Friday, August 17, 2007

Initial Impressions of the Old City

I'm in Israel right now, and I feel both like it's the first time I've been here and also that I've been here many times before. Neither is exactly accurate. I've been in Israel once before in 2004, on a Birthright trip. This trip is the first I've taken on my own, though I'm travelling with a friend. I think this feeling is a personal version of what the tour guide at the Tower of David calls the difference between the historical record of Jerusalem and the Jerusalem of the Heart that Jews, Muslims, and Christians possess on a religious and personal level.

Right now I'm sitting in Ali Baba's Internet Cafe on the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City; since it's close to the Sabbath, the Jewish Quarter is mostly shut down. I just took a walk through part of the Shuk here; I get the feeling the shopkeepers are insulted by people who browse without entering their shops. But they seem to all sell the same stuff.

I arrived here yesterday, early in the morning, and so far, I've davened at the Kotel (Western Wall), bummed around Ben Yehuda Street and its environs (yesterday), toured the Burnt House and Wohl Archaeological Museum and the Tower of David, taken a Camel Ride outside of the Jaffa Gate, and walked through the Shul.

Yesterday, after checking in the hotel around 7 AM, we walked over to the Kotel to daven Shacharit. It was not the greatest time to go. Thursday morning is Bar Mitzvah day at the Kotel. I am always touched when a Bar Mitzvah boy chooses to have his Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel instead of a lavish celebration. I have always thought it was choosing substance over style. I'm somewhat less impressed by the fact that such an occasion requires the Bar Mitzvah to share his celebration with a dozen or more similar celebrations taking place in the same place at the same time. It's complete chaos there. It's ironically hard to find a minion in this atmosphere because everything is in progress. You kind of have to be in the right place in the right time. Nothing is posted.

From the Kotel, we walked to Ben Yehuda Street. While my friend decided to return to the hotel to rest, I stuck it out for a few hours to walk around, eat a falafel, and look in the various Judaica shops. The streets in and around Ben Yehuda are an object lesson in how Jerusalem is not New York. No grid of straight lines exists here. Everything seems to run together. You walk on Ben Yehuda and you hit King George. You walk on King George and you hit Jaffa. You walk on Jaffa and you hit Mordechai Ben Hillel. And back to Ben Yehuda again. After a few hours of this, I found my way back to King George Street, and walked the mile or so back to the King Solomon Hotel. By then, I was pretty much ready to crash, and slept for a couple of hours.

We ate dinner nearby the hotel at Rosemary, a dairy restaurant. The food was pretty good; I haven't had french onion soup in a while. We ate outside and enjoyed the remarkably good nighttime weather here, at about 65 or 70 degrees. After that, to walk off the meal, we took a quick tour of Liberty Bell Park, so named for the replica of the Liberty Bell in the center of the park. Most interesting to me, besides the alligator sculpture, was the Roman theater, where there are concerts from time to time. My friend went back to the hotel, and I decided to go across the street for a cup of tea at the Cup O' Joe cafe, a nice coffee house that is like Starbucks, only much more classy. The tea was served loose in an infuser, and was very good.

Today, we had planned to start with the Kotel tunnels, but found that we needed a reservation, so we put that off for next week. So we went to the Burnt House Museum, which is basically the ruins of a house believed to have belonged to the Katrios family of Kohanim. Their house was destroyed, along with many others, at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. The museum is really the showing of a film that dramatizes the both the destruction of Jerusalem and the internal conflict between the Zealots and the Moderates by presenting the wealthy Katrios family as being divided, the father favoring moderation, the son fighting with the underground. The presentation was quite good and effective.

After that, we went to see more ruins in the Wohl Archaeological Museum, which is across the street from the Burnt House in the Jewish Quarter. The centerpiece of the museum is the several ruined homes upon which the museum is built, including several mosaics built in the homes of the rich Jews who inhabited these houses. But the most interesting part for me was the museum's recounting of how the Old City, the Jewish Quarter in particular, was rebuilt after the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. This rebuilding continues today. The latest project is the restoration of the Hurva Synagogue, destroyed by the Jordanians during the 1948 War of Independence. For those of you who have been here before, the arch is gone. In its place stands the structure of the Hurva Synagogue.

After this, we went to the Tower of David Museum located in the David Citadel, and took a very good tour that highlights the museum's focus on the history of Jerusalem and the Old City, from Roman times to the present day. We also went down to the gardens, which was really just an excuse for me to sit down and rest for a couple of minutes. Lo and behold, one of the many members of Jerusalem's feral cat population, often friendly to tourists because they grow up around them, jumped in my lap and started to take a nap. He didn't want to leave when I got up, either, and I had to literally lift him off of me.

After that, we walked out of the Jaffa Gate. There, I encountered a camel. I was offered a camel ride. Without thinking, I took the camel ride, and the proprietor of the camel took pictures of me with my camera on the camel with the Jaffa Gate in the background. (The picture are good pictures.) Then he took me for a ride and told me the price. I bargained him down a little, but the cautionary tale is always agree on the price before you take a ride on anything in Israel, animal or vehicle. I'm not going to say what it cost me, but let's say the camel herder could probably buy a second camel for what he charged me.

After a rest at a hotel, I ventured back out, and now I'm here in the cafe typing this post. One thing I notice: The Muslim Quarter smell of mint from all of the shops in the Shuk. It's nice. The Jewish Quarter smells like sewage. Uri Lupolianski (mayor of Jerusalem) needs to pick up the garbage. Shabbat is close, so I've got to get going. There will be more to come.


At 10:01 PM, Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

So where's "more to come"?

I've heard about their camel schtick. Unfortunately, didn't get a chance to ride while I was there. Maybe next time.

In fact, I didn't get to do most of the things you seemed to have done. Grr, I'm envious. : )

Can't wait to hear the rest!

At 11:44 AM, Anonymous Daniel E. Levenson said...

Great blog - I also write about Israel ( and the Middle East. Definitely check out my blog and let me know what you think. Jerusalem is a great city - it would be even better if people could stop killing each other there.


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