This week's portion: bloom
A morning at the Leader Minyan

Returning to the Old City

The shawarma I ate last night on Ben Yehuda street was unlike any shawarma I've ever eaten. I had it in a pita, and the meat was good: spicy, succulent, with a hint of curry. But what made it amazing were the piles of toppings the vendor put in there with the lamb. I just kept saying yes to everything he offered; I wanted to try it how the locals eat it, you know? Which meant that it came loaded with humus, salad, cole slaw, pickles, spicy red pepper paste, olive tapenade, tahini sauce, and a handful of French fries on top. It was extraordinary.

After dinner I walked by myself to the edge of the Old City, arriving just before sunset when the late light was painting the walls of the city pinkish-gold. I caught a glimpse of the windmill where, last night, I stood and looked at the Old City in the near distance. I went in through the Jaffa Gate, just for a minute, because I couldn't stand being so near but not actually going in.

Sesame breads, just inside the Old City, this morning.

A friendly rug merchant beckoned me into his store, and we chatted for a few moments. He drew me a map of the Old City -- a circle divided into four quadrants (Armenian Quarter, Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter) with eight hatch marks around the rim of the circle representing the gates. It's a mandala, I realized. There's all kinds of symbolism to the number eight: the quarters and cross-quarters of the year, the seven days of creation plus one more implying infinity...

Reluctantly I pulled myself away; dark was coming, and I didn't want to get lost. But I promised myself that I would return in the morning, so this morning after a bite of breakfast (fresh apricots with challah and hummous; I'm liable to turn into a chickpea this summer, I'm eating it so often) I charted a new route to the Jaffa Gate and went back inside.

I'd been to the Old City before -- ten years ago -- and remembered that it's the kind of tangled place where even people who have a sense of direction get lost. (I have no sense of direction in the first place, so I didn't even try to keep track of where I was; I just wandered.) Through parts of the Three Covered Markets, all bedecked with embroidered clothes and tapestries and pillowcases. Shops selling rugs, nargil water-pipes, cassettes and CDs of unfamiliar pop music. I stopped to photograph one stand -- piles of candy, from gummy worms to Turkish delight -- and the merchant caught me.

When I left I was carrying a bag of amazing dates, plump and sweet, and a bag of yellow cubes of Turkish delight so soft they almost melted in my mouth. (They're huge, too. Probably two inches to a side.)

At one point a procession crossed my path -- pilgrims singing Christian hymns in English; something about "when they buried my Lord" -- led by a man in clericals hefting a cross almost as large as I am. That was when I realized I was on the Via Dolorosa.

I didn't enter any of the Christian holy sites. I'd like to go back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (I imagine it might feel different to me now after my coursework in deep ecumenism and after my chaplaincy year when I worked so closely with Christian chaplains of many denominations) but I was wearing a sleeveless linen blouse, hardly appropriate. So I kept walking, ruminating on the experience of standing out the way I do. Among women in hijab, I'm an obvious outsider. (I remember feeling that way in Amman some years ago.) Among women in Orthodox Jewish garb, I look like an outsider but feel like a strange kind of hybrid outsider/insider. I belong and I don't belong. Bumping up against these boundaries is one of the reasons I love travel.

My feet took me to the Kotel (Western Wall.) It really wasn't intentional; I didn't know where I was! But once it became clear that I was at the entrance, I couldn't not go in. A woman in uniform handed me a powder-blue rectangle of polyester fabric with which to drape my bare shoulders, and I entered the plaza. The ten years since I was there last melted away.

I couldn't get very close; the sliver of shade at the base of the wall was packed with women, talking and praying, some with siddurim, others pressing their hands against the wall, and I didn't feel up to fighting my way through the throng. So I just stood where I was and said a silent prayer of gratitude to the Presence -- Who dwells in all of creation, but Who is said to consider that spot a particular home -- for bringing me to this place and this moment in time.

I still haven't resolved my flickr log-in issues, so: no photoset yet! But stay tuned; I'm hoping I might be able to post one by next week or so. For now, here are a few shots, hosted on Typepad.

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