Happy, Healthy & Holy

Warm weather and sunshine finally greeted us for the first day of Passover on Saturday and on Easter Sunday. We took full advantage of this by walking through the hushed metropolis – there are no cars driven and nothing is open in Jerusalem during Shabbat. It was especially quiet because it was also the first day of khag, or holiday. Because we were up so late the previous night, we had gotten a delayed start. By late afternoon, we had wound our way through the very narrow cobblestone streets of the walled Old City, quite like a labyrinth, past an Armenian Christian woman sitting with her pet turtle (yup, that’s right. Go figure. You see everything here!), to the Kotel, the Western Wall. I was fortunate to get a seat in the women’s section – it is separated by a partition so the men & women worship apart – right in front of the wall. More tears!!! Each time, I’ve gone it’s been a completely different experience, this one quite joyful, with lots of quiet praise, prayers, and tears. It’s not called the Wailing Wall for nothing! I was able to slip the tiny notes given to me by my friends into the cracks, as well as my own. The grand square in front of the wall was beginning to fill up with the many different sects of ultra-Orthodox Jews of Eastern European descent. Each sect with its own unique (Medieval/Renaissance) style dress. The bearded men wearing their fur hats, some in black pantaloons and tights under silk robes, others with the black suits and black velvet skullcaps, others dressed all in white with white knit caps. Most men have side curls, and the women are all modesty covered up, but beautiful to behold. Their hair is wound up in beautiful headdresses, and many ladies have lace trim at the neckline and hem of their silk dresses. The little girls – the families tend to dress their daughters in matching dresses – look like illustrations from one of my favorite children’s books, All of a Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor (highly recommended!!). It is like stepping into a different time and different world!

We were able to take part in a joyous Havdalah service making the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the new week. Many colored wax strands of candles are woven into a three-fold braided large candle and lit, as the prayers are sung blessing the new light. Prayers are sung as cups of wine are blessed, and spice-boxes (silver boxes containing mixtures of cloves, cinnamon pieces, cardamom pods, pepper whose scent wafts through reticulations cut into the holders) passed around. Rousing renditions of the song, “Eliyahu Ha Navee,” or Elijah the Prophet, are sung, calling for the prophet’s coming (he was assumed bodily into heaven) before the Messiah arrives. This was followed by joyful song and dance.

How fitting, because after this ceremony, we attended the evening Easter Vigil services at Notre Dame, the Pontifical Institute of Jerusalem. Vigil starts in much the same way as the Havdalah service, with the kindling of a huge bonfire from which the new Paschal candle, and the onlookers’ smaller tapers, are lit. There was a procession to the chapel, indoors, where the Mass began with a Hebrew-sounding chant (in Latin) blessing the wax pillar and the congregants. Instead of a spice box, altar boys swung reticulated silver censers of incense, perfuming the church with the same smells we had inhaled earlier at the Wall. The readings, from the Genesis story of creation to the Passover and Exodus story(which we had done at the Seder the previous night), to readings from Isaiah, interspersed with familiar Psalms, were done in English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian!!! On to the New Testament Gospel readings of the resurrection of Jesus, followed by baptisms of new catechumens and the Communion service. It was so interesting to see how much of the Catholic Mass is based on the liturgy from the Jewish service!! All-in-all, it has been a week to remember.
On Sunday, we strolled the newly-created Tayelet (pedestrian boardwalk and bikeways) through our neighborhood towards the Old City. Everyone had the same idea. Families were out en mass, young and old alike. I love the family-friendly atmosphere of Israel, which is so pro-life. It seems everyone has children or is pregnant, which is also widely seen in the art and music (Hebrew songs play continually on the radio about fathers and young sons; having a lovely daughter in kindergarten; the celebration of the joys of family life). Big families are not at all unusual here, and it is so tender and uplifting to see young dads carrying babies in backpacks, on bicycles, and with strollers. Everywhere are happy, laughing, playing children!! And there are lots of family activities.

We meandered our way through a pavilion near the old train station (now a museum), which is now full of cafes, art and vendor stalls, and sound stages. Since I’ve been here, I’ve received many “kisses from G-d.” John and Max are still trying to comprehend and accept my tears of joy (thank you, Lisa for the lovely hankies!!!) at completely random times. This was one of them. As we passed a stage area, there was a large group doing traditional and modern Israeli folk dance!!! Anyone could participate, and as this was a passion from my younger years at summer camp, of course I joined in – after the tears!!! I recognized the familiar tunes and was astounded to find I remembered most of the steps to several dances. What an amazing welcome home! It’s interesting, now that I can understand the words, most are of Biblical nature…

There were balloon artists for the kids – making sheep, shepherds, and Old Testament creations. Food demos and samplings. In the Jewish tradition, no leavening can be eaten during the days of Passover. This is a time of hard, dry matzah crackers instead of bread. No rice, corn, beans … anything that can be puffed up or that rises. In America, celebrating Pesach can be quite difficult. Not so here! It is such a joy. And so creative. Restaurants have special Kosher for Passover menus, with items like pasta made of potato flour(my gnocchi was delicious, as was John’s fettucini). Max had a delicious fried chicken with a spicy oat-matzah crumb breading. We ate cakes and cookies made of ground almond and walnuts. And all gluten-free. The chefs are very generous here, and I’ll be sharing some of their recipes in later posts.

During these days, museums were free, and street buskers were on every corner – many, very professional. You could enjoy jazz bands, string quartets, Broadway belters, traditional Jewish tunes, and Indie-folk guitarists and vocalists. Once we got inside the walls of the Old City, the buskers were as varied as Eastern European Klezmer bands; a young girl sitting on the cobblestones playing a David’s harp for shekels; and Arabic-sounding bazouki music. It was a feast for the senses. The vendors lining the alleyways of the shuk (marketplace) of the Old City were open, with the sellers yelling out to the passers by to stop into the shops. They sell all kinds of Middle Eastern holy objects from all religions, food, clothing, rugs, hookahs, spices, and it’s hard to avoid their hawking to buy their items. Some even hang birdcages of twittering canaries to attract the tourists!! The Old City behind the walls is quite unevenly divided into the Christian Quarter, The Arab Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, and the Jewish Quarter. Surprisingly, the Jewish Quarter is the smallest. Each part of this tiny area – the whole Old City – is less than a square mile, each having its own Holy sites.

For people who think Israel is all Jewish, rethink. This is a holy area for so many different religions. People come here from the world over. Each with his own set of beliefs, traditions, language, prayer style, and dress. To pray, to sightsee, to learn, to live, to love – and some, like us, to do all of the above!

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