Thursday, April 20, 2017

Yerushalayim Shel Zahav - Jerusalem of Gold

There can be various reasons for never ever visiting Israel and if you ask me, the rude airline staff of El Al should feature in top 5.  But that is not all. Visa interview for Israel is a unique experience too. On the day of my visa interview at Israel embassy I was asked, along with other two visa aspirants  to stand 250 meters away from the gate in blazing sun so that we are no security threat to the embassy. After one hour of wait, in the interview I was asked (very politely) that how do Israel Embassy assure itself that I do not intend to take up a permanent employment in Israel. I was clueless how to politely convey that I am not mad enough to leave a steady job of 17 years in Indian Civil Service to think of migrating to Israel. But the guy was not just completing the checklist. It was a serious question asked earnestly. So I responded with a serious face and luckily was able to satisfy him that someone who is neither Christian nor Muslim nor Jew may also consider to visit Jerusalem for vacation. The person before me was not so lucky, when he explained that he has no intention of staying in Israel beyond 7 days of vacation, and that he has a comfortable life and business in India, the Embassy officer shrugged with disinterest. He said “Prove it.” Visibly baffled, the person exclaimed – “How? And with such rude behavior, I doubt if I would like to go there at all.” The embassy clerk looking straight into the visa aspirant’s eye and  told him “As you wish. You wanted to visit Israel, we never asked you to.” That was my first introduction to Israel’s paranoia with security.

However, with all the problems of getting visa, firming up travel and logistics and the scolding of people around us (“Israel! Who travels there for leisure...go to US or Western Europe.”), the bunch of crazy five (actually 4.5) landed at Tel Aviv earlier this year.  And looking back, what an experience it was! Unique. Incredible. Breathtakingly thrilling.

Israel is spectacular. It is nothing like Europe or Asia or any other place in the world (perhaps). Tel Aviv the cosmopolitan city stands next to Jaffa old city, which is still frozen in medieval age. Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was divine and the Museums were world class.   Haifa the port town is picture perfect. Dead Sea is seen-to-be-believed kind of place.  Even the barren hills of Masada fort leave you so awestruck. Haifa, Caesarea, Jaffa ...all places are beautiful but nothing prepares you to face Jerusalem. There is something about this ancient city, a disputed city that is so important to people of three Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Islam and Christianity. It is so mind blowing that it attracts - or perhaps even causes - a special kind of madness. For some people, Jerusalem is a condition, like being in love; for others, it is a state of mind, a constant tension between rival flags and faiths, or members of the same faith. You may feel moved, energized, or swept into the maelstrom of contemporary or even historical issues—but the city will not leave you unaffected. No, none of us came back with the famed Jerusalem syndrome but then, it was nothing less than a mad plan for us to go there in the first place.

The parallel with two other cities – Varanasi and Rome comes to mind when you think Jerusalem as an eternal city. Now that I have been to all three I can say with certainty that each of these three sacred cities have their own character – they do have great energies but apart from that each one is unique. 
Jerusalem is a city suspended between heaven and earth, East and West, past and present—parallel universes of ancient wall with wailing pilgrims and trendy coffee shops not so far from it. The first thing you notice in this holy city is that the past is not past but it is still passing. Whether it be the past associated with biblical tales or that of holocaust, it continues to live in every moment of the city. The stories of Jesus’s life do not seem to be mere stories written in some ancient sacred text- they suddenly appear to be very real. The grief of Holocaust is not a thing of past- it still guides the minds of the people in their individual and national decisions.  And ironically, this is perhaps the only city where facts are irrelevant. Beliefs , sayings, traditions and even dreams rule the flow.

And so, as we continued our exploration of the Holy City of Jerusalem, we too began to take things on faith. The guides issued repeated  disclaimers  while showing sites and parallel sites of the same events  but after a while, it simply didn’t matter . If you are a Muslim, you believe that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from Temple Mount, conversed with God, and returned to inspire his followers. If you are Christian or Jewish, you believe that the stone inside the Dome of the Rock is the place where Abraham was ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Druze, Samaritans, Bahá’í, Coptic Christians, Ethiopian Christians, and Armenians all believe that miracles of faith occurred in this ancient city. And almost everyone chooses to believe that if you write a prayer on a slip of paper and shove it into a crack in the Western Wall, your prayer will be granted. Like everyone else, we descended to the wall and dutifully left a note. I am not particularly a religious person, but my rational mind tells me that there must be something in this land that faiths which otherwise do not agree on most things, agree on the sacredness of this place.
Like Varanasi for Hindus, the faithful of the Abrahamic religions aspire to be buried on Mount of Olives. From atop the Mount of Olives we surveyed the Holy city of Jerusalem in all its glory. Directly below us, white marble caskets in the Jewish cemetery tumbled down the hillside like giant rows of dominoes. This cemetery may be the most expensive real estate in the world as the tradition holds that those who are buried here will be the first to be resurrected when the Messiah appears. No wonder that people from all over the world pay thousands of dollars for one of these tiny plots.  The price of eternity, however, is escalating as the cemetery is fast running out of space.
 But the mountain in not only just the cemetery. It is also ( believed to be ) the place  from where Jesus ascended to heaven , Garden of Gethsemane where Christ prayed before God for the very last time before being betrayed by Judas and Chapel of Dominus Flevit, the place where, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus wept over the fate of Jerusalem.
Travelling in and around Jerusalem is mystifying. There is so much history, so many legends and so much to understand. How do you cram 4000 years of history, faith and myths in one week? For some of us it is also our first encounter with the world of Jewish ideology and symbols - I mean beyond books and movies.  For the youngest member of our group it was also her first introduction to the horror of holocaust. For all of us it was a happy introduction to the “food that Jesus ate” but most importantly it was our first experience to the great divide between the places where Jesus was born and where he was buried. The physical distance was not much but the political divide made such visible difference between Philistine and Israel. The tensions are all-around. The paranoia with security is very visible (and very irritating). There are claims and counter claims. But the golden Jerusalem stands strong amidst all these - this is after all , not the land which grows on worldly facts – it is a land created on beliefs and  legends of centuries and thrives of those too. 

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