JERUSALEM — In order to work for an international media organization that educates the press on Israel, I will be calling this fascinating city my home for the next nine weeks. I have just moved into a loft in Emek Refaim, more commonly called “the Germany colony” because long ago this was where the Germans lived. Our area is nice and full of little bookstores, gardens, restaurants, stores, and coffee shops. There are several old residential “colonies” throughout the city — you can tell where the old German houses are because their doors and shutters are made of wood. No Israelis use wood on their houses; all of the Israeli buildings here have to be made out of the same stone, which makes views of the city from above quite dramatic.
In the center city is the “shuk,” which is the Hebrew word for market. The shuk winds under a tarp with tons of fresh fruit, vegetables, olive oil, bakeries, ice cream, meats, fish, and anything else you would want! I have also made it to the Old City, which is next to center city. The Old City alone has four different quarters — the Muslim quarter, Christian quarter, Jewish quarter, and Armenian quarters — and the Muslim quarter leads to the Western Wall. The Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters consist of rows of markets in streets that wind beneath arches, and the stones on the roads have been there for at least 2,000 years.
The Western Wall offers quite a contrast, as it is an open courtyard with the area closest to the wall closed off for prayer. This praying area is divided between men and women, and there is a good deal of controversy surrounding the women praying. Apparently women who have worn the praying shawls that many of the orthodox men wear, women who have prayed too loudly, women who have not been modestly enough dressed, or men and women who have prayed together in the open area have had objects thrown at them or been subject to arrest. There isn’t as much controversy surrounding the fact that the men’s praying side is significantly larger, has more praying tables, and has an eight story tunnel next to the wall that can be used for prayer during rain. It is simply unfair in the same way that many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish practices are to women (i.e. women in some synagogues aren’t allowed at the front near the Torah or allowed to touch it or sit with the men).
Yesterday I returned to the Old City with a Jerusalemite who is a tour guide after an afternoon spent overlooking the area in beautiful gardens. It was previously the poorest part of Israel, because it bordered Jordan before the 1967 Six-Day War and was victim to bombs and rockets. Once it became a part of Israel, the poor were kicked out and it became the most expensive place to live, which is another controversy. Despite the controversy, it is a lovely place: there are no cars allowed, and the flowers are incredible. Vines and trees overflow onto the sidewalk, and in between the houses you can eye the walls of the Old City.
It seems that every square foot of land in this city incites debate: just outside of the Old City, there is a new parking lot where about thirty Orthodox Jewish men were protesting, screaming “Saturday” in Hebrew because the cars park there on Saturdays, which violates Shabbat. The parking lot was put there after another parking lot for those going to the old city was installed in an Orthodox neighborhood. This move has left the group equally displeased. Their numbers have dwindled over the past months; my tour guide friend recalled hundreds of them blocking the streets a couple months ago. He brought me through the Jewish quarter, which has some incredible Roman remnants and looks quite different than the alleys of the other three quarters. I walked through the same parts of town as the day before, but had a far richer understanding as my friend used his expertise to carve through the extraordinary layers of the city and dissect the significance of the each areas to the each religions. We ended at the spot where Jesus was put on the cross and buried. In one hour, we saw the most holy spot for Jews, one of the two holiest spots for Christians (the other being Bethlehem), and the third most holy spot for Muslims, and they are all within five minutes walking distance!