By the time we ate dinner last evening at Al Nasser’s Restaurant in Jerusalem’s old city, we felt worlds apart from the airport in Tel Aviv where we’d landed in the morning. We arranged to meet up with eight energetic students in a tour group from Kent State University. Over dinners of chicken or beef kebabs, they told us what they’d learned about “Settler Colonialism,” the title of the course that was culminating with this tour. And since our trip’s objective included fact-finding on this very subject, we had some animated conversations. More importantly, however, they cleared up some mysteries we’d been wondering about all day.
Why were the streets deserted as the Nesser (taxi) wound its way through West Jerusalem to deliver us to the Damascus gate of the old city? The Kent State students had already been here two weeks and they were pros. That’s easy, they told us. It was Shavuot, the Jewish feast of Pentecost, and Jews were observing the holiday. We saw more evidence as we approached the Western Wall in the afternoon, where we encounted scores of black clad orthodox Jewish men and boys with distinctive black hats. The Russian Jews wore cylinder-shaped black fur hats and some even carried hat boxes with them. Toward evening large crowds of orthodox Jews made their way through the closing markets of the Muslim quarter in the old city presumably on their way to the Wailing Wall once again.
Earlier we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and arrived just as the solemn office for the Feast of the Visitation was ending. Monks from several different Christian sects in colorful robes, one after another, were moving the throngs of pilgrims back as they processed from altar to altar incensing each of the holy sites within the shrine. The church is shared in a complicated arrangement by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Egyptian Copts, Ethiopians, and Syriacs. The young women on our delegation later shared that they were particularly moved by the experience of visiting the sites of Calvary and Christ’s burial.
And of course, our visit coincides with the Muslims’ holy month of Ramadan, still in its first week. As we sat on the hostel’s terrace waiting to go to dinner, we observed an older couple at a nearby table quietly, and tenderly I thought, chopping vegetables and herbs to prepare a beautiful salad. After bringing kabobs to the table they sat perfectly still. Suddenly we heard what sounded like a cannon in the distance and the muezzin announcing the call for prayer from the minarets. At that moment the man and woman lifted their cups of water to their lips and began their meal, and we realized we had been honored to witness this couple’s sacred iftar, the breaking of the fast.
Now after a good night’s sleep I’m sitting on the terrace of our little hostel listening to the racket of the markets in the Muslim quarter opening up. We’ll be visiting with a member of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, CNEWA, today to learn about their work in Gaza and with Rabbi Arik Ascherman this afternoon about his work with Hagel. But for now, coffee, bread, and fruit and some cool morning air.