Tuesday, November 29, 2022 Nov 29, 2022
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TRAVEL Jerusalem, City of Pilgrims

In search of the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock-and a pool hall named the "Center of the World"
By Richard West |

Less than twenty-four hours after arriving in Jerusalem an object of conquest for twenty-five centuries, I learned that a new invasion has excited its citizens. During the last six months, baguette shops had descended upon the holy city like a plague of locusts-not just bakeries but sandwich shops offering a variety of spreads (Bulgarian cheese, smoked fish) for the skinny loaves. Some said the newcomers threatened the supremacy of pita, Israel’s veteran bread.

Pita replaced by baguettes?

“Never. I’ve been in this business forty-seven years and I’m not making any changes now,” said Eliezer Deutsch, owner of the Ayalon Bakery near Jerusalem’s Old City. “Remember the spaghetti craze a few years ago? Most of those places are gone and so will these baguette shops. Besides, you can’t eat traditional Jewish food like felafel and shislik on baguettes:1 Poor Mayor Teddy Kollek. Nothing but conflict in his city: Arab-Jew, Orthodox-secular, Ashkenazi-Sephardi, pita-baguette.

I was not here in the land of milk and honey to monitor a bread war. Thinking you can solve a dispute in Jerusalem is a doomed intellectual exercise, like Alphonse Allais’s Society For Spreading the Use of the Subjunctive Among the Laboring Classes. I wanted to explore the Old City and some of this desert region where three of the world’s great religions originated. For nearly I billion Christians, 800 million Moslems, and 15 million Jews, Jerusalem’s Old City is the axis mundi.

More than 25,000 people live within the walled one-square-mile of Old Jerusalem’s four religious quarters-a confusion of stone buildings, mingled and superimposed over the centuries, threaded by intricate alleys, markets, stalls, and workshops. The city’s religious focal points-the Western or Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and Temple Mount-are the holiest places on earth for Jews and Christians and the third holiest (after Mecca and Medina) for Moslems. You find, side by side and mutually exclusive, the synagogue, church, and mosque; all have long been practicing dissension in the name of a single God.

Certainly I wanted to see these holy places. But 1 also was looking for a pool hall. I had read recently that in the Old City a pool hall named “Center of the World” stood right at the point where the Moslem, Christian, and Jewish quarters met. Too perfect, I thought; but on the other hand, in this ancient city ruled successively by Hebrews, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turkomans, Franks, Moslems, Crusaders, Mongolis, Mamelukes, Turks, British, and Israelis, anything was possible.

Passing into the Old City through the Damascus Gate early in the morning, I was plunged into an Arab market, a tense mass of arguing, bargaining people. Fruiterers created pyramids of oranges; cloth merchants stacked bales and unfolded colorful cotton bolts; pastry cooks made small sugary cakes next to fish merchants with flat fish from Jaffa and the musht, a grayling known as St. Peter’s fish, caught only in the Sea of Galilee. An Arab with a polished brass tea urn strapped to his back and glasses fitted like cartridges around his waist dispensed hot tea, while a barefoot youth zigzagged four sheep through the crowds.

It was not only the religious shrines themselves that brought to mind the medley of sects claiming this holy ground. Everywhere, stalls sold a farrago of religious souvenirs in silver, olive wood, and mother-of-pearl: Crusader crosses, Maltese crosses. Stars of David, candelabras, Christian fishes, hands to ward off the Evil Eye, almost all of them hideous. For Old City antique shopping try the Baudamin shop on the Via Dolorosa; otherwise, the best things are the simplest: basketware, pottery, the plainer Hebron glass, copper kitchenware.

The Via Dolorosa crossed both main lanes leading into the market. It led to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site of the crucifixion and Christ’s entombment. Each Friday at 3 p.m., Franciscan monks retrace the steps of Christ, stopping to pray at each of the fourteen stations of the Cross. Stations X through XIV are in the church itself.

The tomb of Christ is a small cell lined with marble, six-and-one-half feet long, six feet wide. Only a few people, three or four at most, can enter at one time. On the right, a cracked slab of white marble covers the rock on which He was placed after crucifixion. Pilgrims kneel to kiss it, the more fastidious wiping it first with a handkerchief. Above, bulbous brass lamps and thuribles hang like Christmas tree ornaments. The sepulcher itself stands like a tower in the center of a gloomy rotunda; in 1808 a fire caused by a drunken Greek monk peeled the paint off its dome. The church gave an overwhelming impression of darkness and decay, and I was glad to retreat to the sunny court-yard. Next door to this holiest church in Christendom, you can buy four crowns of thorns for a dollar.

Lost again looking for a game of eight-ball, I wandered the narrow lanes, which were striped like a tiger with alternating bands of sunlight and shadow. The walls of the Old City were high, mildewed, sunk in age, its doorways seemingly built for dwarfs. After buying some lovely scenes of Jerusalem painted on tiles at the Armenian Art Center, I crossed to the adjoining Jewish Quarter and sandwiched (pita bread only) at Richie’s Cardo Cafe. There were lots of cats and no greenery of any kind. All was stone.

Unexpectedly, I rounded a corner and came upon the Western Wall, better known to visitors as the Wailing Wall, where for 1,700 years Jews have gathered to pray as an act of pilgrimage. About fifty yards long and sixty feet high, it consists of ashlar stones, one of which is sixteen-and-a-half feet long and thirteen feet wide.

Standing near the wall, an old man with his grandson draped his prayer shawl around himself, placed his phylacteries on his forehead, rolled strips of leather around his arms, and plunged into his recitations at a dizzying speed. The wall is accessible twenty-four hours a day, and the best people-watching time is Friday evening at sundown when the Sabbath begins. Yeshiva students come to sing and dance among the ultra-Orthodox Jews decked out in their special Sabbath finery. On Monday and Thursday mornings bar mitzvah services take place at the wall.

Above the Western Wall, the vast Temple Mount, a rectangular open area larger than thirty football fields, occupies about one-twentieth of the whole area of the Old City. Moslems call their holiest spot Jerusalem Haram ash-Sharif, the Noble Enclosure. It contains the Dome of the Rock and a smaller mosque, Al-Aqsa. The Dome, Jerusalem’s most familiar landmark, has been restored to its original luster with modern gold-plated aluminum. It rests on a perfect octagon whose entrances are oriented exactly to the four compass points.

In Jerusalem you face the constant necessity of remembering whether to keep on your hat or take off your shoes; I found myself getting a bit impatient with these outward forms of religion. Mosque rules state that hat and shoes must be removed and camera bags left outside.

Inside the Dome of the Rock, moving clockwise with the faithful, I experienced the most beautiful place in Jerusalem; priceless carpets, beams bound in gilded copper, stained glass windows, and in the middle, the large, yellowish old bumpy rock surrounded by an iron grille contributed by the Crusaders. Here the beliefs of Jews and Moslems converge. Upon this rock, Adam was fashioned out of dust, Cain slew Abel, Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and legend has it that Mohammed journeyed on his horse to heaven. Outside, in midday sunlight, I rested near the el Kas fountain, built by the Arabs in 709, and watched three men wash before prayers: hands and arms to the elbows, feet and legs up to the knees, finally mouth, nose, ears, and neck.

Back in the marketplace and a jumble of odors-garlic, coffee, burning candle wax, and incense. I followed yet another dead-end alley littered with the now familiar fallout of orange peels, eggshells, and bottle caps, finding everything but the “Center of the World” pool hall. Suddenly, there it was, next to a food stand selling shwarma, grilled meat that is shaved off and eaten in a pita. In keeping with his ecumenical location, the pool hall’s Arab owner smiled and offered me some tea. I racked up the balls and began losing a game to a young Israeli soldier, his weapon dangling carelessly from his shoulder as he methodically cleared the table.

Early the next morning, after a forty-five-minute ride to Tel Aviv in a shared Sherut taxi, I transferred to a small tourist van and headed northeast for the Galilee region. In late afternoon I reached the Kibbutz Lavi.

Israel’s kibbutz movement is now seventy-eight years old and going strong. About 135,000 people live in 280 kibbutzim, or communal societies. The country’s first urban kibbutz opened last spring in one of Jerusalem’s poorest neighborhoods.

When fifty young Jews from England founded Lavi in 1949 on a rocky hilltop a few miles west of the Sea of Galilee, there was only barren earth. Now grain crops, citrus, cotton, onions, olives, avocados, and wine grapes grow on 1,500 of the 2,500 acres.

Lavi is completely self-governed through twenty-two committees, including a “’Committee on Quarrelling.” All 600 members are responsible for something. No one retires. The oldest, ninety-two-year-old Nina, mends children’s clothing four hours a day in her wheelchair. Sasha, at eighty-eight, is in charge of all knitting projects. Members do not pay for food, clothes, schooling, or medical services. They accumulate credits, which they draw as money and can spend as they please. No member is allowed to own private property outside the kibbutz. At Lavi, children stay with their parents in small apartments, not in separate dorms as on some other kibbutzim.

Though the commune is nominally orthodox, a relaxed approach in religious observance seems to prevail. There was a marked lack of strictness in clothes and headgear. The kibbutz men always wore skull caps, but mainly the small knitted yar-mulke instead of the more austere black cloth ones. “We frown on extremism,” said Maerton, a bartender from Dublin who mixed a fine Beefeater and Noilly Prat. “For example, the swimming pool is restricted to separate men-women use for only one hour a day for each; the rest of the time is mixed swimming. But no bikinis,” he said smiling.

Twenty-six kibbutzim throughout Israel now offer guest houses for tourists. Their accommodations range from single cabins to rooms comparable to a fine hotel’s as at Lavi. What began as a roadhouse restaurant twenty-one years ago is now a two-building complex with 124 rooms and all the amenities of a Catskills resort except an ice rink: pool, tennis courts, boutiques, a restaurant, and Maerton’s excellent bar.

Just before dinner I set off to walk the mile-long peripheral road surrounding the central kibbutz complex. Joggers passed me as I looked out on beautiful views of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Mountains. On a nearby hillside with spear-like cypresses and terraces of olive trees, I watched a shepherd, staff in hand, steer his fat-tailed sheep across a ridge by adroitly casting stones where he didn’t want his flock to go. Farther along, there were cow sheds, the delightfully named “Milking Parlour,” turkey and chicken runs, workshops, a furniture factory, and a school.

Next morning my guide, Beatrice Malz, who also worked as the guest house accountant, met me in the lobby for a tour. She had come to Lavi from London in 1955 with her husband, Moshe, who was now in charge of drainage; he also served as Lavi’s chief fireman and pest exterminator.

Leaving the guest house in the heart of the kibbutz, we followed flowered paths among mimosa, almond, and olive trees, as well as towering Jerusalem pines, all planted by founder-members. “Forty of the original fifty people are still here ” said Beatrice. “We employ no outside workers and only a few volunteers, twelve right now. We do accept single persons, but not many. I’m glad to say a very high number, over 60 percent, of our children do stay on.

“It may surprise you that 90 percent of our guests are non-Jewish,” said Beatrice. “Through the years we have formed connections with Christian groups who come on pilgrimages to the New Testament sites of the Galilee. We try to book them for midweek, leaving the weekend Sabbath free for Jewish observance, but non-Jewish visitors are certainly welcome. Right now we have a priest and several nuns from Ireland staying with us to study Jewish religious customs. And here is our synagogue. Isn’t it beautiful?”

Indeed it was. At the exact geographical center of Lavi, it was designed and built by members in “Galilean Style”: sunken floors, tall, open windows and skylights, and an outside courtyard bordered by graceful columns. In the courtyard’s center was a stone square in which inlaid mosaics depicted the twelve tribes of Israel.

“Our carpentry plant specializes in synagogue furniture and is the largest of its kind in Israel,” Beatrice told me as we stood inside. “Our pews, benches, study tables, even the Aron Hakodesh, the Holy Ark containing the Torah Scrolls, all were made here by our forty carpenters.”

We passed the Adult Education Center with its 400-seat amphitheater for concerts, performances, and weekly films; a theological library; and a children’s playground. I noticed how many things were recycled: a tire sandpile, Clorox bottle flower pots, an ancient, rusting truck transformed into a piece of playground equipment.

Beatrice’s own small apartment had, by right of her seniority, three rooms instead of the usual two. Out her window you could see Mount Tabor to the south, rising 1.929 feet above the vineyards on the Plain of Esdraelon.

Walking back to the guest house, she toldme that Lavi’s financial picture, unlike thatof many kibbutzim, looks very good. It seemsthat others have fallen into deep debt througha combination of rampant national inflationand risky dabbling in the “gray market” ofnon-bank borrowing. Some wound up facinginterest payments of as much as 100 percenta year on their loans. I told her that if timeswent bad I had the perfect money-makingscheme: learning the secret of balancingfelafel balls on baguette loaves.