Tuesday, December 29, 2009


On the fifth night of being a tourist, things start to get confusing. In the shower this morning it took me a few moments to remember, what on earth did we do yesterday? To remember, I start with the country, zero in on the city, and then go by the internal body sensations: are feet hurting? Have I been walking, climbing or sitting? How's the stomach? Did I eat street foods, did I feast for dinner? Eventually, I flash on a memory: dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant where they serve milkshakes by water pitcher with my cousins Steven and Galia. Steven has moved to Israel from England 20 years ago and Galia has been here as long as I have been in the US. On the way back from the restaurant, she showed us where the divide used to be in 1967 between Israel and the kingdom of Jordan, where the tanks stood. Apparently, the place where our hotel now stands was already on the Jordan side of the border. They told us some stories about local politics, like for example the time before one election when the party of the Holocaust Survivors had to combine TV ad time with the "Green Leaf" (potsmokers) party, because individually they didn't have enough votes to qualify for free TV time. They also recommended a book, "Enchantment," by Orson Scott Card, a novel that manages to combine Russian fairy tales and the modern United States immigrant narrative and puts Baba Yaga on the streets of Manhattan. Can't wait to read it!

Once I remember the dinner, the rest of the day falls into place. In the morning, we took the Arab bus (there does seem to be two separate bus systems here) #75 to the top of the Mount of Olives to enjoy the famous view of the old city, the view that can be seen on countless paintings and frescoes in all of the museums in the world. Panorama of the Mount of Olives is a bit of a tourist trap: there are all kinds of sketchy vendors there, offering to sell us "old coins" and pictures of the old city. Kostya told one guy, "I've just made a picture like that myself," and the guy came back with: "Give it to me, I'll sell it for you!" There's also a camel sitting there, waiting to be photographed with the tourists. The slopes of the Mount of Olives and the neighboring hill where the old city is houses a giant Jewish cemetery. According to an old Jewish legend of which I know only a very sketchy version, the Eastern Gate of the Old City is the one that's supposed to open with the second coming, and the people who are buried the closest to it will be first in line to -- go to heaven? meet the prophet? be saved? Some of those gravestones themselves are hundreds years old.

We sloped the hill downwards, walking between the majestic olive groves that cover the part of the Mount that's not a cemetery. One of these gardens is a famous Gethsemane garden where Jesus had his last supper. The stories of Jesus acquire in Jerusalem a very neighborhoody feel: Oh, have you heard about that guy, Jesus? He's getting everyone together for a big dinner in that garden just outside the Eastern Wall tonight. Come, hear him preach! All the stops on Jesus's route in those last few hours before his arrest and trial and crucifixion are known and marked on the map of Jerusalem (although, granted, different Christian confessions mark a little bit different spots for one and the same event), and one could tour Jerusalem with the map that makes all these different stops tracing his route. But we went back up to the old city, past the City of David, and entered through the Dung gate that leads directly to the Wailing Wall. Dave delivered his grandmother's note to the wall, and then we meandered our way through the bazaar to the Christian quarter to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one that supposedly marks the place where Jesus hang on the cross. This was a surprise: for some reason, I've always had the idea that the cross stood on a hill outside the city. Perhaps, because my knowledge of Jesus story comes primarily from two sources: Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical, "Jesus Christ Superstar" and Mikhail Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita."

We met up with my parents outside the Church (they did not go with the rest of us to the Mount of Olives), together had lunch at a restaurant built into one of the ancient market stalls in the Christian quarter. The restaurant was called "Amigo" but apparently without a reference to Mexican cuisine, and while sitting there I realized what Jerusalem reminded me best of all were the One Thousand and One Night tales, Ali Baba's cave and all the movies like Aladdin, preferably without Robin Williams. We've heard the Moslem call to prayer at least three times in the course of the day yesterday. I couldn't quite tell whether it was coming from one central location or if it was redistributed between several different minarets of the city. Dave tells of his experience of Old Jerusalem and the rest of it on his blog.

After lunch, we shopped. The bazaar is a Borgesian labyrinth, and the merchants take their bargaining very seriously, perhaps not quite like a matter of life and death, but if you bargain them down from 300 shekels to 25 and then still refuse to buy, they will curse you out of the store. Primary rules of bargaining: be sure what you want to buy and how much you are willing to pay for it.


  1. I love your stories, keep posting.
    When I was in Jerusalem and went to Gethsemane Garden, I had a strong impression I knew how Jesus' last supper was. I was "in that mood", you know. :)

  2. As long as you didn't think you *were* Jesus.. It's apparently a thing, called the Jerusalem Syndrome (came across it on Wikipedia)! :))

  3. my kids have all gone through a Godspell fixation: believe the show originated in the Cathedral of St John the Divine and the movie made great use of NYC locations (Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge, even the twin towers, which must have been brand new) and when Caroline was really little --2 or 3 and at the height of her fixation-- we took her to Bethesda Fountain where she truly expected to SEE Jesus there (John the Baptist finds him there and everyone gets baptized