Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!
My apologies for taking so long to write. The internet situation has been challenging, and along with the needs to settle-in, absorb and listen, as well as study and have fun – there just hasn't been the time. Now, though, I believe I must sit down and write. As my ulpan teacher (morah) is always saying, 'cotvim! cotvim!', 'write! write!'
First, here are the highlights so far:
- Arrival in Tel Aviv. Boarded sherut (shared taxi) for 62 sheckels. While I waited, I was greeted by a young lady from Jerusalem who, upon seeing me said, "Wow, well, you're sure happy to be here." She read it on my face! Also, upon boarding the sherut, the driver began yelling in Hebrew because he wanted me to move to the back of the sherut in order to give my seat up to a young lady who did not want to sit between the two Jews in the back. Even though I didn't understand what he was saying, when he boarded the sherut and started yelling while looking at me, I didn't need to know Hebrew; I just moved back as fast as I could!
- Of course, the sherut driver refused to drop me off at my hotel, Seven Arches. I didn't find out why until I got a taxi out in front of Dan Jerusalem Hotel. The conversation went something like this, as soon as I got into a private taxi at Dan Jerusalem.
- Me: So, do you know where we're going?
- Him: No.
- Me: Seven Arches Hotel, Mt. of Olives, please.
- Him: What? Oh no! I don't want to drive there! Oh no. Please no. Why do you stay there? You know this is not a Jewish hotel... Arab hotel...
- Me: Uhh...
- Him: I don't know where this is.... Why are you staying there?... are you Jewish?
- Me: Uh, yes. Can you take me to the hotel?
- By this point, we had left the 'Jewish' neighborhood surrounding Dan Jerusalem and had entered the 'Arab' neighborhood. The Ramadhan fast had just been broken (iftaar). People are cheering, there are sporadic firecrackers, it's a big celebration. As we proceeded up one of the peaks, we rounded a corner and a car came flying by.
- Him: These Arabs! They drive like maniacs! Damn maniacs! That's why I don't like driving here, maniacs!...
- At this point, I was becoming increasingly unconformable. Not because of the neighborhood; I did not feel unsafe. What was disconcerting was the hate in this man's voice. Thankfully, about a minute later, I spotted the hotel and he dropped me off.
- Check-in at Seven Arches Hotel. Take a shower, et cetera, then walk out to the observation point just a few hundred meters from the front door. The Old City, it's right there, right in my face. The Dome of the Rock is growing so brightly. I think I can make out people praying up there, small shapes that are glowing in the shadow-light of the Dome.
- Taxi to Hebrew University, check-in, move-in at the apartments. Apartments are beautiful. The people living there are as well. The land the Student Village is called French Hill. During the 1967 War (Six Day War), Israel gained control of this land. The details aren't clear to me, as I haven't had the internet access to read up on it, but if you look on a map, you'll see that the land is cut-off from sovereign Israel — there's a small strip of other land that is not in direct Israeli control (however you want to categorize this land, I purposefully avoid that subject at this point).
- Ulpan starts. Four hours everyday of Hebrew taught via complete immersion. It's remarkable how much can be learned by this method, but it stresses me out some because there's no way I can absorb everything all at once. I see myself as being at a disadvantage, as many here can already read Hebrew because of their participation at Synagogue, Shul, et al. Last night, I spent many hours simply copying words over and over again, like, 'shalom' and 'yisrael'. We had a small get-together in the apartment, and people found it amusing that I kept going (quite seamlessly, I might add) between the cotev of the script ivrihim and the party...!
- Meet Erik. He is a student from Norway. He offers to take me into the Old City. Wow! We enter via the Jaffa Gate. The Muslim Quarter! Wow. He takes me to the bottom of the stairs of a gate to the Temple Mount / Dome of the Rock which, he says, is a secondary gate that is only open during the holy month of Ramadhan. The view of the Dome of the Rock is incredible, right in my face, when Israeli security yells at us to move away from the staircase.We proceed through the Muslim Quarter and he tells me we are about to enter the Jewish Quarter. The transition is stark. There are many Israeli flags (degelim) here, as opposed to the Muslim Quarter, which only had a few, in certain places where Jews had endeavored to live. Before I know it, we're at the security checkpoint to enter the plaza of The Western Wall. I say, whoa, wait, Erik, I'm not prepared to go here. I don't have my kippah with me, I'm wearing shorts, I can't, not today. I tell him I won't approach the wall. We enter the plaza. There are hundreds of people there, some kind of rally. These are hasidim of some sort, waving yellow flags with crowns and Hebrew script I cannot read. There is a man, a Rebbe, I presume, up at the podium. He's speaking about something, I'm not sure what, but whatever it is, there is real fierceness behind it. He says a few words, in a dramatic cadence and tone, pauses, then the whole crowds breaks out in affirmation. At this point, we are approached by a more 'un-orthodox' Jew named Rafi. He hears us speaking English, and, he offers to bring us to The Wall. I say no. I give the same reasons I had just given to Erik. Then, we're walking. Where? To The Wall. Words will begin to fail me here, but I will try.
The Wall grows bigger in my sight. I see the white kippot, grab one, and we are greeted by a jolly man speaking very-fast-Hebrew. I greet him, and Rafi tells me he is asking me to put on Phylacteries.
I say lo, lo, maybe next time, and we get to about 30 feet from It.
Rafi took us around, showed us the area where It goes into an enclosed area. Inside there are men holding services, daveling, praying. There is a room next to a bookshelf of books (book = sefer), and in it, they are studying Talmud (I assume, but it could have been Torah).
When we exited, they 'pressured' me into going up to The Wall. I suppose I really did want to. It took a bit for me to go up to it, gazing skyward, Wallward.