It’s been hard to write about Jerusalem lately, but last night we spent a lovely and peaceful evening in the Old City, and for the first time in a long time, I felt hopeful.
If you haven’t been following the news out of Jerusalem for the past few months, and perhaps even if you have been, you might not be aware of the deep divisions in the city as Palestinians and Israelis debate whether this wave of violence is in fact, a third intifada, whether individual acts of violence are protest or terrorism, and who, exactly, has the right to live free and secure lives in the West Bank.
After a long and tumultuous week at work, followed by an evening work event on a Friday (I can’t complain too much, I’m the one who chose the date), Bertrand and the kids met me at the Consulate, and we walked to the Old City.
After entering Jaffa Gate and meandering around the Armenian Quarter, we knew we’d finally arrived in the Jewish Quarter when we started seeing lit menorahs in every entranceway. The girls were fascinated, and amazed to see that every doorway held a menorah. We explained that the candles were like our Christmas lights, lit in celebration, then told them the Chanukah story.
One of the things I love most about living in Jerusalem is that we, a more-or-less Catholic family, are in the minority. Our daughters are learning that our way isn’t the only way, and that it’s perfectly normal not to celebrate Christmas, or know what Easter is, or even be familiar with the story of Christ. They’re learning that there are a million and one different ways to worship and celebrate the light of whatever you believe in (or don’t!). We can take part in the joy of everyone’s traditions, while finding ways to stay true to our own.
It’s a special sort of privilege, to be in a minority and still feel comfortable and secure in the world’s acceptance of who I am, but it’s also one that gives me hope for a pluralistic and diverse future, not just in Jerusalem, but back home too.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the privilege of seeing several Israeli and Palestinian interpretations and explorations of the conflict (what a terrible and passionless word) through their art. None of the artists pretend to present any solutions, but it’s been eye-opening to me to see how each of them sees the pain, the peace process, and ultimately, the need to find a way to coexist through the lens of their art.
The first was an opportunity to see incredible film and performance by David Broza. He and several Israeli, Palestinian, and American artists spent a week in East Jerusalem recording an album and exploring the conflict through music.
The second was a beautiful and heart wrenching exhibition on the Art Museum of Tel Aviv called “This Place.” In the words of the exhibition itself, “THIS PLACE explores the complexity of Israel and the West Bank, as place and metaphor, through the eyes of twelve internationally acclaimed photographers.”
One of my favorite projects was one by Wendy Ewald. She worked with students in fourteen towns, in both Israel and the West Bank, to teach them photography, then set them loose to interpret their lives and their towns through the lenses of cameras.
The exhibit was quite thought provoking, especially so because it was curated by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Here in Jerusalem, it’s sometimes easy to choose sides and to get caught up in narratives of “us” vs. “them.” One of the lessons I took away from the artistic collaborations I’ve seen over the last few weeks is a reminder of how blind that narrative can make me.
Ramle is famous for its Wednesday market. Although we’d visited the small town before to visit a friend, we wanted to return to visit the market and Ramle’s 1300 year old underground cistern. I’d heard that the cistern was large enough to row a boat in, and wanted to see it for myself.
Our friend met us at the market, which, in addition to being an amazing fruit and vegetable market, was also an outdoor flea market. Bertrand and I both thought the same thing: DANTOKPA! It was a lot of fun wandering through the vendors and eyeing all of the kitchen wares, cheap rubber shoes, and clothing. Definitely worth making another trip when we’re packing out and preparing for our next post.
After the market, we visited a friend’s home for a drink and to let the kids run around outside for a little while. Jasmine met his dog, then begged and begged and begged for her own—of no avail. Bertrand and I aren’t interested in adding another small creature that requires 24/7 care to our already overwhelming household.
The Pool of Arches, the primary reason for our visit to Ramle, is an enormous underground cistern built under the streets of the town. Muslim and Christian legends differ, but everyone agrees that it was built about 1300 years ago. The pool was, apparently, much larger in the past; however, it was still large enough for us to paddle a boat around. Several boats, in fact.
We agreed to trade selfies with several other visiting families, in order to avoid passing phones back and forth between boats, and risking dropping very expensive electronics into the murky water.
After paddling around for quite some time, we herded the kids back up to the surface, and took a quick trip to the White Tower, built as part of a mosque in 1300.
Prayers are no longer held at the tower, but there are stunning views of Ramle for those willing to climb to the top.
We really enjoyed returning to Ramle. It’s a beautiful and quiet town, and an excuse to see touristy sights in a place that didn’t feel like a tourist trip was lovely.
One of the most amazing things about living in Jerusalem is living within spitting distance of thousands of years of history. Caesarea (pronounced Keh-sar-ee-ya) is an old Roman town on the Mediterranean coast of Israel. It’s about an hour North of Tel Aviv, and about 90 minutes from Jerusalem. On the first official day of my “staycation,” we loaded the kids into the car and headed to Caesarea bright and early, in hopes of avoiding Israel’s punishing mid-day sun.
Bertrand, and surprisingly, three-year-old Jasmine*, is into Art-with-a-capital-A, so we started the day by stopping in a couple of the art galleries clearly designed to separate tourists from their money. It almost worked, but happily for us, none of the credit card machines in the port were working. Bullet dodged (just kidding, sweetheart, we’ll go back and get those paintings).
Post-gallery, we watched a short film on the history of the port town. As one of my colleagues described it, “hokey, but worth 15 minutes of your time to situate you historically.” And then we headed into the park to dance on the ruins of the Roman Empire.
So to speak.
Caesarea provides ample opportunities for kids to run around and climb the ruins. While parts are fenced off or under active archeological excavation, the vast majority of the park is open for exploration.
Both Jasmine and Grace had a wonderful time climbing up stairs, through tunnels, and exploring every corner of the ruined city.
After we finished exploring the park, we set out a quick picnic lunch (how did we manage to not get any pictures?!) across from the columns pictured below.
(A quick aside to anyone who hates on Israeli customer service: the folks at Caesarea were great. Even though it wasn’t their job to do so, the lovely ladies running the pre-tour film worked incredibly hard to get us tickets, once they realized that we hadn’t paid, we wanted to pay, the credit card machines weren’t working, the ATM wasn’t working, and that we had no cash. It wasa real challenge to take our money so that we could actually get into the park, and they figured it out graciously, then personally walked us to the gate so that the gatekeeper would believe us when we said we’d paid.)
I also added takeout coffee to the list of things I was not allowed to purchase. I’ve been drinking coffee for 15 years and, by the time I started the ban, I was buying $5 lattes at least 4-5 days/week ($80-100/month). That’s not a lot of money, in the grand scheme of things, but it was still money I could’ve done better things with than drink and piss away (literally). At Catherine’s suggestion, I started a “Shopping Ban” account, so I could save all the money I wasn’t spending on coffee as well as the money I got from any items I sold during my declutter. I started by putting $100/month into the account and assumed I’d have $1,200-$1,500 at the end.
The Foreign Service and the Single Parent: Fascinating perspective, written by a friend and colleague, on a life that’s hard enough on families with two parents, let alone when there’s no one to pick up the slack when the officer has a late night at the office.
West Jerusalem has some really great playgrounds. The Israelis have a strong culture of outdoors and activity, and we are taking advantage of it while we’re here. Last weekend was jam packed, but somehow, my husband carved out a couple of hours to head down to a local playground and let the kids run around like maniacs. Our goal was to wear the kids out so that they’d both take long naps. We succeeded (of course we did!), and I thankfully had the presence of mind to grab the DSLR on the way out the door.
Like most parents, I find my kids absolutely enchanting. As someone who wasn’t particularly close to her sibling growing up, the closeness I see between Jasmine and Grace is mind blowing. Jasmine spent a lot of time helping her sister climb onto playground equipment, pushing her on the swings, and showing her how to swing.
And of course, Grace spent a lot of time mimicking every single thing her sister did. If Jasmine wanted a snack, Grace wanted a snack. If Jasmine tore off to one end of the playground, so did Grace. And if Jasmine tripped and fell, well, Grace threw herself on the ground too.
I had planned on walking up to the train station with one of the kids when they were done, but it was hot and humid and sweaty and frankly, I was absolutely wiped from chasing the kids up and down the playground.
The day after Bertrand returned from Cotonou with the girls, the monks from the monastery where Bertrand attends services called to remind us that we were baptizing Grace on Pentecost.
We hadn’t yet found godparents, we hadn’t made any plans for a reception. Hell, we didn’t even have a dress for Grace to wear. The brothers, however, were firm. Grace would be baptized on Pentecost, and the monastery would host a small reception afterwards for our family and their parishioners.
Friends were supposed to fly into town that weekend, I was supposed to be dropping them off in Amman the day of the baptism, and dear Lord, how was it that we didn’t know any Catholics in Jerusalem who could serve as godparents?
Somehow, everything managed to work out. Our friends (sadly, but thankfully) canceled. Bertrand’s cousin, Fleur, flew in from France to be Grace’s godmother. George, a former coworker, agreed to be Grace’s godfather. And the reception was absolutely beautiful.
After meeting at our house, we caravanned to the monastery with Fleur, George, George’s girlfriend Fadia, and the girls. When we arrived, the monks ushered us to their receiving room, where George gave Grace a beautiful bracelet.
Grace didn’t care about the bracelet, but she thought the box was great!
As the hour of the service approached, we made our way outside, so that the baptism could begin.
The mass and baptism were absolutely beautiful. When it was time to actually baptize Grace, we made our way down into the monastery’s crypt. For centuries, pilgrims and the church thought that this underground spring was Erasmus—where Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. Other locations are now more in favor; however, baptizing our daughter using water from a two-thousand-year-old spring was just … amazing.
In the picture above, you can see the pitchers and basin that held the water for Grace’s baptism. Grace was bitterly disappointed about having cold water poured over her head.
Bertrand and I desperately tried to calm her down afterwards, to little avail. Finally, we whispered to her, “Bravo, Grace, bravo. You are so brave! Bravo!” There’s nothing Grace likes better than a “Bravo” and a chance to clap her hands and applaud herself. The priest smiled, and he too said, “Brave, Grace!” And the entire congregation burst into applause, I think both with joy for her baptism, and also in community with the difficulties of managing an unhappy 18-month-old. It was an incredibly sweet moment.
After the ceremony itself, we all filed upstairs to finish the service and take communion. Thank goodness that Fadia was with us to help with Jasmine, as I tried to navigate the steep stairs, hold onto Grace’s baptismal candle, and not drop anything (including the child). There were a million small details that Fadia jumped in to help with, and I was so grateful that George brought her with us!
Then we all filed outside for a few moments of community before continuing onto the reception.
We were surprised and gratified at how many members of the francophone parish community came to celebrate Grace’s welcome into the kingdom of God.
The monastery is absolutely stunning outside, and late spring is a perfect time for an outdoor reception in Jerusalem.
We ate fantastic food and drank delicious French and Israeli wines al fresco. The joke of the reception was that we were American-Beninese parents baptizing our Catholic daughter in a French monastery dating from the Crusades in an Arab village in Israel. There were Christians, Jews, and Muslims in attendance, and that too was a reminder of why I continue to be hopeful for this part of the world. Quite a story for Grace to tell her grandchildren, I think.
But even more than the incredible coincidences that, I think, are more common that you’d expect in my line of work, was the fact that Grace’s baptism was one of the first times either of us have felt really part of a community here in Jerusalem. It was quite a shock to be reminded of the fellowship and peace that can be found in communal worship, something quite separate from anyone’s actual religious beliefs.
Old City Akko is a tiny fishing village slash crusader fort, about half an hour outside of Haifa. Over the past thousand years, there has understandably been a great deal of development outside of the ancient walls, but the tourist attractions are all in the Old City itself.
I rose bright and early to walk the rampart walls before the city woke up.
Like many cities in Israel, Old Akko is a maze of tunnels and bridges and alleyways. It’s small, so even when I got lost, I was able to quickly find my way back to landmarks.
Aside from the beauty of the Old City, there’s an old crusader fort that was recently discovered underground. Akko has been excevating and rennovating the fort, so that tourists like myself can take a look around. The complex is enormous! The city has done an amazing job restoring the fort and creating an audio tour to take tourists through it.
Exiting the fort to the next destination on my intinerary, on the otherhand, was claustraphobic. I made my way through undergorund tunnels barely wide enough for my shoulders, and barely tall enough for me to stand. In some places, not at all tall enough (and I am not very tall). The path was unmarked, and I experienced a brief moment of panic, worried that I’d stay lost in the tunnels forever.
I eventually found my way out and to the Turkish baths, but a word to the wise, the tunnels are an experience it pays to be prepared for.
The history of the town of Akko is wrapped up in its leaders, whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. In the 18th Century, one of Akko’s fiercest protectors, Jezzer Pasha built a mosque, still used today for daily prayers. One of the most bizarre moments of my trip was seeing a group of female tourists argue with the gatekeeper about their modesty before entering the mosque grounds. Sleeves and a hair covering are required; however, if, like me, you wear a hat and a shirt that covers your shoulders because OMG SUN WRINKLES CANCER, then you’ll be fine as you are.
Before stopping at the famous Uri Buri for lunch, I took a final walk around Akko’s walls. You can see the Port of Haifa in the distance.
Lunch was delicious, and quite reasonably priced for the quality and quantity that I recieved. Caviar with marscapone? Shrimp and artichokes? Delicious Israeli wine? SIGN ME UP.
Uri Buri is a hidden gem (well known, but also well hidden) in Akko. Highly recommended!
Haifa’s a neat town. Traveling alone, I wasn’t looking for bars or a music scene—just beautiful scenery, the sea, and museums. Given that, it’s possible to see everything in a day, provided you’re traveling alone and don’t have to worry about potty breaks and naps and mealtimes like you do when traveling with children.
I left Jerusalem before dawn in order to get to Haifa just as the Baha’i gardens opened. There’s tons of free parking in the German Colony, right at the base of the gardens, and where my guesthouse was located. I took advantage of it, and began the treck to the gardens.
The gardens are split into three seperate levels, each of which must be entered seperately. Making my way from level to level, I discovered several parks and museums.
There’s a sculpture garden and playground hidden on the path between the middle and upper levels of the Baha’i gardens. These sculptures by Ursula Malbin are often whimsical, and clearly designed for children to play on and around them.
On my way up the mountain to the top of the gardens, I also visited the Tokaie Museum of Japanese Art, and the Museum of Avant-Guarde Jewish Art. The Japense art museum was serene and beautiful, but I was most struck by the Jewish art museum. The museum featured art from the 20s, 30s, and 40s, and it was a fascinating look into changes in Jewish identity as Jews colonized and settled Israel. It was very cool and surprisingly emotional (particularly for this non-Jew who has lived many years in countries still ravaged by the after effects of European colonialism).
After the museums and the gardens, I walked along the Louis Promenade, a shaded boardwalk at the very top of the city with spectacular views over Haifa and the port. There were lots of families out, and I was startled to discover how much I missed my children.
A few miles away from the Promenade, you can visit the Stella Maris, site of Elijah’s cave, and a small protestant monestary. The monestary has some beautiful art, but unfortunately, Elijah’s cave was closed for Shabbat.
After visiting everything I could on the beach during daylight hours, I headed to the “Old City” . The neighborhood is known for it’s art installations, one of which you can see above. It’s also known for the best falafel in Israel. Falefel Hazkenim was delicious and inexpensive.
Traveling alone is a surprisingly communal experience. After years of relying on Bertrand’s charm and ability to make instant friends, I found is startlingly easy to find good company and conversation while exploring Northern Israel on my own.
When Bertrand abruptly left for Benin with the girls after his father passed away, I found myself with ample time on my hands. I would follow my family to Benin two weeks later, but in the meantime, I was by myself in a large empty house. I loved having time alone with my thoughts, but found staying at home alone to be unnervingly lonely.
I decided to travel.
The Baha’i Gardens in Haifa are perfectly ordered—every blade of grass cut to the same height, every pebble as it should be. There are three levels, built seperately as the Baha’i have acquired more land in Haifa. All three levels open at 9:00 am, but the shrine in the middle level is only open from 9:00 to 12:00.
To get from level to level, you have to exit the gardens, then hike up Mount Caramel. Yikes. It’s quite a steep hike, and not through picturesque parts of town. After visiting the lower level, I took at taxi to the middle level (it was exhorbitant, and I walked from the middle level to the upper level).
At each entrance, Baha’i guards reminded visitors that we were entering a holy place, and to be respectful. Don’t walk on the grass. Don’t touch the perfectly clear and clean water.
The shrine in the middle of the gardens is stunning, and incredibly peaceful. Pictures of the interior are verboten, as are shoes, but you can see below a photo of the beautiful stone and marble work on the outside.
Finally, I made it to the top. My legs and glutes were killing me from the uphill walk, but the view was worth every moment of pain.
I found the Baha’i Gardens soothing in a way that quite surprised me. I didn’t expect the complete and total orderliness to be quite so satisfying. Bringing the children along, and I will eventually do that, would not have brought such deep peace to my soul.
It was an incredible way to begin my trip up North.