Excerpt from To Catch a Dream
by Wendy Brown-Baez
My first taste of Jerusalem is the bitter taste of death. The taste of rusting hulks of armored vehicles along the road winding up into the mountain, testimony to the victory of ’48. The taste of blood spilled along the hillsides, until the strong sunlight glancing off the hewn stones blinds your eyes and all that is left are the cries of the wounded and dying. The taste of Jerusalem is the taste of Romans impaling hundreds and hundreds of rebels, criminals, and commoners on long wooden spikes lining the roadway for miles with their groans and tears. The taste of the Crusaders thrusting a lance into a robed, brown body, which writhes and screams. The taste of Arabic vengeance confronting Jewish determination.
How I weep for you, Jerusalem! Chosen for the sacrifice and election of Isaac, symbol of the end of all human sacrifice, demanding blood again and again from conqueror and victim.
When I arrive in Israel in January of 1988, I am unaware that the first intifada has begun. I have been living with a communal group for ten years, imitating the lifestyle of the first century disciples of Jesus: owning what little we have in common, not working for money but taking in the homeless and bringing free meals down to the park, and we raise our children together instead of in nuclear families, all brothers and sisters in Christ. We live a mixture of spiritual principles gleamed from the scriptures and 60’s idealism, rebelling against our historical context. The Viet Nam war, awareness of racism, and servitude to America’s golden calf had been sources of inspiration to find an alternative lifestyle. By imitation, I mean that we use Christ and His Disciples as our model. I also mean we do not achieve Christ-like qualities by ourselves. We have been dominated by one man’s interpretation and dictates, becoming increasingly cult-like and losing our ability to be free and autonomous spirits. Here in the search light of truth, where mine sweepers check the beach in front of us for bombs, where secrecy is treason and examination of one’s lifestyle and beliefs and willingness to contribute are the way Israelis socialize, the group will disintegrate.
In 1988, it is still possible to hitch-hike (they call it “tramping”) from one end of the country to the other with my 9 and 10 year old sons. We are picked up both by Israelis and Palestinians but the only car I ever have to get out of was driven by an Orthodox man who couldn’t keep his hands off of me. By 1989, people will walk up to me (most tramping was best done at a bus stop) and hand me shekels. “Please, honey, take the bus,” they advise. “It’s not safe to tramp.”
When I arrive in Israel on a ferry boat from Greece with my son, my best friend and her daughter, we spend a few days in En Hod. A member of our group had rented a tiny cottage set in this picturesque artist’s colony and we are greeted with a typical meal of hummus and pita, olives and wine. En Hod had once been an Arab village, one of the conquests of the ‘48 war. It is the perfect place to land, quiet, serene, surrounded by pine forest and artists who keep to themselves.
From En Hod, we tramp to Jerusalem. Our driver speaks not a word of English but unerringly escorts us straight to the Kotel, known as the Wailing Wall, now called the Western Wall. My heart is wrenched by the sight of a string of jeeps, bus-loads of soldiers, the air thick with tension, the wariness on the faces of the guards as they inspect our bags before we may cross the large square in front of the wall.
Wailing Wall. Symbol of Israel’s love for the glory of her past. The temple once stood here, where God hovered close to man, where the sweet smell of incense and burnt flesh mingled with the ointments of a million men and women who came thrice yearly to celebrate the festivals dictated by the Torah given to Moses. The niches and cracks in her stony façade are filled with miniscule scraps of paper, folded and refolded so they can be inserted into the narrow slits between the stones, prayers said to reach the ears of the Almighty more quickly. I will place prayers in these cracks at least three times before I leave the Holy Land, one for each year I stay, determined to make God hear me, the grief of betrayal as the group splits apart, the yearning for love as I recover out of the blind idealism of being brainwashed in “group think”, and the desire to be as close to the Divine as I can get without giving up whatever I have left of my family.
We stay in a hostel run by a Christian Bedouin man named Ali located by the Damascus gate, on the other side of the city. By bits and pieces over the next few days, we learn the facts from newspaper headlines and people we meet. An Israeli was stabbed to death on December 6, 1987, the previous month, while shopping in Gaza. On December 8, an Israeli truck hit two vans carrying Gaza laborers in Jabalya, a refugee camp packed with 60,000 residents. It instantly killed four of them. Rumor spread quickly that the wreck was no accident, but an act of vengeance. An eighteen-year old Palestinian named Hatem al-Sisi was killed by Israeli soldiers after throwing stones at them, sparking a riot. That evening, an uprising began in Jabalya where hundreds of Palestinians burned tires and attacked the Israel Defense Forces stationed in the camp. The uprising spread to other Palestinian refugee camps and eventually it came to Jerusalem. Dozens of Palestinian teenagers confronted patrols of Israeli soldiers, showering them with rocks. The week before, after Muslim services, a riot had broken out above the Kotel, the Western Wall as it is known to Israelis, or the Wailing Wall as it was called historically, and rocks were thrown down on people gathered to pray. It is a potential international disaster waiting to happen and the soldiers are there to prevent another incident from gettting out of control.
There are legends about why Jerusalem was chosen to be the place designated for the Temple. Within the Holy of Holies resided the Ark of the Covenant, container for the Torah, the tablets of the Law handed to Moses which dictated to the Hebrews how to live, how to worship and how to be forged into a monotheistic people. The High Priest was allowed into the presence of the Ark of the Covenant on Yom Kippur, day of reconciliation between man and man and between the Hebrews and their God. But I say it is the clarity of the air that reveals the souls of men to their Maker, the sun that washes the stones in subtle shades of gold so you feel the presence of celestial beings, the undulating hills that surround a natural fortress whose duty is to protect and comfort. A searing clarity is reflected in the eyes of her people, brown, blue, or green, a fantastic people from all over the world, browned, pale, with crosses, magen davids, crescents, chains, prayers, sighs, screams, whispers, prayers. Jerusalem is a mystery, she is clarifying bold, she wipes your weary brow with a kiss, she throws you to the ground with a knife at your throat.
There are four women standing somberly in front of the wall, wrapped in layers against the evening chill, one with her forehead pressed against the stones, wrapped in private prayer. The smaller woman’s side is divided from the men’s by a man-made metal wall. The men’s side is full of activity as men and boys approach the stones to pray, some in the long coats and fur hats of the Hasidim, others obviously tourists. The golden dome above glistens, ready to erupt with hate for the enemy below, the soldiers pace back and forth uneasily with their guns slung over their shoulders. We can feel the tension as palpable as the chill that is descending as the sun sinks. The wind whips across the square and we spend only a few minutes by the wall before we are ready to find shelter for the night.
We walk through the Old City, our nerves on fire, and yet, awed, amazed at her narrow, twisting streets, the bustle, the smell of strange spices, the gleam of gates leading to ancient sites. The same stones, here a series of huge and ancient blocks of stone dating from the time of the Romans, are where the feet of the holy ones, the prophets and saints walked and the pilgrims of centuries. The kings of the earth rattled through these arches in their chariots, where now horns blare as modern machines try to navigate between pedestrians and donkeys.
We walk to the hostel recommended to us. Ali is tall, wrinkled, yet as strong as the desert. He invites us in with Bedouin hospitality, steaming cups of mint tea and cookies. We sit next to the electric heater while he tells us of the strikes and demonstrations that have shaken the city. All shops are closed during the afternoon. In the Silwan valley, teen-agers throw rocks and burn tires, the soldiers round them up and arrest them, mothers wail and fathers hide underground. The government fears another demonstration after Muslim services, which is why there were so many soldiers around the Wall. Tourism is one of the main industries of Jerusalem and they have chosen to close their shops to hurt Israel in its pocketbook. “The soldiers will be gone tomorrow,” he assures us. “All shops will open in the morning and you can buy anything you want--sandals, jewelry, ceramics, bags, stone-ware, olive wood sculptures, many beautiful things.” “Should we stick to the tourist sites?” Carol asks but Ali assures us everything will be quiet in the morning
In the morning, sobered by this news, we buy bread and cheese for a simple breakfasrt with tea, then set out to find the tourist bureau to collect maps and lay plans for sight-seeing. There is much that we want to see and the morning is calm and quiet, the stalls near the hostel open and the vendors friendly. It is hard to know where to begin. Jerusalem is a tourist’s delight. The tomb of David, Hezekiah’s tunnel, the garden tomb, the pools of Siloam, Solomon’s stables—we slowly make a list and outline our route on the map. We are as excited as school-children.
Our meanderings take us back through the Jewish quarter. Somber Yeshiva students in black hats and mid-calf black coats, straight of the seventeenth century, walk past us as if we don’t exist, engaged in heated discussion. The curve of the Hurve synagogue, bombed in the war of 67, points to the sky like a huge hand supplicating for peace. The streets are paved with new stones, clean and empty after the garbage-strewn, muddy stones near the shuk.
Everything in its newness reminds me that the Israelis regained Jerusalem after the 1967 or six day war—a war they did not start and yet finished in six days. The miracle reverberated in joyous ripples around the world and culminated in the summer of love. A summer when young people took peace as their personal banner, their symbol for the future. The summer when young people took to the streets to celebrate life, just as the Israelis took to the streets to celebrate the unification of their holy city and most closely-kept desire. The eternal city. The center of the world. After a full day of exploring, walking spell-bound through Solomon’s stables which are the kids’ favorite part of the tour, touching stones that witnessed dedication to justice and eternal truths, marveling over deeds of strength and deeds of betrayal, we are saturated with a sense of history and the present has faded. As the light begins to fade, we meander our weary way through the labyrinth of streets back to the hostel. Soldiers along the street call out to us, invite us to come over and share a cup of tea. They are young, so young, fresh out of high school. There are about six of them stationed beneath Ariel Sharon’s home, provocatively situated in the Arabic quarter and requiring a constant guard. They want to practice their English. They give the children candy and steaming cups of mint tea in styrofoam cups. They have beautiful brown or blue eyes, sad and deep, even though they are teasing and flirting with us, asking how we like Jerusalem, would we like a guide to take us around tomorrow?
Every male particpates in “army serve” except for the strictly religious, for three years after high school and then yearly reserve duty until he is forty-five. The girls, also, unless married, enter the army for two years. It is the great Israeli equalizer as friendships and connections are made for life, for a reference, a referral, a job. Your army buddies will dance at your wedding, come to your child’s bar mitzvah, and weep at your funereal. But this is also another sacrifice the Jewish people must make in order to live. They are surrounded by nations that have tried to throw them into the sea and live by a proclamation that they will take their land back. In the forty years since its founding, Israel has fought four wars and is now embroiled in a civil up-rising. Israel is a tiny, narrow country. Rockets from neighbors land within her borders. Jerusalem has a border cutting through the middle, and anyone can carry a bomb under a hijab.
Laughing, we leave the soldiers without any realization of what it means for them to stand in the cold on alert for a terrorist attempt on their lives or the lives of those they are sent to protect. We come out of the Damascus gate to sit on the wide curving steps and watch the light fading over the walls of the city and the parade of people. Suddenly the air is filled with a noxious, penetrating odor. Someone sitting near-by calls to us, “Tear gas” and pulls his jacket up over his nose and mouth. We pull the children close and unwind our striped Mexican scarves across their faces and our own to block the acrid smell. We don’t know whether to run or stay but everyone around us is hunkered down, frozen in place, so we huddle together and watch. I notice the soldiers that stand in the look-out above the wall gesticulating to each other and shouting into their walkie-talkies. I think of the young men we had just met. Are they okay, is anyone hurt? What is going on inside the walls? So quickly it has become personal, so quickly you experience the violence on a personal level. Here in a country where you greet each other with “Shalom”, the word for hello, good-bye and peace. Here where the very stones evoke Gods’s Name and His pity for an end of the bloodshed. Doe every indidividual citizen have to be in agreement for it to happen? In the land of miracles, can there not be this one last miracle? We are waiting for a miracle, the Messiah and an era of peace. But if we humans are not strong enough to bring it, how will we be strong enough to keep it?
Jerusalem: tapestry of people, tapestry of prayers. An old man davens alone in a corner by the wall, bobbing in rhythm to whispered prayers. Young men daven energetically, payot flying. Tourists stand in awe, clutching cardboard kippas that the wind tries to blow off their heads. Dancing with Torah scrolls in their arms, groups of men find their places around velvet-covered tables. Proud papas, uncles, grandfathers, brothers listen solemnly while the Bar Mitzvah boy reads the Sacred Words. Video cameras roll. The women sing and throw candy over the dividing wall, trill, applaud. We greet them with “Mazel tov” and are invited to the feast with signs and gestures, while the children run and play through the clusters of people. Soldiers have one eye vigilant for disturbances, the other eye winks for a pretty girl. Heart-beat of a nation, prayers whispered or sung. The façade is a veil of tears, hopes, longing that reaches down through the centuries, unites the hearts of Jews everywhere. The hard reality—the enemy waiting to erupt, bitter with despair and frustration. Low-flying helicopters hovering over the valley of Silwan. Guards inspecting your bags, asking pointed questions. A young boy reaches manhood only to hold a gun where once he held sacred text.
Jerusalem: the tree-lined street of Ben Jehuda, where we duck out of the rain to drink tea in a gleaming, modern café. We have found the falafel stands where you can stand and eat until bursting for a shekel, about fifty cents. The stands have trays of pickled vegetables, cucumbers, beets, tomatoes, olives, onions, fried eggplant, fried peppers, to choose from. I add as many as I can on top of the falafel, balls of fried ground chick peas, then dribble tahina and spicy sauce over all. Jeruslaem’s falafel stands have only a few sauces to choose from but each one has its own spiciness and soon we will have our favorites. Along the sidewalks, we find souvenir shops and a Ben and Jerry’s, hidden alleyways with bookstores, a café with the ambiance of meeting someone for lunch and watching the world go by, buskers playing music for tips. Jerusalem is modern as well as ancient. We meet a yeshiva student from Alabama who wants to talk about God and offers to buy us coffees but cannot shake our hands. We engage in heated conversation about –what else?—God as the rain comes and drives the buskers off the street.
The open air market, the shuk, entices us with its mounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, hot pastries, the stink of freshly butchered meat, the vendors crying out, “Shekel, shekel, shekel.” Here all of Jerusalem converges on the sixth day, day of preparation for Shabbat, just as they do in every town and city in Israel. Housewives sift carefuly, looking for the best bargain, newly-weds load their bags with blushing pride. Old people with wheeled carts shove their way through the crowd. There is the babbling sound of many languages with an echoing refrain: “Shekel, shekel, shekel.” Bombs will explode in this shuk in just a few weeks but now, the hustle and bustle entice us in to choose fresh fruit for a mid-day snack. I wander through her streets, venerate the holy sites, thrill to the testimony of great deeds and men, marvel at ancient ingenuity and simplicity. I touch her stones, I lose msyelf through doorways into mysteries. As we wander, Arabic shop keepers invite us in for strong mint tea, hoping to make a sale but just as happy to chat and pass the time. Many of them speak passable English and we ask about the disturbances, the frustration they feel about not having their own homeland. Naively we ask, “Aren’t Arabs and Jews brothers, really, aren’t you both descendents from Abraham?” “We want our own nation, we are Palestinians, we are treated badly,” they tell us. “We want our people out of the refugee camps to have decent work and schools.” We are in the thick of an historical maze, layers of history, rumors, propaganda, tribal traditions, desert code of honor. Offered a place to warm ourselves out of the cold, as the rain comes and goes, the longing they share for peace is more potent that the smell of blood, more profound than the layers of rock recording the rise and fall of civilizations, more eternal than the call to prayer. Jerusalem poised for another war weeps with frozen tears while her people yearn for peace.
And she has written herself all across my heart.
I have just looked at eighty-two photographs of the “fence” that the Israelis are building to keep the Arab villages and cities separated as a measure to prevent terrorist attacks. It is supposed to give relief to the Israeli people who are exhausted from the years of strife and violence. It nominally runs along the 1947 Jordanian-Israel armistice/Green line although much of it actually cuts into land owned by Palestinians, some parts as much as 20%. The wall is made of concrete and 400 miles have been completed; when finished, it will stretch for 700 miles to create three large Palestinian enclaves and surround numerous small ringed ghettoes. In places it stands as high as 25 feet. In the photos, it looks imposing, gray, cold, and imprisoning, with border gate id checks that take hours and farmers cut off from their land and their crops. It is tragic that ancient olives trees have been bulldozed, and homes; financial ruin, unemployment and poverty are rampant. People are leaving the villages as it is too hard to make a living and stay. Precious water sources are retained inside the wall. The wall will cost two billion dollars to complete, money given by the United States that could be used to create economic opportunities for people on both sides of the wall to dissipate one of the sources of conflict. The idea of the wall is for protection but the reality is that the injustices, frustrations, and hatreds have been inflamed. It ignores the one million Palestinians already living inside Israel. I have an Israeli friend who complains that Israelis still sit in cafes and drink tea and eat cake as if they are unaware of the wall, as if they are unaware of humiliation that Palestinians feel whenever they have to cross the check points to reach their own fields or the deaths and arrests that have been a constant way of beating them down so they succumb to Israeli domination. But then I haven’t been there to see it for myself so I can only report to you what I hear and read. From my experience of living in the land, you can’t believe even what you see with your own eyes because there are layers of history and the layers of one man’s story against another’s and layers of meaning. I still believe in peace and brotherhood, I still dream that some day there could be peace. I don’t expect it in my lifetime. I am expectant of miracles and the coming of the Messiah. Catching a dream is easy; it’s putting it into reality that is hard. It can take all your life, all your tears and blood and prayers and songs. But it’s worth it, just to have a glimpse of the possible, just to know that the best is yet to come.