Friends: As I was about to mount my bike outside the thronged Damascus Gate after negotiating my way through the clogged Arab quarter of the Old City, an older couple rushed up to me and gushed, "We're so glad to see you're alive. We were worried about you." It was a pair of Ohioans I had spoken to at the Israel-Egypt border almost a week ago. They were part of a Christian tour group on their way back to Israel after a visit to Mount Sinai.
They told me an American had been killed in a flash flood two days before outside Ein Gedi where I had gone into the Dead Sea. They knew I was camping in the desert and feared I might have been caught by the storm. They said the road was a mess along the Dead Sea from the deluge of water that had come down from the gorges and cliff sides.
They would have also been concerned about my safety if I had been heading towards the Gaza Strip, as the Palestinians have stepped up lobbing their Kassam rockets into Israel. There were 55 a couple of days ago and one death. They have a range of twelve miles or so. I had come within ten miles of Gaza on my second day in Israel and was headed to the town of Sderot, which has taken the brunt of the attacks, but turned away when I saw the black clouds of a storm moving in and took a turn in the road to the east away from Sderot trying to race the storm to safety. Sirens are perpetually going off in Sderot warning locals to take cover when radar picks up an incoming Kassam. People only have a few seconds warning to dive under a desk or rush to a save place.
The Ohio couple reported they had had their Bibles confiscated when they entered the Temple Mount, the Muslim holy site with the Golden Dome Mosque in the Old City. If they hadn't been carrying them in plain view they could have easily smuggled them in. When I entered I had to put my pack through a metal detector, but no one looked inside it, nor were there any signs saying no Bibles allowed. I had two books with me, my guidebook and a book by Paul Theroux on traveling China by train. I sat in the plaza and read Theroux for half an hour and no one bothered me. The Ohioan's guide should have warned them. But they were able to reclaim their Bibles on the way out.
I accompanied Evey on her weekly visit to the Jewish market. We had our bags checked going in and out of the multi-level parking lot and had to pass by a pair of armed guards into the market, though they weren't perusing bags and were barely paying attention, both engrossed in cell phone conversation. That was a little upsetting to Evey, but things are much safer than when she moved to Israel eight years ago just as the second intifada started and suicide bombings were a regular occurrence. She never took a bus during those years and was much more wary than she is now.
Evey is trying to establish herself as "the plastic bag lady," as she brings her own recycled bags to the market for all her purchases. Even though she patronizes the same vendors week after week, she has yet to condition any of them to remember not to grab one of their own bags for her purchases. If she doesn't have a bag at the ready, they quickly plop whatever she's selected and they've weighed into one of their bags. Most roll their eyes when she hands them one of her
own crumpled bags, as if she is some brand of new religious kook, though she looks as non-religious as they come not covering her head, wearing slacks and wearing a dab of makeup. Still, she managed to use close to 20 of her own bags for her lemons and carrots and fish and egg plants and squash and crackers and all else.
One of Evey's inspirations is a woman who managed to start a country-wide plastic bottle recycling program. There are six-foot high cages all over Jerusalem and the rest of the county for people to deposit their bottles. The tops are caged as well. There is a hole to pass the bottles through, though not big enough for large detergent containers. Solar panels atop just about every residence and building in the country are another hopeful sign. They are used primarily for heating water. Adjoining all those panels are white water tanks, sprouting up like headless mushrooms, giving the skyline a unique look especially at sunrise and sunset with the light
Many of the vendors in the market wore kippas, a greater percentage than I've seen out and about, indicating they were religious. There was a mini-synagogue in the market, barely large enough for the necessary quorum of ten men necessary to conduct a service. I've hardly seen any of the arch-orthodox Hasidics other than at the Western Wall. The men are easily identified by their black attire, distinctive, sometimes bizarre, hats and the pair of curly sprigs of hair dangling well below each ear. Evey said they descend upon the market Friday afternoon of Shabbat when all the sellers are eager to clear out their produce and prices are slashed. The Hasidic tend to live at the poverty level, devoting their time to prayer and study rather than work. Evey recommended a couple of neighborhoods where I'd find them, places I hadn't stumbled upon yet.
There they were in abundance, some walking along reading the Torah, others reading and semi-chanting as they stood at bus stops. Now I truly knew I was in Israel. Evey said if I wanted a genuinely unique Israeli experience I ought to return for one of the two days when Israel honors its Holocaust victims with three minutes of absolute stillness. A siren sounds at ten a.m. and everyone stops wherever they are and stands in silence until the siren sounds again. People in cars get out and stand wherever they might be. Evey said I would also appreciate Yom Kippur, as it is a day when no one drives a car. It is a tradition to give children a bicycle on that day, as with no motorized vehicles on the roads, it is the ultimate day for bicycles.
The "Jerusalem Post" reported with approval that Jon Stewart led off the Oscar telecast with a Yom Kippur joke. The Oscars were of heightened interest in Israel this year as for the first time in 23 years and second time in history, an Israeli film ("Beaufort") was one of the five nominees for best foreign picture. Though it didn't win, the "Post" took some consolation that a Holocaust feature, "The Counterfeiters" from Austria, was the winner. The sub-headline of the Oscar story read, "Jewish creative talents prove their worth at Sunday's Oscars." Besides the Coen brothers with their three Oscars for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay, they could also take pride in Daniel-Day Lewis, "son of Jewish actress Jill Bacon."
The Bible Lands Museum hosted a lecture by an archaeologist on the early days of Jerusalem that Evey had been looking forward to. She knew quite a bit about the subject herself having participated in three digs in the region over the years and having served as a guide at Chicago's Oriental Institute. We accompanied a tour of the museum along with six graduate students that preceded the lecture. The guide stopped asking us to guess what certain artifacts were as Evey had the answer before the guide could complete her question. We had to skip one room, as it had been taken over by a bunch of young boisterous children. Evey said out-of-control kids are typical of Israel. Parents don't discipline their children, because they know the army eventually will. The only kids that have bothered me are young Arabs. They like to grab hold of my rear rack as I'm walking through the market. If I ignore them, they just become more flagrant. It can be irritating.
There was a large turnout for the lecture, as anyone who lives here can't help but be fascinated by the thousands of years of rich history all around them. Jerusalem has been invaded and captured 33 times over the centuries, the last in 1967 by the Israelis when they regained the old city and their holiest of sites, the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, as it was a place where Israelis went to mourn the loss of loved ones dating back to the Ottoman Empire.
Evey has occasionally asked, "Doesn't Jerusalem seem small?" With 700,000 people tightly packed amongst its hills, its doesn't sprawl like some cities. After five days of bicycling all over, getting lost and unlost, I have finally learned my way around well enough that I can now agree that, yes, it is manageable and nothing seems to be more than ten or fifteen minutes away, even with all the steep hills. I asked at the tourist office how many hills were in the city proper and no one could tell me. They wondered if that was something bicyclists needed to know. "Only to put it in perspective for friends back home," I explained. Nor did they know what the highest point in the city was. There are many high vantage points, but none more pronounced than another,
nor are there any skyscrapers. They are in Tel Aviv, less than 50 miles away, down on the coast. I'll be there in a week-and-a-half after making a circuit of the northern half of the country.