It's the first time in Israel for my wife, Julie, and me. I'm Jewish; she's Christian. We arrive in Jerusalem as yet another peace accord is being reached-in faraway Maryland.
We joke about tight security but suffer no greater calamity than Julie's discovery, at the airport, that she has left behind the key to her luggage lock. A customs agent produces wire cutters the size of hedge clippers, the lock snaps, and we are off to our hotel. It's the American Colony, a former palace where a pasha had lived with his four wives. From 1949 to 1967, when Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan, the hotel sat in Jordan, beside the no-man's land of the intra-city border.
The Old City of Jerusalem, nearby, is surrounded by crenellated walls of the cream-colored indigenous stone that, required by law for façades throughout the modern districts beyond the walls, imparts both uniformity and elegance. We enter through the fortress-like Damascus Gate, which leads downhill into the frenetic Muslim Quarter.
From there, we can walk the length of the Old City in under fifteen minutes-even allowing for time to dodge the sales patter of Arab tchotchke hawkers lining streets barely wide enough for the hand carts and small tractors that lug in the goods. Old men smoke hookahs. Market stalls brim with spices, nuts, videotapes and souvenirs. Everything and everyone sheds too much litter. It's all fascinating to watch, but we buy nothing.
Israeli soldiers in bulletproof vests troop by us. Each man carries at the ready an M-16 with an extra ammunition clip held in place with electrical tape, the exposed cartridges shining silver and gold.
We pass through a metal detector and are at the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall by the chanting sound of Hebrew prayer. I'd held to the common but mistaken belief that it was a wall of the Second Temple, destroyed in 70 A.D. during the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule. If that wall exists in any form, it, along with its three mates, is entombed somewhere under the Temple Mount, an esplanade for which this wall is a mere buttress.
Earnest men are reading from prayer books, kissing the wall and placing written supplications inside crevices between its stones. I try to find here a link to my faith, but it doesn't work. The sun is strong, I don't know the language, and I ask myself if I've really come to the western extreme of Asia to commune with an urban retaining wall.
I return to Julie. She is offended that the women's prayer area is a third the size of the men's and that the men have taken the wall's capacious theological library all to themselves.
So we give up the wall for a stroll through the Jewish Quarter, which rises above the plaza. Art galleries. Finely displayed archeological sites. Streets cleaner than our living room. Hasidic boys romping with a rubber ball. Mothers pushing strollers around the main square. Through an open window, we hear a Pink Floyd album. The Damascus Gate might as well be in Cairo.
We double back to the Temple Mount. On it stands the Dome of the Rock, the seventh-century Islamic sanctuary that, with its gilded dome and tile-clad walls, is the signature building of Jerusalem. The rock which it encloses is, by Muslim tradition, the spot from which Mohammed rode to Heaven on the winged horse el-Burak to receive from God the teachings of Islam.
Julie and I take turns guarding our cameras (which are not permitted within) and walking shoeless through the carpeted interior, admiring shimmering mosaics. It's quite beautiful, but we are paying guests, and at 2:00, when prayers commence, nonbelievers must vacate the Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock is only available to us as a work of art; its religious resonance will remain a mystery.
The next day, I try the Western Wall again. Inside the library I meet an erudite guide, Isaac Tucker. He's a Communist and so, on polling the small group he is leading-Americans, Swedes, an Austrian-lets us join his tour for nothing. Isaac brings us to the Via Dolorosa, for the stations of the cross-the route walked by Jesus on his way to martyrdom.
Julie has come to Jerusalem just to take this walk. Here is the place where Simon of Cyrene helped carry the cross. And here is where Veronica wiped the face of Jesus. Julie is intrigued by it all.
We reach the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. A group of Brazilians, led by a bearded man in sandals and a brown pilgrim's robe, listens through earphones as he reads from a sacred text. A chapel contains Ethiopian monks deep in prayer. Then we enter the shrine. Black-haired, black-robed Armenian men carry candles in twin solemn lines, taking turns, in groups of six, to kiss the slab representing the place where the body of Jesus was anointed. Upstairs, Catholic nuns from Italy are crowding the spot where the Savior was crucified and duck one by one under the altar to touch the rock of Calvary. The Greek Orthodox have temporarily commandeered the tomb of Jesus on the other side of the building while a another pack of pilgrims waits its turn. The air is so thick with incense, my eyes sting.
Everywhere is bustle, and crowd control is a question of alternating perseverance and self restraint. Everyone is vying for his moment of transcendence, for his contact with the infinite and sublime. Each of six Christian factions is pushing as far as circumstances will allow to get its leg up, each knowing that it can only go so far and each wanting to keep the peace even as, you half suspect, it would be pleased to tell five other sects to fold their tents. These Christians, among themselves, have emulated in this dark church and its anterooms the disputatious peace that is Jerusalem. I love it.
But my interest is that of the traveler, which is voyeuristic. Julie is so moved at being on the site of the Passion, she takes hold of my hand. Isaac asks us not to do that: the Christians don't like it.
That evening, just outside the Old City, we stumble upon another tomb of Christ, this one maintained by Anglicans. Julie, who is our trip's scholar, digs into the small library she has brought along: No one knows what route was walked by Jesus on his way to crucifixion; the definitive stations of the cross, she discovers, were only arrived at during the nineteenth century. The Anglican tomb is too old to be authentic, but the Holy Sepulcher has a likely claim.In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain recounted an arduous trek through the Holy Land, visiting one bogus Christian site after another. We next embark on the two-hour version: we hire Faysal, who drives us in his white stretch Mercedes through the Mount of Olives, which rises from a grave-dotted valley across from the Old City. We visit the Garden of Gethsemane, the tombs of the Virgin and Lazarus, and more. It's all very pleasant, and if any of what we see is authentic, it is solely by coincidence. Faysal uses our stops to practice his English from an exercise book.
Jackie Atkinson's family runs the banana plantation, accessible by a concrete ford and axle-cracking dirt road. It is sprawling and completely without electric power since 1967, when a hurricane lowered the level of the stream that had propelled the waterwheel generator.
A rugged Canadian in safari shorts, Mrs. Atkinson tells how the island's crop, once assured a protected market in the U.K., now competes there with bananas from other nations. Recent prices are below cost.
We weary of pilgrimage and detour to the Israel Museum. It is spread among detached buildings on a sculpture-dotted campus and is everything a museum should be. There is a small but worthy collection of Corot landscapes, some good impressionist works, synagogue interiors from Germany, Venice and India, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. I am waiting for Julie outside the ladies room when a group of women come out, laughing in Dutch until one of them says in English, "Help me! I can't get out!" Oh no.
I run to the ladies room. "Julie?"
"Alan, I'm locked in!"
A porter is summoned, but Julie frees herself from the broken stall. The art and the bathroom humor make for a good morning.
We end up back at the Jaffa Gate-the entrance to the Christian Quarter of the Old City and the home to an H. Stern jewelry shop. Julie encourages me to browse-Christmas and Hanukkah aren't that far off, after all-and she goes to the ladies room in the tower of the gate.
Soon young men are running toward the toilets: someone is trapped inside. Oh no.
"Three Arab guys," Julie explains after her rescue. "They were cute."
"Do you suppose there is a parable in having trouble with locks?"
As night falls, we walk down an empty covered street and two Arab boys of about twelve try shaking us down. One loses his nerve, but the other persists, and when I don't fork over, he starts beating me with a plastic club. I grab hold of the club and shout at the delinquent to piss off. My command echoes through the canyon of the street and the boy vanishes.
Other than Julie's portable library, the only serious volume in our possession is the Koran. At the hotel, Munther Fahmi, ex of Albany, New York, has set up an English-language bookshop, U.S. Books, that sells both classics and diversions. I buy a copy of Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh because the title sounds appropriate. Munther tells me the store just opened and that I'm his third customer.
Today in the West Bank, which we are next heading through, two Muslims hijack and kill a Jewish motorist. A Jew is then arrested for bludgeoning an elderly Muslim to death.
One more day for Jerusalem. With her books, Julie has made a study of Arab architecture and leads me on a tour. Outside the orphanage in the Muslim Quarter, the soccer ball of a cluster of the boys is marooned on a tin roof. I free it by pitching upward a piece of masonry that looks to be of archeological importance.
And so we come for a third time to the Western Wall. As in a fairy tale, three is the magic number. It is quieter now, heading toward sundown. The lights have come on and the wailing has given way to a soothing murmur. A company of soldiers comes along. They lack the confident, grunting jocularity of the heavily armed patrols. Their weapons are unloaded and they carry themselves with the resigned, faintly abject bearing of new recruits. Singularly and in groups of two or three, they write out their petitions, stuff them into the wall and pray.
In the brief time we are in Israel, one soldier is seriously wounded in Lebanon and another is killed in the Gaza Strip by a bomb intended for the busload of children he is escorting. These men need something to pray for and I am honored to be here with them.
I don't know how to pray and don't care if I never learn, but I figure it's easy enough to do in writing, so I take out paper and pen. I wish for Julie to recover fully from the cancer that hit her the year before. I wish that my mother in Broward County, Florida should feel better, because she hasn't been herself since abdominal surgery. I rip off the writing and slide it into a crack.
I think about it some more, and on a second slip of paper I add that, as a childless couple that just went through a miscarriage, if we could have a healthy baby we'd be grateful. It's getting a bit morose, so I give the addendum to the wall and let it go at that. I know that, although people have been praying all over Jerusalem for three thousand years, most prayer goes unanswered; but if you're going to give prayer a chance, this is the place to post the message.
On the way back, Julie breaks down and buys a necklace from an Arab trader who is about to close his stall. A young competitor across the street shyly tells me I am lucky: my wife is so very beautiful.
I know that I could have lost her last year, but she is still here with me, with all her wisdom and her mirth, her elegance and her unimpeachable courage. I'm glad I left those notes inside the wall and I hope that more people of all the faiths have their prayers answered.
Yet I remain convinced that ninety-five percent of all manmade suffering starts with the phrase, "These are my people." That is because, as surely as high tide succeeds the ebb, the line that follows is, "and you're not one of them." The pilgrim who worries me is the one who comes way from Jerusalem satisfied that his people alone are graced by the special love of God.
Versions of "Answered Prayers" first appeared in The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and Los Angeles Times.
Copyright © 1998, 2002 by Alan Behr