Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Surprised by Jerusalem

 

A few weeks back, Marie and I took a cruise that visited several ports on the Mediterranean. We started in Rome, then went on to Naples, Malta, Crete, Rhodes, and Cypress. None of them was particularly memorable. In fact, I hated Rome. When Marie and I visit cities, our pleasure is to walk all over the place. But in Rome, in particular, our walks were spoiled by the constant and loud noise of scooters and motorcycles.

Pardon my screed. What I really want to talk about here is the main reason for our cruise, the two days we spent in Jerusalem.

As we rode in a taxi from the main Jerusalem bus station, we moved through the Jewish section, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish section, and finally the Arab section. I had no idea that Jerusalem was so segregated. When we drove through the ultra-Orthodox section, for instance, there seemed to be only ultra-Orthodox Jews living there. That is, every Jew we saw walking on the sidewalk was wearing typical Orthodox garb: black coat and trousers, white shirt, black shoes, and a black hat of some kind: homburgs and fedoras were common, but we also saw a few shtreimels, the large, furry pillbox hat you see occasionally. Almost all of the ultra-Orthodox had ringlets coming down the sides of their faces. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews read the Torah as they walked along, as oblivious to their surroundings as teenagers in America staring at their smartphones.

Our Arab taxi driver let us know that he was ticked off that some of his taxes went to support ultra-Orthodox Jews to study the Torah. I think I would be too. In fact, about 60% of ultra-Orthodox Jews do not work but live off governmental stipends. Their “job” is to study the Torah and the Talmud (commentaries on the Torah). The government stipend is not quite enough to live on, so many Orthodox Jews have wives that work so that their husbands can study all day. I call that a sweet deal.

There are over a million ultra-Orthodox Jews (also called haredim) in Jerusalem. Their part of the population is increasing because they tend to marry within their sect and have large families. Six or more children is not unusual.

Marie and I stayed in an Arab hotel in the Arab section of Jerusalem. As far as we could tell, there were no Christians or Jews in this section. It’s not surprising, of course, that there would be no Christians. Only 1.9% of the population in Jerusalem is Christian. They loom large in the Old City because of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I’ll get to that in a moment.

What we were mainly interested in within Jerusalem was the Old City, just a few blocks from our hotel. The Old City is an area of Jerusalem surrounded by an ancient wall. Within that wall is the Via Dolorosa, the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which contains Golgotha and Jesus’ tomb), and the Muslim Dome of the Rock. All of these spots are within a mile or two of one another.


A section of the Via Dolorosa. The scene is a small visual metaphor, with the Jew and the Arab walking in different directions. This section isn’t heavily commercialized, but you can see purses for sale on the right, and the man sitting on the left is selling something. 

From the Arab section, Marie and I entered the walls of the Old City through the Lion’s Gate, and from there past the 14 Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa, Jesus’ final walk from being condemned to death by Pilate to his execution and placement in the tomb.

The Via Dolorosa is a narrow dark lane full of Arab vendors on each side, some selling crosses and other trinkets to Christians tourists.

We’ve all seen the Western Wall, of course, but when you see it in person in its entirety, the sight is overwhelming. The first thing I noticed was that there is a barrier separating the men from the women. Marie was miffed that the women’s side was so much smaller, despite the fact that there were far more women visiting the wall than there were men.

When I walked up to the Wall, one old man was leaning into the wall sobbing. Up close, you can see all those prayers, written on little pieces of paper, stuffed in the wall’s crevices. (Marie put a prayer in the wall on her side of the barrier.) After a period of time, the authorities come at night and dig out the little prayer papers so that new ones can be stuffed into the Wall.

To the left of the Western Wall is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, within whose walls, according to tradition, is Golgotha (where Jesus was nailed to the cross), the slab where women washed his body, and the cave where his body was interred.


The Tomb of Jesus within the Holy Sepulchre. Notice how busy everything is within the Holy Sepulchre. There is no discernible nave.

As you enter the rather dark Church you are confronted by little buildings, various shrines, chapels, stairways, and crosses, things hanging from the ceiling, and so on. It’s immediately confusing. Because the original church (built by Constantine in 336 A.D.) was destroyed, built up again, destroyed, and so on, for newcomers, it’s a confusing jumble. Six Christian orders control what goes on in the Church, and each has a chapel of its own.

Immediately in front of us (photo to the right) was the traditional slab on which Jesus’s body was washed by Jewish women. To the right is a stairway that leads, according to tradition, to Golgotha, which is now a second-floor landing that overlooks the floor below. We descended the stairway and within a hundred steps or so was the traditional spot of Jesus’s tomb, now enclosed by a 19th-century small building called the Aedicula.

So much is going on that it’s hard to take it all in. At one small shrine when we visited, there were maybe 30 temporary chairs set up in preparation for a service of some kind by one of the six Christian orders.

Not much changes nowadays in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre due to an agreement, called the Status Quo, by six Christian orders (Catholic, Coptic, and so on). In fact, there is a ladder under a window on the outside of the Church, left there by a mason doing restoration work in the 18th century, that hasn’t been moved since it was placed there in 1728. All six Christian orders that control the Holy Sepulchre would have to agree to move the ladder, and they haven’t been able to agree to it. So there it stands. The immovable ladder.

Jerusalem was fascinating, really too much to take in during a short visit. I hope to get back someday.

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There are 32 comments.

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor

    You can tell Marie that the number of men and women at the Wall varies from day-to-day. The divisions aren’t set up to accommodate tourists; they are set up so that people can pray to G-d without the distractions of the other sex, not just so that people can go home and say they touched the Wall. On other days she could go and find the men’s side overcrowded.

    It is an amazing experience being there, though, isn’t it?

    • #1
    • October 13, 2019, at 7:40 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  2. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    You can tell Marie that the number of men and women at the Wall varies from day-to-day. The divisions aren’t set up to accommodate tourists; they are set up so that people can pray to G-d without the distractions of the other sex, not just so that people can go home and say they touched the Wall. On other days she could go and find the men’s side overcrowded.

    It is an amazing experience being there, though, isn’t it?

    Susan, the female side, the smaller side, was absolutely jam-packed, fifteen deep or so. The male side had all kinds of room. I think it reminded Marie of females being short-changed in the number of restrooms at big events. 

    We were there twice on different days and the situation was the same. 

    By the way, Marie did pray at the Wall when she finally got the opportunity — and put a small message in a crevice of the Wall.

    Are you distracted by males nearby when you pray?

    • #2
    • October 13, 2019, at 7:56 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  3. Susan Quinn Contributor

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Are you distracted by males nearby when you pray?

    I rarely pray in a synagogue or schul. It’s not a matter of whether I get distracted or not. When I’m only with women, there’s no reason to be distracted. I think, however, that men are especially distracted by women, so the original thinking may have been to keep the men focused, not the women.

    I can also tell you that the day I was at the Wall, I had no problem approaching it; there was plenty of room.

    • #3
    • October 13, 2019, at 8:08 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  4. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Also, if you were in Israel between Sept. 30 and October 9, those are the Days of Awe, the days of and between Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish days of the year. Since the men’s side is bigger, it could probably handle the crowds a little better.

    • #4
    • October 13, 2019, at 8:37 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  5. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Susan, did you visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? What did you think?

    • #5
    • October 13, 2019, at 8:56 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor

    I visited it when I was on a tour 50 years ago (when I lived in Israel for a year). I have no lasting memories. And since I don’t relate to it religiously, I only passed by it and didn’t visit it.

    • #6
    • October 13, 2019, at 9:02 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  7. Front Seat Cat Member

    Ken – extraordinary pictures and story. Just beautiful! – all of it. Is there a boo-boo in your Constantine date – there couldn’t be a church in 336BC (before Christ)? The pictures made me well up with tears for some reason – the Wall mainly. So much history in one place. I would have bought the trinkets, the crosses, the purse. Did you have some good meals? I LOVE Middle Eastern food, Greek, Lebanese, Jewish – I could eat it every day. 

    • #7
    • October 13, 2019, at 9:21 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  8. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Ms. Cat, thanks for the catch. I’ll correct it. 

    Given more time, Marie and I would have spent more time exploring the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa. And we needed more time in the Church of the Sepulchre. 

    We ate our meals in the Arab section— and had a wonderful breakfast at the hotel.

    Elsewhere, I had pizza and ice cream. I’m not much of a foodie. Marie had fancier food. You and she would get along just fine.

    • #8
    • October 13, 2019, at 9:28 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  9. Arahant Member

    Thanks for bringing us the pictures and story, Kent.

    • #9
    • October 13, 2019, at 11:10 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  10. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Thanks for bringing us the pictures and story, Kent.

    Why you’re welcome, Arahant. 

    • #10
    • October 13, 2019, at 12:00 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  11. Percival Thatcher

    This is a detail from a photo taken in 1890. I’ve seen engravings from the early 1800’s that show it too.

    • #11
    • October 13, 2019, at 3:07 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  12. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Percival (View Comment):

    This is a detail from a photo taken in 1890. I’ve seen engravings from the early 1800’s that show it too.

    Darn that mason, leaving his ladder like that. If he had just taken it with him, the six Christian orders wouldn’t have had to worry about it all these years. 

    • #12
    • October 13, 2019, at 3:23 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  13. Percival Thatcher

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    This is a detail from a photo taken in 1890. I’ve seen engravings from the early 1800’s that show it too.

    Darn that mason, leaving his ladder like that. If he had just taken it with him, the six Christian orders wouldn’t have had to worry about it all these years.

    In ’94* a tourist reached out through the window, hauled in the ladder, and hid it behind an altar. The custodians found it eventually and put it back.


    * I guess that I should specify 1994, to distinguish it from the other two ’94s.

    • #13
    • October 13, 2019, at 4:18 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  14. ShaunaHunt Member

    Thank you! This was a poignant article for me. The beauty astounds me! How truly awesome to visit such sacred places. Thank you for making my Sabbath Day complete.

    • #14
    • October 13, 2019, at 10:04 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  15. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    USAhafan (View Comment):

    Thank you! This was a poignant article for me. The beauty astounds me! How truly awesome to visit such sacred places. Thank you for making my Sabbath Day complete.

    USAhafan, thank you for your kind words. Have you been to Israel? Are you going some day?

    • #15
    • October 14, 2019, at 2:51 AM PST
    • 1 like
  16. Richard Easton Member

    I visited Jerusalem in 1984 in a trip led for a couple of days by Yigael Yadin (he died several months later). One evening, I walked up the Mount of Olives alone and took pictures of the Old City. I don’t know if that would be safe today. It was a wonderful visit.

    • #16
    • October 14, 2019, at 10:21 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  17. Aaron Miller Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    This is a detail from a photo taken in 1890. I’ve seen engravings from the early 1800’s that show it too.

    Cue the action thriller about an elite unit of modern Templars tasked with rescuing the stolen ladder… and the simple old Jewish janitor who mistakenly mops it up when the ancient ladder crumbles into dust… and the Arab merchant who sells them a new antique ladder before the tourists notice anything missing. 

    • #17
    • October 14, 2019, at 10:57 AM PST
    • 9 likes
  18. Stad Thatcher

    KentForrester: Our Arab taxi driver let us know that he was ticked off that some of his taxes went to support ultra-Orthodox Jews to study the Torah.

    Every government supports things not all its citizens are in favor of. In the case of Israel however, an unhappy Arab citizen can turn into a full blown terrorist with one “suggestion” from an Imam at prayer. I worry Israel’s kindness and fairness towards its Muslim citizens can result in their minds becoming posioned to the point they start to contribute to the destruction of this one shining jewel of decency in the Middle East . . .

    • #18
    • October 14, 2019, at 1:53 PM PST
    • 1 like
  19. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Stad (View Comment):

    KentForrester: Our Arab taxi driver let us know that he was ticked off that some of his taxes went to support ultra-Orthodox Jews to study the Torah.

    Every government supports things not all its citizens are in favor of. In the case of Israel however, an unhappy Arab citizen can turn into a full blown terrorist with one “suggestion” from an Imam at prayer. I worry Israel’s kindness and fairness towards its Muslim citizens can result in their minds becoming posioned to the point they start to contribute to the destruction of this one shining jewel of decency in the Middle East . . .

    But the alternative could be worse, i.e., treat them poorly . . .

    • #19
    • October 14, 2019, at 1:57 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  20. Kim K. Member

    My husband and I visited Israel on a travel agent trip with TWA in 1988. We had a great time and your descriptions bring back memories. I would like to return now that I’m a little (haha) older. Back in ’88 we left a 2-year old with grandma and were worried about running out of cash before the trip was over.

    • #20
    • October 14, 2019, at 6:59 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  21. ShaunaHunt Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    USAhafan (View Comment):

    Thank you! This was a poignant article for me. The beauty astounds me! How truly awesome to visit such sacred places. Thank you for making my Sabbath Day complete.

    USAhafan, thank you for your kind words. Have you been to Israel? Are you going some day?

    I have never been to Israel, but I would love to go there. Some day! We have been studying the Bible for the last two years at church. We’re studying the New Testament now. I want to see all those places. I want to walk where Jesus walked. I would love to go to the Wailing Wall and pray there.

    • #21
    • October 14, 2019, at 7:06 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  22. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    USAhafan (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    USAhafan (View Comment):

    Thank you! This was a poignant article for me. The beauty astounds me! How truly awesome to visit such sacred places. Thank you for making my Sabbath Day complete.

    USAhafan, thank you for your kind words. Have you been to Israel? Are you going some day?

    I have never been to Israel, but I would love to go there. Some day! We have been studying the Bible for the last two years at church. We’re studying the New Testament now. I want to see all those places. I want to walk where Jesus walked. I would love to go to the Wailing Wall and pray there.

    I hope you’ll get a chance to go some day . I was 81 when I finally got there.

    • #22
    • October 14, 2019, at 7:35 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  23. Man With the Axe Member

    The reason that the orthodox neighborhood is so devoid of any non-orthodox Jews is that the two groups really don’t get along. I heard a university student of my acquaintance say (this was in 1974) that he wished that during the next war that the Israeli army would let the enemy invade into the orthodox neighborhood (Mea Shearim) and after its denizens were wiped out, only then push the enemy back behind the current borders. 

    That macabre joke was his way of expressing his disdain for people who, as you describe, are somewhat parasitical on the Israelis who both work hard and also serve in the army most of their adult lives (including reserve duty). 

    I’m going back there just for a couple of days next week. I haven’t been there since 1974 and I’m expecting a lot of changes, everywhere except in the Old City. 

    • #23
    • October 14, 2019, at 10:36 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  24. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Man With the Axe (View Comment):

    The reason that the orthodox neighborhood is so devoid of any non-orthodox Jews is that the two groups really don’t get along. I heard a university student of my acquaintance say (this was in 1974) that he wished that during the next war that the Israeli army would let the enemy invade into the orthodox neighborhood (Mea Shearim) and after its denizens were wiped out, only then push the enemy back behind the current borders.

    That macabre joke was his way of expressing his disdain for people who, as you describe, are somewhat parasitical on the Israelis who both work hard and also serve in the army most of their adult lives (including reserve duty).

    I’m going back there just for a couple of days next week. I haven’t been there since 1974 and I’m expecting a lot of changes, everywhere except in the Old City.

    Mr. Axe, I’ve read that one ultra-ultra-Orthodox sect is adamantly opposed to the Israel government itself. Their stance has something to do with the coming of the Jewish Messiah. 

    Are you Jewish or Christian? I’d be curious to hear about your reaction to the interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was fascinating — but also crowded and confusing to me.

    • #24
    • October 15, 2019, at 3:54 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  25. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge

    KentForrester: There are over a million ultra-Orthodox Jews (also called haredim) in Jerusalem.

    Thanks, Kent, for the lovely post.

    Just for the record, the total population of Jerusalem is around 900,000, of whom approximately 320,000 are ultra-Orthodox Jews, 260,000 national-religious to secular Jews, and 320,000 Muslims.

    • #25
    • October 15, 2019, at 11:13 AM PST
    • Like
  26. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    KentForrester: There are over a million ultra-Orthodox Jews (also called haredim) in Jerusalem.

    Thanks, Kent, for the lovely post.

    Just for the record, the total population of Jerusalem is around 900,000, of whom approximately 320,000 are ultra-Orthodox Jews, 260,000 national-religious to secular Jews, and 320,000 Muslims.

    Yehoshua, don’t forget the Christians, about 1.9% of the population.

    I must have misread the population stats of Jerusalem.

    • #26
    • October 15, 2019, at 1:01 PM PST
    • Like
  27. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Yehoshua, don’t forget the Christians, about 1.9% of the population.

    I wish there were more of you instead of . . .

    In Bethlehem, many Christian Arabs whose families lived there for generations have fled, unfortunately.

    • #27
    • October 15, 2019, at 3:11 PM PST
    • 1 like
  28. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester Post author

    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Yehoshua, don’t forget the Christians, about 1.9% of the population.

    I wish there were more of you instead of . . .

    In Bethlehem, many Christian Arabs whose families lived there for generations have fled, unfortunately.

    Yehoshua, I’m a child of my parents, who were almost entirely secular. I identify with Christianity (my wife is a Christian), though I am not a Christian myself. I’m also an enthusiastic supporter of Israel and have always voted for candidates who let their support of Israel be known. I cheered when Trump said the U.S considers Jerusalem to be Israel’s legitimate capital.

    I even have a grudging respect for ultra-Orthodox Jews in their devotion to the Torah, though I also sympathized with my Arab taxi driver’s resentment that his taxes went toward supporting, in the form of governmental stipends, the 50 to 60% of ultra-Orthodox men who don’t work and instead study the Torah.

    As you know, the practice is controversial in Israel, even among practicing Jews, and especially, of course, among Arabs. I suspect the practice won’t survive the next generation. What do you think about all this?

    I see that, though born in the U.S., you now live in Jerusalem. I assume you live outside of the Old City. Have you visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? It’s an amazing place.

    As I mentioned in my post, I think Jerusalem is a fascinating city. We’ve visited many cities in the world, but none in our minds is as interesting as Jerusalem. Marie and I hope to return some day for a longer stay.

    • #28
    • October 15, 2019, at 3:58 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  29. ShaunaHunt Member

    BYU has a place called the Jerusalem Center there. (Latter Day Saints don’t proselyte there because it’s illegal.) It’s used for Middle Eastern studies. Latter Day Saints have a lot in common with Jews. I’d love to visit there, too.

    • #29
    • October 15, 2019, at 8:27 PM PST
    • 1 like
  30. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Coolidge

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    I even have a grudging respect for ultra-Orthodox Jews in their devotion to the Torah, though I also sympathized with my Arab taxi driver’s resentment that his taxes went toward supporting, in the form of governmental stipends, the 50 to 60% of ultra-Orthodox men who don’t work and instead study the Torah.

    As you know, the practice is controversial in Israel, even among practicing Jews, and especially, of course, among Arabs. I suspect the practice won’t survive the next generation. What do you think about all this?

    Regarding stipends to study Torah, I am of two minds. On the one hand, I think all people should work to support themselves. On the other, Torah study is what has preserved the nation of Israel throughout the generations. That being said, more and more ultra-Orthodox are integrating into mainstream Israeli society and increasing numbers are joining the IDF. Changes of this kind are gradual but, I think, inevitable.

    I live outside the walls of the old city. Interestingly enough, there are two young Christian women from the US who rent the apartment opposite mine. They work for an organization that is extremely pro-Israel and sees its mission as bringing Christians closer to Israel. They are so positive about Israel, I wish more American Jews felt the way they do.

    • #30
    • October 16, 2019, at 10:42 AM PST
    • 7 likes
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