Israel didn’t come down on me as a huge wave of sun, old stories and warm air, as I used to imagine before. It didn’t tempt me to give up everything and immediately move there. Our first encounter in Ben Gurion Internatinal Airport felt like a business meeting: hi, how are you, welcome, here is the exchange, here is taxi, here are the shuttles, 64 shekel, you are welcome.
In Jerusalem the feeling gets warmer: in a cozy neighbourhood with not very cozy name “German Colony” I am really welcome by the mother of my friend Naomi. She is feeding me, giving me books about the country, she takes me for a beautiful walk. Outside, there is Sabbath afternoon: the doors and curtains closed, people are having their midday rest after going to synagogue.
We are walking along the boulevard stretched along the old rails that used to connect Tel Aviv and Jerusalem around hundred years ago. Now citizens are strolling here with their children and students play guitar on the lush lawn. Passing by the old station building and a dozen of cafes and bars waiting for the sun to set, we find ourselves next to the Bible Hill. On its other side there is a picturesque residential neighbourhood Yemin Moshe. Light-yellow facades drowning in bougainvillea and rosemary bushes, olive trees and cypresses on the gentle sloping hills give me a striking flashback about Rome.
We walk towards the Jaffo Gate. I’m waiting for God to start talking to me, but God is silent. Naomi’s mother has to go and leaves me tete-a-tete with the old town. I walk through the gate and find myself in the very heart of this region and its history that might never judge societies and governments. The Old Town is a heart: two atriums and two ventricles, the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian parts are interconnected through the valves of markets, doors, gates and street eateries, but at the same time they are separated by the septums of walls. The average height of the walls in the Old Town is around 12 meter, and for me it is a bit too suppressing. Next to the Western Wall of the Second Temple a young Jewish girl is praying, her face relaxed and nonchalant. Several Russian speaking ladies are jostling and pushing each other with pieces of paper in the palms of their hands. An Indian girl is falling on her knees in despair. “Hey, this is not a church, stand up. Stand up!” A Jewish lady is pulling her hands and takes her up. Later on, after I come home embittered and a bit confused, Naomi’s mother is telling me mildly: what if somebody would come to your church and started praying in his/her own way, which is different from yours? But my church didn’t even need someone doing namaz. The internal conflicts are blooming as the flowers at the altar. “The ones who need to bless the candles, go here! The blessing from the priest is there!”, the Russian speaking guide is showing the direction to her group with bright yellow stickers on their clothes. The parish of six confessions is slowly dragging its feet in a huge queue to the Holy Tomb in the Church of Holy Sepulchre. The believers shove each other next to Golgotha and try to get blessing from the all possible holy fathers. A skinny monk is modestly offering me the bunch of 33 candles for 50 shekel. Outside you buy the same bunch for 20. “Those one have a special hallmark”, smiles the monk. Oh, if Jesus was here, he would really appreciate the irony, being a huge fan of trade in the God’s temple…
I wait for the God to start talking to me, but he is silent.
Maybe that’s why the Museum of Israel seems to be a real temple for me. I spend there the whole day, from the very opening till the closing. And I still don’t manage to see everything. In some halls I get the flashback from the history lessons in the 6th and 7th grade, and my heart fills with warmth. Mummies, the rings of Ramses II, the artifacts with depictions of Thoth, Seth, Osiris. The ancient mails to the pharaoh that look like hieroglyphs carved in the heavy stones. I’m giggling as I think about jealous ancient girls throwing hundreds of sms like this to their infidel men. Those words must have been really heavy!
Greek amphorae. Roman sculptures. Arabic paintings. Synagogues brought to this very museum from different corners of the world. Almost every item is a gift from well-doing Jewish families abroad, in commemoration of their ancestors. Around 3 PM I start getting tired, but the mean museum is throwing away Picasso, Kandinski, Van Gogh, Monet and the other dozen of world famous names and paintings. As I am done with them, the Shrine of the Book pops up in my mind, a building complex slightly resembling to a gracious alien ship that landed next to Kaaba. It keeps the Dead Sea Scrolls, the first manuscripts of the Bible found in the Judean desert. Of course I need to see them!
Having examined the ancient scrolls written in the dead languages, I go outside, fall on the bench, stretch out my legs and squidge a rosemary twig in my fingers. The scent reminds me on Rome again, and I officially feel hungry.
In the Eternal City I was mercilessly eating all possible kind of pizza. In the Holy City the invisible presence of my friend Naomi didn’t give me a chance to eat monotonously and boring. Mahane Yehuda Market was my main food spot during the stay in Jerusalem, and there was no dish I ate twice. Jachnun Bar, Beer Bazaar, fish kiosks, stalls full of fruits, nuts and sweet delights were so much more than just daily bread!..
On my third day one the Land of Israel, I, with my pockets full of above mentioned nuts hit the road to the Judean desert. I want to see the sunset from the Masada fortress that was built by that very King Herod, who was a strong statesman, really took care of urban development and was into strict preventive measures (a.k.a. the Slaughter of the Innocents). The trip is organized by amazing people from Abraham Hostel. The 11 sunset lovers from 8 countries are brought to the foot of the mountain with Mad-Max-style fortress and cable car station above. The desert is silently breathing around us. We start walking up, the lights guide us.
In some 20 minutes the skies are quite pinkish, a tur with round horns is making his morning promenade near the very abyss, and merry Americans are not that merry anymore. In another 10 minutes everybody is nestling at the ruins, prepared to witness the miracle. Cameras are snapping, chips packages riffling, birds twitting, their voices sleepy. And suddenly the God speaks up to me.
We finish the conversation, as the sun has already taken its flushing cheeks outside and started its daily race. The first cabin is sliding toward the citadel. It’s time to move towards the next destination: Ein Gedi oasis and National Park. While driving rapidly along the perfect road, the guide from the Levites dynasty is informing us about the craters that can appear just in the middle of the road and suddenly suck people and places inside. On the right, we see an abandoned village and a cut off piece of road: once the desert had them for lunch. Inside of the National Park Ein Gedi nobody is allowed to have lunch, so people consume their foods on the benches next to the entrance. In the oasis, deer and turs are sharing the grass, busy-looking marmots are looking for the shadow, the birds are hiding from the sun in the trees, and we next to the waterfalls.After couple of hours of walking and chilling we are ready to depart to the Dead Sea. Every year its coastline is getting one meter larger, and I’m glad to see it still alive. The colour of water and the landscape around resemble to Tbilisi Sea, but as the water mildly kicks me under the knees and embraces in its incredibly salty womb, I have no doubt: this is that very Dead Sea!Being surprised by the oily afterfeeling of the waters, I covered myself in healing mud, dried, washed the mud away and finally understand two things: 1) my skin used to be that soft approximately 20 years ago, 2) I can be a good chaser for tequila. Well done! Time to leave back to Jerusalem.
Walking to my friend’s home along the old rails, I feel immense gratitude to this family and think about the other sea and the other friend’s family that await me tomorrow. The road will lead me to the North: first to Haifa and Nahariya, and then to Tel Aviv. The harbour cities are usually more secular, so the upcoming religious holidays and another Sabbath are not worrying me at all; I rather look forward to experience them. The thoughts of secularity gives me a kind of relief, as I am preparing to leave this tight knot of world religions and convictions, framed by the walls of yellowish stone and smelling like mirth and rosemary.