24 June 2019
So what did you like best? What was your favorite thing? Did anything stand out? Questions people ask after a trip. For me there is something about picking favorites that diminishes the other things, or, at least, puts them in the background. But the questions do force us to recall and keep highlights in mind longer. What’s the sense, if two weeks later the trip becomes a blur, a cross-off on your bucket list.
My daughters did ask, naturally, how I liked a recent trip to Israel (my first, Roberta’s eighth). I hadn’t really thought about an artful reply at the time they asked, since I was dealing with jet lag, getting reacquainted with home turf and traffic and having left a place with a healthy, daily ration of yogurt, hummus, olives, salads and water by the gallon. (It was five days of nearly 100 degrees in Jerusalem, more than that at Masada and a disqualifying 112 degrees at the Dead Sea. The pleasures of floating there, buoyed by salt, loses its appeal, when it’s nearly as hot as an exhaust pipe.) So my inartful reply to the question was “interesting”. It was a bland response…and it deflated both daughters, who thought I didn’t like it. “Interesting” is one of those words, when applied to a date, means you’ll never see her again.
Not so…I really did like it, but couldn’t put my thoughts together quickly, like a kid just back from Disneyland can. But I was bothered about the likelihood of forgetting…and wanted to remember it well. I went over each day and found I really did like it (despite the usual goose chases on every trip, since I don’t plan extensively.) But then I had to retrace each day to find one favorite thing, the most intriguing thing. Hopefully, I would find such a standout thing. And, oddly, one thing did arise, but not one the rabbis would have expected from an Abrahamic descendant (in the Isaac and Jacob branch of family ancestors).
Roberta’s son, who lived in Israel for a few years, had an Israeli friend who, at one time, was a tour guide…a luxury I have never allowed myself. But he, spinning from a storehouse of historical thread, as if he had been there himself, took us on a magical walk through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, from the catacombs to the roof, through rotundas and Greek, Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian chapels, along the last few stations of the Via Dolorosa, ending at Calvary, near the Stone of the Anointing and the tomb where Jesus was buried. (There was no church, obviously, when the Crucifixion occurred. It was built 300 years later and now its domes, transept and nave enclose this relatively small area of crucifixion, anointing and burial.) Something did happen there, although the dates, the exact places might be a bit off. But it is history. The facts can’t be certified, but faith in the biblical account is real. To the tourists, pilgrims, church groups the fulfillment of just being there is real. People sobbing, foreheads pressed against the Stone of Anointing…that is real. You might not believe everything, but this is the core from which the Christian faith radiated to the rest of the world. And the rest of the world has been mightily affected by it. It’s hard to stand there and not feel the stones move.
There was a bit of humor stitched into the pathos of that fateful place. We were shepherded by our guide up a steep stairway, under an arch near the entrance of the church to a small, but ornate, domed chapel. There, with arms linked in a circle, was a visiting church group, swaying, eyes closed, in the exhilaration of being in such a place. And they were singing, believe it or not, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. For that moment ecumenism was alive and well in the walled confines of Jerusalem’s Old City…in one of the most Christian places on Earth, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre…although in such a place, I doubt too many others enjoyed the irony.