I didn’t go to Israel in search of miracles. I wasn’t making a pilgrimage. I didn’t set out to walk in the footsteps of Christ or any other religious figure. I didn’t come to the Holy Land to find God.
I came for friendship.
To visit my best friend and her husband, to experience the country through their eyes, but also just to spend some much needed time together. I didn’t have a list of must-see historic sites, or must complete activities. All I knew that I wanted to do in coming here was to talk and eat and drink beer on the beach and let her guide me through this country she had come to call home.
Still, a few miracles found me.
Israel itself is a sort of miracle. A land of constant surprises. The first thing I notice when I come out of the airport in Tel Aviv is bats. Bats streaking the sky in this beach city with tall buildings and busy streets.
I smell the salt of the Mediterranean Sea and coffee. Cafes on every block. And exhaust. The traffic is heavy and loud. The bus stops and starts in violent lurches as we try to navigate through traffic while motorcycles are weaving their way between cars. I’ll come to discover these daredevils are everywhere. But the city is vibrant and in motion and I spend my first hours wide-eyed, drinking it in like I would in any major metropolis, letting the energy wash over me in waves.
Emily and I spend our first day walking down tree-lined streets, peaking in boutiques and coffee shops along Dizengoff, walking past juice huts and bakeries. We wander the souk, an open air market full of fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and fish. People are selling all kinds of wares. Emily tries on a few pairs of cheap sunglasses. We look at a few trinkets. Hamsas and vials of dirt—take a piece of the Holy Land home with you. The pastries, Tahini, spices. It all looks amazing. I want it all. Everything is so crowded and hectic. It’s hard to even stop and get a good look and things. My senses are overwhelmed, the way I feel sometimes at a museum or gallery. So many colors and smells. By the time we break for lunch, I am ready to take nap.
We don’t have things like this in the States. Everything is so ordered. So packaged. I delight in this kind of free and open market space, this kind of assault on the senses. I think, as I lay down to rest back at Emily’s apartment, perhaps it’s good for us to be overwhelmed like this from time to time. We need that kind of reminder of how very much there is to experience in any given instant.
Later in the day, we sit on a hill and watch the sun set over the sea, drink a few Israeli beers and watch Lentil the Shiatzu chase geese around the park. We talk and fall into the kind of conversations only possible when you’ve reached the level of intimacy with another person that no time or distance apart can ever diminish. It’s a delightfully familiar kind of day, just the two of us, the kind of day we’ve had so many times before. This is serene. What a simple, lovely sort of miracle to be having it here in a country that feels so far away, so different.
I am also here in Israel during Purim so people wear costumes. Three whole days of costumes. Children are out of school running around dressed as everything from Disney princesses to tigers and miniaturized soldiers. Adults are dressed up too. We sip coffee in a café where all the waiters are hippies. We walk through Dizengoff Square where people are gathered listening to loud music and watching a giant inflatable Rabbi dance around in circles. I ask Yaron what Purim is all about. He’s a bit fuzzy on the exact details but he tells me the story of a Jewish princess who persuades her husband, the King, not to listen to his advisor and slaughter all the Jews. The King then has the advisor executed.
“All the holidays are about somebody trying to kill the Jews, and the Jews killing them instead.”
“Why the costumes?” I ask.
“You’re supposed to drink until you don’t know yourself.”
So that’s what we do. We buy cheap masks and cat ears and end up in a small bar where we eat German sausages and drink beer and take shots. At midnight, they play Greek music and we stand on the bar and smash plates and bottles on the floor behind the bar. This is how we celebrate our Jewish holiday. This is life most unfamiliar to me. Unfamiliar and delightful.
The very landscape of Israel is also a miracle of its own right. It is hills and valleys. It is mountains and green fields and wildflowers. It is beaches. It is, of course, deserts and sand. Rock. At times, it seems as though Israel has every major topography somehow smashed within its not so massive borders. But it is a shock to the system, the lushness, the variety. To go from the beach resort city of Tel Aviv to the top of Mount Bental to the desert surrounding the Dead Sea, all of which you could do in a day, a matter of hours really is to speak to the strange wealth of diversity that is the Israeli countryside. To learn that much of the current vegetation and agriculture is not native to the area, but came with the Jewish immigrants in the late nineteenth century, is also fascinating. It seems even many of Israel’s plants are immigrants.
Jerusalem is less a single sort of miracle and more an overwhelming state of miraculous happenings.
Emily and I spend the day wandering. We observe the layers of stones from different time periods of ruins around the perimeter of the Old City exposed beneath the current structures. Imagine the fortitude it takes that when one city is brought down, lives lost in conflict and destruction, another is raised over the ruins until that one comes down as well. That cycle of survival is hard for me to fathom. And then we enter the Old City and find ourselves before the Western Wall. The first thing we do is sit down to write our notes.
“Did you bring paper?” Emily asks me.
I dig around in my bag and find a receipt. It’s not the most glamourous thing to write a note on to stick into this very old, very sacred place, but that shouldn’t matter, right?
I write something about world peace, not trite and insincere. Very real. Never more real than here in this place. While Emily finishes her note, I sit and watch the two sides of the wall, where the men and women are divided. The men are much louder, more boisterous. They sing and pray, move around.
The women are quiet. They sit and read, they touch the wall and keep to themselves. We approach the wall with our notes. The women pray. Many of them cry or wail. They do not express joy or song like the men. They are somber. They grieve. There are women who touch the wall with their fingers, their foreheads. Some women kiss the wall. I place my own note in the wall and let my fingers rest there. Then, we back away, careful not to turn our backs until we are at a respectful distance.
I thought perhaps I’d find myself overwhelmed by the history of such a place, the way I’ve been with other places, war monuments or historic sites, and tear up at the thought of the people who had stood there before me or what had transpired at the site some years or centuries ago. But here, I am overcome by the present.
There is an immense power in this place. If ever a sign of hope existed for our future, our world, it is in these women, who have come from everywhere, some orthodox and completely covered, some dressed like American tourists, cameras around our necks, to touch foreheads, fingertips, to this old stone wall. I cry and when Emily sees that I cry, she cries, and we continue on through the Jewish quarter in a contemplative silence, the goosebumps lingering on my skin despite the heat and sweat.
Later, we find ourselves wandering an Arab market, having a less spiritual experience as we try to bargain the price down for a t-shirt with a vendor named Sami. He wants to charge the American girls a high price but Emily sets the tone pretty quickly. He won’t be taking advantage of us today.
“How long have you been in this country?” he asks.
“Too long,” she tells him.
I can see he’s intrigued. He begins screen printing our t-shirt, it is a gift for my sister that says Batman in Hebrew. He asks Emily what she’s doing in Israel.
“I live here with my husband.”
“Is he enough for you?”
She is very direct. I laugh awkwardly. I have not gotten used to this kind of forwardness yet. I am thinking we should stop talking to this man, get the t-shirt and get the hell out of here. But the conversation continues and turns out to be perfectly pleasant. Sami is also a newlywed. He and Emily discuss marriage and children and we all laugh and in the end, we agree on a price and we leave the booth with the shirt in hand.
As we are walking back through the market, vendors shouting out their wares on either side of us, Emily says;
“I could have bargained him down even more, but he was a nice guy.”
And he was. Another miracle. A little forward, yes. But nice. This isn’t always the case.
Women have been pulled into these stalls and raped. People have been stabbed at the gates where you enter the Old City. A week after I return to the States, a suicide bomber kills 12 people on a bus in the center of the city. These thoughts run through my head every step I take while I am in Jerusalem. I know they are on Emily’s mind too. She is anxious and jittery. When a man in the shuk starts to shout, we jump until we realize he’s just trying to get someone’s attention.
When we cram onto the train, my stomach churns until we reach our stop. At the Church of the Sepulcher, we get caught in a line waiting to enter Christ’s tomb and they momentarily close the exhibit. We are the next people in line to go in but I have a moment of sheer panic when the crowd behind us begins to rush forward and I think we are about to be trampled in an actual stampede. Spending the day in Jerusalem and then arriving home again in Tel Aviv feels like a miracle of its own kind.
This is not to say Tel Aviv isn’t without this sense of anxiety. Emily and Yaron’s apartment is just a few blocks away from where a bar is shot up only a month or so before I come—a rare act of gun violence in Israel.
We take a stroll down to Jaffa on Easter Sunday. After an arduous search, we find an old Lutheran church just in time to hear a little pipe organ at the end of their morning service. A surreal experience, hearing “Thine is the Glory” (about as Lutheran as it gets) in Tel Aviv on Easter. We wander through a flea market and do a little shopping. We stop at the Abulafia Bakery, open since 1879, and get ourselves some divine pastries baked in clay ovens. Then, we wander down the seaside. We snap a photo of the two of us with a view of the Tel Aviv city center in the background.
Then, we turn around and watch the waves roll in.
“See that spot over there?” Emily says, pointing to the background of where we just took our picture.
“That’s where that American guy was stabbed last week.”
These stabbings have been a frequent occurrence in recent months. Still, it’s jarring to think that this beautiful spot, so peaceful with the breeze rolling of the water, the sun shining down, the minaret of a nearby mosque standing so picturesque just a little way up the road, could have been the scene of such a horrific event just a week earlier. But the reminder of this violence is constant. Tel Aviv is a resort city with a military base in the middle. IDF soldiers roam the streets in uniform, their assault rifles slung over their shoulders. They stand at the entrance to the shuk. They dot the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They man the entrance to the sea grottoes at Rosh Hanikra. You can’t go anywhere in Israel without seeing those young men and women in their olive green uniforms, without seeing guns.
At the entrance to Rosh Hanikra, I ask Yaron if he thinks the soldiers would take a picture with me.
He smiles. “I will ask them.”
We go over and sure enough, after a little discussion in Hebrew, I’m surrounded by three young men, who proudly puff up their chests and raise their guns high so the American can have her photo opportunity. After Yaron snaps a shot on my iPhone, one of the men asks if he can also take a photo of his own. I’m a little surprised by this. Why would they want to take a picture of some dumb tourist? Probably to laugh and tell their friends later. But I think, “What the hell?” and give him a nod. So, we pose again.
As we walk away, Yaron says;
“No one pays any attention to the soldiers here. You just made their day.”
It’s sweet to think the guy actually wanted a photo so he could tell his unit someone wanted to take a photo with him and his friends. But it’s also telling. That this military presence, these rather large guns that make my heart stop a little every time I see one, are so commonplace that nobody bats an eye. We wander through the grottoes, such a wonder here, carved out by the sea, the smell of saltwater, the sound of the waves crashing against stone, and even as I hear the story of the railroad that once passed through, how the military blew it up to keep the opposing side away, I can’t imagine how anybody could seek to destroy such a place. Then, we approach an inconspicuous blue gate and there on the other side is an abandoned Lebanese tank. Here we sit, right on the border. You really don’t ever know how close you are to any kind of threat.
It seems this military presence has always existed. In the seaside village of Akko, we wander the above ground streets, looking at wares and stopping for falafel. We are trailed by Arab children who want to catch of glimpse of our four-legged companion, Lentil, a rarity here. Below ground, we traverse the Templar’s tunnel, a magnificent structure that served as a passage between the port and the Templar fortress in the old city of Acre. I imagine as we bend low to pass the through the stone archways what it must have been like for the knights in their metal armor to run through this passageway under firelight with their fortress under siege.
A day later, we drive north. We suck on hard candies on the road to Mount Bental. The hills are lush and green, dotted with small communities on either side. We are close to the border of Lebanon. We talk about Hezbollah, and war, the military threat that exists just over the hills, a 50,000 person army. The threat feels imminent.
“I better have another piece of candy,” Yaron jokes.
“A sniper could get us any time.”
I laugh, a little nervously, not as accustomed to this Israeli humor. But this is a small miracle too. A little dark, yes. But this laughter, this humor, is a weapon against a sense of threat, the fear that life could be overtaken at any moment by violence, pain, or death. This laughter is courage to keep going in the midst of this uncertainty, the will to live. And, the Israelis are always joking, it seems.
The Dead Sea is another experience entirely. Southern Israel is perhaps what might come to mind when you think of Israel if you picture Israel as some kind of Middle Eastern desert nation. We drive past sandy hills and rocky dunes. Bedouin encampments line either side of the road. I never see any people, only shelters, and goats. The land is beautiful. The rock is light, and the sun is bright so that it makes the stone flicker as we drive by. Everything seems so luminous. It’s not a particularly hot day. It’s a little breezy. Cool even to be getting in the water. But it’s the one day where Emily’s friend can take us and we have a car and we are going to the Dead Sea, dammit.
There are many beaches. Some where you have to pay and some where you don’t. We decide to go to one where you pay. The facilities will be a little nicer. There are a few we know that are very expensive. We decide on one that neither of the girls has ever been to but that looks nice as far as we can tell. We pull off at the exit. There are small abandoned buildings on either side. Some kind of failed settlement. A few have bullet holes. Must be a place where teens come out to blow off some steam. It’s a little post-apocalyptic but we are still a little way from the water.
There are not many cars in the parking lot. We pay our entrance fee and head down to the beach. The water is a green-blue. There are waves, which neither Emily or her friend have ever witnessed on the usually “dead” Dead Sea before. What I notice is that the entire beach is populated by youngish Arab men who seem to take immediate notice of our presence in the sand. We find a few chairs and set our things down and decide to bask in the sun a little. It is definitely a little chillier than we had hoped to take a dip in the water but Emily and I are determined. After all, I can’t come all the way to Israel and not get in the Dead Sea.
By the time we decide to get in the water, a few more people have arrived and we are feeling a little better about our surroundings. Emily and I decide to venture down to the water. The beach is a combination of muddy and rocky and it hurts my feet. It’s a little treacherous wading into the water. I trip over the rocks and sink in the mud as I try to get out far enough that the waves are not breaking in small white caps, but gentle undulations. I want to float. That is what you come to the Dead Sea to do. I flop and fall a few times, the slight waves of salty water hitting me in the face and mouth, leaving an oily residue, unlike anything I’ve felt before. Emily goes to help a woman who has gone under and has been temporarily blinded by the salt. It’s dangerous to get it in your eyes. Her children are there but they seem too distracted to help her. I watch Emily guide her back to shore.
Finally, we get to a spot where the waves are steady and we are able to lift our legs and float. It is an amazing sensation, the buoyancy of body on the water even without the calm. I lay there for a few moments, let the oily water lap against me, and try to think of another time when I have felt so weightless, so unburdened. I’m not sure I can remember. I close my eyes. All is well. A splash of salt on my lips pulls me back to present. We head back to shore. I fall again and this time, I struggle to get back up. A few young Arab men stand just at the shore with their phones.
“Are you filming us?” Emily asks.
Probably Emily in her bikini. Or me floundering around like some kind of beached animal. Or a little of both. We must be quite a show. When I finally make it back to shore I realize I have small cuts on my hands and knees from the rocks on the sea floor. I didn’t even feel it. Nothing a little mud won’t fix.
We move for the mud pit and slather ourselves. I rub mud all over my body. Arms, legs, chest. Then, we sit and let it cake on. As it dries, it lightens in color. Goes from dark to light. We find a water spout and rinse ourselves off. It’s an awkward process that requires a lot of bending and maneuvering. I hope I feel different somehow when I’m washed clean, transformed. I want this mud to be miraculous. People pay a lot of money for it after all. And here I am at the source. The fountain of youth. What I do feel, after I’ve rinsed it off, is smooth. Nice. Exfoliated, I guess. Invigorated, definitely. I haven’t exactly turned back the hands of time, but I do feel lighter somehow. This is worth something.
When we come back to where Emily’s friend sits with our belongings, a man has moved his chair just a few feet behind us. We have seen him pass in front of us a few times already, shirtless, flexing his muscles and showing us what he has to offer. I make a note of his presence but mostly write it off. We sit for a few more minutes and talk until he moves his chair up and sits down next to Emily. He begins speaking to her. I can’t really hear what he’s saying and he’s mostly unintelligible. His eyes are bloodshot and droopy. He doesn’t look right.
“I’m flattered, but I’m not interested,” she says.
“Are you here with some friends? I think you should go sit with them?”
I can tell that she is uncomfortable. She shifts away from him in her chair. I’m uncomfortable. My heart races a little. I want to intervene, but I don’t know what to stay. I’ve seen this happen so many times in bars in the states, but things are different here and I’m a stranger to the social cues.
“Did you tell him to leave?” Emily’s friend says.
“To be honest, I’m afraid to be too forceful,” Emily leans away from him and closer to us.
“I think he’s on something and I’m a little scared.”
“Should we go?” I ask, thinking about how quickly we can pack up our things and get out of here.
The Dead Sea lightness has gotten very heavy in a matter of seconds.
“I don’t know.”
We sit for what for a few minutes, unsure of what to do, squirming in silence. We get a reprieve when the man in charge of the beach catches our gaze and comes over. He tells the man, rather forcefully, to leave us alone. The man scoots his chair back away from us. We leave a few minutes later. The man also gets up and takes a different route up toward the bathhouses and we are afraid he is going to follow us to the parking lot. Emily and I go in to change the out of our bathing suits. We tell her friend to stay right at the entrance of the bathhouse with the other women. When we make it to the car without incident, get in and lock our doors, I take a deep breath and finally relax. I realize how tense I was when my muscles slacken in one gigantic sigh. I could sleep for days.
After we leave the Dead Sea we take a drive through a Jewish settlement and find ourselves at a place called the Dead Sea Balcony. We sit high above a region of rolling desert hills. We can see the city of Jericho down below, the Dead Sea in the distance. But mostly just desert. We watch a few stray cats wander the side of the cliff where we sit. We watch a goat down at the bottom of the drop-off. It’s so quiet and peaceful. But mostly it’s just empty. A rocky sort of emptiness of sand and shrubs. I’m tired and I’ve just smoked a joint and all I can see is limitless expanse. A vast, open wilderness. It’s overwhelming. We just sit and bask in the beauty of it, of our own comparable smallness, for what seems like an infinite amount of time, what is actually only an hour or so, and then we decide to head back to Tel Aviv.
We start back the way we came but the GPS redirects us because apparently traffic through Jerusalem is heavy. Of course, I have no idea where we are because I am just a visitor. And, Emily doesn’t drive in Israel. And, Emily’s friend is just following her GPS and taking in the sights. So, we end up on a road that before long starts to appear like a very different kind of road than any of the roads we’ve been on before. In fact, a large portion of this road runs right alongside the West Bank Barrier. Either side of the road is fenced in with barbed wire running along the top. I don’t say anything. Emily doesn’t say anything. Emily’s friend doesn’t seem to notice. I think to myself, I’m sure this is just another road. After all, it’s a busy road. There are many cars. And, I am here in Israel during a time when I did not get to experience the West Bank. So, it’s nice to at least catch a glimpse. But, there is something about this presentation here, that makes me uneasy. That sense that violence has once again break into our day. Something could happen at any moment.
When we get home, we tell Yaron about our day, about the road.
He shakes his head.
“The most dangerous road in Israel,” he says.
“You could have died.”
Emily and I look at each other, like “he’s overreacting,” and he probably is, but also, maybe he isn’t, because you just never know.
With all this talk of violence, please don’t think that I am taking any kind of side on the many social and political issues that exist throughout the region. I’m not. I can only speak to my own experiences. What I saw and heard and felt was that every side has wronged and been wronged. Every side has grieved. Every side has lost so much and every side continues to lose. There is so much suffering and also so much resilience.
And, this is not just in Israel. This is happening all over the world, and certainly right here. Perhaps what I see when I look at the violence in Israel, what I see when I look at Israel, where the violence is so present, so consuming, is a flashpoint for the rest of the world. The more I explore the history of the region, the more it seems there has never been a time when someone wasn’t fighting someone. It’s hard to stand in a place and think, this ground has never seen a day of peace. It makes my body ache.
But Israel is so much more than just a country and people that live on in spite of the violence that seems to surround them. It’s miracles not only intersect but supersede this violence. I think about our day at the Sea of Galilee. We drive to the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, a small seaside chapel made of stone. When the sea is full, I imagine the water comes right up to the building, the water lapping the large stones upon which the church sits. But the water is low and you have to walk several yards across small pebbles to actually meet the water’s edge. The water itself is not some impressive shade of crystal blue or turquoise, but a muddy sort of gray. It does not look like the place where miracles could happen.
And yet, as I bend down and reach my hand into the water I can’t help but think for just a second, what if. I reach up and make a sign of the cross on my forehead because I’m standing here at the Sea of Galilee and this seems like an appropriate thing to do and I hadn’t even thought of it myself but that’s what Emily and Yaron are doing and Yaron’s Jewish so now I’m really embarrassed but as I feel the water on my forehead I think again, what if. What if I were to touch my forehead and my headache that I’ve had for over two years were to go away. And, I know this isn’t going to happen. And, I feel silly for even thinking it. But then I feel in my heart this stirring that if it could happen in any place in the world, that maybe it could happen here.
This is what I’ve discovered in my ten days in this country. It’s not the sites or the monuments or the land that make Israel seem holy or sacred. It’s the people.
It’s the belief and the energy that seems atomized in the air you breathe.
There’s a certain kind of power to put such faith in the place that you would remain there amidst the violence and the pain and the struggle. That you would continue to hope and to not just live but to thrive. To me, Israel is a microcosm of the entirety of the human experience, every emotion felt so deeply in such close quarters. I feel opened and emptied, but also bursting. And that, I think, is Israel. One beautiful paradox after another.