Saturday, July 18, 2009

Our Friday Experiences

Friday morning, Neal and I were fortunate to get a personal tour of the Old City by Arnie Draiman. Among other things, Arnie is the Mitzvah Heroes Fund’s Israeli agent. He identifies worthwhile recipients of tzedakah funds, does the due diligence critical to ensure that monies are spent wisely and efficiently, and – in general – helps us keep on top of things. His participation in Mitvah Heroes is critical in helping us achieve our goal of getting the funds people donate to us to beneficiaries in the most timely manner possible. Arnie’s also the guru who designed and maintains our website. So here’s a huge shout-out to Arnie: You rock!

Arnie met us at our hotel at 8:00 am and we cabbed to the Jaffa Gate. At that time, it was still fairly quiet in the Old City. Arnie pointed out some of the defensive characteristics built into the walls – the slits between the stones that enabled the watchmen to see who was approaching; the stone wall behind the wood gates, which necessitated a sharp right turn in order to enter the city – defenders could easily pick off their attackers before the latter were able to completely enter the city.

We began our tour in the Christian Quarter – the streets were narrow; the stone paths the original ones laid so many years ago. In many of the streets, the sun didn’t penetrate. While that made it dark – it also made it much cooler. Arnie took us to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – which encompasses the last three of the twelve Stations of the Cross, the burial site of Jesus, and where the shroud of Turin was laid to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. The church is currently maintained by a number of Catholic orders (I think six, but now can’t remember exactly), each one of which has responsibility for the upkeep and care of a specific portion of the Church grounds.

We walked into one nook where a priest was reciting Mass in English – and I unexpectedly found myself mentally responding as he recited some of the call-and-response prayers. Arnie said it was unusual to hear the Mass in English – I assured him had the prayers been in Latin, I would have also been able to respond. (It’s funny what memories get burned into one’s psyche from an early age.) As we were leaving the Christian Quarter, we saw a man carrying a cross, re-enacting the last steps of Jesus. Just a few steps later, we bought our first souvenirs in the old city from a vendor who gave us a special blessing for being his first customers of the day!

We walked along the outside of the Armenian Quarter next, with Arnie explaining that since the Armenians were the first nation of people to accept Jesus, they were granted their own quarter in the Old City as a reward.

The Cardo is along the “border” between the Armenian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter. It’s an excavation site originally uncovered after a Syrian farmer discovered an ancient map in his field. The map was so detailed that the authorities were certain that under the then-current layer of the city was the Cardo, with its pillars and its original shop stalls still remaining. The Cardo was a main street, running from north to south from the Roman and Byzantine eras. Arnie explained, “In Jerusalem, people don’t own the land beneath their houses, they only own their houses.” We got to meet a wine shop owner, who Arnie knows, who has done some mitzvah work in the past.

Arnie had a mitzvah stop to make along the way – and we were glad to be able to accompany him: delivering hearing aid batteries to an elderly, blind holocaust survivor living in the Jewish Quarter.

One of the most striking differences between the Christian and Armenian Quarters and the Jewish Quarter, to me, was that the Jewish Quarter was more open, less closed in (less claustrophobic?) and consequently, brighter/sunnier than the other two. I asked Arnie why that was. He responded that when Jerusalem was reunified in 1967, the Jewish Quarter needed to be rebuilt from scratch.

Our next stop was the Kotel – the Eastern Wall. It’s the only remaining wall from the Second Temple (expanded by Herod in 20 BCE) and built on the site of the First Temple, built by King Solomon. It’s been a sacred site for Jews throughout the millennia – a place to worship, to ask for special favors from the Almighty, and the destination for Jews who promise each other at the end of the Passover Seder/meal: “Next year, in Jerusalem.”

Although we didn’t go into the Muslim Quarter, Arnie pointed out the Dome of the Rock, with its golden dome designed to protect the rock from which Muhammad left the earth. This same rock is believed to be the place where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac.

Arnie also pointed out the Al-Aqsa Mosque, with its silver dome, where Anwar Sadat worshipped in his ground-breaking visit to Israel to meet with Menachem Begin in November 1977; the Mount of Olives and the cemetery there; and the Arab homes outside the Old City.

We left about 11:00, just as it was beginning to get warmer and busier and returned to our hotel.

After a short rest, and a quick lunch at the Village Green (our second visit in two days – the food is THAT good), we hiked up to Ben Yehuda street to take in the sights and buy some souvenirs (t-shirts and Ahava cream). Much to our delight, we ran into Charlie and Marilyn Bernhardt! We’d known they were going to be here at the same time we were, so it wasn’t a total surprise, but it was great fun anyway.

We ambled back to our hotel, rested some more, and then took a cab to Steve Kerbel’s for a yummy Shabbat dinner with Steve, a friend of Steve’s daughter, and Mark Novak – a talented musician, studying for the rabbinate through the Renewal movement, who happens to be in Jerusalem for several weeks. Mark and his wife Renee (who’s a storyteller extraordinaire) are old friends – they played at our children’s b’nai mitzvah celebrations over 14 and 12 years ago, respectively. An evening filled with energizing conversation, music, good friends and delicious food – a fitting beginning to our day of rest.

Needless to say, we slept well Friday night!

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