“… or it was when my mother left me waiting for her, and established in me the habit of waiting and expectation which makes any present moment most significant for what it does not contain.” — Marilynne Robinson.

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Israel, January 2012.

One perk of graduate school life is the long, glorious breaks between semesters. Over the winter vacation I spent 5 weeks visiting dear family and friends in both D.C. and Pennsylvania. During this time I also had the opportunity to visit my friend Ben in Tel Aviv, Israel, where he attends graduate school and studies Middle East history.

Ben and I met over three years ago, while working in the field of educational assessment

at a not-for-profit institution in D.C. We bonded over our mutual enjoyment of literary theory (he – Umberto Eco, me – Italo Calvino) and participated in numerous Jackson 5 sing-a-longs. Over time, Ben’s become one of my closest friends — who gives me great advice and sends stellar emails (i.e., when I moved to Texas he wrote, “I’m looking longingly at my cowboy boots and am jealous of your new-found ability to wear them with impunity”) — so I was excited to visit him.

The trip was 8 days total, with two being reserved for  travel (note: Turkish Airlines is amazing). On the night that I arrived, Ben took me out for “Borekas,” a traditional Israeli snack in which a square puff pastry is filled with potatoes, or cheese, or spinach, topped with sesame seeds and then baked until golden and crunchy (recipe here). It was like re-living my obsession with polish (rather, Mrs. T’s) perogies at age 8. I was hooked. After, Ben showed me why Tel Aviv is ranked as one of the top party cities in the world and took me to a “hipster” bar where I met some of his friends.

Besides going to historical places around Tel Aviv (and doing some sweet shopping), the three main cities we visited were: Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem (located in Palestine). I discuss them more in-depth below.

A. Nazareth: Unbeknownst to us, Ben and I visited Nazareth on Greek Orthodox Christmas, so the city and its large open market was nearly deserted. Nazareth is a Christian pilgrimage site, as it’s the place where Jesus was supposedly raised. Nazareth’s population identifies primarily as Arab and the three predominant faiths are Roman Catholic, Orthodox Christian and Muslim. We visited the Basilica of the Annunciation — where Roman Catholics believe the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she would conceive a son, Mary’s well & The Church of St. Gabriel — where Greek Orthodox’s believe the same event occurred, and the workshop of Joseph the Carpenter. After visiting these sites we stopped at a local bakery for delicious baklava, halva infused bread, and kanafeh (an arabic cheese pastry served warm).

B. Jerusalem: The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters — the Christian Quarter (where you’ll find the Church of the Holy Sepulcher), the Muslim Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, and the Jewish Quarter. Behind the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter lies the Temple Mount, which houses the Dome of the Rock. Ben and I spent two days touring Jerusalem and only saw a handful of the religious sites.

The Western Wall is over 2,000 years old and exists as the most holy site in the Jewish faith due to its proximity to the foundation stone found within the Dome of the Rock. In the Hebrew bible, this landmark is also considered scared because it exists as the closest place one can come to the “Holy of Holies” in the Jewish Temple, where the ark of the Covenant was kept. According to Judaism and Muslim faith, the foundation stone was the first thing God put down when he created the world  (hence the name of the stone). It is also where Abraham bound his son Isaac and offered him in sacrifice to God. In fact, because the aforementioned holy temple was razed twice, the exact site of the stone is unknown, but it is believed to exist under the Dome of the Rock.Thus, the Western Wall marks the nearest spot a person can come to this stone and to God. 

The wall is partitioned into male and female sections, and chairs are set-up close to the wall to facilitate, if desired, prayer. Cracks in the wall are stuffed with notes containing prayers that are, according to my guidebook, “cleared several times a year but … never dumped … the slips are collected in a sack and buried with reverence in a Jewish cemetery.” (Fodor’s).

The Temple Mount is both a Jewish holy site and a Muslim one. After the temple had been destroyed for the first time, Herod built a wall to surround the temple plaza and protect it from attack. This area is known as the “Temple Mount’ and was constructed around 19 BCE. The western portion of this gate is known as the “Western Wall.”

The Dome of the Rock is a beautiful site. Situated in the heart of the Temple Mount, the construction dates back to 691 AD. The exterior is tiled in brilliant shades of blue (it follows the Byzantine tradition) and the gold dome was “restored in the 1990s, with 176 pounds of 24-carat gold electroplated copper” (Fodor’s). Currently only Muslims are allowed to enter the building, so Ben and I saw only the (magnificent) exterior. Muslims believe that this holy site houses the great rock, the summit of Mt. Moriah where Muhammad ascended to heaven.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher marks the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified by the Romans and later buried. The fourteen stations of the cross begin in the Muslim quarter and end at the church, with the final four stations housed in this site. The final station, the tomb, is encased in marble and is very popular to see, resulting in long lines. I did not wait in line to see the tomb. Interestingly, the church is shared by six different Christian denominations, which is more apparent when you wander around and notice the differences in displays. Most recently, the Stone of Unction was moved here. It is slab of stone where Jesus body was supposedly cleansed and prepared for burial and is one of the first religious artifacts displayed upon entering.

I also went to Mount Olive, the site of the Last Supper, Dormition Abbey, King David’s Tomb, the Tomb of the Virgin, etc. The picture to the left is the Church of All Nations which stands in the heart of the Mount of Olives.


C. Bethlehem: The city of Bethlehem is partially under Palestinian authority so visiting it requires entering the West Bank. The wall that marks the border between Israel and Palestine is spray painted with graffiti, a large portion of which contain political messages and provocative images. Some of the images were created by Banksy, a graffiti artist and political activist. One of Banksy’s images, a dove wearing a bulletproof vest with a target aimed at its chest, you can see to the left.

Bethlehem, another popular Christian site, is home to a majority of Muslim residents.  Here, I ate the best food of my entire trip — lamb shawarma. I didn’t take a picture of it unfortunately, but if you ever find yourself in Bethlehem you must try this dish. While in Bethlehem we went to Church of the Nativity, the site of the birth of Jesus, which is shared by three different faiths: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox. Part of the church was built in the 6th century, and in the church’s “grotto” you’ll find a silver star that marks the spot where Jesus was born.

Next to the Church of the Nativity is the Church of St. Catherine, which is the Roman Catholic church that connects to the nativity’s grotto through a locked passageway. The latter is sparser than the other and contains an outdoor pavilion with a recreation of the common nativity scene.

Note: This is an abridged version of my trip to Israel. I also ate tons of pastries, tried Arabic and Turkish coffee (the Arabic one contained Cardamom!), ate falafels, consumed beans and hummus in the Yemenite quarter, drank pomegranate juice en masse, visited an art museum, went to numerous outdoor markets, explored Jaffa, drank beer, saw lots of roaming cats, experimented with a Holga, and touched the Mediterranean Sea. It was incredible. For more pictures check out my Flickr link on my homepage. A large portion of the photos on my Flickr were taken either by Ben (Holga prints and a portion of the canon shots) or by me co-opting his camera to use the “hipstomatic”-esque setting. Thanks, friend!

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