Outside the Old City Walls

In case you were wondering, here I am, in Jerusalem. Just steps outside of the Old City walls at the Damascus gate. I’m here with a group of McCormick students for a January-term travel seminar led by a couple of my Old Testament and Hebrew instructors, Ted and Paula. We are meant to keep a journal to turn in at the end of the month, and since I’m technically a traveling theologian (as much as I can say I’m a theologian), I figured let’s just do this the good ol’ fashioned millennial way and blog about it. So here it is.

We began on January 7. We started the trip off with a brief orientation together. We asked questions about electrical plugs, sheckles and American dollars, airplane food, and other general things. Then we met with Sarah, our professor of New Testament and a practicing Jew herself. She helped walk us through her experience as a person of Jewish faith and descent and helped us to see the complexities that come with it and her past experiences. She talked of the Exodus for Jews and the diaspora that is constantly present at different levels. (My apologies for whatever ways I am getting this wrong, but these are my thoughts and opinions, so you don’t have to agree with them or like them. You are however reading this, so that has to mean something.)

She also spoke of the feeling that many Jews had at one time when living in the United States. For many in earlier generations, it was almost more important to be an American first and a Jew second. My immediate thoughts went to the history of the Church of Latter Day Saints. I was given a wonderful book by my partner’s Mormon parents called The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, by Matthew Bowman. (It’s a great book and I highly recommend it.) Throughout the book, Bowman beautifully fleshes out the complications of being an early Mormon settler in Salt Lake and the surrounding areas and their struggle for statehood. At times, it was more important to show oneself as an American for many Mormons to create unity and to be included. While Jews might not appreciate the comparison to Mormons, I see a strong one, and one that most Mormons would most likely strongly feel. Being an outcast in your own country is something that too many people have felt, and these are two groups that have experienced that, simply because of their faith. I could talk about other people who have been in this situation but the internet isn’t big enough for that.

Then we heard from Mike Shelley from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. He helped to tell another story, that one from a Muslim perspective.

Before I go on, let me say, both of these wonderful professors brought a moderate but realistic view to the table for Israeli Jews, Israeli and Palestinian Christians, and Palestinian Muslims. There was no religion shaming happening here.

What Shelley did was to help explain the history of the area and the politically charged issues for many Muslims and Christians here. It helped to give us an awareness of the issues as much as possible in 2 hours and an awareness that what and who you say something is just as important as how you do it. For Muslims there is claim to the land, just as with Jews. For instance, my research topic is on the Dome of the Rock located within the Old City and within the Haram al-Sharif (or the Noble Sanctuary), a platform that also includes the al-Aqsa Mosque. Not a mosque, but a holy place, the dome covers the rock that is sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. While Christians seem to have little to do with this, it is more about Jews and Muslims. For Jews, this is where it is believed that Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, and for Muslims, it is where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. It’s a place where you must gain permission to enter into it, based on tensions between Jews and Muslims here. But I will talk more of this once we actually go there.

After 2 long plane flights, free booze on the flights, more plane food than I could handle, and walking almost 2 miles at the Frankfurt airport to get to our flight to Tel Aviv, we made it. Our bodily clocks wound tightly we arrived and rode from Tel Aviv to just outside of Jerusalem. For myself there was a mix of exhaustion from lack of sleep, nausea from all of the times Lufthansa fed us, bodily aches from sitting too long in small spaces, and excitement and wonder at the fact that we were in, what I would consider it to be, the holiest place on earth. To the point where as I stepped out of our hostel after getting settled in and upon seeing the Old City walls and the buildings that lie inside of it, I began to feel a lump in my throat and felt warm tears welling in my eyes at the realization that the first time I traveled outside of the country at 30 years of age, I made it to the Holy Land, a place where even I felt I belonged. I don’t understand the feeling of connection that the people here might feel or Jews or Muslims, but I felt as though this was a place for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and any others who believed in God.

This is a holy place. And it was the first time it truly hit me that I was in it and I was part of it, thousands of miles away. The things that happen here affect me, and always will.

There is much I am looking forward to in being here. There is the incredible food. If I lived off of a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean and Asian diet for the rest of my life, I would never be left wanting. Falafel and kabob stands line the streets next to Arabic coffee vendors next to baklava stands with fresh, local fruit. Needless to say, all bets are off for Weight Watchers on this trip. Even the simplest of dinners last night, a broth of vegetables, simple salad, cooked beef with rice, and carrots and onions, was incredible because it was simple and had the tastes, smells, and essence of this place.

So, here we are, my roommate Katie and I, at 4:45 in the morning (8:45pm in Chicago), working on our journal/blog posts, after a good night’s sleep, getting ready for our 5:30am wake up calls for breakfast and then a walking visit to the Old City, the gates, the Western Wall, Hezekiah’s wall and tunnel, and so much more. I’ll have photos tomorrow, now that I am back to the land of the living and non-sleep-deprived, and I can properly work my camera. Until then, blessings to you.

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