Friday, September 19, 2008

My 1983 Visit to the Holy Land

Our trip to Israel this past summer prompted me to revisit my 1983 experience of the Holy Land, so I looked up the letter I had written afterward to describe everything to my relatives. Here are some excerpts. [Background: I was assigned to an aircraft squadron on board the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy CV-67; this was my first deployment as a junior naval officer. Our task force was en route to the Mediterranean for a "routine" Cold War "cruise" when the U.S. Marine barracks were bombed in Lebanon in the fall of 1983, and we immediately made our way to the eastern Mediterranean and joined the NATO forces on what we called "Bagel Station"--because we were steaming and flying in circles just off the coast of Israel. In response to the intensity of the Lebanese civil war, we were flying nonstop missions around the clock; "down time" was rare, so we were overjoyed to learn that we would have a two-day port call in Haifa, in the north of Israel.]

December 2, 1983--Last Saturday we heard that we were to pull into Haifa, Israel, on Monday. Because of the instability of our schedule, nobody packed even an overnight because no one really expected to stop, not even for the scheduled two days.

We actually did pull in to Haifa. Since I was scheduled for duty on the second day of our visit, I and a couple others in the duty section ran down to Jerusalem on Monday. We didn't get off the ship until late, so we didn't arrive there until 1500 [3:00 p.m.]--just a couple hours of daylight. We saw the Wailing Wall, [the Church of] the Holy Sepulchre, the bazaar, some other parts of the old city, before dark. Then we ran to Tel Aviv for dinner and drinks. We didn't get back to the ship until after 0200 [2:00 a.m.], so I spent most of my duty day asleep. (Tel Aviv is about one hour from Haifa; Jerusalem, about two). At the end of my duty, from 0400 [4:00 a.m.] until sunrise, I had the liberty boat officer watch--I had to ride the liberty boats back and forth from ship to shore just to make sure we had no crashes or groundings and that no one cause any trouble. Fortunately, the crew of my boat was very professional and competent, and we had maybe twenty passengers during the three hours I was on duty.
At the end of my duty, I heard that we were remaining in Israel for an additional two days. We had heard rumors to that effect earlier but had hardly dared to hope. So six of us [from my squadron] hopped on the bus for Jerusalem, planning on an overnight. [One of the guys] and I had taken the bus on Monday, so we led the group down to the bank where the tellers had sold us shekels at the black market rate (seems she and the other tellers "invested" their money in American dollars...). The bus trips were interesting. I learned from [some of the other passengers] that Israel really is a desert land. The desert is still in evidence around Jerusalem--the land is brown, very rocky, with steep hills and few bushes, lots of dust. Only in the past forty years, with irrigation from the north, have the people been able to grow food there--the orange groves stretch for miles; and the cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce are all delicious. I don't see how this could have been a "land flowing with milk and honey" before agricultural technology.

When we descended from the bus in Jerusalem, we met two American Jewish girls from the Bronx. They told us of a hostel where we could stay for cheap, so we went to check it out. For four dollars each, the six of us had two rooms with bathrooms down the hall.... The concierge was a very short fat lady who spoke very little English but helped us out with telephone tokens and towels and even directions. By now, it was noon on Wednesday, so we walked to the old city (Old Jerusalem is the part of the city within the walls). What an interesting walk. By chance, we had picked a hostel in the middle of Mea Sherim, which is an old Jewish section outside the walls. Here the men still wear the long curls along the sides of their faces, the beards, black hats, long black coats, prayer shawls. The women, still dresses with kerchiefs on their heads. Everyone reminded me of Tzeitel and Motel [from Fiddler on the Roof]. (Around the corner from our hostel was a school, and Thursday morning as I stood on the sidewalk to take pictures I could hear the young boys singing their Hebrew lessons.)

We finally arrived at the old city and walked along Via Dolorosa--this is the path of the stations of the cross, the path Jesus followed from his cell to Calvary. So much of the "history" is speculation, but this is the traditional path.

We next walked down to the Garden of Gethsemane, which is outside the city walls. The garden where Judas supposedly betrayed Jesus is closed, but we could walk through some of the other gardens--really olive groves. We also visited the Church of All Nations--a church built around the rock of the agony. On this rock Jesus supposedly cried and sweat blood as he came to an acceptance of his coming death--the place of the real victory of the spirit over the body. The church is beautiful. The rock is directly in front of the altar surrounded by a wrought-iron black crown of thorns decorated with doves drinking from chalices. Above the altar is a beautiful mosaic of Jesus in his agony on the rock. On one side is a mosaic of Judas's betrayal; on the other, of Jesus with the disciples. The church was most peaceful, maybe the "holiest" place we saw--certainly the place that felt the most sacred. Our visit here was very meaningful.

We then walked along the outside of the city walls, past the corner of the Temple where the devil tempted Jesus. We entered the city again and revisited the Wailing or Western Wall--the only wall remaining of King Herod's great Temple (he was a masterful builder). The Jewish men worshipped to the left, the women to the right. The people prayed, read the Torah before the wall, stuffed scraps of paper with prayers into the cracks in the wall. Of course, the Israeli Defense Force was patrolling (all over the country, the military is very evident; I sat next to a soldier carrying a loaded machine gun on the bus; many travel in uniform with their weapons).

We did some shopping next, haggling with the Arabs over prices--some bargains, some rip-offs. The kids would come out to you and really bother you; the old men would place objects in your hands, trying to drag you into their shops. After a few times, the ordeal is a real pain.

We next visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre--this church is built upon the traditional location of Calvary and Jesus's tomb. We saw the rock of the hill, the crack in the rock from Jesus's death, the tomb itself. We followed the Franciscan monks through the service--prayers and singing in Latin before all the altars and shrines. The church itself is a combination of the gaudy Orthodox Catholic and the austere Franciscan. The incense filled the church, and the chants were mysterious in the dark caverns.

When we exited, the Moslem call to evening prayer filled the city--another mysterious sound in the dark.

We left the old city then and returned to "America"--we had dinner at the Hilton. The food was superb--the service very much of the country, and our waitress was from Canada (Israel really is a conglomeration of cultures). The best part of the dinner was the Sabra, the Israeli after-dinner cordial--tasted like chocolate-covered orange. Then we returned to our hostel and crashed--I had been up since 3:00 a.m.!

The next morning we stopped at a bakery on our way back to the old city--the cookies were scrumptious!

We visited first Mount Moriah, within the Moslem shrines, open to us only in the morning. As we entered, a group of Moslem women wearing long blue dresses and white head veils were going into their mosque to pray. We removed our shoes and went into the one mosque--huge, could hold 5,000 people, just a large open space completely covered with Iranian carpets. The decoration all around was very ornate. Then we went to the Dome of the Rock, the main mosque of the city. In the center of this mosque is the stone where Abraham supposedly brought his son Isaac for sacrifice to God and where Mohammed ascended into heaven. This mosque was even more ornate than the first--mosaics, tiles, gold leaf, again the carpets--Islam decorates geometrically, symmetrically, colorfully--quite a sight! The outer dome is bronze and rises over blue mosaics. Again, we had to remove our shoes and leave our bags outside.

We returned briefly to the Via Dolorosa, then we caught a cab to Bethlehem. The surrounding countryside is very rugged and dry. The church above the birthplace is Greek Orthodox--again, very elaborate and ornate--not really pretty. The birthplace is below, really in a cave or grotto. Since the Holy Land has changed hands so many times, nothing is as it was. Each conqueror razed the old and erected new structures. For example, the Crusaders built steps leading down to the Cave of the Nativity.

We did some shopping (of course)--the woodworking was just superb--we saw a stunning nativity set for $400. Then we had lunch--eggplant salad was a thick paste to spread on bread, and a falafel was a pita bread pouch stuffed with meat, meal, and salad (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers).

We returned to Jerusalem to the Garden Tomb--this is the alternate site of Jesus's death and burial. The hill--Golgotha--actually looks like a skull's face; the description of the tomb and the gardens in the gospels all fit this place. The garden was restored by a group of British, and the curators were most informative and extremely friendly. Our visit here was most enjoyable and meaningful, the second-most sacred place, I felt. This garden felt "right" in a way that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre did not.

Then we took the bus back to Haifa--the bus station was a mass of people, all different kinds, and we listened to at least five different languages on the radio (Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, Arabic). Israel really is an interesting grouping of cultures. The land is not as densely populated as I had expected. Jerusalem was a lot older, darker than I thought--it is a maze of narrow streets, rising and falling between the walls and under arches--not very dirty at all, and that too was surprising.

Our first day--Monday--was much too rushed to be any fun. Wednesday and Thursday, our trip was much more relaxed, much more meaningful, and I really enjoyed myself the entire time. I did spend gads of money--I bought a large rug for $50 (he wanted $70, so we haggled some--I don't know if this was a bargain or not, but now is too late to speculate)--but it's only money. Mostly we tried to avoid the tour guides who would latch onto our group and try to wear you down into agreeing to hire them.

The country is very colorful--that's the best word for its diversity. Someday I'd like to return, to spend more time, to feel more; but these few days were golden, and their wealth will last a long time.

I hope you enjoyed my visit too!

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