different tourist police officers I got the run around as to where they might be, and it was the one time in my life I actually wished that I was one of those follow-the-umbrella tour groups. 

About an hour went by and I made the best of it, still taking photos but confused as to what I was seeing.  That’s why I went on a tour, I realized, cursing myself for losing the group.  It might have not been as bad if not for the blazing sun and me wearing modest long jeans and a shirt in respect of holy sites.  At the Western Wall Plaza, I looked for Yael’s red shirt amongst the yellow shirts of tour groups and the black hats of the Haredi, but found nothing.  Finally I gave up and went to the Temple Mount line up around 1 p.m.

“There you are!” Yael said when she noticed my head pop from behind one of the group.  Despite my frantic hour, I was pretty nonchalant about it (mostly from the exhaustion).


She apologized profusingly for losing me, and told me how she went back and forth and all around the church looking for me, went back to the Jaffa Gate, etc; she had a frantic time looking for me as well, during a drink and food break.  I had missed her explanation of the Western Wall, but that was fine since I’d do a separate tour for that later in the day. 

“I’m so glad we found you,” she said.

“Well I’m glad to have been found.”

HALF PASSED ONE IN THE AFTERNOON STRUCK and the gates to Temple Mount had opened.  There was heavy security there — more than the checkpoints to get into the Western Wall Plaza — for Temple Mount, sacred to Muslims and Jews, has been the site of Christian wackos who’ve used its higher position to shoot at people.  “Despite what you hear out there in the news, [the special police that protect the holy area] is actually a joint effort between the Muslim authorities and the Israeli Police Force,” Yael explained.  In the interest of the protection of holy shrines, the blue-uniformed police, with automatic weapons and a small arsenal strapped to each of their backs, didn’t arguing over the differences in religion.

While the Temple Mount is a holy place for Jews — for within its innards lie the foundation stone of the Jewish world, where Abraham almost sacrificed his own son Isaac — they are forbidden to go up there, unless you are a high priest.  (There is even a warning sign nearby stating the rabbinical law.)  This is for fear of accidentally standing on the sacred spot, the Holy of Holies, which is only allowed to be done by a Jewish high priest.  No matter, these days Temple Mount a.k.a. Haram Ash-Sharif, is associated with being a Muslim site, for atop its raised platform is the iconic Dome of the Rock (picture above), one of the world’s most photographed buildings, a shrine commemorating the spot where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven to chat with Allah (in those days before instant messenger or gChat).  Coincidentally, the Dome of the Rock was built over the possible resting place of the Jewish Holy of Holies. 

“With everything that is going on today, you would think the Muslims built it on top of the Jewish site [on purpose,] but they actually built it as a knock to the Christians,” Yael said.  She explained, that through the layers of Jerusalem’s many historical periods, the Muslims had built it in the late 7th century to outdo the seductive Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to make a shining beacon of Islam that would shine greater than the Christian building.  Ironically, the Muslims hired the Christian Armenians to adorn the exterior, for they were known for their excellent mosaic tile craftsmanship. 

While my inner-Indiana Jones might have wanted to enter the Dome of the Rock for it holds an entry way to the Muslim “Well of the Souls”, it was forbidden.  In fact all of the Muslim buildings upon Temple Mount — the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque — were forbidden to non-Muslims.  No matter, Yael was keen to point out other sites, like the Al-Kas Fountain, a ritual bath for Muslims, and the Christian baptismal ritual bath (the last remaining Christian object on Temple Mount).  Both religions shared the ritual of cleansing, just like the Jews and their mikvahs.  (If A comes from C, and B comes from C, A and B come from C.)

Going in the opposite direction of the Mount of Olives, we exited the Temple Mount and into the Muslim Quarter — where Arabic graffiti welcomed home those who had just made the pilgrimage to Mecca.  We walked through the Arab souk, and then through the Jewish Quarter where they sell Jewish tchotchkes, and eventually made it to the perfect place to end a tri-religious historical tour, Mount Zion, holy to all three of the big monotheistic religions.  We sat in the room of the Last Supper (Jesus’ Passover meal), not far from Muslim prayer halls facing Mecca, the tomb of King David, ruler of the Kingdom of Israel a whole millenia before Jesus, and the tomb of Oskar Schindler, who saved over a thousand Jews from the Jewish Holocaust of WWII. 

Yael concluded the tour at the nearby Zion Gate, famous for the violent showdown during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, with bullet holes gouging the stone walls.  She pointed out the mezzuzah that had been created from the bullets of that bloody day.  “[From violence can come something sacred,]” she said (to the best of my memory).  She ended the tour with some uplifting, unifying message of all three faiths and their co-existence — I really should have been taking better notes to get it verbatim — and ended with, “Thank you all.  Go in peace.”

YAEL’S TRI-RELIGION HISTORICAL TOUR was only contrasted by Moshe’s tour of the Western Wall Tunnels, which sort of slanted things towards the Jewish faith.  That wasn’t surprising since the Western Wall, or Kotel, is the most sacred place of the Jewish faith, the closest spot in existence today to the Holy of Holies, foundation of Judaism.  I arrived at the Western Wall Plaza late in the afternoon, donned the cardboard kippa they gave to the men, and entered the men’s side, which was twice the size and twice as exciting as the women’s side, with it’s manly dance circles, singing and clapping amongst the otherwise quiet Haredi men.  The Western Wall (a.k.a. Wailing Wall) attracted not only the “Black Hats”, who bobbed their heads in prayer, but all Jews, including young black Jews and little toddlers who didn’t know exactly what was going on.

Using pretty cool cutaway models, Moshe explained the history of the Western Wall, how it was merely a retaining wall on the western side of the Temple Mount platform, when the Second Temple commemorating the Holy of Holies was placed two millenia ago.  However, due to wars and the subsequent destruction of the Second Temple, the Jews had been ousted from Jerusalem only to return to nothing but the wall.  Long story short, the wall had become a sacred site as it was the closest they knew of to the location of the Holy of Holies.

Moshe led me and a group of about twelve underground to see the wall from an archaeological perspective.  Some sections were carved out of single huge stones, while others were smaller stonework of a later period.  We walked through the tunnel, stopping at the closest known spot underground of the Holy of Holies for a quick optional prayer, and out to the northwest corner.  Moshe ended his tour with an uplifting story with a slant towards the Jewish people:  “[Napolean said,] ‘A people that remembers their temple for 1800 years is a people that will live on in the future.’” 

The exit spilled out to the Muslim Quarter, and so, we were escorted back to the Western Wall Plaza by two armed Israeli guards for fear of unexpected Arab-on-Israeli trouble — but most of us found it hardly necessary.  Not surprisingly, the presence of an armed escort spawned some political questions to our kippa-wearing Jewish guide.  A middle-aged British(?) man asked about the state of Israeli/Palestinian affairs, questioning why a Muslim in the Muslim quarter might want to cause trouble anyway.  “It’s complicated,” Moshe explained, continuing with how the Palestinians that live in Jerusalem have different tax rules, and weren’t permitted to vote in certain elections (I wasn’t paying attention to the details) and other things that made them appear to be second class citizens. 

“Well, that sounds to me like a reason to be angry,” said the tourist.  I recalled to mind the hassles that Rafif, the Jerusalem-born Americanized Palestinian, had to endure on the El Al flight.

Moshe started getting squeamish, realizing the tourist had a point, but didn’t really have a really good answer for him.  That’s just the way things were.

COMPLETELY “TOURED OUT” BY THE END OF THE DAY, with my head swimming in facts of history, politics, and comparative religion, I went to go visit a familiar face:  Sarit, the American Jewish girl I’d met in Haifa, who had come back to Jerusalem to meet up with me for some additional traveling in the region.  I met her at her dorm room at the Hebron Hostel, in the Arab souk between the Christian and Muslim Quarters. 

“Heyy…” I greeted her; she was in the middle of talking to another girl there: Teresa, a recent Harvard graduate that was on assignment for the much-needed update to the Let’s Go guidebook for Israel and the Palestinian Territories (last update was 2003).  Teresa was a bright and interesting young woman who aimed to contribute to an unbiased guidebook that didn’t slant opinions to any religion or political view.  (Kudos to the writers of the current Lonely Planet guide for doing the same.)  We bonded over our lives as travel writers — deadlines, drafts, and the Lonely Planet Colombia guidebook scandal — which turned into a political discussion with Sarit about slants and propaganda. 

“I’m really glad I got to travel by myself,” Sarit raved.  “You meet the coolest people!”  She was especially keen on seeing Israel through the eyes of an independent, despite her strong Jewish upbringing.  (She kept kosher as much as she could.)  “You can’t really see Israel on a Birthright trip,” Sarit complained.  “Because…”

“It’s all Zionist,” she and Teresa said in unison, stating the shared opinion.  As I’d heard in conversations everywhere in Israel thus far, there’s a reason why the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip is free; Jewish kids are pumped with the Zionist agenda and its strong, Zionist propaganda.

“Like they wouldn’t take you to the Muslim Quarter,” continued Sarit.  “They only show you the Jewish things.”  In defiance of rabbinical law, she had gone to Temple Mount, downplaying the fact that her backpack had the word “hillel” on it.

“People think I’m Jewish,” Teresa said showing off her features.  “[But] I grew up with no religion and hippie parents.  But I had all the Jewish holidays off growing up — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur…”

I smiled at the similarities to my life.  “Where did you grow up?”


“I’m from Teaneck.”

“Oh, so you know how it is.”  Teresa continued, “[Some Jewish woman was telling me to stay away from the Muslim Quarter,] and I just laughed because I told her, ‘That’s my home! I live there!’”  (Her first base in Jerusalem was at a friendly hostel in the Muslim Quarter.)

Teresa continued with more tales of the fear and hatred she had encountered in her weeks of interviewing locals.  “I was talking to this woman [about how to address the Israeli/Palestinian issue], and she was like, ‘They should build a wall!’ and I asked her, well, what if they just come over the wall?  And she said, ‘Then we should put them on a train!’”

Sarit’s face went into an immediate frown — a weird frown that was part shock, part sadness.  In fact, she actually started to cry at the absurdity.  “I’m sorry,” she apologized, a tear running down her cheek.  “I had family that died in the Holocaust, and I’m sure the woman who said that had family that died in the Holocaust, and I can’t believe she would say something like that…”

Perhaps it was because Sarit was in the middle of reading a book about the Jewish Holocaust and had the images of trains of Jewish victims being shipped off to concentration camps fresh in her mind, that Teresa’s story really got to her.  Had the tables turned? I thought.  Did memories of Nazi abuse only conjure up the only solution in that woman’s mind?  Put the Palestinians on a train and ship them away, was she serious?  “I’m going to have nightmares about this,” Sarit said. 

Fortunately the mood was broken when an angry Muslim man scolded me for being in the woman-only dorm room.  Whoops.

“I CAN’T REALLY HAVE ANY MORE HUMMUS or falafel right now,” Sarit said as we walked passed the (Arrest) W. Bush Plaza, a small unkempt garden between Old Jeru and New Jeru.  After I’d been kicked out of the girls’ dorm, Sarit and I left Teresa to work on a deadline and went out for dinner — one that didn’t have the Middle Eastern flair that we had both grown tired of. 

It took over an hour of waiting around with the awful “Israeli Service” at the sushi place we went to.  Sarit was still upset about the train comment.  “You don’t understand, I’m going to have nightmares about that.” 

We caught up on our lives since we last saw each other a whole week before; she had been wandering the country by herself, meeting and talking with friends and new people, without the influence of any tour guide.  She also got a kick out of being a “character” in this on-going travel blog (“The Trinidad Show”), and became conscious that anything she said could be included here.  “I read your equation thing.  [If A comes from C, and B comes from C, A and B come from C.]  It’s so simple, but no body gets it.” 

She continued, “If they only came here and really see what’s going on.”  She had seen more compassion between Israelis and Palestinians than what the media might make one think.  “I feel like everything I’ve been raised to believe is false.  My world’s crashing down — wait, you’re going to write that, aren’t you?”

In the end, it was an eye-opening evening for me since I had come from my own J.B.A. upbringing, but I saw both sides of the issue and tried to remain impartial.  I would strive to continue seeing things from both sides and would join Sarit on her continued exploration of the real Israel — one unfettered by a Zionist slant or a Christian pilgrim tour — and from the other side too, for we would wake up early and go on a trek through the Palestinian West Bank…

Next entry: The Wild, Wild West Bank

Previous entry: Keeping Kosher in the New Jeru

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “To Slant or Not To Slant”

  • Wow that was a long one… hope you enjoyed…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/30  at  05:01 AM

  • My apologies for the lengthiness of this one; I’m jet-lagged and sort of just threw all the information up there from my notes…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/30  at  06:46 AM

  • you can do these same pics here in nyc…minus the churches and temples…

    in fact, i’ll walk to B&H;and get some halal street meat on the way back.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/30  at  05:55 PM

  • Princess Ananna:  I want you to enter the Holy of Holies.

    Zed (Jack Black):  That is quite a coincidence cause I want you to sit on the poley of poleys.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/30  at  07:21 PM

  • An Israeli I was on a boat with last year, in Thailand, a former member of the armed services in Israel, said that the people who get the most attention in the Israel/Palestine discussions are the ones who are the loudest and most violent. He sees what your friends saw, everyday kindness between two peoples who are in close quarters.

    I liked this entry, even if a) you’re tired and b) it is long. :D

    Posted by No-L  on  07/01  at  01:32 AM

  • Sorry I’m so far behind now.  Loved this entry, Erik!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/07  at  07:33 PM

  • @Glo: It is ME who is behind!  Thanks SO much for reading; I’ve been caught up in all the media attention for; I don’t know when I’ll have time to write up the remaining three entries… but I won’t forget!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/07  at  07:41 PM

  • The post is absolutely awesome! Lots of useful information and inspiration, both of which I need! I will bookmark your blog!

    Posted by School Grants  on  10/14  at  06:09 PM

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This blog post is one of sixteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Holla! In The Holy Land," which chronicled a two-week journey through Israel, with jaunts into Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian West Bank.

Next entry:
The Wild, Wild West Bank

Previous entry:
Keeping Kosher in the New Jeru


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