Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will now rain down bread
from heaven for you. Each day the people are to go
out and gather their daily portion; thus will I test them,
to see whether they follow my instructions or not.
I first have to admit that I ate way more than my daily portion while I was in Israel. The food… oh, the food!
To be honest, I was wary when I was doing my research for our pilgrimage as to whether I would want to eat in the Holy Land at all. I was reading an awful lot about this stuff called falafel. What on earth is falafel I wanted to ask. And by the way just exactly how do you pronounce it? In case you happen to be wondering these same things, let me tell you. Falafel is pronounced fa-la-fel. The accent is on the la. Fa-LA-fel. It is fried chickpea balls stuffed in pita bread. Yummy, right? Ughhhh!!! Not what I thought. In fact I was thinking it was pretty gross sounding.
And then there was this hummus stuff I heard everyone talking about. I knew how to say hummus, but again, I didn’t know what it is. Turns out hummus is smashed up chickpeas served with pita. Oh yummy again!
Chickpeas? Really? I kind of thought we were going to the land of milk and honey here…
Well, I am here to tell you that chickpeas, yes chickpeas are probably about the best thing I have ever eaten in my entire life. Of course, no one in my family agreed with me on this, but hey, you can’t win them all…
I ordered my first hummus “salad” one day in the old city of Jerusalem in a little restaurant right inside the Jaffa gate. I thought: hmmm.. salad, there will be lettuce, vegetables, maybe something green. I was wrong. Hummus salad is a big plate of smashed chickpeas drizzled with olive oil and served with a huge basket of warm, fresh pita to scoop it up with. (Sometimes this hummus salad comes with the unfortunate chicken livers piled on top. THIS IS NOT A GOOD THING! Beware the chicken livers!) I have tried the hummus back here at home from the grocery store. It does not even compare!
Oh and I remember my first falafel like it was yesterday. It is one of the most profound memories of my trip. We were in Tiberias, heading back after swimming in the Sea of Galilee. Starving, we found a little hole in the wall where the owner spoke English (always a plus). The girls ordered huge hotdogs, but I went for the fried chickpea balls in the pita. I get a little bit teary just thinking about this, so bear with me. I asked the guy at the restaurant how a local would eat it and he started piling on stuff. I don’t know what all went on, but there was salad (tomatoes and cucumbers), pickles and tahini for sure. You have not lived until you have eaten this. Seriously. I truly felt that I had died and gone to heaven. I only had one more opportunity to eat falafel while I was in Israel, but I am on the search for some here in the States. If you know of a place, please let me know!
There is so much more to write about the food there. This does not even begin to cover it. I didn’t even get to mention the chickpea candy… But, that is all for another time.
When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law
of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their town
of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled
with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
It is evening and I am sitting on the porch of an old mansion-turned-inn. The sunset turns the historic city beautiful shades of pink and gray while birds fly home for the night and the Muslim call to prayer fills the air. The reality of where we are begins to sink in as I sip my cup of hot tea. Nazareth. The place of Mary’s Annunciation. The spot Joseph worked as a carpenter. The village Jesus grew up in.
While I was planning our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I knew our trip would have two parts: time spent in Jerusalem and time spent in the Galilee. Finding a place to stay in Jerusalem was relatively easy, but I was conflicted about where to base our time in the Galilee. Tiberias made the most sense, practically speaking. It is a tourist town, centrally located with bus or Sherut services to most of the towns I wanted us to visit. And it is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. But Nazareth tugged at my heart. I longed to sleep where the Holy Family had slept and eat where they had eaten.
My guidebooks and Tripadvisor told me that this was not such a good idea. Nazareth was unsafe and inhospitable to tourists. I hemmed. I hawed. I prayed. A lot. My desire to stay in Nazareth went deep. But, it seemed impossible. And then I found it. A new inn in Nazareth that was getting rave reviews. It was the answer to my prayers. I sent an e-mail to the inn and within hours, we had booked a room for four nights.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel. 70% of it’s population is Muslim and the remaining 30% are Christian. It really had been an unsafe place to stay. But, in March of 2010 the Israeli government approved a 3 million dollar plan to develop Nazareth’s tourism industry. The city was being cleaned up. New restaurants were opening and tourists were being openly welcomed. We were part of a small, but growing trend of people who were deciding to stay here.
There is so much to write about Nazareth that one post will never do it justice. Suffice it to say for now that I am so very glad that I took the chance and had us stay Nazareth. I would go back to Israel in a heartbeat if it meant seeing one more sunset in Nazareth.
I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the
Lord.” And now our feet are standing within your gates,
Jerusalem. Jerusalem, built as a city, walled round about.
Heres the tribes have come, the tribes of the Lord, as it was decreed
for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
Approaching the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem for the first time is nothing short of daunting. Not unlike laying your virgin eyes on one of the oceans, the walls command respect. Just like the vast waters of the seas, they have stood the test of time as well as many wars. They have both embraced and welcomed millions of people seeking refuge and pilgrimage, paying homage to their God or gods. Both inspire one to reflection and meditation. Encircling a secret world filled with many diverse inhabitants, it is hard to tell just where both the ocean and the walls of the Old City begin and where they end. Unlike the oceans, of course these strong structures were man-made and anyone is free to cross through the borders to experience what lies inside.
Our initial visit to these walls occurred on a hot Tuesday afternoon in June. We arrived to the outer berth of the Jaffa gate after a short walk and it was here that we were to begin our tour of the Old City. Here gathered a curious group of people of all ages and from all over the world with only two things in common: our desire to learn about Jerusalem and our ability to speak enough English to get by.
After a brief introduction, our guide led to the place where we were to enter into the Old City. Stopping us, he explained that there is a very important tradition when entering the Holy City. “When you pass through the gate,” he told us, “always put your best foot forward.” We could pray or just think good thoughts, he said. “Or, you can hop, jump, skip. You can go forwards, backwards, left foot first or right foot first. Whatever is your best foot.”
Most of the people in our group laughed and gave a little self-conscious hop as they crossed the threshold. But our two youngest cared not who was staring at them. Squealing with delight as they danced and twirled into the most holy city in the entire world, it was as if they were telling God, “We’re here! We’re here!”
We would forget the best foot forward tradition as we crossed through that gate many more times in the next three weeks. We would come to take the mighty walls of the Old City for granted just as one becomes accustomed to looking at the beauty of the ocean. We would forget until our last day in Israel, an even hotter Saturday morning in June. Approaching the Jaffa Gate, most of us laughed and gave a little self-conscious hop in, but not our two youngest. Once again, Jerusalemites, pilgrims and tourists alike watched on as two little American girls squealed with delight, dancing and twirling into the most holy city in the world. It was as if they were telling God, “We know we’ll be back someday!”
In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the
whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled,
each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the
town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary,
his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came
for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.
Our second stop in Bethlehem was the Church of the Nativity. This is of course, the main place people come to in Bethlehem. This is the place that Jesus was born.
We walked into the church, which is actually an Orthodox church, and were stunned by all of the beautiful lamps hanging from the ceiling. It is very ornate, very beautiful and very, very holy. Our guide gave us some history on this church, most of which I really didn’t understand or pay attention to, except the fact that this church was saved during the crusades only because it bore the image of the three kings on it.
I was much more interested in Jesus’ birthplace than the church built above it (although, the history is interesting and definitely worth doing research on!).
I don’t know about you, but I have always been taught that Jesus was born in a manger. I have the picture of that wooden structure imbedded in my brain and maybe you do as well. I had heard occasionally that Jesus was actually born in a cave, but I never believed it. Jesus was born in a stable. A wooden stable. Right?
It turns out Jesus was actually born in a stable. A cave stable. In that part of the world at that time, the animals were housed in caves. Caves are a natural part of the landscape there and very abundant. They would have protected the animals and their caregivers from the elements: the heat of the summer and the rain of the winter. They never would have built a wooden stable. It just wasn’t practical.
And so yes, Mary and Joseph were led to a cave when they discovered there was no room at the inn.
The interesting part about this cave now, though, is that it has been split in two parts. Yes, that is right, split with a wall built right in the middle. (This is true of other Holy sites in Israel as well, sigh…)
The Eastern church (the Orthodox) and the Western church (the Roman Catholics) could not get along. Surprise, surprise. And so, instead of either one compromising, they split they very spot where their Messiah was born. Of course, so logical, right? Ugh!!!!!
Anyways, this means there are two entrances. The first is the Orthodox entrance. There was a huge line there, our guide explained that there always is. It would take over an hour to get in and our visit would have to be quick. He then pointed out the Roman Catholic entrance. There was no line, no wait and we could go in and pray for as long as we wanted to. It turned out that there were a few of our group (they were Australians, not that it matters) who were interested in going into the Orthodox side. Not because they were Orthodox, but because they were just there as tourists and wanted to see everything. Our guide explained that he would be able to talk to the police (yes, there are police in the church…) and be able to get up to 5 of us up to the front of the line. The rest of us really had no interest in going into the Orthodox side and so it worked out just fine.
Our guide first talked to the police, got the Australians where they wanted to go and then took us into the Catholic side.
Nothing could have prepared me for the emotion I felt there.
Peace. Total peace.
It was empty, save a few stragglers and us. We all fell immediately to our knees, including the kids. We all silently prayed for what seemed like a very long time and yet, it really wasn’t enough time.
Finally, our guide came back to explain to us what we were looking at and praying in front of. Directly in front of us was an altar. He explained that this built directly over the place Joseph had received the message from the angel in a dream to flee to Egypt with the newborn baby Jesus and Mary. He then pointed out to us the spot on the wall that is the tomb of the Holy Innocents.
The tomb of the Holy Innocents, as you may know, holds the babies that King Herod killed in his pursuit to kill the one the thee wise men mentioned. Herod, of course, was jealous and wanted Jesus dead.
My heart just broke on the spot. I knew about the tomb, but did not know where it was located and really did not expect to see it.
Next, our guide took us deeper into the cave and showed us the room where St. Jerome lived while he translated the Bible into Latin. I felt an immediate connection to St. Jerome and it was a strange coincidence that I found a devotion to him after arriving home. I definitely want to learn more about him and the work that he did. One of the many fruits of this pilgrimage.
All too soon, it was time to leave. We had one more stop to make in Bethlehem and our time was short. It was truly sad to leave this place.
Later, we talked to the Australians about their experience in the Orthodox side of the cave. They said it was like Disney Land. There was a lit up star and sound effects. They said they much preferred the quiet Catholic side.
Me too, but to each their own. This, I would find, is one of the main messages of the Holy Land. To each their own. As the Jewish people say, Shalom. Peace. Shalom.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields
and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord
appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with fear. The angel said to them, “Do
not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news
of great joy that will be for all the people. For today
in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is
Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant
wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
When I was planning our pilgrimage, I was not sure if we would be able to go to Bethlehem. I had read that the city where Jesus was born is under Palestinian control and could be tricky to get into on your own. Luckily, the Abraham Hostel provided a tour at a reasonable price and so I signed us up! We made three stops on this tour and I can’t do each of them justice in one post, so I’ll just do one at a time.
We went on a Friday morning and let me tell you I was so glad for the the bus driver, the tour guide and the group of people that were going with us. Our guide told us that if we went into Bethlehem straightaway from Jerusalem, we would have to cross through many checkpoints. Israelis are not allowed into Bethlehem and visitors are required to show their passports. Our driver took us in through a back way, skipping all of the checkpoints. We didn’t have to show our passports once, even though we did have them along. (He was Israeli, but I just did some research now and found out that there have been some Israel tour guides allowed in, thank God for that!). Coming into Bethlehem made me nervous. There is a wall separating Jerusalem and the Palestinian territory and the air just feels different there for some reason. We also heard (but never saw) military jets flying overhead. It was intimidating to say the least!
Anyways, we met up with our tour guide, who was Palestinian. Our bus driver said he would be with us, but he was not allowed into any of the churches (probably because he was Israeli). Our first stop was the Shepherds Field, the place the angels announced to the shepherds the birth of Jesus. There is a beautiful, small chapel there with paintings of the angels and the shepherds. We also were able to go into the cave the shepherds lived in. It was very primitive, preserved to look just like it did 2000 years ago. Our guide allowed us time to pray and reflect in each of these spots. One of the cool things was to see a Franciscan Monk there praying as well. (The Shepherds Field is controlled by the Franciscans). Lastly, we went into the field where they kept their animals. Our guide pointed out the press they used to make olive oil. It dated back to the actual time of Jesus’ birth.
What struck me most in the Shepherds Field was the things I learned there. Maybe you already know these things, but I did not. It was no coincidence these were the ones God chose to tell about the birth of His son!
1. These particular shepherds were in charge of the newborn animals. I did not know that! Wow! God chose the men in charge of the newborns!!!! They were also very devout Jews (someone asked the guide this question). The angels only spoke to those who were believers, he said.
2. Shepherds were the media of the time. They were the ones who spread the word about important stuff. God wanted this news out and He knew these shepherds would get that done. ( I also did not know this!)
3. Lastly, (but not leastly) they were poor. The shepherds represented the fact that Jesus came for the poor as well as the rich. The Three Kings were to represent the wealthy and our guide explained that Mary and Joseph used the gifts they brought to the baby Jesus (gold, frankincense and myrrh) to trade in the market for the money they would need to flee to Egypt when King Herod started killing all those innocent baby boys. God definitely provided!
Walking through this field and praying in both the chapel and the cave was truly moving for me. I had never really spent that much time pondering the shepherds. It was neat to see how important their role actually was!
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees,
they gathered together and one of them (a scholar
of the law) tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment
in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord,
your God, with all your heart, with all your soul,
and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.
I went to Israel to find Jesus. We, as a family, were going to walk where Jesus walked. We were going to see where He did His work. From His birth to His death and everything in-between. I had an itinerary that stated this very clearly. We would be in Bethlehem on this day, Nazareth these days, the Sea of Galilee this day, the Mount of Olives and the Via Dolorosa this day. It was typed and printed out in black and white.
It really didn’t matter.
It became obvious very quickly that before I would be shown the footsteps of Jesus, I was first to become aware of the handprint of God.
We spent most of our time in the Holy Land in the city of Jerusalem. The majority of the people in Jerusalem are Jewish. It is easy to tell who they are, especially the men. The more devout Jewish men and boys wear white shirts and black pants. We discovered that you can tell the different sects by the way their shirts are buttoned or the way the wear their socks. Another difference is that some of the men and boys have their heads shaved except for one long curl that hangs right near each of their ears. Even the less devout Jewish men and boys wear yarmulkes, covering their heads, distinguishing them from the Muslims and Christians.
I found myself fascinated by these men, who were often seen flanked by their sons. “These are my people. I love them beyond belief,” this is what hit me as we were walking down Jaffa Road towards the Old City one hot afternoon.
This past year, I have been doing the Great Adventure Bible Study by Jeff Cavins. This study teaches you how to read the Bible as a narrative so that you learn the story of the Israelites and their relationship to God. It has not always been an easy relationship. Their story is one of a people who turn away from God again and again. God becomes angry and puts them into exile. Again and again. Yet, God has never, ever forgotten the covenant He has made with them. He has never forgotten His love for them.
And I was walking with them. On the same street. My awe at the Jewish men never waned throughout the entire time we were in Israel. I felt a deep respect for them and maybe just a tiny bit of envy: God’s chosen people: swoon, swoon.
Another handprint of God was revealed to me when one of our tour guides took us near the spot that is believed to be the Garden of Eden. It is also believed to be the spot that connects Heaven and Earth. The Muslims have built their Dome of the Rock directly over this very Holy spot for both Jews and Christians. We are not allowed to go there, but we can see it from afar(no comment here on how that still makes me feel!).
“Jerusalem is the only city that exist both in heaven and on Earth at the same time,” he said. “And you are here…” Was what I heard.
Don’t worry, I would come meet Jesus very intimately during this pilgrimage, but for the first few days, I just stood in awe of God and His people and this place He created. This is where it all began and He is still very much alive and present here.
Those whom the Lord has ransomed will
return and enter Zion singing, crowned with
everlasting joy; They will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.
Our flights to the Holy Land were uneventful. I had worried needlessly about how the kids would travel. They did amazingly well! Of course, it helped that on our two longer flights, they each had their own screen in front of them and were able to choose what they wanted to watch. It was the first time I put no limits on TV time and I think they watched Scooby Doo at least ten times. Although, we did turn them off to sleep because we flew over night. They were fine with that and we honestly did not hear a peep from them!
We landed at Ben Gurion Airport, outside of Tel Aviv in the late afternoon. I was intimidated by the guards carrying large guns, but I knew this was one of the safest airports in the world and that it had actually won many awards. I swallowed my fear and we entered into the line for passport control along with everyone else who had flown with us that day.
I had read that the questioning at Ben Gurion could be extensive and to be prepared for possibly being taken aside. To say I was nervous about this would be an understatement. I looked around at the people entering into this country at the same time we were and I saw mostly white, mostly older people. Pilgrims, most of them. My fear factor went down and I started to relax.
I approached the passport guard with Ainsley and handed her both of our passports. Her questions were few and very simple. “What is your name?” How many of you are traveling?” “Why are you traveling to Israel?” She was kind and told me that she had a sister AInsley’s age and smiled at her. She welcomed us into her country and handed us back our passports. Disaster averted!
Stepping out of the airport was quite a different story altogether. “We are definitely not in Kansas anymore!” I remember thinking. I was totally unprepared for what hit us, even with all of the research I had done. Taxi drivers and people hailing taxi drivers. Lots of them. None of them speaking English. What on earth had I gotten us into? How were we going to get out of this one? Luckily, I had read about how to get out of the airport. We would need to find a Nesher Taxi. A sherut. Basically, a shared taxi that holds ten people. We started asking and only by the grace of God, pointed to a taxi that said Nesher on the back. We took up seven seats and the other three were filled quickly on we were soon on our way to Jerusalem.
The sherut ride proved to be bumpy, leaving us all sick to our stomachs as we got our first views of Israel. Dry, palm trees, stone building, barbed wire fence, clothes hanging out of people’s windows. Not at all like I expected. This looked far too much like Guatemala for my liking. I wouldn’t take my children to Guatemala. I closed my eyes and listened to Aliza:”I am going to throw up, I am going to throw up…”
Our driver dropped us off last, right in front of the Abraham Hostel. This was the place that was to be our home for the next couple of weeks. We dragged all of our luggage inside, quite ready to be done with all of this traveling around the world stuff. I walked up to the front desk and was greeted with a smile and broken English. “Hello! You checking in?” “Yes,” I told him, “we have a reservation?” “Passport?” he asked me. I handed him my blue American passport.
He opened it and prepared to start checking us in. But then he stopped. He looked up at me and then back down at the passport. At me again, one eyebrow up, studying me. (I would get this stare many more times…) “You are aware that you do not have an Israeli stamp on your passport, no? You asked for this?”
“What??? No Stamp? Are you kidding me? I wasn’t aware of this and I didn’t ask for this!!!” He handed it back to me and sure enough, the page was blank.
Through my research and talking to my world traveling brother, Peter, I knew that some people actually do ask to not have their passport stamped upon entering Israel. With an Israeli stamp, it is impossible to enter into many Arab countries. Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, the Gaza Strip, Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran are a few of the countries that will not let you in with this stamp in your passport. But, I had also read that attempting to re-enter Israel too soon after your initial visit will prompt more extensive and invasive questioning at passport control.
“Is no problem!” They guy at the hostel guy said, smiling and happily gave us our key and directions to our room.
Why had I not gotten a stamp? After curious inspection, we realized that I was the ONLY one in our family who did not get a stamp. My immediate reaction was disappointment. I really wanted that stamp! My next reaction was, oh no! What kinds of plans does God have for me in the future? I really, really hope He is not sending me to Iran, the Gaza Strip, Pakistan or anywhere like that! On the other hand, maybe He has plans for me to go back to Israel sometime soon and wants me to be able to avoid questioning. Maybe, there really is no significance in this at all. I don’t know. The only thing I do know is there is no record of me being in Israel at all.
Faith. There is only faith.