R-D Reporter in Israel, Part 4

The following article was originally published in the Pocahontas Record-Democrat on July 6, 2011, and is reprinted here by permission.

By Kirsten Ekstrand
As long as in the heart within
A Jewish soul still yearns,
And onward, towards the ends of the east,
An eye still looks toward Zion;
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

    The text of Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikva,” penned by Naphtali Imber, was likely on the mind of every member of our choir as we travelled up to Jerusalem. It captures perfectly the essence of a Jewish longing for the homeland, and brought tears to the eyes of our audiences as we performed it in concert.
    In May, I had the opportunity to tour for two weeks in Israel with the Women’s Concert Choir of Moody Bible Institute, an accredited college in downtown Chicago. In a June 15 article, I wrote about our concert ministry, and on June 22 and 29, the sites we visited during the first week of our tour. Today’s article will take us to Jerusalem.
    After our choir had visited one last site on the way to Jerusalem, we climbed in the bus and started our first journey upward. Israelis always say you go “up to Jerusalem,” regardless of the starting location. Part of this is due to the city’s location elevated location, but the phrase also stems from the city’s importance in terms of Jewish faith.
    My first view of the Holy City came out of the bus window. Like most cities in Israel, the houses were made of white stone, all blending together in shades of whites and tans. A single splash of color rose from the center of the city: the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine which has become the center of conflict for three religions.

Kirsten stands on the Mount of Olives with the city of Jerusalem behind her.

    WE HAD A CONCERT that evening, so we quickly dropped our luggage off at the hotel and boarded the bus again, headed south to Bethlehem. Bethlehem and Jerusalem are a mere five miles apart, but it probably took us over a half an hour to travel the distance.
    One of our chaperones was born and raised in Bethlehem, but immigrated to the U.S. over twenty years ago. Coming back now, he was saddened at the changes that have happened. He used to bike from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Now, as we drove the same route, we passed the fence separating Israel and Palestine, and went through a checkpoint to be allowed to enter the territory. Because our bus driver was Israeli, we had to switch buses at the border. Israeli citizens are not allowed to enter Palestine.
    I was confused at first as to the difference between Palestine and Israel. While the two-state solution is long and complicated, the simplest explanation is that Palestine is still part of the country of Israel in a technical sense, but it is governed by the Palestinian Authority. As American citizens, we did not need to show our passports or have them stamped to enter Palestine, although we had to be prepared to do so, to prove that we were not Israeli. We were not entering another country, but rather entering a part of the country controlled by a different political entity.
    While we were in Palestine, some of the rules changed. We were told to forget all the Hebrew we had learned in the previous week. (For me, that meant “thank you,” “good morning,” and “peace.”) All of the Israeli melodies were taken out of our concert program for the night, particularly “Hatikva.” We wanted to be sure not to offend the people we were trying to encourage.
the region are saddening and confusing, the people are beautiful. We sang at an Arab church that night, and interacted with some of the local Palestinians. Their sweetness and hospitality was incredible. From what I understand, in many ways the Arab Christians have gotten caught in the middle of the conflict, many of them confined to Palestine as government authorities try to find a solution. The truth of the matter is that no one can freely access all parts of Israel, and Israelis and Palestinians all suffer for it.
    As a tourist, while I understood the danger was there, I never experienced any of it personally. We were told that we were safer in Israel than we are in Chicago. For those who see that as a negative reflection on the city of Chicago, I’ve also been told that one is more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport than in a terrorist attack in Israel. With a little street smarts and caution, we were safe in the Middle East.
    We traveled safely back to Jerusalem that night, and the next day began our exploration of the city’s sites. It opened with a lazy morning and a chance to get Israeli coffee at a nearby Aroma Coffee Shop. As a coffee drinker, and a lover of the gourmet, I have to say that the Israelis know how to make an iced coffee like no one else.
    Interestingly enough, Israel’s coffee, chocolate, and ice cream are some of the citizens’ favorite foods. Like America, the nation of Israel is something of a melting pot. With Jewish people immigrating back to the homeland from all over the world, they bring their other cultures with them. We were taken to dinner at a Chinese restaurant by one church, and a friend and I bought French crepes on Ben Yehuda street one night in Jerusalem. The men’s prayer caps show this influence as well; I saw them with all kinds of embroidery including the Chicago Cubs logo.

The Wailing Wall is the only remaining wall of the temple mount, and is as close as the Jewish people can get to the site of the ancient temple.

our first stop the next day. The only remaining wall of the temple, this is the closest place the Jews can get to the Temple Mount, which is under Muslim control. As such, it is a place of worship. All day long, Jews and Christians come to the wall to pray. The Jewish people believe that God’s presence always rests at the temple wall, and they are waiting for the day when they will be able to rebuild the temple itself. Pilgrims come from all over the world and tuck prayers into the wall, believing that anything prayed there will be answered.
    I didn’t tuck a prayer in the wall, but several of us in the choir took time to go and pray. While a special place is not necessary for God to hear my prayers, experiencing the reverence at the wall was a beautiful thing. No one treats the Wailing Wall with flippancy. Many walk backwards away from it so as not to turn their back on God. People travel here, not because it is the temple, but because it is as close as they can get. That kind of urgency gave me food for thought.
    After the Wailing Wall, we traveled to the Jerusalem Archaelogical Park. The focus was still on the temple, as this park is the location of the southern steps of the temple, only discovered in recent years. These steps would have led up to the temple mount, toward the temple walls. The steps were uneven, but we were told that is intentional, as a way to prevent the walk to the temple from being done in haste.
    In the midst of the gravity and reverence, we were frequently stopped by street vendors. Postcards for one dollar, scarves for ten shekels, an offer to ride someone’s camel. It’s safe to say that the Israeli tourism industry makes quite a bit of money on Christians every year. We stopped to shop for a few minutes, and I learned that for once, it’s a good thing to be an indecisive shopper.

A street vendor makes a French crepe on Ben Yehuda street in Jerusalem.

scarves, trying to make up my mind. Is this one prettier, or that one? An anxious shop owner kept coming over and asking if I would buy one. By the time I had made my selection, he had cut his price in half, wanting to keep my business. Other vendors were not so willing to bargain, setting a price and sticking to it. I had to learn not to start my offer too low, because some of them would take offense.
    As we observed the culture and sites in Israel, there was one visit we could not afford to leave out, a museum where fifteen minutes inside was enough to open the door to a whole new set of questions, and a far better understanding of who the people of Israel are.
    Yad Vashem, “a memorial and a name,” is a museum erected in memory of the Holocaust. As difficult as it was to read about this genocide in high school history books, nothing compared to walking through the museum. Every step, every exhibit was an account of the depravity of mankind.
    One exhibit would have tools used in a concentration camp. Another would give a name and a face to a Jewish man who was killed. Another would name a child who never had the chance to live beyond the age of six. The next exhibit would have newspaper clippings illustrating the callous nature of the perpetrators, or the people who sat idly by, doing nothing until they realized it was too late.

process these atrocities, I found myself unable even to cry. I cannot comprehend how 6 million Jewish people were killed while the world looked on. Yet seeing their pain helped me to grasp who they are as a people, and why they so fiercely hold on to their land.
    The Holocaust is one of the only reasons the land of Israel exists today. One of our professors remarked that “for a few moments, the pity of the world was on the Jewish people just long enough to give them the state of Israel.” Israeli immigration laws are based in large part on the Holocaust. One Jewish grandparent was enough to be considered Jewish for the purposes of Germany; one Jewish grandparent is enough to be able to immigrate to Israel.
    After years in exile, the Jewish people’s longing for a homeland was fulfilled. I’m not sure if that’s a rose among the thorns of the Holocaust, or if there could have been an easier way.
    Even now, as it stands, the life of the Jewish people will be ripe with conflict for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the solution is as simple as they say:
    Pray for peace in Jerusalem.

For the final article in this series, go to R-D Reporter in Israel, Part 5.

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